Or, “how does liberalism relate to communities and meaning?”

The Atlantic contributor Shadi Hamid is one of the most thought-provoking political commentators writing today. He defies the partisanship that plagues much of the current discourse, and chooses instead to reflect on the weaknesses of the Left and Centre as well as the Right, quite rightly believing that if we do not do this, liberals risk repeating the mistakes that contributed to Trump and Brexit. I do not always agree with his analysis, but I follow his work precisely because he challenges my assumptions.

In his recent essay, he wrote about criticisms of liberalism and what we can take away from them. It contained many interesting points, not least that we would do well to remember that belief in liberal, secular government is an ideological, rather than a neutral, default option.

But the paragraph that struck me the most was this one:

An extract from Shadi Hamid’s essay, “The Rise of Anti-Liberalism”. (The Atlantic)

In some ways, I am part of the tribe he describes here: an “anywhere”. I’m a fairly well-off, centre left and not particularly religious student who prefers talking about politics to sports. I believe that globalisation is basically good.

However, I am very fond of the small English town environment I grew up in, with its medieval church, characterful market, atmospheric pubs and local shops; I consider myself if not English, then certainly British, and I’m in favour of a multicultural society that includes Britain’s own pastimes. I am aware, of course, that what applies to me may not apply to all “anywheres”; that there may be exceptions to and variations within the rule.

And yet, I expect that most people, like me, have a home they feel strongly about, regardless of politics. (This is not because we necessarily think that our home communities are objectively superior to other places — rather, it is because of our personal experience of living and growing up in them.) Many of the educated elites of New York and London – the sort of place where the “anywhere” tribe typically dwells – love their cities. Ask any Londoner or New Yorker about their home, and you’ll see it has meaning for them. After all, just look at the response of those cities to dreadful terrorist attacks. Such cities may be a different type of community to the conservative towns of Rust Belt America – more cosmopolitan, more prosperous, more group interaction in universities and in the workplace than in places of worship – but they are no less of a community.

Instinctively, then, I feel what distinguishes the liberal tribe is less their detachment from a home than it is the other things Hamid mentions. However, arguably one of the things “anywheres” like most about their cities is their status as global capitals as oppose to just national capitals, and the diversity present within them. The meaning they find in their homes has an international dimension, and so is different to that found elsewhere.

And as someone who grew up in a English town, I am acutely aware that liberalism has damaged, or at least not prevented the decay of, traditional sources of meaning for communities outside liberal cities, by emphasising the individual over the group, by encouraging scepticism, and through leaving the local at the mercy of the international in the capitalist economy. As I indicated before, I love English churches, with their pretty appearance, pleasant carol services and friendliness. I can’t imagine an England without them. And yet, I know their congregations are ageing and declining. I like nothing more than to tuck into a steak and kidney pudding in a pub after a long country stroll, and I enjoy going to the pub with my friends for a drink. But pubs are closing across the country. I respect local shops for their artisanship and care, and so I regret that our High Streets are suffering. Some of this decline is attributable to short term policy decisions, like increased business rates and rent, but I feel it is also indicative of the long term trajectory.

So, my love for my home, for my country, is increasingly nostalgic: for that which is passing away under and because of liberalism. In that sense, maybe Hamid is right. Perhaps I’m just naively putting off choosing between the community I love and liberalism, and that because I think liberalism is more important, I will ultimately choose to detach myself from my home and let go of my feelings. Maybe I do fully conform to his “anywhere” tribe but just don’t know it yet. Am I destined to be a homesick liberal, who misses the charms and comforts of where he came from but knows that ultimately he would rather stick with the benefits of liberalism?

Furthermore, another issue with liberalism is that the decline of traditional suppliers of group identity has left a void, which people try to fill by finding meaning in alternative group ideologies. In regards to parts of the left, in their racial and gender identities: “As a women”, “As a person of colour” etc. Identity politics. In regards to parts of the right, in nationalist, insular, reactionary politics. Both of these challenge Enlightenment liberalism, and neither, but especially nationalism, seem to me to be preferable to either liberalism or the sources of meaning we are losing under it: religious, community and trade union groups.

But I remain convinced that liberalism is the best ideology, or, at least, better than the alternatives. It emphasises human rights, liberty and secular democracy, meaning it provides an essential moral code for governments on how to treat citizens, encourages accountability, and offers the freedom to innovate.

I therefore have a problem. Liberalism has left room for the type of group politics I disagree with, but such types I dislike precisely because they undermine liberalism. I like the internationalism of liberalism, but I am worried about the decay of my home community: decay that is occurring under the auspices of liberalism.

I don’t want to have to choose between protecting group sources of meaning that may halt the advance of dangerous nationalism and the tolerant secularism of liberal government and culture. I don’t want to have to choose between my English provincial community and globalisation. I want to be an anywhere with a home.

But I may have no choice but to make those choices.

This dilemma is wracking my mind. I believe in the superiority of liberalism as a political ideology, but I mourn deeply and sincerely the cultural sources of meaning it sacrifices.

But if forced to choose, I will go with liberalism, no matter my regrets. Because even though it will entail me losing things I love and damage aspects of communities outside the cities, I believe that the admittedly variable but broadly present prosperity, security, liberty and democracy of liberalism ultimately benefits us all, whether we are a nowhere, somewhere or anywhere, a city liberal or town conservative. And I think one can find meaning in the societies of liberalism, in ways that are not damaging to it. We can find it in our national and global identities, and the responsibilities we have to each other as equal citizens. We can find it in our history, not so much in a nostalgic sense but in understanding what made us who we are and how our society came to be. We can find it in our future, in striving to improve society so we have things to look forward to. We can find it in multiculturalism, in diversity, tolerance and friendship. And, we can find it in our traditional home communities, if only while they last. Besides, I believe multiculturalism can renew older, local cultures and therefore help at least some parts of the traditional British culture that I love to continue to thrive. (I think it is a fallacy to think that multiculturalism and “home cultures” are mutually exclusive: they interact and reinforce each other through cultural exchange.) Yet even as I write this paragraph, I realise much of the above sounds awfully abstract. But nonetheless, I know that it is possible to find meaning in these things, because I do.

Liberalism is not yet meaningless. It is not perfect, either, hence why it has seen the decay of things that are good. But its benefits outweighs its problems to a much greater extent than in regards to the ideologies of nationalism and communism.

Indeed, while nationalism has recently increased under liberalism, all that shows is that we have to fight for it. Liberalism will not automatically protect itself. We are required to make the case for it, so that we might stop worse ideologies.

We cannot afford to be complacent about liberalism. Hamid highlights its weaknesses. We must be willing to recognise them as well, and do as much as possible to address them, or at least listen to the concerns of those who have suffered from liberalism’s downsides, if only so we are better prepared to defend liberalism from threats to it. Otherwise, we will have more regrets than we have now.🔷

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(This piece was first published on The Blog!)

(Cover: Dreamstime/Juan Carlos Ramos Gonzalez.)