FCR is wondering if we face a Post-Liberal Future. Unfortunately, his sources are David Goodhart and Michael White, two men who have been vigorously promoting the unpopular populism of very real concerns ever since it became fashionable in about 2004.
I associate the phrase “unpopular populism” with Jamie Kenny or possibly Daniel Davies, but Google tells me it’s been independently rediscovered many, many times. Here, it means a form of political pandering to the supposedly reactionary instincts of the public which is in fact directed at the elite, as a means of ideological policing. For example, a politician might suddenly discover a need to hate the European Union just-a-bit rather than discuss why median wages were stagnating. It’s commonly called populism, but not many people actually care much about the EU, so it’s not popular.
Anyway, there is no Post-Liberal Future, except in the sense that near-future science fiction is about the near future. We are living in the post-liberal future. The unpopular populists – the people I call the modern thinkers – have made their choice. They aren’t thinking of backing off on economic liberalism, or rather, neoliberalism.
They do, however, dislike some manifestations of a liberal society, and they consider this to be a political program. The anxiety and resentment of living in the neoliberal economy can be relieved by the consolations of social illiberalism. However, there is a hook here. It is true, as Rick says, that social liberalism won beyond its wildest dreams. Rolling this stuff back is a pain in the arse and not obviously good for business. Overt racism, homophobia, and some forms of sexism are out.
But there is more to freedom than the absence of the Klan. The modern thinkers target a complex and hard-to-summarise gaggle of ideas, more an aesthetic than an interest group or an ideology. It is easier to sum up what they want – basically, they simultaneously want conformism and the diversity they claim to value. This involves: economic neo-liberalism, but only up to a point. Exclusivity comes before actual competition, which is well known to be a force that can disrupt and change hierarchies of authority, for good or ill.
Phenomena like the London Olympics brand exclusion zone, perhaps the only advertising project to include its own anti-ballistic missile system, China’s urban management personnel or chengguan, a system which combines elements of low-level social policing, planning enforcement, and organised crime, or the deranged plan to embed thousands of “Emmas” from A4E into individual families in the UK, are all manifestations of the post-liberal environment.
The logic is circular. It is assumed that the instincts of the people are reactionary. Therefore their interests do not need to be served. Therefore, should they be discontented, the way to stay in power is to offer them the spectacle of the kind of people the elite think they think ought to be punished (an example of the Keynesian beauty contest) getting their deserts. And if the people remain discontented, they are obviously union extremists, paranoids, conspiracy theorists, the authors of anti-social behaviour. And we know what’s good for them.