Battle in Print: What does it mean to be a liberal? An interview with Frank Furedi

Frank Furedi, interviewed by Sarah Boyes, 12 October 2010

You’ve commented often on the rise of an ‘illiberal liberalism’ in British society. Where has this come from, and what exactly is it?

Contemporary illiberalism is an indirect consequence of a general loss of conviction in the promise of the Enlightenment. There is a widespread mood of scepticism regarding the capacity of humanity to assume control over its destiny and this sense of cultural pessimism also afflicts the way society regards the ideal of individual autonomy. The ideal of individual autonomy, which underpins the classical liberal imagination is frequently dismissed as a myth or worse still as incitement for selfish individualistic behaviour. And of course if individual autonomy is a myth it makes little sense to be tolerant and liberal.

Have you noticed that these day liberalism itself often conveys a negative association? It has even been turned into an object of hate – ‘neo-liberalism’. So neo-liberalism, whatever it actually means, serves as a term signifying moral condemnation. Liberty is rarely promoted as a living value; instead, it is associated with ancient and quaint attitudes held by old fashioned people. The affirmation of free speech is continually negated by claims that there must be limit to the freedom of expression in order to avoid offence to the vulnerable. The announcement that jury trials will be abolished in certain cases raise virtually no criticism.

Millions of adults are registered on a police database, ostensibly to protect children, without provoking resistance. And state intervention in everyday life is accepted as normal. So when paternalistic judges send divorcing spouses to attend parenting classes they are not challenged by people resenting such gross interference in their lives. Back in 1935 George Dangerfield’s The Strange Death of Liberal England attempted to account for the decline of the British Liberal Party. Today it’s not simply a liberal party that has become marginal but the fundamental ethos of liberalism itself.

As many talk about the collapse of left-right struggles following the end of the Cold War, to what extent - if any - would you say there are today underlying differences between left and right? How should we understand the dividing lines of contemporary politics?

The terms ‘left’ and ‘right’ make little sense if they don’t represent competing visions of what constitutes a good society and alternative orientation towards the future. Political differences between ‘left’ and ‘right’ have a caricatured existence. They rarely draw upon past traditions nor do they project alternative visions of the future. They’re both dogmatically presentist in their imagination. What distinguishes political parties are relatively marginal life style issue and in - historic terms – minor differences over the relationship between society and the state.

There seems to be a real confusion about the role of the state in society. Yet many seem to agree there is some role for the state intervening in both our daily lives and the economy. How do you understand the role of the state today?

The state has to some extent become detached from both social and class interests and a project. That is why it has become an institution in search of a project. In many ways state intervention has become peculiarly insidious with its reorientation towards regulating private life and behaviour. That even those who are opposed to state intervention in economic life can support the expansion of this institution towards the micro-management of individual behaviour is a testimony to the decline of the liberal imagination.

You’ve often decried contemporary moralism, and advised people to not be afraid of making moral arguments. What’s the difference between moralism and taking a moral stance? Do you have particular moral virtues in mind people should aspire towards?

Moralism turns morality into an ideology for prescribing individual behaviour. So moralists recast things like fast food into symbols of evil. It has an intensely arbitrary and individualistic character. So often behaviour that’s different to yours or you don’t like, such as a different parenting style, is castigated as irresponsible or bad. Taking a moral stance involves action of standing up for values that you believe are right and not just for you but for everyone. And when you act in accordance with your conscience, it doesn’t involve the preaching that characterises the behaviour of moralisers.

I think that we can do worse than to revisit the virtues promoted by humanist of the Italian city-states during the Renaissance. Probably the most important virtue we need to uphold in Britain today is the ideal of public spirit celebrated by Machiavelli. As you know, Machiavelli measured the strength of society by the amount of public spirit developed within it. Such a virtue requires positive cultural affirmation for risk taking, courage and responsibility – in other words for liberal virtues.

There’s recently been a stream of burqa bans across Europe, coupled with a shrill anti-religious sentiment from some self-defining secularists. To what extent was it part of Enlightenment thinking that religion would ‘die out’, and how would you explain its hold on contemporary society? How much does a failure of secularism have to answer for both negative attitude towards religion, and its draw for millions?

Enlightenment thinking was always divided on the subject of religion. Nevertheless, there was a general conviction that over a period of time reason and rationality would prevail and the role of religion would decline. What Enlightenment thinkers could not quite grasp was that the rise of rationality would not necessarily endow human experience with meaning. As it happens, in the post Enlightenment era, neither can religion. Many of the confused and often hysterical arguments between secular ideologues and religious figures represent an attempt to find meaning through blaming your opponent for evil. In this way, indirectly, both sides attempt to sacralise their lifestyles.

I don’t like to use the term secularism to connote a particular perspective or approach. But you are right to imply that problem lies not with religion but with the failure of the secular imagination to consistently engage with the promise of the Enlightenment. Time and again secular movements have hesitated and withdrawn from the project of endowing their project with purpose and meaning. This remains the principal challenge to humanism. Humanism lives off its glorious past and in the past century humanists have done little to elaborate this perspective on the world.

What does it mean to be a liberal today?

It means taking liberty and freedom really seriously. In practice it demands consistency towards all freedoms. Tolerance is not divisible and we have to apply this principle towards all views and beliefs. There are obviously issues to do with restraining the role of the state. But the key task is to promote the ideal of individual autonomy through developing public spaces for its exercise.


Frank Furedi, professor of sociology, University of Kent, Canterbury; author Wasted, Politics of Fear and Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?

Sarah Boyes, freelance writer and editor; Assistant Editor, Culture Wars.

Post-recession ideologies

"The energy, verve and enthusiasm at The Battle of Ideas filled me with hope. Coming from India where so many people still lack the basic necessities that make human life worth living, it was heartening to see basic issues of equity and justice debated with such passion and fervour."
George Thomas, orthopaedic surgeon; editor, Indian Journal of Medical Ethics

follow the Academy of Ideas