An Arrow Against All Illiberals

Ian Dunt's How To Be a Liberal is a history of liberalism's conflicted nature and a call to arms for a dynamic, inclusive liberalism.

An Arrow Against All Illiberals
Liberalism is the struggle for the freedom of the individual. When it is truly followed, it can never be the tool of the powerful. It can never be used to oppress. It can only liberate.

Ian Dunt’s How To Be a Liberal lays out a sweeping, probing history of liberalism as an idea, and uses it as a foundation to launch a call to arms. Dunt’s liberalism is achingly, wonderfully alive. This is, perhaps above all else, his most significant contribution to the discourse around liberalism and its opponents. Dunt insists that liberalism is not simply an old idea that needs  defending, but one that needs to be nourished, tested, grown. Liberals must do this work, says Dunt, because the cost of liberal failure is unbearable. 

Dunt begins his story of liberalism with a prehistory. It’s helpful to say “his” story and “a” prehistory because he is sketching a model he hopes liberals can learn from, without claiming to be either complete or unique. It starts with an individual: Descartes and his famous realization, “I think, therefore I am” is emblematic of the reason that liberalism would need to emerge and grow over hundreds of years. 

But if liberalism is an endeavor of reason, it is also a product of visceral reaction. Dunt shows liberalism emerging, in fits and starts, through three political revolutions: the English Civil Wars, the American Revolution, and the French Revolution. 

In a passage that could describe Dunt’s own work, he describes Richard Overton’s pamphlet An Arrow Against All Tyrants, written between the first and second English Civil Wars, as “a piece of opinion journalism, written for busy people with little to no education, to be read on the street or the alehouse … a call to action, not reflection.” In this pamphlet, Overton would introduce an early form of human rights, “To every individual in nature is given an individual property by nature not to be invaded or usurped by any.”

At the Putney Debates in 1647, the Levellers presented a familiar (especially for Americans) natural rights basis for liberalism, but it was more than that. “The Levellers were outlining an early democratic system in which the public elected people to make laws and then carved out a protected area for the freedom of the individual that those laws could not infringe.”

Debates about how far the franchise should be extended revealed two approaches to liberalism that emerged with the ideology itself: one in which existing property and economic arrangements should be protected, and another where other considerations might call the distribution of wealth into question.

These approaches came with different visions of whose voice would count. Despite the Levellers’ insistence that even “the poorest man” had a right to a voice in government, women, immigrants, servants, debtors, and beggars were excluded. “[S]omething revealing had happened. The self-appointed representatives of the people were excluding whole groups from [the franchise] while still maintaining that it gave them democratic legitimacy.” Throughout its history, liberalism has had a tense and complicated relationship with democracy, as fears of the unpropertied mob led many liberals to inveigh against expanding voting privileges. Yet, from its earliest stirrings, liberalism contained voices for genuinely democratic institutions. Liberation remained its beating heart. 

It would have been too much to expect these debates to resolve the tension in liberalism between concerns about protecting property and concerns about political inclusion and equal social standing. It never was resolved. These competing concerns, as old as liberalism itself, are part of what make liberalism the living idea that Dunt presents.  

In each revolution, ideas were added to liberal philosophy. The English Civil War elevated the authority of the people (through Parliament) over authority of the monarch, inspiring John Locke to argue, in his Two Treatises of Government, for a right of revolution against illegitimate government. In 1776, the Americans took this to heart. The system of government that emerged was a formal attempt to take power and “carve it up, and balance it, in a web of coordinated tensions, so that it was prevented from ever lying in one place, ripe for misuse.”

Again, though, liberalism fell on its face. In one of liberalism’s greatest failures, alongside this leap forward sat the preservation and protection of laws that perpetuated the enslavement of a fifth of the American population.  

The French Revolution, too, produced a leap forward and a tragic failure. “Unlike similar efforts in England and America”, the Declaration of the Rights of Man “was not slotted into a series of historical events to try to safeguard liberty. It was the basis of the entire endeavour.” The Declaration “was timeless. It was universal. It was one of those moments in which the ambitions of the authors transcend their circumstances.” But, Dunt says, the Declaration made a terrible mistake that would unmoor the Revolution from liberalism: abandoning commitment to the individual in Article 6 with the words: “Law is the expression of the general will.” 

Conservative critics of the French Revolution blamed runaway individualism for abandoning tradition, dooming France to the Terror and later a despotic emperor. In contrast, Dunt lays the blame at the feet of those who abandoned the political centrality of individuals in favour of an imagined collective will and then, disastrously, concentrated power to be seized by the purported avatars of that general will.

Dunt is not alone in this assessment. Benjamin Constant, the first political liberal to use the label, “recognised that the Terror was not the result of too much individualism, but too little.” Constant wasn’t interested in protecting individual rights so much as he was interested in building liberalism from the ground up starting from individual rights. 

“The individual was like a light. Constant could shine it anywhere and the true moral form of what he was looking at would reveal itself.” Starting with the individual, Constant could identify failures of liberalism in each of the revolutions, drawing lessons for political philosophy. Constant saw failure where a general will was allowed to take precedence over individuals. He condemned the quest to control, rather than to curtail, power. Where a general will seized hold of power, its drive for conformity escalated from oppressive to deadly.

Starting with the individual also helped Constant extend concern about individual liberty into personal lives. Individuals can be oppressed not only by the state, but also by the church and by society—by majorities. “By anchoring his political ideas in the individual, Constant had found a universal political programme which would protect everyone…This was the beauty of individualism: it was the only path to true universalism.” Constant gave liberalism the space to embrace pluralism.

Constant also developed a more robust liberal defence of property rights. He accepted that the state could legitimately interfere with property, but based on the disastrous consequences of abandoning property rights in the French Revolution and on economic insights from Adam Smith, concluded that it was better when property was left alone. Constant had faith in property to gradually redistribute itself through the operation of the market—dismissing a role for politics in the democratization of economic power. Dunt identifies this as the birth of the laissez-faire, or “leave things be,” liberalism. 

Despite his individualism, Constant’s liberalism still left many behind—specifically, those without property. 

But liberals would not remain satisfied with so restricted a “community of the free.” Liberal welfarism hit its stride with the mid-19th century work of John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor. It was here that the sharpest lines were drawn between a laissez-faire liberalism prioritizing market freedoms and the protection of private wealth and a liberalism that directly aims at social equality and broad-based flourishing.

It was also with Mill and Taylor—Dunt explicitly insists on presenting their work as a joint effort, based on Mill’s own testimonial statements that his work was as much hers as his—that mainstream liberalism began taking women’s freedom seriously. 

It was not enough to simply seek as much freedom as possible within existing society, as Constant had done. You had to ask yourself how much freedom could be achieved if society was redesigned. This thought was the precise opposite of the sentiment behind laissez-faire. It would not ‘let things be.’ It urged the opposite: shake things up. Turn the world over. Do not just accept the way things are.

This is the beginning of an impressive engagement with feminism (and social justice more generally) as a path to greater freedom that bucks the trend of contemporary popular defenses of liberalism. Dunt views feminism as not an intrinsic threat to liberalism but, just as Taylor and Mill did, as a resource for discovering new dimensions of freedom. 

Like Constant, Mill and Taylor worried about the societal pressure for conformity. Like Constant, they believed in—indeed, they presented what is still the definitive argument for—free speech. They all built their politics up from individuals. Mill and Taylor did not abandon individualism to “shake things up.” They merely rejected that there was any universal solution for questions of when and whether the government should interfere in the market.

Dunt pauses here in his history of liberalism. At the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, liberalism seemed triumphant. But what followed were horrors. 

Communism replaced the individual with class consciousness, and the Soviet gulags put 18 million people through their work camps, displaced six million more, and killed at least 2.7 million people. Outside of the gulag system, the individual was terrified, suppressed, ground down. Dunt quotes a diary from a citizen of Stalinist Russia, “My inner self has not gone away—whatever is inside a personality can never disappear—but it is deeply hidden, and I no longer feel its presence within me.”

Somehow even more monstrous was the turning of gains in capacity, efficiency, and science toward the task of systematic murder by Nazis under fascism. When the ordinary murder of tens of thousands of Jews proved too slow, the Nazis moved to an operation using gassing vans, murdering 360,000 people at Chelmno. Next were the camps: Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka murdered 1.7 million Jews. Nazis at Auschwitz murdered around 1.1 million people, 90 percent of them Jews, and killed hundreds of thousands more through forced labour. In the end, around six million Jews were murdered by the Nazis and their allies.

Dunt directs his stark conclusion toward liberals: “This was the consequence of liberal failure. This was what happened when the individual was destroyed.”

Liberals scrambled to respond to a world they had badly misjudged. In addition to international liberal projects like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, the Refugee Convention, and a debate between a more proactive, interventionist liberal economics and what we might today call classical liberal (what Dunt would likely call neoliberal) economics as represented by the debate between liberal titans John Maynard Keynes and Friedrich Hayek. 

But at least some liberals would continue Mill and Taylor’s work, searching for opportunities to expand space for the individual, and to address liberalism’s failures. Dunt highlights the work of George Orwell and Isaiah Berlin in reckoning with liberalism’s failure to address the fact that people crave belonging. Liberalism had “assumed that as people became more free, they would shed their attachments to the group. Communal identity would fall away in favour of liberty, reason and autonomy.” Instead, people had been caught up in appeals to this need by fascism and communism, and liberalism had no answer.

Mill and Taylor demonstrated with their advocacy for women’s rights that liberalism isn’t incapable of taking into account the freedom of individuals as part of groups that have so far been excluded. It has merely failed to do so. Rather than condemn these fields simply because liberals hadn’t contributed, Dunt sees opportunities like those presented by feminism with the emergence of new ideas of sexuality. Queer theory, he writes, 

[...] was demolishing the monolithic nature of terms like heterosexual and homosexual and suggesting that human sexuality was fluid and ever-changing. … How much human misery, over how many centuries, had centred on the demands of insisting people were either 100 per cent heterosexual or 100 per cent homosexual? How many people silently suffered, too afraid to confess their feelings, under the terrible weight of that false choice? And now here was a theory that was offering liberals a solution. This was a whole new arena of human flourishing through free choices, without the anchored-down simplifications of old brute categories. It was rich, fertile terrain for liberalism, which it proceeded to almost completely ignore.

Note the language of expanded notions of freedom and opportunity in this passage. Where many centrist liberals are quick to dismiss the entire field of queer theory—perhaps with a joke about undergrad majors being unable to find STEM jobs with what they’ve learned—Dunt sees these fields as “fertile terrain” for liberals to learn more about the social contours of the liberty and equality they profess to care so much about. Importantly, feminism, queer theory, critical race theory, and similar subject areas do not take liberalism for granted, and indeed severely scrutinize liberal assumptions. Dunt refuses to get hung up on the non-liberalism of social justice and mines these fields of inquiry for their “fertile” perspectives. Without a hint of “liberal fragility,” Dunt not only gainfully engages social justice but criticizes the bulk of liberals who have ignored social justice.

But Dunt doesn’t simply acquiesce to every social justice critique of liberalism. He correctly apprehends the dangers of identity politics, which can at their worst reify differences while subsuming individuals within fixed group definitions.

…without a constant reminder of the absolute moral primacy of the individual, there was no way to properly articulate the danger. The result of this failure was that the powerful within a group began speaking in the name of the powerless. That process happened in two ways, on the right and on the left. On the right, it meant that older, traditional figures in marginalized groups took control. On the left, it meant that progressive academics and activists secured an unchallengeable moral right to speak on behalf of everyone else.

But Dunt avoids the overly broad and often bad faith readings of identity politics that many liberals fall prey to. Rather than treat present-day social justice activism as a blob of anti-liberal wokeism, he makes an earnest pitch for nuance and dynamism in how we understand cultural difference. This is because people, properly understood as individuals, are dynamic. The danger is not in the demands that these movements make for group recognition and rights but when they lose sight of the individuals within the groups. As Dunt writes, “…without a constant reminder of the absolute moral primacy of the individual there was no way to properly articulate the danger.” 

If liberalism envisions the liberation of the individual, it requires that we meet one another first and foremost as individuals. This is a slipperier and more demanding injunction than many assume. 

Dunt probes the delicate social and political dynamics of the moment when strangers meet in a late chapter entitled “The Other.” Here, he looks at the resurgence of anti-immigrant sentiment and the dissolution of the consensus around concern for refugees in the fallout of WWII. Dunt cites how everyday citizens across Europe were arrested and charged with crimes for assisting migrants, from asylum seekers to pregnant women crossing snowy mountains. Britain implemented a policy toward immigrants known as the Hostile Environment. In America, the policy of family separation is shown to be a horror show of dehumanization that’s fundamental sin is the treatment of living, breathing people of flesh and blood as nameless statistics. Ten migrant children at a detention facility in Texas wail in anguish, and a border patrol agent is caught on tape joking, “We have an orchestra here. What’s missing is a conductor.”

For the proponents of stricter border controls to stop immigration, they were not ten individuals. They were The Other. They did not count.

Liberalism is an engine for reasoned democracy, but it is also a sanguine disposition about human potential and the value of each and every person. Dunt demands more than sanguinity—what he less charitably calls complacency. The urgency of his appeal comes from the fact that liberalism is failing again, and again individuals are paying the price. His surveys of the cost of liberal failure are devastating. They lay bare the horror that illiberalism unleashes onto those most in need of protection. His overview is more unbearable when we consider how even his accounts are incomplete. 

Liberalism has an opportunity to evolve to defend those whose freedom is most in danger today. There is so much more room for the application of Dunt’s approach to liberalism. For instance, Dunt never returns to the millions of enslaved individuals that liberals turned away from in the 18th century. But there is no reason that liberals should not be able to call to mind the human cost of slavery as easily as they do the tolls of Nazism and communism. Any whiff of the ideologies that excused treating Black and Indigenous people as less than human should feel as toxic to liberals as are shades of fascism or state communism. 

Critics from the right and left have offered us a portrait of liberalism as a desiccated, infertile landscape with nothing left to offer humanity in the 21st century. They say that liberalism’s time is over. They are wrong.

If we allow liberalism to ossify into a set of rigid philosophical and economic propositions, we deny ourselves a way to be relevant in the 21st century. Liberalism must be vibrantly pluralistic and steadfastly committed to individual freedom. It cannot leave behind those struggling to be free because it is inconvenient to its philosophy or its political coalitions. Liberalism cannot leave individuals behind out of expediency. Individuals are the point. 

Featured image is Kein Mensch ist illegal, by Cherubino