Book: Liberalism: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)

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The pseudo-liberals

Although neoliberals may genuinely, if misguidedly, believe that they are the most important heirs to the liberal tradition, other societies—especially in Europe—have produced ideologies that knowingly obscure their credentials. They dress themselves up in a pseudo-liberal discourse that is laid bare, like the emperor’s new clothes, the moment we apply the morphological approach to ideologies.

The deliberate misappropriation of liberalism can become a political weapon designed to mask the true intentions of an ideology or to render its rhetoric more palatable. The right-wing Austrian Freedom Party, for example, has exploited the liberal language of economic freedoms to disguise another kind of ‘freedom’ it is pushing: that of the nation’s emancipation from foreigners and large-scale immigration. In the Netherlands, the List Pim Fortuyn combined a tolerant attitude to homosexuality with strong anti-Islamic and xenophobic policies. Its successor—named ‘The Freedom Party’ in the same populist tradition of obfuscation—continues with resistance to the integration of immigrants alongside a condemnation of layer five social pluralism. In all those cases the most valued liberty is that of promoting what is claimed to be a dominant national culture, while demonizing people from different ethnic groups. As the well-known adage has it, just as one swallow does not make a summer, so one or two liberal-sounding ideas do not constitute liberalism—especially when blatantly illiberal ideas are deliberately stacked behind them.

The relative success of liberalism, and the tolerance and openness of its most humanistic versions, makes it an easy target for ideological scavengers and the object of permanent attack from crusading or populist movements. Liberalism’s own integrity is not helped by the different faces it presents to the world or, indeed, by the complexity of arguments it marshals when, to the contrary, political action demands simplification. But that is the common fate of any ideology that seeks to compete over the control of political language.

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