The Liberal-Illiberal Divide – And how to Unite

Macron / Le Pen – Source: Wikimedia Commons

Ed: President Macron’s En Marche party had disappointing results in the recent assembly elections. This is described in an earlier article by Philip Cole. In the following article, Sean Hannigan comments on how the Liberal-Illiberal divide has evolved internationally over recent years.

After France’s most recent presidential election, The Economist noted how the traditional centre-left and centre-right French political parties have faded. New divides now exist between those who are ‘liberal’ and ‘illiberal’ in our globalised age, though perhaps this is less a dichotomy than a spectrum.

In France, the formerly mainstream Socialistes and Les Republicains have not reached the second round of a presidential election since 2012. Instead, President Macron’s liberal party and Le Pen’s far-right illiberal party have reached the second round twice in two electoral cycles. In the most recent 2022 national parliamentary elections, the Socialistes won around 30 seats in an electoral pact with other left-wing parties, and the Republicains just 62. These old parties of left and right possess fewer than 16% of parliamentary seats between them both. This is a ground-breaking shift. These new parties of liberal and illiberal represent forks in the road for a nation which has been drastically and fundamentally altered by the politics and economics of the last 50 years – the politics of European regionalisation and the economics of free market globalisation.

Biden & Trump - CC BY-SA 2.0
Biden & Trump – CC BY-SA 2.0

France, however, is not the only nation which is seeing such divisions. The United States has endured its national psychosis and – for now – ditched the far-right illiberal Donald Trump and elected Biden, a liberal, in his place. We in Britain (England?) were divided over Europe, which furthered political trends already in motion, when vast swathes of ‘safe’ Labour seats in formerly industrial areas of England and Wales fell to the Conservatives. These changes, arguably, are down to globalisation – political, economic, social, and technological – managed according to the neoliberal handbook.

Starmer & Johnson – Wikimedia Commons

Neoliberalism is an ideology, a way of understanding and processing the world, where the individual is understood as supreme and central to everything we do. From political to social to economic processes, ‘the individual’ is King, free to function within the market. This has not only created a perfect storm but, by taking on board and answering key concerns of the old left and right, has neutralised both and satisfied neither. The (old) left cannot accept equality within the free market because it is an inherently unequal system. The old right is unable to accept the instability of market forces and the social liberalism which has accompanied it through the ideology of the individual. Freedom to act within the market may also lead logically to freedom to decide all of one’s own actions, including social and political freedom. How have we got here?

Before the Liberal-Illiberal Divide

Pre-Thatcher right-leaning politics contained a mixture of views, and some of these were more small-c conservative and Disraelian in outlook, but were still focussed on social hierarchy and economic deregulation. Support was strong among more of the middle classes, most notably here in the UK. Business interests, as well as some of the working classes, had a home on the old right. Small-c conservatives would agree that capitalism has been useful in raising living standards for millions, but it has its limits. There are areas where the market cannot work properly, for example fully privatised healthcare, or privatised social services. In what world could the most vulnerable afford to pay for services they so desperately need? But these ideas were cast aside by neoliberalism’s New Right in the 1980s, by Thatcherism and Reaganism. Free markets, predicated on individualism and the capacity for people to make optimal decisions for themselves, are not necessarily ideologically compatible with social conservatism, for example, concerning LGBT+ issues, women’s rights, or racial (in)equality. There seems to be conflict between faith in the free market and the autonomy of the individual, on the one hand, and the Right’s belief in regulating personal morality on the other.

Leftist politics, meanwhile, used to be driven by notions of economic justice and equality. Working class identity and class-based politics was central. A ‘solidarity’ existed between workers, ‘fighting’ to maintain a fair share of the fruits of their labour. It also contained political struggles for minority groups – for women, LGBTQ+ people, black and brown people, migrants, and those struggling under imperialism, all under the banner of socialist equality. Now, ‘leftism’ has morphed into a new liberalism which has proclaimed allegiance to struggling minority groups, but class solidarity has died. What solidarity is left when the industrial workers themselves no longer exist? Notions of economic equality have remained, but largely by neoliberal support for tax-and-spend policies to reallocate wealth – not through employment as might have been expected if looking from a working-class perspective.

How Did We Get Here?

Neoliberalism, as an ideology of the individual, has torn asunder left-right divides and replaced them with liberal-illiberal divides. These new divides emerged because of the opening-up of national economies since the collapse of the Bretton Woods System. Deindustrialisation and the 1973 Oil Crisis led to a globalisation creating new economic ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ no longer closely aligning with one’s class. China’s rise and Western willingness to permit industrial jobs to move abroad in return for cheaper domestic goods for the many allowed class politics to atrophy. If there is no longer an industrial working class, there is no longer a class-based movement for economic and social change. Working-class identities have been fundamentally undermined, leaving people politically vulnerable to extremist views which provide an outlet for their sense of alienation.

Economic globalisation has unleashed market forces in ways that few could predict – the internet, AI, and other vast new technologies which can automate labour and connect people across the globe instantaneously. This has created new identities and built upon previously established commonalities (for example, European identity) with people thousands of miles apart. Whilst beneficial for international cooperation, these new identities do little to unite people who live on the same street, town, or country, many of whom have lost out drastically since ‘managed decline’ became public policy orthodoxy. What use is internationalism if you do not even identify with your neighbour next door?

The Nationalist Resurrection

But the one commonality which neoliberalism cannot erode is identity with one’s nation – one’s nationalism and one’s patriotism. The former is often rejected by liberals, with a preference for the latter, but surely everyone is a nationalist in the sense that they identify with a nation, whether they are the most liberal of liberals or the most illiberal of fascists. There is no space to expand upon this here, but patriotism and nationalism can be understood as two sides of the same coin, the more liberal, ‘open’, side versus the illiberal, ‘closed’ alternative. To be an internationalist requires that one first believe in or at least admit to the concept of nations and their sovereignty. No one, whichever side of the liberal-illiberal partition they occupy, would wish to destroy their nation or its sovereignty. That would not be internationalism, but cosmopolitanism, i.e. seeking to replace national identity with a global community. No reasonable person seriously wishes to subsume their country into one global community governed from thousands of miles away. Even the most liberal of liberals will caution against one world government, or a cosmopolitanism which seeks to subordinate our (national) identities to a global one. Would the English and French, Americans and Mexicans, or the Chinese and Russians (if they had the liberty) ever vote to unify?

New brands of nationalism have emerged not only within Britain, but in France, the USA, and elsewhere in the Western world because of the connection to the places where people live and the effects of the market upon them. The poverty which the market has brought for citizens over many decades has spread widely across Western societies, causing chaos in a political mainstream which views the complete expansion of free markets as ‘the only answer’. The connection to one’s nation – one’s place – is the only constant which is left in a world destabilised by unbridled market forces. Nationalism and patriotism allow the people to project their own insecurities into a concept of their home country, the place with which they identify. Neoliberalism has inadvertently had the effect of strengthening and resurrecting these connections with place. This has its dangers, but also presents opportunities.

A Passage Through?

Perhaps the best route to put an end to the extreme political divides and defuse the concern and fear that the (far-right) illiberals generate is to build a nationalism which appeals to all people, not just a privileged group. It is often forgotten that we agree to live in a political community together where the votes of all who live in this territory, in this nation, have equal weight to our own. When England repeatedly elects Tory governments intent on making our people poorer, we accept the result. In England, why is there no serious outcry from areas which strongly voted Remain, or from the minority who put their Europeanism before all else, from those who vote Labour, or from areas which have never voted Tory? Because we are democrats, of course, but also because we identify with fellow voters as being fundamentally like us. We are the same. We are one ‘people’, sufficiently similar to accept that the votes of a majority can affect those of us in the electoral minority, and we see this as justified.

It should go without saying that such liberal-illiberal partitions cause not only division but instability in society. In the economic sphere, we surrender our economic liberty to the supposedly ‘free’ market where public goods are classed as commodities, healthcare is bought and sold, and education must be directly paid for. In the political sphere we lose checks and balances on our government, opening the door to corruption and greed, and ultimately a barebones elective dictatorship.

To overcome, or at least moderate, these divides, it will be necessary to draw upon what unites people – our connection to place, to nation, to who we are – instead of what divides us. Illiberalism can be prevented from thriving by ensuring a stable economic system which works for the many and neutralises the appeal of extremists preying on our people’s social and economic vulnerabilities. Developing the right policies to moderate the market and reinvesting power in the people through re-invigorated institutions they can control means that these new political divides can be broached.

Neoliberalism can be neutralised, and the fruits of people’s labour can be fairly distributed, so that we may have sufficient to meet our needs. It need not be ‘all or nothing’.


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