The times are out of joint. Can the centre hold? Brexit, Trump – then what? No one seems to know what is going on. What is populism? Is it a new thing, or just the return of something old?
Yes, something new is going on. There are several familiar layers to the recent upheavals and surprises, but under it all lies a reckoning that has been a long time coming. To understand it we need to retreat from modern jargon and revisit some older, more reliable political vocabulary, which can help clear away the slanted words in current usage. What we are currently experiencing is a long-delayed crisis; the crisis of fraternity.
Fraternity is an underused word and an undervalued principle, but it lurks behind every sentence that contains a ‘we’ or an ‘us’. To define ‘them’ we first need to know who ‘we’ are. This is not always easy, and fraternity has been a Cinderella idea, standing ragged beside her gaudy sisters, liberty and equality. Fraternity remains the Holy Ghost, or feminine principle, of the French revolutionary trinity that has dominated so much of our political thinking since 1789. Since then we have been living in a world of liberal assumptions, and these three linked terms are still a good starting point for assessing the condition of liberal institutions, such as the democratic nation state, and for stabilizing complex discussions that risk descending into petty party politics. Liberty, equality and fraternity still provide useful guidelines to help focus a longer view of our common history.
Such a view will tell us that we have now reached the first modern crisis of fraternity. Circumstances have conspired to make us question not democracy, which has taken on a new vigour in the minds of many right of centre people, but to question what our communities are, and what they mean.
Theorizing the local level of politics has never been a priority in left of centre thinking. Liberals and socialists have had plenty to say about humanity, mass movements and international affairs, but rather less to say about traditional or hereditary groupings. Meanwhile all the theorizing about global capital has always seemed a little abstract – until now, when suddenly we see it working in a destructive way, against strongly cohesive groups of people at a local level. We can now see losers in the twenty-first century world that we have not seen before, within wealthy societies. And these groups of losers have fallen into the hands of the right, not the left, to such a degree that we currently see the radical right calling for trust in the people – more democracy – and the liberal left wary of that trust, and of the instincts of the masses.
We can now see how the coincidence of interest between sections of the political right and the forces of capital has broken down. The cultural damage wrought by ruthless international action – globalization – is very evident, while many of its benefits seem to have evaporated. But what has then happened is not a workers’ revolution for more socialism; what has happened is a workers’ revolt against destitution, but framed as a movement in favour of local cultural units. The workers have finally struck for fraternity, of all things. But the fraternity they want is an older style of fraternity they remember (or imagine), not the new fraternity that they feel they have been whipped into.
With the massive cultural technological and social change that the past three decades have given us – including the collapse of global communism, the liberalization of Eastern Europe and the destruction of several regimes in the Middle East – a great many old assumptions have been brutally challenged. The old certainties of left and right have been so shaken around that nostalgia has become a left liberal vice and radical change a right-wing demand.
Conservatism has never been truly party political, but the defence of workers against the interests of capital always was. No longer, with insurgent parties of the cultural right lining up to criticise multinational corporations. When billionaire property tycoon Donald Trump can lambast the evil workings of capital, we know something has changed at a very deep level.
The concept of fraternity has been fractured, because we now have two kinds of social empathy on offer. We have an older style of interconnection based on ancestral ties, traditional habits and superficial appearances, which has lost its friends in high places, and is being challenged by a new style of rational, economic fellow-feeling based on circumstance and proximity. The former relates to our upbringing; the latter to our individual aspirations. The former is prescriptive and narrow, the latter pragmatic and broad. Conservative temperaments on both left and right have clung to the old style of fraternity; economic right wingers and metropolitan liberals have adopted the new.
The internal contradictions between the demands of culture and of capital have never been so sharply revealed. Over recent decades the right managed to win the economic debate, while the left racked up victories over social issues, and we now live in a right wing economic world modified and managed by left of centre social thinking. But in a time of mass migration, the liberal instincts of permission and tolerance have been shown up as inadequate to the task of integrating new communities at speed. The governmental response all over the West has been social policing, in an attempt to validate and manage the new societies that have grown up. This was not a bad option; it was inevitable in the face of the scale of, and the economic demand for, migration, and the attendant social change.
But the illiberal element in this integration has become increasingly pressurized as freedom of movement and capital has not been matched by freedom of speech, or adequate welfare. Indeed, welfare has proved a very difficult area. Who should be supported? This leads us straight back to the problems of fraternity. Who should be included in our social model? As a side issue, here we have also opened a real and pithy debate on the subject of deserving. Now we are discussing not just the undeserving poor, but also who are the undeserving rich. The criticism of elites started here.
Accelerated change has opened a new chapter in the battle between liberty and equality. No one much disputes the value of freedom, but equality is a hotter topic than ever. It is often distinctly resented in the current context, whenever it feels like it has been imposed. Equality needs qualification, in both senses of the word. It feels better when it is achieved, or somehow earned, or remains as an ideal that no one has quite managed to attain. Liberty has also become a more qualified benefit; too much freedom in the hands of other people can be perceived as a threat, and it can often feel like others are getting away with too much. The best freedom leads to a just and stable equality. But imposed equality is akin to tyranny.
The classic triad is increasingly out of kilter, but not just because equality has staked more demands on us than liberty. It is also that its third leg has come under unaccustomed pressure. It is, in fact, being examined rigorously for the first time.
Where is fraternity now then? To understand how it can work, and where it fits, we need to spend a moment covering the working of the classic trinity, and the special status fraternity occupies within it.
Americans have never been too keen on equality. They have always prioritised liberty, and have spent more time worrying about how liberty can be squared with security, rather than equality. In France, the obsession has always been equality; laïcité is an extended exercise in equality. By contrast, the whole EU project was from the start an experiment in fraternity. And it has struggled to thrive. Created by top-down thinking, the EU’s inventors assumed that a new fraternity could be created, or perhaps revealed, on a continental scale. Unfortunately this has proved to be the kind of fraternity we can only find stamped on coins.
Some may gloat if a lack of fraternity wrecks the EU. Not many will cheer if its weakening dissolves the United Kingdom. Only a reckless few will rejoice if our towns descend into mutually uncomprehending ghettoes, for want of a feeling of belonging or common purpose.
Liberty relates to government, and equality to the law, but fraternity relates to society. This means that fraternity has no institutional organs, beyond the simple building blocks of the family and perhaps the clan. Any larger unit requires theorization, and in the atomized world of cash relations, only the family has survived as a real fraternal unit in today’s social landscape (and radical sexual political theory has had a go at discrediting the family as a valid unit, too). Every grouping larger than the family rests on a process of choice, and it is clear how left and right temperaments build different structures. On the left there is the choice of classes, on the right nations, faiths and even races.
So fraternity, the one thing that the French revolutionaries thought they did not have to fight for, is now defined by politics as much as liberty and equality are. But fraternity is very different in its roots from the other two ideas. It can only be the subject of negative law – what you can’t do to your neighbour. Liberty can be granted, equality enforced or imposed, but fraternity must be felt. Fraternity is the one thing we have to give, a thing we have to make real by our own autonomous actions, as individuals. It must in the end be freely given, for there is no legal force to the idea that one should love one’s neighbour.
Unhappy people all over the Anglo-Saxon world have recently called into question their societies and their governments, but not – it must be made clear – their democracies. This is a truly modern phenomenon because the revolutionaries and nationalist liberals of previous times never examined the basic nature of their societies; they were trying to express them in democratic political institutions. They challenged the traditional forms of government they lived under, and demanded new institutions that could solidify, sustain and protect identity, not create it. They did not challenge the substance of their societies, because they accepted the nature of the ones they lived in.
This is not true in 2017. Too many people feel that the society they live in has been altered, that its very substance has been changed. Their anger has been vented on governments they feel are not loyal to the people they govern. Treachery has a new directionality. Treason used to be a matter of individuals betraying a government; now the nouveaux enragés maintain that rulers can betray the people.
So, how did it come to this?
The nineteenth century was dominated by a succession of struggles for practical liberty, which involved building viable containers for it, namely nation states, and creating legal systems that could guarantee political and personal freedoms. Twentieth century struggles were mostly about equality. Both battles were won, with enormous benefit for everyone on the planet, except hereditary absolute monarchs. And this two-hundred-year sequential process was entirely logical in intellectual and social terms. Liberty established the concept of rights, and then allowed them to be equally enjoyed. Equality could not come first as a principle because there was no way of working out what should be equally shared. Equality by itself achieves nothing and does not improve our societies. But democratic systems of rights are not possible without general legal equality, and they were duly secured through the twentieth century.
Yet in all the excitement an important point was overlooked. The search for liberty is finite. There is only so much liberty any person or any society can enjoy. More and more liberty does not give you a better life. Nor have governments been keen to extend liberty indefinitely. Across recent decades, in the interests of security and in times of war, they have positively limited it. But equality has been another story. Equality is potentially unlimited in its application, and the struggles of the twentieth century went further than any traditional liberal ever expected. Although there was resistance in the end to the Maoist agenda, other less militant work still remained to be done.
The equality agenda, however, has often proved highly unpopular among citizens, though it is very alluring to governments, to whom it represents work to be undertaken for everyone’s sake as a moral good, and as a gesture of good faith to the lower echelons of democratic societies, who are assumed to need evidence that their elected rulers are working in their interests. Disadvantage drives the equality agenda, and thus, inevitably, democracy does too. Equality is peculiarly amenable to measurement – of income, life expectancy, and indices of human development of all kinds, including happiness. Therefore, at least in theory, it is manageable, and a government’s main business is management, especially in the interests of its own popularity. Even if a society is not becoming more prosperous, it is still considered good liberal form to make it less unequal.
Equality, thus, is more measurable than liberty, and has more social utility; liberty does not protect the weak, whereas equality is supposed to. But who really needs the protection is a deeper question. Here fraternity comes in again; fraternity is an extra protection against exploitation. Fraternity and fairness go together as closely as fraternity and deserving.
But in terms of government policy, the fraternity agenda has always been downplayed, if not outright neglected. Fraternity is assumed to be natural, and to spring from social interaction, rather than to condition it, or emerge from it. But is this correct?
The alarming truth, from a governmental angle, is that fraternity is out of reach of executive fiat. Liberty can be granted, equality can be enforced, but fraternity can only be fostered. Yet it is centrally important to social life, more even than equality. Fraternity is the dynamic engine of democracy, the ultimate justification for rights. When it comes to rights, equality ranks only as the means, while fraternity is the reason. Liberty is then the result, the beneficial outcome. Of the three great French obsessions, fraternity is the active principle, while the other two are passive.
And the real world results of all this have finally come into political focus. Enter populism. Simple messages, big personalities, loud voices, sharp grievances, all joined by the neglected thread of fraternity. Mainstream democratic parties have proved ill equipped to defend themselves against freebooting politicians who correctly identify deep discontents. Pinpointing the emotional centre of these discontents, and voicing them in the right tone has translated into real support at the ballot box. Solutions are not necessary; they can come later, or maybe not at all. The powerful, even immoderate expression of group identity is the objective. This is what we are seeing.
The Second World War was a war of ideologies, which, confusingly, had two winners – liberalism and communism. The Cold War was the subsequent, prolonged shoot-out, and liberalism won. Then the brakes were off. The infinite quest for justice and equality continued, while free markets ran amok.
All the while there has been no proper discussion of fraternity since Aristotle, who first realised it was necessary for the smooth functioning of any political system.
The Trump-Brexit phenomenon, in as much as it can be taken as one thing, comes out of a lack of understanding of fraternity among leaders, and a sense of its loss among citizens. But this rebellious phenomenon is not a true movement, despite Trump’s claim. It has far too little to underpin it; it has no agreed aims, only a vast sump of shared discontent driven by rapid change, new interconnectivity, cultural disorientation and a sense that democratic institutions are too unresponsive. What Brexiteers and Trumpers perceive is not wrong; real problems have been identified. Where the insurgent anti-establishment ‘movement’ is weak is in analysis, and particularly solutions. How to fix things. That is the question. And answers so far have not emerged.
Let us therefore not misunderstand the wave of so-called populism that has swept the globe, from India in 2014 to the US election of last November. Populism is many things – an addiction to simplicity, a cadre of insurgent opportunist leaders, a rallying call for militant localism. What it is not is the arrival of new thinking about solutions to our common problems. On the contrary, it is simply a massive hubbub of discontent about shared pain, a collective agreement about what our problems are.
To find solutions – apart from wishing for a general upturn in our economic circumstances – we need to look a little at the roots and mechanisms of fraternity, and in particular to unscramble it from the idea of identity.