The liberal supremacists

‘Whether they like it or not, Dawkins, Amis, Hitchens and company have become weapons in the war on terror,’ writes Terry Eagleton, bane of the New Atheists. Don’t miss his delightfully scathing debunking of Dawkins here.

One side-effect of the so-called war on terror has been a crisis of liberalism. This is not only a question of alarmingly illiberal legislation, but a more general problem of how the liberal state deals with its anti-liberal enemies. This, surely, is the acid test of any liberal creed. Anyone can be tolerant of those who are tolerant. A community of the broad-minded is a pleasant place, but requires no great moral effort. The key issue is how the liberal state copes with those who reject its ideological framework. It is fashionable today to speak of being open to the “Other”. But what if the Other detests your openness as much as it does your lapdancing clubs?

There is no quarrel about how to treat those whose scorn for liberal values takes the form of blowing the legs off small children. They need to be locked up. But socialists as well as Islamists reject the liberal state, so what is to be done about them? Are they to be indulged only until they successfully challenge the state, at which point they too will find themselves behind bars with the zealots of al-Qaida?

It is not, of course, that the left rejects civil liberties: the working-class movement fought to secure so many of them. Marx had undying admiration for the great revolutionary legacy of middle-class liberalism. Even so, there is a fundamental conflict between liberals and leftists. Liberalism holds that the state should tolerate any opinion that does not seek to undermine that very tolerance. It is an ironic kind of politics. As Tony Blair warned: “Our tolerance is part of what makes Britain Britain. So conform to it, or don’t come here.” Whether this is comically self-contradictory or properly paradoxical depends on your view of the liberal state.

That state is not too bothered about what you believe, as long as it does not thwart the right of others to their beliefs. A more cynical view is that advanced capitalism is inherently faithless; as long as you pay your taxes and refrain from beating up police officers, your opinions are mostly neither here nor there. The agnosticism peddled by Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens as subversive stuff is part of late capitalism’s everyday routine. The liberal state has no view on whether witchcraft is more valuable than all-in wrestling. Like a tactful publican, it has as few opinions as possible. Many liberals suspect passionate convictions are latently authoritarian. But liberalism should surely be a passionate conviction. Liberals are not necessarily lukewarm. Only the more macho leftist suspects that they have no balls. You can be ardently neutral, and fiercely indifferent.

Any honest liberal, however, will acknowledge that the neutrality of the state is a form of partisanship. There should be laissez-faire in the realm of belief, just as there should be in the marketplace. The left objects to the liberal case not because it believes in crushing those who differ, or dislikes the idea of a partisan state, but because this case rules out the kind of partisan state that ­socialism requires. It rules out, for example, a state that would not be neutral on whether cooperation or individualism should reign supreme in social and economic life.

If the test of liberalism is how it confronts its illiberal adversaries, some of the liberal intelligentsia seem to have fallen at the first hurdle. Writers such as Martin Amis and Hitchens do not just want to lock terrorists away. They also tout a brand of western cultural supremacism. Dawkins strongly opposed the invasion of Iraq, but preaches a self-satisfied, old-fashioned Whiggish rationalism that can be wielded against a benighted Islam. The philosopher AC Grayling has an equally starry-eyed view of the stately march of Western Progress. The novelist Ian McEwan is a freshly recruited champion of this militant rationalism. Both Hitchens and Salman Rushdie have defended Amis’s slurs on Muslims. Whether they like it or not, Dawkins and his ilk have become weapons in the war on terror. Western supremacism has gravitated from the Bible to atheism.

The irony is clear. Some of our free literary spirits are defending liberal values in ways that threaten to undermine them. In this, they reflect the behaviour of western states. Liberals are supposed to value nuanced analysis and moral complexity, neither of which are apparent in the slanderous reduction of Islam to a barbarous blood cult. They are noted for their judicious discriminations, rather than the airy dismissal of all religion as so much garbage. There is also an honorable legacy of qualifying too-absolute judgments with an awareness of context: the genuine liberal is appalled by Islamist terrorism, but conscious of the national injury and humiliation that underlie it. None of the writers I have mentioned is remarkable for such balance. On the whole, they are more preoccupied with freedom of expression than freedom from imperial rule.

There is an irony or paradox built into liberal thought: you must be properly intolerant of assaults on tolerance. But this irony is in perpetual danger of getting out of hand. For the liberal state to accommodate a diversity of beliefs while having few positive convictions is one of the more admirable achievements of civilization. But such neutrality, once under pressure, can easily slide into superiority, as sitting loose to other people’s faith comes to look like rising disdainfully above it. It is then only a short step from superiority to supremacism.

Author: Idrees Ahmad

I am a Lecturer in Digital Journalism at the University of Stirling and a former research fellow at the University of Denver’s Center for Middle East Studies. I am the author of The Road to Iraq: The Making of a Neoconservative War (Edinburgh University Press, 2014). I write for The Observer, The Nation, The Daily Beast, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Atlantic, The New Republic, Al Jazeera, Dissent, The National, VICE News, Huffington Post, In These Times, Le Monde Diplomatique, Die Tageszeitung (TAZ), Adbusters, Guernica, London Review of Books (Blog), The New Arab, Bella Caledonia, Asia Times, IPS News, Medium, Political Insight, The Drouth, Canadian Dimension, Tanqeed, Variant, etc. I have appeared as an on-air analyst on Al Jazeera, the BBC, TRT World, RAI TV, Radio Open Source with Christopher Lydon, Alternative Radio with David Barsamian and several Pacifica Radio channels.

3 thoughts on “The liberal supremacists”

  1. One can also add Levy and a plethora of French leftists to this list.

    The common link seems to be a Colonial attitude that Europian ideals are supreme , all others are deemed inferior;null and void.

    It is something Bolivar identified nearly 200 years ago , and somthing Edward said commented apoun when analysing the “leftness” of the likes of H.G.Wells and others who had no strong objection to European states maintaining empires.

  2. Whether you believe that Marx was possessed of “an undying admiration for the great revolutionary legacy of middle class liberalism” or not depends on how transitional a stage you believe the “dictatorship of the proletariat” loomed in the dialectical evolution of communism envisaged in his work.

    Certainly if a central bank and graduated income tax are key constituents of middle class liberalism then Marx can accurately be said to be in favour.

    Yet one would have to consider just how seriously followers like Lenin,Trotsky or Mao took this softer side of historical determinism.Maybe under the pressure of the cataclysmic events in which they were participating they had to discard any residual sentiment they held for middle class liberalism!

    At any rate it seems forgotten now that Marx was a product of his Haileybury/East India Co. “liberal” imperial school British Foreign Office sponsors.By 1848,when the Paris Commune had fallen,these sponsors had no further use for him.

    Key erstwhile F.O.handlers working for Palmerston had inculcated in their protege the British “liberal” assumptions of their generation.Just how far these assumptions extended beyond Marx’s economics to his political outlook is not entirely clear.

    Two editors for whom Marx wrote pieces in the NY Tribune,Horace Greeley and Charles Dana,were like Marx himself Illuminist freemasons.Here lies perhaps a more significant clue to the provenance of the subsequent Fabian and communist offshoots of the promotion of Marx’s work.

    Engels who by 1890 had emerged as the dominant figure in a new elite project called Fabianism revived Marx’s ideas posthumously.This after having unceremoniously dumped him during the “liberal imperialist” economist’s own lifetime!

    Again Marx’s ideas proved enduringly attractive to elite imperialists like Alfred Milner and intellectual recruits drawn to his Round Table Group,particularly from All Souls like Isaiah Berlin,who is thought to be one of Marx’s most acute biographers.

    Probably Eagleton’s Marxism obscures this liberal supremacist cultural context in which Marx’s ideas evolved.

    Lest we forget the post-structuralist orthodoxy in university-taught literary theory,which to their credit Marxist theorists like Eagleton eschewed in the seventies and eighties,turned out in the case of writers like Derrida and Baudrillard to be so extraordinarily quietist (dare we say more middle class liberal than revolutionary?)in their application than most anticipated.

    Christopher Norris’s The Gulf War and Intellectuals (1994)skewered the blinkered inertia that characterised the response of thinkers who had problematised concepts like reality and truth to such a degree that students who read Baudrillard,for example,were encouraged to believe that the Gulf War in 1991 was mere simulacrum rather than reality!

    As with Marx,so with the liberal supremacist cults who dominate the academy,journalism and the state and who are promoted at various times may be more the products of the elites who succour them than is generally acknowledged.

    As postscript we might add that curiously and perhaps coincidentally the brand name “deconstruction” Derrida chose for his style of textual reading is also the term said to describe the mode of psychological programming favoured by Illuminati groups!

  3. Most certainly an ambivalence to Empires and/or colonies is a fundamental continuum that the Left has not been able to shake off.

    At the very core of the problem is the acceptance that the state concept as developed in Europe is a workable model rather than something to be utterly rejected as an imperial project.The history of states in Europe itself has been a disaster since the early 1820s onwards , and has only been partially cured by the EU which became a region of rights rather than a state as such.

    In the former Soviet republics, the middle east, the sub-continent, africa and even central america states were specifically designed to engender lack of cohesion and dependancy on an outside power.

    The acceptance of the state as a model that can be worked with means the Left can either be three things

    1) Utterly ineffective and marginalised
    2) Guilty of trying to export a failed revolution
    3) Become cheerleaders for neocon projects using spurious Humanitarian and “progressive” arguments.

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