Turns out that writing is actually pretty fucking difficult. This is a blog about how I revised the hardback of How To Be A Liberal for the softback edition, which sounds like some next-level Inside Baseball introspection and indeed is. But there’s hopefully a few useful things about it. Firstly, it says something about writing, in particular long-form writing. Secondly, it says something about politics, and in particular how lefty pinko maybe-it’s-better-if-don’t-leave-people-to-starve-in-the-streets liberals define themselves. And finally, it might potentially cheer you up a bit about the state of the world. No promises on the last part though. I caveated the shit out of it.
First of all though I just need to state that revising a book is an absolute bastard. I’ve done it once before, for Brexit: What the Hell Happens Now, and that was awful too. Now I’ve done it again and it was worse. Revision is both laborious and invisible – the most despicable of all combinations.
The chief lesson I took from it this time is the importance of signposting – constantly letting the reader know where they are in the narrative and the argument. I’ve written before about how vital this is in journalistic writing. Your job is to make it as easy and entertaining as possible for the reader to understand complicated things. That involves making it very clear at all times exactly where you’re going.
It becomes particularly important when your narrative stretches nearly half a millennium, from Rene Descartes to Donald Trump. You need to keep it tight and explicit, constantly showing how the thing you’re dealing with now relates to what you were talking about back then.
But when I was writing the latter half of the hardback I got a bit distracted by another piece of writing advice: ‘show, don’t tell’. This is the idea that you don’t patronise your audience by stating things outright, but let them get there their own way by virtue of the content itself. You don’t want an X-Men film where a mutant says ‘we’re hated and feared just like the white majority has treated the African-American community’,. You don’t want an Aliens movie where a character turns to the camera and says: ‘This whole situation speaks to my fear of penetration and childbirth.’ It’s too on-the-nose. You want to let the metaphor speak for itself.
And that’s good advice. You should totally follow that if you are writing a novel. But I wasn’t. I was writing journalistic nonfiction covering 500 years of philosophy, economics and politics. So it really was much better to be specific. This was by far the most common change I made in the new edition – adding additional explicit references to previous sections, for instance on the way that Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s dangerous idea of the general will had inserted itself into left-wing identity politics, or Friedrich Hayek’s nonsense babble about market-regulation was there in the credit rating agencies during the financial crash. Honestly, these changes added up to a few hundred words throughout the book, but they have improved it immeasurably.
That brings me to the biggest change in the book and the one that I feel… I dunno if guilty is the word, but tentative. It’s about terminology. It came about because someone online – I think it was on Twitter, or an Amazon review or something – said they wished I’d put in something on neoliberalism so they could counter the accusations that get thrown around about how liberalism is right-wing.
Fuck my life, I thought. A third of the fucking book is about that and they don’t even realise. But then I realised that it was my fault. I hadn’t explained the terms sufficiently. Neoliberalism is, to all intents and purposes, identical to laissez-faire liberalism, or libertarianism, or what people hopelessly and inaccurately call ‘classical liberalism’. It’s the view that the state has a very limited right to interfere in people’s economic affairs and that the market works best when left alone.
But the thing is: I didn’t actually say that. I explained the ideas, but I didn’t specify the various terms that are used for them. I just used ‘laissez-faire’, because it best encapsulates the philosophy and works in both a historical and modern context. So in the paperback I chucked in a section outlining all these terms, why they all shared the same basic DNA, and then stuck with laissez-faire throughout. It was one of those bits of background reasoning that needed to be brought to the foreground and clearly explained.
The same applied to the other school of liberal thought, which you can call social democracy or social liberalism – basically the idea of a mixed economy where the state can and does interfere in the market and people’s economic affairs.
But here’s where I made kind of a big call. In the hardback I used egalitarian liberalism as the umbrella term for this. But in the paperback I changed it to radical liberalism.
I feel a bit guilty about that, because a lot of people wrote to me after the hardback and said how happy they were to realise that there’s a name for what they believe.
I picked egalitarian liberalism because it’s an accurate descriptor. Like John Stuart Mill said, the system would tend towards equality. But it has some downsides. They sound superficial. Shit, maybe they are. But denying superficiality in politics is like denying the rain during a picnic: it won’t make you dry.
Egalitarian liberalism is a bit of a mouthful and it sounds kind of academic and comfortable. One of the things that gets to me is how there is no easy go-to immediately-recognisable phrase for this school of thought, despite the fact it has the same intellectual heritage as laissez-faire. The closest are ‘social democracy’ and ‘mixed economy’, neither of which encapsulate the scale of it or even mention liberalism.
I constantly read highly intelligent writers talk about liberalism and social democracy as if they are distinct things. And that perpetuates the sense that there is something fundamentally right-wing about liberalism, and in particular about the idea of the individual as the highest concept in political thought.
This couldn’t be further from the truth. It was liberalism which gave us a welfare state, the NHS, human rights and free movement. It has been the most effective system in human history for protecting the vulnerable and improving the lot of all. We deserve to be able to articulate this school of liberalism quickly and proudly. And for that, I decided radical liberalism is a better term.
It is less of a mouthful, less academic, and it encapsulates the central ideas: that this is a form of liberalism which shakes things up, which is not content with the world as it is, that demands change – in our economic lives, but also in our social and political lives, particularly through the fight for marginalised people.
It feels a bit cheeky to give people one word for something in one edition of the book and swap it out for another. But really I’ve just switched the umbrella term. And I’m pleased with where it settled. Radical liberalism sounds a bit aggressive, which is fitting because that is what it demands of liberalism: a kind of thrusting, world-changing demand for freedom, one which isn’t content with the world as it is, but seeks to improve it. So yeah, I did that. Sorry, but also not sorry, as I believe the kids say.
The final change was the most satisfying. It was to do with narrative. The hardback ended with the nationalist attack on immigrants and then a call to arms to challenge it. But between then and now, something happened. Things improved. Trump was thrown out of office and replaced by Joe Biden.
Now there’s all sorts of reasons to be fearful. One of the two main political parties in the US has seemingly turned its back on democracy altogether. But Biden winning showed that nationalists can be beaten. His domestic policy decisively turned its back on laissez-faire and committed to Keynesian economics.
Of course, the last few weeks have looked less rosy. In terms of foreign policy, Biden seems intent on following an America First programme and his comments on Afghanistan have been disgraceful.
But then, liberalism does not search for perfect politicians. It does not engage in the tub-thumping hero worship which populism embraces. It does not invert objective reality so that it can maintain its faith in the leader. It does not expect perfection, but instead admits nuance, and the endless combinations of failure and success which constitute political careers and individual lives. Biden can be pivotal to domestic policy and the push-back against nationalism while simultaneously being wrong-headed in foreign policy.
We have to be able to keep two thoughts in our heads at the same time. And right now that feels like a radical act. In an age of purity and bovine-stupid political thought, in which all is white or black and nothing in between, it takes commitment to recognise the fundamental complexity of the world. And, as much as that, the fundamental complexity of people.
So instead of ending with the protests against Trump, the book now ends with Biden’s victory, the insurrection against the US Congress, and its defeat. Few events could have better encapsulated the book’s 500-year narrative. Nationalism stood exposed for what it really was: simplistic, brutal, utterly uninterested in the ‘will of the people’ when it turned against it. But most of all: it was revealed as beatable. There is no unstoppable wave, dragging us back to authoritarianism and ignorance. They can be stopped. And they can be turned back on their arse.
In short: history gave the book a happy ending. Maybe not a Return of the Jedi everything-has-been-sorted happy ending. But a New Hope happy ending: a solid victory which can work as a springboard for ultimate success. Proof of concept. And thank fuck alive for that.
You can buy the Waterstones Exclusive Edition of How To Be A Liberal here, with an additional mini-chapter on liberalism in the age of covid.