February 2010

Arts & Letters

Liberal fundamentalist

By John Keane
AC Grayling’s ‘Liberty in the Age of Terror’

In Liberty in the Age of Terror: A Defence of Civil Liberties and Enlightenment Values (Bloomsbury, 304pp; $35.00), English liberal philosopher AC Grayling confronts readers with a disquieting thought: we are living in perilous times in which the tried and true principles of liberty are losing ground to the evils of “fundamentalism, reaction, and their militant expression”. Grayling wastes few words recalling the decadence of the decade that has just ended. In the name of protecting and promoting liberty, armies were sent to more than a few foreign countries. Talk by leaders of “pre-emptive” action flourished. Civilians were put through costly new “security” checks. Police powers expanded, the dark arts of surveillance spread, and the old division between the torturable and non-torturable classes made a drastic comeback. The consequence, argues Grayling, is that Western liberal societies are morphing into garrison states – armed camps in which citizens are routinely treated as if their daily lives play out on a permanent battlefield in the “War on Terror”.

Against these trends, Grayling sharpens his liberty sword. The freedom of reasoning individuals is, for him, the paramount human value. Such liberty should only be limited when individuals make nuisances of themselves by acting unreasonably, for instance when they embrace religious bigotry or (on the same continuum for him) terrorise and kill civilians in public places. Grayling’s Liberty Principle (it can be called) lends his liberalism a compass, a sense of urgency and rightness that leads him to condemn the “self-harm” that he thinks is now weakening liberty in “the West”. He wants to say that, while “terrorism is a serious threat, and has to be countered”, the far more worrying trend is the squeeze on civil liberties by “liberal democratic” governments. The principle of liberty was originally designed to protect individuals against arbitrary uses of state power. Today, in liberty’s name, individuals are being robbed blind of its benefits.

Here, Grayling’s chief target is Britain. His picture of political life in the Land of Hope and Glory is not pretty. He portrays it as a lazy parliamentary democracy, a polity whose rich and ancient traditions of civil liberty are now threatened by more than fiscal bankruptcy, Westminster rigor mortis, muddled defensiveness about “Europe” and political spin. Citing EM Forster’s attack, during the 1930s, on “Fabio-Fascism”, Grayling points a finger at its latter-day equivalent: a very British authoritarianism that is gaining the upper hand by stealth – one parliamentary bill, one new police dawn raid and one new regulation at a time.

Grayling probably exaggerates the omniscience and technical competence of the burgeoning security systems, but the picture he draws of political sclerosis seems worryingly accurate; citizens with a feel for questions of civil liberty might even think his case is blindingly obvious. Yet tough objections should be made to the way Grayling frames his defence of liberty. This surprisingly parochial book highlights the defects of John Stuart Mill-style liberalism in the entirely different circumstances of today.

Mill was forced by circumstance to get his long johns in a twist about democracy. His writings followed the nineteenth-century rule that cries for liberty were normally curses against the people. That was why, in Thoughts on Parliamentary Reform (1859), Mill argued for the weighting of the suffrage in favour of liberty-loving, educated types like himself. Grayling is steeped in much the same spirit. Lip service is paid to “justice” and “democracy”, certainly, but for him it is the liberty of secular and reasonable individuals – above all their liberty of expression – that is the primary philosophical and political value. Questions about the desirability of group rights and citizens’ equal access to property, or legal guarantees of decent pensions, or the right to be different – these and other topical questions in contemporary democracies simply disappear from this book.

Grayling’s liberalism has too much pomp about the liberty of reasonable individuals and not enough commitment to humility, the radical equalisation of power, and the give-and-take, rough-and-tumble pluralism of democracy. His numbed liberal feelings for democracy show up in curt and inaccurate comments about its history, not helped by his secularist view of its origins and use of the zombie phrase “liberal democracy”. The torpidity is particularly evident in Grayling’s attack on Isaiah Berlin, whose own defence of liberty was deeply sensitive to its contingent philosophical status (liberty was for him by no means an absolute). Berlin also wisely spotted the paradoxical nature of the ideal of liberty: different liberties (of property ownership and press freedom, for instance) usually stand at odds with one another. That was why, as the late Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski and other central European intellectuals first noted, political thinking in defence of liberty implied fighting for something much more radical: a civil society that made room not just for liberalism, but for various different ways of life and definitions of freedom protected by law, convivial customs, different types of property and representative forms of democratic government.

A global fascination with the democratic ideals and politics of civil society has mushroomed during the past half-generation, but this seems uninteresting to Grayling. That’s because – to put it bluntly – his liberalism is fundamentalist. In supposing that liberty enjoys the status of a foundational first principle, in an old-fashioned philosophical sense, Grayling effectively writes against the style and substance of a democratic civil society by calling upon everyone to sign up to his brand of liberalism, or else suffer the consequences. What is needed, he argues, is the robust requirement that “anyone who wishes to live in and benefit from membership of a liberal society should be prepared to live by its basic values”. Those who dissent from its liberal principles “must give up their membership” of this society. They must “seek a place” where they can live according to their “alternative values”. Presumably by emigrating. Or by finding themselves a mattress and bedpan behind bars.

Grayling’s dogmatism is mirrored in his distinction between “the West” (a loaded noun Grayling uses repeatedly) and the rest of the world – full of basket-case states, religious believers, criminal types and corrupted politicians and civilians, who have no feel for the Liberty Principle. It is not simply that Grayling’s liberalism is unable to grasp that in contexts as varied as India, Taiwan and South Africa, for example, there are vigorous living traditions of freedom, whose language, institutions and ‘rationality’ cannot be described or analysed by resorting to Mill’s vocabulary. Grayling’s liberalism is narcissistic, a form of political thinking that combines the concern for precious liberties at home with ignorance or summary judgements of events abroad.

“Where liberty is not, there is my country”, Tom Paine once quipped to Benjamin Franklin. What’s missing in this book is an engaged awareness that concern with civil liberties and democracy at home is practically bound to their degradation elsewhere in the world, for instance in the Middle East, where the military struggle against ‘terrorism’ is making things much worse, not better. Military invasion of the region, led by American and British armies in Afghanistan and Iraq, has become the poisonous norm. Its toxins have spread into Lebanon, Israel, the Palestinian Territories, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, and may well spread more widely. Anti-Americanism is growing, thanks to hypocritical Western support for Arab dictatorships. The attraction of Al Qaeda-tactics among the disaffected is correspondingly blossoming, way beyond the region, for instance into Britain, itself now a major hothouse for figures like Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab and those yet to make a name for themselves on the global stage.

Two further kinds of resistance have become visible in the region during the past decade. One of them is armed struggle, using the tactics of asymmetric warfare practised by Hamas and Hezbollah, with or without the support of Iran, whose upgrading as a major regional player is an unintended consequence of the military destruction of Iraq’s Ba’athist regime. The other brand of resistance, non-violent civil action against dictatorship in defence of civil society and human rights, is weak, but now desperately trying to get up from bended knee in Iran. Its elevation, as the 2009 electoral victory of Saad Hariri in Lebanon shows, might make a powerful difference to the whole region. It would certainly have leavening effects upon the lives of Muslims and other liberty-loving citizens in so-called Western countries as well. Which goes to show that Grayling, in spite of his liberal defence of liberty, is on to something pivotal.

John Keane

John Keane is the co-founder of the Sydney Democracy Network and professor of politics at the University of Sydney and the Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin (WZB). His The Life and Death of Democracy is the first full-scale history of democracy for over a century.

Cover: February 2010

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