[Paleopsych] John Gray reviews Mark Garnett, The Snake That Swallowed Its Tail

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John Gray reviews Mark Garnett, The Snake That Swallowed Its Tail: some 
contradictions in modern liberalism
Imprint Academic, 96pp, £8.95
ISBN 0907845886
Monday 22nd November 2004

    One of the curious features of the present time is that, even though
    we are all liberal, there is no agreement about what liberalism means.
    Some people will tell you that the core liberal value is personal
    liberty, but others insist it is equality. Some say that liberal
    values require multiculturalism, while others believe they demand a
    common culture based on personal autonomy. For some, liberalism is a
    strictly political theory that applies only to the structure of the
    state. For others, it is a whole way of life.
    These are not just minor differences. They extend to the basic
    concepts of liberalism itself and to the underlying philosophical
    beliefs in line with which they are interpreted. If some liberals see
    freedom as mere absence of interference, others view it as a positive
    ability to act. For some liberal thinkers, justice requires protecting
    private property; for others, it means redistribution. Underlying
    these differences are even larger divergences: some liberals are
    ardent supporters of rights, while others are defenders of
    utilitarianism; some are devotees of social contract theory, and yet
    others are partisans of value pluralism.
    What all liberals have in common is a touching certainty that they are
    right. Liberalism is a missionary faith, and proselytising zeal is not
    normally conducive to sceptical inquiry. Whatever the core values of
    liberalism, they can surely conflict with one another - and with other
    goods such as social cohesion. Yet it rarely occurs to liberals to ask
    themselves whether their values - however vaguely or inconsistently
    defined - are viable in the long term.
    It is this last question that preoccupies Mark Garnett. In The Snake
    That Swallowed Its Tail, he argues that a highly individualistic type
    of liberalism - "the philosophy of the short term, of the
    speed-dating, cold-calling society" - has come to pervade political
    life in Britain. In the past, thinkers such as John Stuart Mill had a
    vision of liberal values in which altruism was prized. As Garnett sees
    it, Mill's "fleshed-out" liberalism was displaced in the Thatcher era
    by a "hollowed-out", Hobbesian philosophy in which self-interest is at
    the centre. Liberalism of this latter kind is ultimately
    self-undermining, he believes: it can end only by "swallowing its
    tail", at which point a reaction in favour of saner values will set
    Few academic writers know enough about the business of politics to be
    able to write intelligently about the tangled links between theory and
    practice. Garnett is one of the few, and his arresting and often
    amusing account of the political history of postwar Britain as a
    transition from fleshed-out to hollowed-out liberalism will be read
    with profit by anyone interested in the role of ideas in politics.
    This does not mean that his account is always convincing. Like many
    critics of the narrow version of liberal individualism that has shaped
    politics since the 1980s, Garnett portrays it as a deeply pessimistic
    philosophy that owes a great deal to Hobbes. To my mind, it is
    precisely the opposite. In so far as Margaret Thatcher and her
    disciples had anything resembling a coherent political vision, it was
    of a neoliberal utopia.
    Thatcher believed that the British economy could be revolutionised,
    and that at the same time Britain's culture could remain unchanged -
    or revert to the norms of the 1950s. She never understood that the
    ideology of choice and innovation she promoted in the economy would
    inevitably spill over into other areas of life. She believed that
    unfettered choice would somehow be virtuous, and completely failed to
    foresee the anomic, crime-ridden society that has actually developed.
    Like other neoliberals, she seems to have imagined that freedom is the
    natural human condition - a view Thomas Hobbes scorned heartily, and
    rightly so.
    If The Snake That Swallowed Its Tail has a positive message, it is
    "Back to Mill" - the embodiment of the fleshed-out liberal philosophy
    that has supposedly been abandoned over the past generation. No doubt
    Garnett is right in thinking that Mill's was a superior form of
    liberalism, but it is hard to see how it can be revived today. He
    tells us that it will return only "once Britain has been entirely
    hollowed out". However, to adapt a well-known adage of Adam Smith's,
    there is much hollowness in a nation - and in liberalism. Most likely
    Britain will drift on much as it does at present, a country where
    everyone believes in liberal values, yet no one knows what they are.

    John Gray's latest book is Heresies: against progress and other
    illusions (Granta)

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