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The scholarly world has recently gone in for grand narratives of decline. The similarly-titled How Democracies Die and How Democracy Ends share a transatlantic frisson of horror at illiberal democracy, while offering different diagnoses of the problem. The erosion of liberal democratic norms, exacerbated by parties’ failure to choose centrist candidates, or liberal democracy’s inability to renew itself, allow irresponsible individuals or small groups to leverage the power of mindless masses.
In Patrick Deneen’s widely-reviewed book, Why Liberalism Failed, it is liberalism per se, not democracy as such, that doesn’t work. The thought that liberalism is self-defeating hearkens back to older arguments, such as the hard-headed, anti-liberal (and, to be fair, very amusing) writings of James Fitzjames Stephen. Man, in Stephen’s view, is a being that must be commanded. Like other conservatives, Deneen argues that the attempt to become authentic, self-directing individuals—as advocated by John Stuart Mill—leads to an ironically intensified governmental control, and ultimately to tyranny.
The authors of How Democracies Die are worried about other things. When inflexible or bought-off institutions cease to value things properly—like security from violence, or job security, but also recognition and esteem—a people may turn to a bold, Princely individual, or seek a refuge in politicians who cultivate an ethno-national sense of belonging. Did the period of globalization following the financial crisis devalue goods such as security of person and property? The answer is yes. And then the period after the 2016 election became an experiment to see whether economic and identity insecurities could be mollified by the bait-and-switch politics of illiberal populists.
American conservatives who abhorred Donald Trump such as Bill Kristol have recently quoted liberals such as Gladstone and extolled JS Mill as the man of the moment. Less attractively, Thomas Carlyle has the actual last word in John Milbank and Adrian Pabst’s The Politics of Virtue: Post-liberalism and the Human Future, which ends by pronouncing man “the missionary of Order.” At the same time, many progressives and social democrats are put off by Mill’s individualism, and his market-based conception of economic freedom.
The views of Kristol suggest to me that we are still living in an identifiably liberal moment, shaped by representative government, logical discourse, civic identity, and civic religion. If one adds a strong emphasis on gender and workplace equality, Kristol is correct: these are the politics of JS Mill. As I argue in my 2018 book, Educating Liberty, Mill still offers an alternative to conservative and progressive democracy, one that is more comprehensive than any of its rivals.
Has this vision failed? If so, one would expect that the fault lines of contemporary politics could not be explained by thinkers such as Mill, and yet we see that this form of liberalism very adequately explains the current predicament.
Technology atomizes us and undermines actual pluralism, converting diversity into a very thin sameness. Science looks un-democratic to mass media markets, the province of experts – or politicized and fake science. Religious nationalism becomes our political religion, whereas America used to have (and will have again) a civil religion. Angry politics and venal self-regard encourages office-holders to do, well, the things that Sasha Baron Cohen showed them doing on Who is America? Political leaders forget their duty and their dignity, because they are too attached to office and party, and we saw the results among Trump’s most militant supporters on January 6.
Original theorizing and systematizing is not the only or even the most needful thing in this moment—moderation is. And Mill provides this. (Some lessons from history also help, as Timothy Snyder notes in On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century.) But one striking area where Mill had a blind spot with respect to moderation is the East India Company, where Mill worked for thirty-five years. The Company drained wealth from the Indian subcontinent, exacerbated its problems with famine, and ruled as the strangest sovereign power in the history of politics.
In an almost utopian turn, and one very much appealing to a man of Mill’s preferences, the Company combined voluntarism (its workers consented to join the “Company-state,” as Philip Stern calls it, unlike the members of every other existing nation and state) and expertise and bureaucratic oversight in the most ideal possible form, at least for Mill. That, in practice, it did great harm to India was something that Adam Smith and Edmund Burke could see, but not John Stuart Mill. Our liberalism, sadly, has the same blind spot with respect to monopolistic corporations in the present day. In this respect, Burke, arguing against the drain of India’s wealth, and Adam Smith, arguing against massive joint-stocks and monopolies, had the better understanding.
Still, Mill’s liberalism offers a good start for rebuilding modern society, provided we add a layer of sensitivity to out-of-control corporations and to the lingering effects of oppression abroad. Mill defends a market-based version of socialism; a liberty-based version of gender equality; and a religion-based public sphere. He does not seek to square the circle; he allows politics to persist in their glorious entanglements. Thus, the Mill we thought we knew from On Liberty, the Mill of “one very simple truth,” is not the whole Mill, and we need the whole Mill today.
His approach is not fancy; it’s the opposite of obscure. It’s justice without doilies and embellishments. His vision can accommodate both progressives and conservatives, as Mill promises in the Preface to his book on representative government. He apologized for empire, but if one takes Mill’s arguments seriously, we must include the world and subtract the East India Company. What’s left is as adequate a picture of a just society as we’ve ever developed.
Chris Barker is Assistant Professor of Political Science at The American University in Cairo. His book, Educating Liberty: Democracy and Aristocracy in J.S. Mill’s Political Thought, was published in 2018 by the University of Rochester Press.