Review: How To Be A Liberal

I first saw advance publicity for this book earlier last year, at the start of the first lockdown, but for some reason getting hold of this book took me a little longer than I thought; it had simply fallen off the radar until the last couple of weeks, when I decided I really did need to do something about it. So, courtesy of Ian Amazon, here we are.

By the author’s own admission, this book is less a guide than an instrument of propaganda, as well as being something of a call to arms, serving both as an historical summary of the development of liberal thinking, and a critique of some of its problematic elements.

The first part of the book is principally the history lesson, and covers some (but not all) of the significant events in the developing story of liberal philosophy. Dunt starts with Descartes, but he doesn’t really talk about the Reformation, or the role of individualism there. To me this is slightly puzzling because he goes on to talk about the development of nascent liberalism in England, culminating in the build up to the English Civil War, pushing on through the Restoration & the Glorious Revolution. All of these have origins in religious themes, though fuller discussion might have meant a significantly larger book. The early excursions prepare us for the biggest part of the historical tour: The Enlightenment, and the Revolutions in both the US and France, through which we arrive at the work of first Benjamin Constant, then John Stuart Mill & Harriet Taylor.

By this point we have reached pretty much the foundation of what many would think of as modern liberal philosophy, so here Dunt widens things out a little and introduces us to the early twentieth century, and the Great War, the forge that wrought the twin nightmarish evils of Soviet Communism, and Hitler’s Germany. Dunt points out a number of parallels between the Nazis and Stalin, mostly drawn from the need to destroy that which liberalism had been working its way towards: the primacy of individual autonomy, and freedom. In both cases, Hitler and Stalin invoked the “will of the people” to achieve their ends, a device that could be traced back to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and which had been used to ruthlessly crush dissent during the period of the Terror after the French Revolution.

By the time we reach the end of WWII, and the beginning of the Cold War, we have already begun to see the direction in which liberal philosophy was travelling, and how the next stage of thinking was almost inevitable. Fascism had used the pull of (often mythical) identities to grab power. All through this timeline, there has been an uneasy tension between the assertion of individual automomy & self-actualisation, and the deep-rooted human need to feel a sense of belong to something. There had been a void at the heart of classical liberalism that almost conveniently forgot this powerful need. But neither George Orwell, nor Isiah Berlin were able to wrestle away their concerns. Belonging is a key part of individual freedom and a sense of self-worth, especially the ability to choose the “tribes” to which you wish to belong.

It was this tribalism that began to cause new problems. Dunt‘s assertion is that at each stage of the liberal project, as each new brick was laid, the promise of the universality of individual freedom was not followed through: there was always at least one group shut out of the conversation, whether it was women, those who did not own property, or those who were owned as property. At every point, the promise extended for liberty was denied to some, and there were an increasing number of people who thought that it was because of who had been writing those rules in the first place. By the late 20th century this was still a very real fight for a number of communities, but at this point splintering began as different groups no longer focused on commonality of interest, but on differences, with the push to assert tribal identities. This, together with the changes in the media environment brought about by the world wide web, has helped to amplify those tensions.

There is a kind of soft boundary at this point, between the purely historical analysis, and what now constitutes analysis of the current landscape. Dunt has brought through this timeline to help us understand some of the root causes of some of the current problems affecting us, and he does it very well. Much of what he has to say about post-truth politics, and the rise of figures like Trump, Orban, or even the current government in the UK can pull back to show that the techniques being used to create these new environments are not new, but have been borrowed from the past. He’s also quite explicit in the role of the Russian state in engineering some of this to its own advantage. One of the reasons that thes attacks have been successful comes as aresult of erosion of trust in the main pillars of the social contract, such as politics, journalism, the law, and the financial system. Here Dunt gives a potted summary of the root causes of the 2007–8 banking crisis, and its ramifications for pressure on the other pillars. The section on the securitisation of loans, and repackaging of debt is slightly denser, but is worth taking the time to pore over properly to understand just how disconnected from reason the financial system had become, how culpable parts of the political system were for letting it happen (1), and how this would create many of the conditions that have allowed what some euphemistically call “populism” to flourish. Lots of the underlying discussion goes all the way back to the ideas of Adam Smith, but takes in Keynes and Hayek along the way.

But it’s not all gloom and depression. In fact, it’s here that things feel at their most hopeful. At each point in the past, regimes or world views have arisen that have attempted to wrestle back autonomy from people, but in the end each of them has been transitory. The arrow of time has always pointed to some kind of progress. A messy, imperfect progress perhaps, but progress all the same. It does not mean that such progress is inevitable: it must be fought for, and the the very end of Dunt’s book is an exhortation to do just that. It convinces us that if we believe in a fundamentally liberal worldview it must be defended, especially when we are under pressure to buckle to the tryanny of the majority. It’s not just a guide, it’s a call to arms, and a fine one at that.

(1) Reading this section reminded me of the section in an epsiode of Charlie Brooker’s Screen Wipe that tried to explain this process by comparing it to boxes of chocolates, in which increasing numbers with a shit-flavoured centre were added.

A northern man

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