People will always round on 'liberalism' (in the European, not American, sense of the word) at times of perceived crisis. Opponents of liberalism will even seek to engineer crises in order to attack it. New Labour was blessed with one of those rare periods of human history, when military conflict is minimal and wealth seems to grow almost naturally. In response, Tony Blair and John Reid invented a fantasy of ubiquitous Arab terror, so as to advance their instinctive political assault on liberalism. This had the no-doubt-anticipated consequence of re-framing 'liberals' as a special interest group, obsessed with human rights law, magna carta, old men in grey wigs and Europe. Even the Liberal Democrats no longer want anything to do with that kind of liberalism.
That those in the executive branch of government like to hurl rocks at the judicial branch is not so surprising. Even in the US, Presidents simply have to refer to something as a 'war' (on terror, on drugs) to know that they are then virtually free from judicial interference. But it bothers me when the Left starts to beat up on liberalism. The leftwing New Statesman's editorial this week argues that "with its emphasis on abstract individualism, liberalism, the great driver of social emancipation and economic prosperity, now feels inadequate to this new age of insecurity." This repeats the line espoused by Blue Labour and Red Toryism, that both the 'social liberalism' of the 1960s and the 'economic liberalism' of the 1980s have now reached their limit, and some sort of more substantive, collectivist communitarianism is needed.
Of course everyone is entitled to their own definition of 'liberalism'. But allow me to offer my own interpretation of the term, and question what on earth the Left would be left with, if it became genuinely 'post-liberal', as for instance the think tank Demos has been recently proposing. Liberalism doesn't favour 'abstract individualism', because it doesn't want to get entangled in culture or history. What it favours is identifying a common and stable basis on which to judge people, actions, institutions and economic distributions, that is robust enough to survive inspite of cultural or historical contingency.
This is, admittedly, partly a search for principles, giving it a necessarily philosophical and discursive dimension. Certain ideas are at work, especially regarding what it means to be a human being. But this is an open philosophical or anthropological debate. 'Deontological' liberals, such as Kant and Rawls, view humans as reasoning creatures. But there are more materialist answers to this question, including those provided by Marxists, which represent human beings as productive creatures. Hayek, if he believed anything at all about humanity, probably believed that we're all equally prone to be wrong about the world. There is no reason whatsoever why liberal debates about common humanness couldn't now be entered by neuroscientists or neo-Darwinists, if they weren't so busy re-categorising details of the pope's religious affiliation or the sylvanian geography of bear's toilet habits.
But it is never only about principles. It is also about the material, technical and institutional means by which equal judgement on people is to be enacted. For neoliberals, this is some notion of price (often mutating into an audit of competitive performance). As Stuart White's fascinating article, Revolutionary Liberalism, details, liberals of the early 20th century saw worker ownership and profit-sharing as the institutional basis on which to ensure individuals could attain equality in the public and political realm. There is a long tradition of liberal socialism, now exemplified by people such as Robin Blackburn and Erik Olin Wright, who would view capitalism as the main enemy of liberalism.
There are multiple philosophical liberalisms, and even more technical or practical manifestations of liberalism. All that they essentially share is a vain Enlightenment hope, that there might be some basis on which to govern people, that does not discriminate according to contingency. Or rather, to flip that round, they are explicit about which element of contingency they are using as the basis for discrimination. For judges, it is the contingent fact that one is guilty of something. For neoliberals, it is the contingent fact of being able to pay for something. For republican liberals, it is the contingent fact of being a skilled orator. And so on. But there must be a criterion, it must be named in advance, and there must be some publicity surrounding how it is employed. That is all liberalism necessarily means.
Abandon this in favour of what? I can at least understand the catholic theological critique of liberalism, that underpins John Milbank's theological critique of modernity, Phillip Blond's Red Toryism, possibly John Cruddas's Blue Labourism, and Alasdair MacIntyre and Charles Taylor's communitarianism. The basis for political judgement ceases to be purely institutional and philosophical, and attains an element of divinity. Ordinary people may not understand how judgement is meted out, but they can believe that it is good nevertheless. But what do we secularists have? There are some answers to this question, and some of them are hideous.
The other question I would put to 'post-liberals' is this. Why do you automatically assume that liberalism is a watchword for elitism, technocracy and establishment, whereas post-liberalism will usher in community, organic relations and rekindled tradition? Isn't that the same lie that Karl Rove based George W Bush's political career on, whereby working class anger with judicial rule (in the US case, Roe v Wade) is channelled to facilitate a cynical extension of power by existing elites? Surely elites are often delighted to see liberalism diminished. Remove rule of law or rule of market, and elites - including technocratic ones - simply acquire new freedoms to meddle and rearrange institutions in their own interests.
In After Virtue, MacIntyre poses a horribly simple ethical question: do we side with Nietzsche or Aristotle? Or to put that another way, do we abandon morality altogether, or sign up to virtue ethics? MacIntyre opts for the latter. But when a choice is put this starkly, there is a dangerous tendency of people to flip from one to the other, or even dwell in both realms simultaneously. The only solution to nihilism is the church. The only freedom from moral repression is a form of hedonistic nihilism. MacIntyre's dilemma works very well for many cynical elites, who talk Aristotle, but act Nietzsche. The post-liberals are naive about politics, if they think that the rhetoric of 'faith, flag and family', as Maurice Glasman likes to put it, will actually install virtue ethics into modern public life. The abandonment of liberalism can create a polarity, in which some select substantively meaningful rituals (as Blue Labour and Red Tories hope), while others enjoy an even greater form of hedonism.
Neoliberalism, of a certain variety, is able to proceed without having much of a liberal component, other than a basic common recognition of money (but even money is now constantly propped up by the executive branch of government, via central banks). The neoliberal tradition had thrown off much of its 'liberal' heritage (such as the ordoliberals and Henry Simons) by the time it achieved its political takeover in the 1970s. The effect of the financial crisis on neoliberalism was to shed the remnants of its claim to treat all market actors equally. Today, the poor aren't even trusted with money...
I've written a couple of papers on what 'post-liberal' neoliberalism looks like, and I'm not convinced that it involves morris dancers swilling warm beer on the white cliffs of Dover. As I argued here, a version of technocratic communitarianism is now increasingly plausible, to replace technocratic liberalism. And as I argued here, a type of Schmittian market exception, in which the market is sustained only through periodic acts of extra-legal emergency measures, may be what we're left with, post-2008. These are examples of 'post-liberalism', in which the status quo is defended out of fear, but not on the basis that it serves the common good.
Maybe this is all a problem of definitions. If the issue is, how can secular, modern societies find a basis on which to sort 'good' from 'bad', then I'm sure that I would find far more common cause with a catholic communitarian like John Cruddas than with a neoliberal such as Larry Summers or a legal liberal such as Shami Chakrabarti. But why is liberalism the problem, and not, say, utilitarianism, with its brutal statistics, expert weightings and clinical interventions? Or why not defend democracy, with its specification of voice, rather than community, with its darker implications of exclusion and suppression? Somebody other than just the liberty 'lobby' needs to defend liberalism, and I don't see why that shouldn't be the secular left.
For what it's worth, I would view the present as the moment to do neoliberalism all over again, though this time with a sociologically coherent notion of what economic freedom (and domination) means, where it is likely to arise, and the types of institutions and public policies that are likely to support it. Thatcherite belief in 'enterprise' and 'entrepreneurship' was never liberal in the first place, because it treated some individuals (the 'talented', the 'leaders', the 'innovators') according to a different set of standards from everybody else. That's the opposite of liberalism. Real economic liberalism would be a monumental achievement. Whether it's compatible with capitalism is another question altogether.