The myth of liberal conquest

Liberalism and its Discontents
July 17, 1998

It is an article of faith for contemporary liberals that modernisation and the spread of liberal values go together. Indeed, for most liberal thinkers today, modernity means the advance of liberal values and their embodiment in increasingly open, rational, cosmopolitan societies. These thinkers do not deny that liberal societies harbour atavistic forces. Who could sensibly do so at a time when the radical right is on the march again in several European countries? But they view these anti-liberal movements as symptoms of retreat from the modern world. The possibility that they might express some of the distinctive maladies of modernity is rarely explored. It threatens the comfortable faith of such liberals that becoming modern and accepting their own values means much the same thing.

Liberal thinkers have not always been possessed by such certainty. Throughout his life John Stuart Mill feared that the modern age might prove to be inhospitable to personal freedom and social diversity. He wrote his fascinating and neglected book, Auguste Comte and Positivism, to show that Comte's positivist philosophy of history, in which liberal values are interpreted as suitable only for transitional societies that have not yet become fully modern, was dangerously mistaken - an exercise in "liberticide'', as Mill sharply put it. For many, perhaps most of the more reflective 19th-century liberals - Constant, Tocqueville, Mill and Weber, for example - modernity and liberal values were far from being synonymous. Whether they would finally converge had to be considered an open question.

Alan Brinkley's Liberalism and its Discontents is a subtle, penetrating and refreshingly undoctrinaire exploration of that still open question. In 17 highly readable essays full of lightly worn learning and finely balanced judgements, Brinkley does much to correct the historical myth - presently a central element in America's celebratory national self-image - that the public culture of the United States has been hegemonically liberal throughout most of this century. Given the grandiose claims often made on behalf of America's paradigmatic modernity, Brinkley's exercises in historical revisionism are bound to have large theoretical repercussions. Yet he scarcely pursues them. For, notwithstanding the title of his book, Brinkley considers the relations of liberalism and modernity solely as they arise in the context of the 20th-century history of the United States.

Brinkley's exclusive reference to American historical experience limits severely his book's theoretical interest. A careful reader could finish Liberalism and its Discontents without realising that liberalism had had a 20th-century history beyond American shores. The fate of liberal regimes in other parts of the world is hardly mentioned. Aside from a few passing references to Keynes and Hayek no European liberal thinker is discussed. As a result, the reader is left unsure whether Brinkley's powerful criticism of the consensus understanding - in which the United States's movement to modernity is equated with the growing authority of liberal values - applies more generally. We cannot know whether Brinkley considers the American historical experience a singularity or as evidence against an Enlightenment interpretation of history that supposedly applies to all modern societies.

These limitations on the scope of the book appear to have been consciously self-imposed. On its first page Brinkley writes that "Liberalism was the set of political ideas that had descended from the New Deal''. Despite the narrowly parochial perspective that this definition of liberalism encapsulates, Brinkley's book contains some profound lessons for liberals everywhere.

Many of the essays collected here have to do with Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. Some of Brinkley's interpretations are familiar. He notes that Roosevelt was no ideologue. He started out as a conventional fiscal conservative and departed from that orthodoxy not because he adopted any other but as part of his disposition to respond pragmatically and eclectically to events. Moreover, as Brinkley observes, it was not Roosevelt's programme of public works that lifted the United States out of the Depression: "The war ended the Depression and made the nation rich again''. Again, it was the second world war that turned the New Deal into a reasonably coherent set of ideas: "By the end of world war two... New Deal liberalism had assumed a new form; and in its assumptions could be seen the outlines of a transformed political world''. The New Deal's abortive pre-war experiments in economic planning and corporatism were largely forgotten. Instead the postwar New Dealers turned to the idea of "an essentially compensatory government''. New Deal liberals set the postwar political agenda in advocating a type of compensatory government that smoothed out capitalism's fluctuations and compensated for its social flaws through full employment and welfare policies - but which demanded no alteration in the structure of capitalism itself. A compensatory liberal agenda dominated American politics until the end of the 1960s, when it began to falter. By the 1980s and 1990s that liberal agenda had been comprehensively marginalised.

So far Brinkley has not said much that is new - though it has rarely been better said. What is less familiar in his account is his recurrent reference to powerful forces in American politics standing altogether outside the liberal tradition. In a fascinating chapter, Brinkley examines the career and character of the Louisiana populist, Huey Long. He concludes that Long's popularity depended not on forging a charismatic bond with an anomic, lonely crowd, as historians influenced by sociology and social psychology have suggested, but "by promising - and in Louisiana at least sometimes delivering - solutions to real social and economic grievances''.

Brinkley deploys Long as an exemplar of one of his chief contentions - that liberalism is not, as consensus historians have sometimes argued, the only important tradition in America's political history. He cites work by a range of historians of widely differing political outlooks challenging the consensus view of American populism as a movement of economically illiterate, nostalgist bigots. For some of these historians, Brinkley writes, "the failure of populism marked the end of America's best (and perhaps last) chance to construct a democratic alternative to modern oligarchic capitalism''. Here Brinkley's book is valuable in reminding us that liberalism has never been fully hegemonic in the US. Nor has this always been regrettable. For liberalism's dominance has not always served democratic values.

Brinkley is not particularly sanguine about liberalism's future in America. Noting the political strength of Christian fundamentalism, he concludes that "the effort to make the values of liberal, secular Americans the values of all Americans... has failed''. Accepting this means that "historians (and many others) may have been wrong in some of their most basic assumptions about America in our time''. It is a pity that Brinkley's narrowly Americocentric perspective prevents him from exploring the theoretical questions that arise naturally from this judgement.

Could it be that - contrary to assumptions that are now deeply embedded in many areas of thought and practice, including foreign policy - accepting liberal values is only one way in which a society can become modern? If, as Brinkley argues and common experience amply testifies, liberal values are far from fully hegemonic even in the United States, is not it legitimate to question the understanding of what it is to be modern that liberals and others have inherited from the Enlightenment and which nowadays is taken for granted?

John Gray is professor of European thought, London School of Economics.

Liberalism and its Discontents

Author - Alan Brinkley
ISBN - 0 674 53017 9
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Price - £18.50
Pages - 372

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