The Importance of Being Liberal

George Orwell in his living room contemplating being liberal

photo of George Orwell by Vernon Richards

A liberal is open minded, understands the benefits of debate and compromise, and is tolerant of people with opposing views. Being liberal, according to George Orwell, is behaving at all times with common human decency. 

A liberal believes in the democratic system of interconnected institutions designed to limit the excesses of wealth and power.

Liberals trust in the system where those intent on undermining democracy have an equal right to run in elections and be represented. Liberals are closer to socialists in their thinking than conservatives, but are intolerant of socialists who believe only their view of how society should function is correct.

Communist, anarchist and socialist militias making up the Republican alliance in the Spanish Civil War squandered their lives and bullets fighting each other over what kind of world they wanted to create when the conflict was over. They were doomed to lose the war when the populists Hitler and Mussolini backed the insurgent General Franco.

It is the tragedy of the Left that everyone has their own vision of utopia, while the Right is united in believing in a hierarchy where strong central leadership and class divisions based on wealth and tradition are inevitable, even desirable. On the Left we find idealists. On the right, pragmatists, a far stronger adhesive.

The Bible of Being Liberal

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, drawn up by the United Nations in 1948 and signed by almost every country in the world, is the liberal bible. According to US political philosopher Michael Walzer, liberals are better described in moral rather than political terms. They tend to be ‘open, tolerant, capable of living with ambiguity and are able to take part in a discussion without the solitary intention of winning.’ 

Liberals occupy the invisible line between the extremes. Liberals believe in free trade, universal medical care, religious tolerance, liberal border controls and the rights of minorities regardless of colour or sexual orientation. They are neither fanatic nor dogmatic. Their creed is live and let live. They don’t like walls.

With the pendulum swinging decade by decade from centre left to centre right, liberal democracy in the developed world since 1945 has created health services, free schools, pensions, a minimum wage and a safety net to protect the weak and vulnerable. 

The understanding that there is such a thing as society and we all belong to it is destabilised by populist politicians whose sole object is to win and cling on to power by dividing society into opposing groups: those who think like them versus the rest – liberals, socialists, old school conservatives and those whom they describe as liars, peddlers of false news, terrorists and foreigners intent on rape, free housing and state handouts.

The Migrant Dilemma

It is an uncomfortable truth for populists, Europhobes and xenophobes that migrants, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)[1] are not a drain but provide a boost to western economies.

  • Migrants accounted for 47% of the increase in the workforce in the United States and 70% in Europe over the past ten years.
  • Migrants contribute more in taxes and social contributions than they receive in benefits.
  • Migrants contribute significantly to labour-market flexibility and fill important niches in fast-growing sectors of the economy.

The populist wraps himself in the national flag to show his love for ‘the people’ and national interests when, generally, he represents the interests of those with the most to gain – the status quo, whom he attacks for the ears of his grass roots supporters, while being firmly wedded to the status quo; Trump (inherits a real estate business), Johnson (Eton and Oxford), Bolsonaro (army officer corps); party apparatchiks Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin.

Liberal democracy is anathema to the populist. It puts limits on their power through constitutions that guarantee the rights of individuals – you and me, all of us – civil liberties, an independent judiciary, adherence to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a free press and – for Europeans except the UK post-Brexit, the European Court of Human Rights with its commitment to protect trade unions, working men and women, and minorities.

Populists gain power when the press is controlled by media corporations that have the same agenda and profits, as do all corporations, when laws that protect workers, fair wages and the environment are dismantled with the bogus proposition that when business and banks are ‘free’, everyone benefits by the trickle-down effect embraced by Thatcher and Reagan, and which it has been shown that, on the contrary, money does not trickle down, it is sucked up.

Liberal Obligations

Changes in legislation since the 2007/08 financial crash has seen the largest shift of wealth in the western world from the poorest to the richest and the highest levels of poverty and hunger in the developed world since the end of the Second World War. Four million children in the United Kingdom live in poverty, according to the latest report by the Children’s Society.[2] In the United States, 15 million children (21%) live below the federal poverty threshold, according to the National Center for Children in Poverty.[3]

As the rights of minorities, the poor and workers are eroded by tough guy populists, so too are the rights of women who are seen in the traditional role as homemakers and babymakers. The extreme right-wing party Vox, in Spain, believes – as did Franco – that domestic violence (men beating their wives) is a family affair and nothing to do with the law. Vox has fifty-two seats in the Spanish parliament.

In the 1930s, the Nazi propaganda machine played the recurring message that foreigners and riffraff, Jews and gypsies were holding Germany back from being great again. Make Germany Great Again was a popular slogan. The Nazis accused those who opposed them as being liars and rival news outlets as spreading false news. When Hitler ascended to power in 1933, it was described as the ‘triumph of the will’ of the German people.

Being liberal today means standing up to populism and engaging with, supporting and representing parties that oppose authoritarianism, xenophobia and misogyny. As Churchill once said: Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.

[1] OECD

[2] ChildrensSociety

[3] NationalCenterforChildreninPoverty

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  1. [* Shield Security plugin marked this comment as “SPAM”. Reason: Failed Bot Test (checkbox) *]
    The trouble with left wing liberals is that they’ve swallowed a whole bunch of right wing bullshit, and assume it to be true, despite the evidence to the contrary.
    Firstly, supporting the limiting of excessive power whilst also supporting the free market is a contradiction in terms. The free market inevitably leads to monopolies, which are the embodiments of centralised, concentrated power.
    Then Liberals oppose racism, sexism, homophobia, etc, yet defend a system that depends on maintaining divisions amongst the working class in order to survive. They fail to see that racism, sexism, classism… all these things they claim to abhor, are essential to the system they defend, and systemically created within the society it produces.
    Liberals accept our system as democratic, despite the fact that, by and large, the only decision the general public ever gets to make is which cheek of the capitalist arse is going to be sitting on its face for the next few years. The British public has consistently made it clear that it wants a publicly run, free at the point of use NHS. No compromise necessary there, yet the NHS is being flogged off to the private sector despite their wishes, and every major political party in the country has either partaken in this, or supported it. So where’s the democracy there? Where was it when the country got dragged into the Iraq war against its will? The list of ways in which so called “democracies” have defied the will of their people is endless.
    How can you have a functioning democracy when the populous is endlessly lied to and manipulated by the media, anyway? It is evident that the public is incapable of making a sound, informed decision in its own best interests.
    We’ve just come to the end of four years with an American president who got into office despite losing the popular vote. This was due to that country’s “democratic” system. We have a similar system, capable of the same ridiculous outcome, here. Neither of the two major parties show any interest in changing it. This is the authoritarian system that liberals defend as “democratic”.
    For the record, all communists are, by definition, socialists, and communists and anarchists all agree on what kind of world they wish to create. Their disagreement is in how to create it. That world is a truly democratic one, in which everyone has an equal voice in government and in the workplace. You may call us idealists, but capitalism is currently leading the human race to its doom via climate catastrophe. The only way of avoiding that is by creating truly democratic international communism to stop policy being driven by the profit motive. We are the ones being pragmatic, here, not the far-right, and not the liberals.

  2. [* Shield Security plugin marked this comment as “SPAM”. Reason: Human SPAM filter found “iphone1” in “user_agent” *]
    George Orwell was not a liberal, he was a socially conservative socialist. Liberals like to rewrite history and claim Orwell was one of their own but there’s no evidence to back this up, they just interpret his critiques of individuals and authoritarianism as somehow being a rejection of socialism because they don’t understand what socialism is.

  3. Unfortunately, many who identify as “liberals,” as of recent, have become neo-liberals, helping a corporatization of the world.

  4. This is pretty much correct but with 3 catastrophic blind spots.

    1. Debate is only of value if you are debating to an open minded audience.

    The reality is that people are not open minded in the way Liberals imagine because we connect our experience of a new issue to a lifetime of experiences and biases and fix ourselves to whichever side best served those biases. True critical understanding of issues is a rarity.

    Given this fact, debate becomes a tool for the far right and other populists to spread their ideas. It doesn’t matter how badly they do, some folks will hear them and be attracted to them and their numbers grow.

    This leads me into…

    2. Liberal’s faith that everyone is as rational and open minded as they are leaves them blind to fascists turning the tools of democracy against democracy its self.

    Donald Trump was precisely one braincell and one pair of testicles away from leading a full blown civil war. Brexit was decided by an advisory referendum on the basis of nothing but lies.

    The common factor: Liberals didn’t think either could happen.

    Now the USA is about to lose abortion on the back of a decades long metamorphosis of the Republicans into anti democratic power grabbing lunatics, because Liberals sat back and made excuses for their bullshit.

    Which brings me to 3:
    Treating everything as an academic debate between reasonable equals sees human rights get trampled on and minorities abused and disenfranchised while Liberals twiddle their thumbs waiting for the other side to start acting like mature adults.

    Their can be no compromise on the rights of human beings to fair and equal treatment. Compromise with evil is evil.

    And of course the enabling of such divisive actions and the inevitable gaslighting that follows only deepens societal division pushing more people to make a choice between sensible government policy and the biases that fascists have been stoking through their unfettered access to “debate”, giving them more power which they turn to destroying the institutions that protect democracy and stoking more division to increase recruitment and weaken opposition…

    And so the cycle continues and society spirals into fascistic dystopia under the noses of bewildered Liberal fence sitters…

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