Thick Liberalism: Understanding the Opponents of Postliberalism

I note that recently postliberals have been accused of having an excessively ‘baggy’ definition of liberalism – as someone put it to me recently, ‘liberalism just means stuff you don’t like’. I think that there is some truth in this accusation, at least insofar as we have been too woolly in our expression, and it got me thinking. Postliberals need to be precise about the nature of its various opponents, and not lump them all together under lazy general labels. It is always wise to ‘know thine enemy’. So I think we need to try to tease out distinctions and be clear about how we should classify those we wish to critique.

The first thing to note is that clearly postliberals aren’t only critical of various forms of liberalism (of left and right), but also of the far left, of radical/extreme leftism/progressivism, although we do sometimes tend to elide liberalism and radical leftism, or talk about them in quite vague ways (although this is partly because there are a lot of grey areas and overlaps). So although I will focus on liberalism, we can’t neglect the far/radical left.

The distinction that strikes me as a wise starting point to examine these definitional questions is that of pluralism and tolerance versus anti-pluralism, as it is perhaps the most fundamental dividing line between different liberal visions of politics and society. So that is where we will start.

Liberalism, Toleration and Pluralism

Traditionally, liberals believed in tolerating different – especially marginal – groups and viewpoints and advancing procedural methods of ensuring that the basic rights and liberties of those groups and views – to be free from violence and persecution, to express themselves, etc – were protected. It is, of course, quite possible to dislike such groups and views, but believe they have a right to exist without harassment. Toleration does not imply approval – indeed, if it implies anything, it implies putting up with something despite not approving it.

It seems to me that this is not necessarily the same as ‘neutrality’, the idea that the state should be ‘neutral’ between different groups and views (if that is even possible). One can be tolerant and believe in pluralism while also believing it is fine for the state and/or the majority of the population to give a privileged position to one particular viewpoint or framework or group.

An example of what I mean taken from the religious sphere is as follows. In England and then Great Britain from 1688, the state (de facto and then de jure) recognised that religious groups outside of the Church of England should be tolerated (firstly just Trinitarian Protestants, but later on Jews, Catholics and non-Trinitarian Protestants, and eventually atheists and other groups), given the freedom to exist, worship, publish their views etc. But the British state was obviously not, for a long time, ‘neutral’ between different groups: the Church of England was given official state recognition and a privileged position in all kinds of ways for a long time, most obviously through establishment – which technically endures to this day, although mainly as a formality and in general ‘neutrality’ now reins supreme in the UK in the religious sphere.

So there is a distinction between tolerant pluralism and neutrality. There is also a distinction between both of those things and the anti-pluralism that is gaining ground, particularly within mainstream and public bodies, from QUANGOs and public corporations to universities and large corporations. It hasn’t yet entirely prevailed, but it is getting there.

This anti-pluralist view takes certain values – diversity in terms of race, gender identity, sexual orientation etc, autonomy, novelty/anti-traditionalism– and attempts, as Eric Kaufmann argues in his Whiteshift book, to make them into sacred dogmas, which one either has to believe in and implement, or at least pretend to believe in and/or not resist/contradict – or else. Such a view maintains that there is no scope for legitimate disagreement with these principles, and therefore those who disagree with them should not be tolerated: at the very least, they should be sacked, denied employment, hounded, no-platformed etc.

This anti-pluralism would seem to be antithetical to liberalism, and more compatible with – or at least less directly contradictory to the basic commitments of elements of – the Left, and generally this is the case. Such anti-pluralism has usually prevailed on the Far Left, sometimes pretty explicitly (in the form of a totalitarian, anti-democratic Communist state), sometimes slightly more subtly (in something like Marcuse’s idea of ‘repressive tolerance’). One would think that it would be anathema to liberalism – and to some extent you’d be correct.

However, certain forms of modern liberalism have often ended up in the unhappy position of abandoning what one might think of as one of the saving graces of classical liberalism. Tolerance or neutrality might seem like uninspiring and empty ideals, but at least they’re not overtly oppressive and totalitarian ones. But even they are being lost in the thinking of many modern liberals – how come?

Thick and Thin Liberalism

John Gray showed how some forms of liberalism have lost their tolerant credentials in his conception of ‘the two faces of liberalism’.

He argued that the one ‘face’ of liberalism is essentially a positive doctrine of what constitutes a moral, good life – one defined by values of individual autonomy, social diversity, anti-traditionalism etc. One might associate this will J.S. Mill. Let’s call it ‘thick liberalism’.

The second type of liberalism is one that sees conflicts between competing views of the nature of the good – legitimate pluralism, in effect – as inevitable, and sees liberalism as the way of finding some way of managing these divides, finding a modus vivendi, or perhaps some minimalist ‘operating consensus’ between outlooks, views, and groups which are simply incompatible. In this viewpoint, the only indisputable ‘good’ is the bare protection of minimum ‘negative’ liberties, or a kind of managed ‘neutrality’ or procedural consensus. One might associate this type of liberalism with Isaiah Berlin, or in a slightly more modern form, Habermas and to some extent Rawls (though much divides those thinkers in some respects). Let’s call it ‘thin liberalism’.

In thick liberalism, there are moral values that are indisputably good, and about which no legitimate or reasonable disagreement is ultimately possible. In this view, valuing social homogeneity, or tradition and the authority of the community over the individual, or virtue (rather than, say, hedonistic utility) is simply illegitimate. If the promotion of these ideals necessitates a non-democratic and elitist political or governance structure, so be it. In reality, it almost certainly will necessitate elitism and a disdain for democracy, because the values it sees as objectively true are often not especially popular.

In thin liberalism, legitimate disagreement and pluralism are accepted, and the emphasis is to set up a framework of institutions and procedures that can manage disagreement, often through rights-based or legalistic means. These institutions and procedures must be, to some extent, insulated from democratic pressures, although so long as democratic politics is applied only to issues that don’t affect the underlying ‘neutrality’ of the state, then some element of representative democracy will be accepted.

Now, thin liberalism has its drawbacks (as we shall discuss), but it’s pretty clear that it’s less noxious than ‘thick liberalism’, which cannot tolerate dissent and implies significant intellectual intolerance.

We can now see how some liberals – ‘thick’ liberals (if you’ll excuse the expression) – can be anti-pluralist and repressive. The overlap between them and the radical left can be considerable: let us consider the differences between different types of ‘thick’ liberalism and far/progressive leftism.

Thick Liberals and the Far Left

Firstly, let’s look at the Far Left.

The old-school unreconstructed Marxist Far Left tends to be anti-pluralist in an old-fashioned and overt, class-based way. The interests and views of proletariat – or at least what Marxist-Leninist elites decide to be the ‘real’ interests and views of the proletariat – rule, ok? This has the virtue of being simple to understand, albeit obviously toxic. This is now a minority view within academia and left intellectual circles, although it is far from dead and still rears it ugly head from time to time.

The newer ‘Social Justice Warrior’ Far Left tends to put less exclusive emphasis on class and the proletariat. They decided that actual proletarians – the ones who have been more-or-less contentedly voting Labour or Tory for decades and aren’t terribly interested in revolution – are a total disappointment many years ago. So they decided to adopt new groups, seen as historically oppressed by the insidious operations of capital, the state, and culture – ethnic minorities, the nations of the Global South, sexual minorities, students, etc etc – as their standard bearers (in a strict hierarchy of victim status, you understand, with class at best equal to the other factors, and usually seen as the least important), and develop all kinds of ways of showing how every aspect of the status quo is in some way oppressive, hateful, evil etc. This kind of view is now ubiquitous among academics and left intellectuals, especially at the lower and non-managerial level.

Secondly, let’s look at thick liberalism.

The thick liberals of the left have a lot of crossover with the SJW far lefties – in fact, they can be close to being indistinguishable. However, lefty thick liberals are more inclined to see their ideal as quite compatible with some form of capitalism than the SJW Far Left. Perhaps some elements of capitalism constrain elements of individual autonomy and diversity and need to be regulated, but generally, so long as the forces of traditionalism and homogeneity (etc) can be totally extirpated – by suppressing free speech, for example – they are pretty relaxed about the (highly individualistic) ‘choice’ and ‘freedom’ represented by consumer capitalism, so long as the big multinationals have enough black people and women on their boards. They are more keen on emphasising the positive virtue of self-expression and ‘authentic’ consumer-style autonomy granted by identity politics, in contrast to the SJW Far Left’s preference for emphasising the extent to which it represents a power struggle against evil structures of oppression. This kind of view tends to be view of the university authorities, the vice-chancellors, managers and bureaucrats, who find enough common ground with the lower-level more SJW left academics to run along fine most of the time. It is also pretty common among state institutions and many large corporations.

Then there is a thick liberalism of the right, which sees the positive and unquestionable moral values of liberalism in far more economic terms. Autonomy, diversity etc find their apotheosis not in affirmative action, hate speech laws etc, but in the free market, in a kind of pro-open borders, pro-free trade libertarian utopia which cannot tolerate any other form of economic organisation. You can find this view in some enclaves of academia – in places like George Mason University in the US – and in Silicon Valley tech firms and some other large multinationals. These people do at least have the virtue of being less oppressive when it comes to issues such as free speech, as they are more interested in the nexus between economics and morality than that between cultural and morality.

I think that is a fairly defensible taxonomy, insofar as it goes. But what of the more honest, old-fashioned liberals who do believe in tolerance? What is the problem with them?

Thin Liberalism

Undoubtedly, the ‘thin’ liberals are less sinister. They do sincerely want to find some way of living that accepts genuine differences of opinion, and doesn’t try to impose its highly contentious liberal world view on the rest of us. Berlin, Rawls and Habermas might be boring as hell a lot of the time, but at least none of their adherents are likely to try to sack any academic who disagree with them.

However, I think that such liberals suffer from other problems.

Firstly, ‘neutrality’ is always a bit of a nonsense in politics. The way it works tends to be that liberals come up with some set of procedures, which, once followed, result, they argue, in ‘fair’, ‘neutral’ decisions. But, of course, the outcomes of liberal procedures are never ‘neutral’: they can’t be, by definition.

For example, one might say that one will tolerate both those who are pro-choice, and those who are pro-life, and accept that both views are legitimate ones. This is fine, insofar as it goes – it is certainly better than the thick liberal and radical left position, which ultimately sees a pro-life position as illegitimate, not something that really should be tolerated.

However, the state’s laws will ultimately embody one view or another. Either abortion will be legal, or it won’t be. Ultimately, most questions of politics involve making a determinate decision one way or another. Proceduralism is an attempt to pretend that such decisions are ‘objective’ or ‘neutral’ when really, they never are. Liberal proceduralism in practice usually eschews democratic decision-making, because they don’t trust electorates, full of emotions and passion, to be ‘neutral’.

But then again, their preferred mechanisms and procedures of decision-making – courts, bureaucracies, ‘basic structures’, codified constitutions – aren’t neutral either. They will always tend to tilt towards a more substantive vision of liberalism, a thicker liberalism, that most decidedly is NOT neutral, not least because the people who dominate ‘neutral’ liberal institutions are judges, academics, lawyers, etc, who mostly are liberals.

The emphasis on ‘procedures’, ‘neutral mechanisms’ and the ‘non-ideological’ also tends to unconsciously favour values that amount to a kind of social lowest common denominator and that are easily integrated into legalistic procedures and decision-making matrices: values that are easier to quantify, define and make a practical basis of policy. I would suggest that the value that has tended to be favoured by this tendency is that of utilitarianism, which, whatever else it is, is not ‘neutral’ or ‘non-ideological’: liberal utilitarianism is as much a substantive ideological position as any other.


It seems to me that the most honest approach to these hugely important issues of pluralism, tolerance and ‘the good’ is for societies to accept legal toleration of a variety of views and groups, and to ensure that their right to freedom of expression and other basic liberties are entrenched, while also being clear that there is a substantive vision of the common good that it will choose to privilege over the others. Neutrality is simply not an option: it is a fantasy – so the next best thing is toleration plus frank acknowledgement of the substantive moral position that is being privileged. Such a position could be a way in which some form of liberalism might function (although it doesn’t show any signs of doing so, and I hope we might be able to come up with something a bit better than that!)  – but it also seems to me to be a good framework for postliberalism to operate in.

Anyway, I hope that this presents at least one step towards something of a more precise delineation of the types of liberalism that we postliberals object to, and why.


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