How To Be A Liberal
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How To Be A Liberal

The Story of Freedom and the Fight for its Survival

Ian Dunt

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How To Be A Liberal

The Story of Freedom and the Fight for its Survival

Ian Dunt

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1. BIRTH

On 10th November 1619, René Descartes had a nightmare. He was walking down a road in a violent storm and shadowy figures were following him. He couldn't keep a straight line. A weakness was affecting his right side and driving him constantly to the left. Strong gusts of wind kept spinning him around and preventing him from getting a sure footing.

Ahead of him he could make out some gates and beyond that a church where he could flee the storm. But even when he went in the courtyard, the wind kept throwing him off balance. He saw a man he recognised and tried to say something to him. It was impossible. He couldn't stand upright. Then, slowly, other figures began to appear, all of them steady on their feet, unaffected by the weather. And they stared down at him as he scrambled in the dirt.

He woke up. It was the dead of night. A fire crackled in the corner of the room. Descartes was inexplicably terrified. For hours he lay in bed and there in the darkness, half-mad with anxiety, he started to develop a terrible thought: what if there was an evil demon watching him, putting these nightmares in his head?

He prayed. And then, finally, he fell asleep again.

As soon as he lost consciousness there was a loud explosion. He snapped back awake and stared at the fire. Had it crackled loudly? Or did that just happen in his mind? He felt more terror, more of the anxiety of the night-time, and then eventually drifted off again.

He was standing by a table with two books on it. He opened one of them and saw the line: ' Quod vitae sectabor iter?' – what path in life shall I follow? A man appeared and they discussed the books for a while. Then the books and the man faded.

But Descartes did not wake up. He stood there, by the table, and realised something. He was dreaming. And then he started to interpret the dream, to think it through, while he was still in it. When the analysis ended, he woke up.

These dreams would come to define Descartes' life. He became concerned with the gap between dream and reality, the thin line between being awake – existing in a real physical space with ordered thoughts – and the crazed world of dreaming, where everything is bizarre and volatile.

The aspect of dreams which seems to have disturbed Descartes was how life-like they felt. If dreams seemed so real at the time, he thought, then who was to say that the things we thought or perceived when we were awake were any more reliable? For all he knew, the evil demon he imagined that night was real. It could be putting thoughts into his mind when he was awake as easily as it could while he was asleep.

Descartes didn't believe there was an evil demon. What concerned him was that he could not prove – utterly, without any trace of doubt – that there wasn't. And if he couldn't prove that, then he couldn't really prove anything. Perhaps green was red. Perhaps two plus two equalled five. Perhaps the bed he slept in wasn't real. If you followed this line of reasoning far enough, the world fell down: maths, geometry, physics, politics, religion, civilisation. Everything was built on shaky foundations.

Descartes, an aimless 23-year-old Frenchman, decided to dedicate his life to finding certainty. He roamed the world, speaking with scientists and theologians, trying to find bits of knowledge, priceless slivers of certainty, which he could be absolutely sure were true. He was engaged in an act of existential quarantine: finding and isolating facts that someone could believe without any shadow of doubt.

'During the following nine years I did nothing other than wander around the world trying to be a spectator rather than an actor in the dramas that unfold there, ' he wrote. 'I rooted out of my mind all the errors that could have slipped into it.' Then, eventually, he settled down and started to write philosophy. It was not until he was 45, in a work called Meditations on First Philosophy, that he properly grappled with the dream and its implications. It is arguably the most important book ever written, but not for the reason Descartes thought. He intended for it to be an affirmation of religious faith. He wanted to protect belief in God from the relentless doubt he had experienced, from nagging questions of scepticism. But instead of finding certainty in God, he found it somewhere else entirely. He found it in the individual.

This idea would go on to destroy the old world and create a new one, based on rights, reason and liberty. It was the birth of liberalism. And it happened by accident.

***

Descartes was a hard man to like. He combined haughty arrogance about the brilliance of his writing with extreme sensitivity to criticism and a disregard for the work of almost everyone else.

He dismissed even great thinkers and seemed completely uninterested in any book, by any author, on any subject. 'Although when one publishes a book one is always very anxious to know what readers say about it, ' he once wrote, 'I can assure you that it concerns me very little. Indeed, I think I know the ability of most of those who pass for learned so well that I would think little of my views if they approved them.'

He was no more interested in people's company than their writing. When he returned from his early travels, he lived like a recluse, moving constantly from house to house, town to town, in a bid to be left alone.

In the end, he started to conceal his location from even trusted friends and put misleading return addresses on his correspondence. His acquaintances, such as they were, began referring to him as Monsieur d'Escartes: Mr Evasion. His few friendships almost always ended in bitterness and recrimination.

Insofar as he kept contact with anyone, it was Marin Mersenne, a French mathematician who acted as an intellectual hub for the scientific minds of Europe. As Descartes became more and more reclusive, Mersenne served, to all intents and purposes, as his emissary on earth. He forwarded his correspondence, told him of the current debates among learned men in France, and helped him publish his books.

They were living through a period of great change, where rationality was starting to challenge the old authority structures.

Since around the end of the 12th Century, the ideas of the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle had begun to meld with Catholicism and fossilise into dogma. Subjects like epistemology, the study of knowledge, and metaphysics, the study of reality, had narrowed into unchallengeable truisms. Those who questioned them too forcefully were accused of heresy. Religious authorities used torture and execution to keep people in line.

Then something broke. It started with the work of Nicolaus Copernicus, a Polish polymath. His book in 1543, On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres, rejected the idea that Earth was the centre of the universe. In fact, the Earth was just a part of a solar system. The other planets in the sky were not circling around it. They, like the Earth, were circling the sun.

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Information

Nationalism is marching across the world.
Nowhere is immune to its advance. Everywhere must come to terms with the threat it poses.
In the last few years, nationalism has become the driving force behind the Republican party in the United States, the Conservative party in Great Britain, the Bharatiya Janata party in India, Likud in Israel, the Alliance for Brazil in Brazil and PDP–Laban in the Philippines. It conquered Hungary under Fidesz and Poland under Law and Justice. It dominated political debate in Italy through the Lega, Austria through the Freedom Party, Bulgaria through Attack and Estonia through the EKRE.
Sometimes it loses a battle. Sometimes it wins. In some countries, it takes over the government in its entirety. In others, it acts as a junior partner in a coalition. Often it does not even need power. It simply dictates the political narrative from opposition.
Wherever nationalism establishes a position, it transmits its narrative, which consists of six lies, or a combination of them.
The first lie is that you do not exist as an individual. Nationalism claims that society is composed of two groups, who are in a perpetual conflict with one another: the people and the elite.
In reality, neither of these groups exist. There is no such thing as the people. Individuals do not compose a homogeneous mass. They do not speak with one voice. They have different values, interests and eccentricities. They are not singular, but plural. 8The elite is also a fiction. There is no one centre of power, not in politics, economics, culture or anywhere else. The world is composed of distinct clusters of power, which sometimes flow together and sometimes apart.
The notion of the people versus the elite sounds like a challenge to power, but that is a misdirection. In fact, it consolidates power. It does this by creating a moral through-line, a fairy story, by which the nationalists can claim unchallengeable legitimacy on behalf of those they claim to represent. In their eyes, only the votes of the people who agree with them count as democracy. The rest of the population is ignored.
This process warps and diminishes what it is possible for humanity to be. Nationalism pretends that we have only one identity, that we cannot be more than one thing at once. It makes us uniform and categorised, a part of the mass: an undifferentiated component of the whole.
The second lie is that the world is simple. This lie proceeds logically from the first. If the world is split between two groups, instead of being a vast and diffuse network of individual and organisational interests, it follows that all that is wrong is the result of the elite and all that is right is the result of the people.
The notion of complexity is thereby eradicated from existence. The great ecosystems of the world – from trading networks, to law, finance and sovereignty – are wiped away. They are replaced by childish assessments of problems and infantile proposals for their solution.
These solutions never work, because they do not address the real-world circumstances which caused them. But when they fail, as they invariably do, the blame is not placed on nationalism. It is placed on a conspiracy of the elite. Nationalism therefore works as its own intellectual consolidation and enforcement program. The things which disprove it are used to justify it. The events which go against it are taken as evidence of its necessity.
The third lie is that you must not question. To speak out, to interrogate, to inquire, is to reject the purity of the people. It is to place yourself above them.9
Independent minds are a threat to power. Their mere existence disproves nationalism’s world view and their conclusions undermine its policy platform. They are a living refutation of the notion of a binary class system of the people and the elite. It is therefore necessary that they should be denigrated and abused. They are branded enemies of the people.
The fourth lie is that institutions are engaged in a conspiracy against the public. On a national level, these institutions include the courts, the parliament or Congress, the press, charities and research institutes. On an international level, they include the United Nations, the European Union, the World Health Organisation, and the World Trade Organisation.
By their nature, institutions limit the power of government. They scrutinise it, balance it, separate it, hold it to account, block it from taking illegal actions and force it to abide by democratic standards. Internationally, they solve problems countries cannot handle on their own, demonstrating the capacity of humankind to co-operate across national borders.
The narrative of the people versus the elite does not allow for that degree of organisation. If the people are pure and the nationalists represent them, then there can be no legitimate restrictions on their expression. So the institutions are attacked, at all levels, at all times. First they are discredited. Then they are disabled. Then they are destroyed.
The fifth lie is that difference is bad. This applies to people from other countries, or with different coloured skin, or sexuality, or clothing, or language. This view is entailed by the concept of the people as a singular, virtuous body. All outside entities are, by definition, a challenge to its purity.
Nationalism asserts that you should be afraid of those who are not like you. Minorities are treated as a threat to the integrity of the people, rather than proof of the richness of human experience. The language it speaks is of uniformity, conformity – the machine over the organism.10
The sixth lie is that there is no such thing as truth. A commitment to objective fact is treated as the mewling of the elite. Evidence and reason, the qualities that allow humanity to aspire towards certainty, are dismissed as plots against the people. Statistical authorities, academics, economic analysts, trading experts and investigative journalists are categorised as political opponents.
This is because truth is a challenge to power. If voters base their views on verifiable data, the nationalist narrative can be contradicted. Those who live under its shadow are therefore encouraged to process information according to their tribal identity rather than its veracity, to close themselves off from anything that might challenge their faith.
The lies of the nationalist movement range from the gigantic to the trivial, from the systemic to the opportunistic. This disinformation is not just a means to an end. It is an end itself. It serves two distinct agendas. Firstly it attempts to redefine day-to-day events in whichever way most suits the nationalist narrative. Secondly it works to degrade the entire notion of empirical reality. If nationalists can lie without consequence, the concepts of truth and falsity fall into irrelevance. And then there will be no checks on their power whatsoever.
There is a system of thought which understands what is happening to us and offers the means to resist it. Its name is liberalism. It is the single most radical political programme in the history of humankind.
This is not because of its conclusions or its tactics. It is certainly not because of the political parties that bear its name. It is because of its unit of analysis.
Liberalism is the struggle for the freedom of the individual. When it is truly followed, it can never be the tool of the powerful. It can never be used to oppress. It can only liberate.
It rejects the false choice of the people versus the elite. It is committed to empirical reality. It stands up for institutions, and diversity, and, 11chief among all values, the liberty of every person to engage in their own act of self-creation. To be who they want to be. To live where they want to live. To love who they want to love. To do as they please, with the only restraints on their actions entailed by the protection of liberty for others.
It pursues freedom, because freedom makes all other values possible.
Liberalism does not have a party line. It does not worship leaders. It is a living, breathing thing, a constantly evolving set of questions and answers. It is the rebel thought, the view of the world which springs from within – rather than the one imposed from above.
There are countless ways to fight back against what is happening to us, but they all start with this one moment: of understanding what liberalism is. Of knowing what we fight for and why.
This book tells the story of liberalism, from its birth in the age of science to its new status as a resistance movement against nationalism.
It is a story of war, romance, economics, eccentricity and struggle. It is the story of a single idea, which grew more complex and daring over the centuries, and of the dangers and tragedies that followed from its articulation. It is the story of some deeply unusual, stubborn, free-thinking people, who lived life on their own terms and devised a system that would allow others to do likewise.
It is also an account of how it faltered – how a combination of economics, culture and technology weakened it and brought us to the situation we are in today. It’s through understanding that process that we can repair liberalism, gather ourselves and undo the damage that is being inflicted upon us.
This is how we fight back. Not by compromising with nationalism. Not by respecting it or getting so lost in our ideological confusion that we allow it to prosper. We fight back by rediscovering our principles. And that means going right back, to the dawn of science, to see where the dream of liberty first took hold.
On 10th November 1619, René Descartes had a nightmare. He was walking down a road in a violent storm and shadowy figures were following him. He couldn’t keep a straight line. A weakness was affecting his right side and driving him constantly to the left. Strong gusts of wind kept spinning him around and preventing him from getting a sure footing.
Ahead of him he could make out some gates and beyond that a church where he could flee the storm. But even when he went in the courtyard, the wind kept throwing him off balance. He saw a man he recognised and tried to say something to him. It was impossible. He couldn’t stand upright. Then, slowly, other figures began to appear, all of them steady on their feet, unaffected by the weather. And they stared down at him as he scrambled in the dirt.
He woke up. It was the dead of night. A fire crackled in the corner of the room. Descartes was inexplicably terrified. For hours he lay in bed and there in the darkness, half-mad with anxiety, he started to develop a terrible thought: what if there was an evil demon watching him, putting these nightmares in his head?
He prayed. And then, finally, he fell asleep again.
As soon as he lost consciousness there was a loud explosion. He snapped back awake and stared at the fire. Had it crackled loudly? Or did that just happen in his mind? He felt more terror, more of the anxiety of the night-time, and then eventually drifted off again.13
He was standing by a table with two books on it. He opened one of them and saw the line: ‘Quod vitae sectabor iter?’ – what path in life shall I follow? A man appeared and they discussed the books for a while. Then the books and the man faded.
But Descartes did not wake up. He stood there, by the table, and realised something. He was dreaming. And then he started to interpret the dream, to think it through, while he was still in it. When the analysis ended, he woke up.
These dreams would come to define Descartes’ life. He became concerned with the gap between dream and reality, the thin line between being awake – existing in a real physical space with ordered thoughts – and the crazed world of dreaming, where everything is bizarre and volatile.
The aspect of dreams which seems to have disturbed Descartes was how life-like they felt. If dreams seemed so real at the time, he thought, then who was to say that the things we thought or perceived when we were awake were any more reliable? For all he knew, the evil demon he imagined that night was real. It could be putting thoughts into his mind when he was awake as easily as it could while he was asleep.
Descartes didn’t believe there was an evil demon. What concerned him was that he could not prove – utterly, without any trace of doubt – that there wasn’t. And if he couldn’t prove that, then he couldn’t really prove anything. Perhaps green was red. Perhaps two plus two equalled five. Perhaps the bed he slept in wasn’t real. If you followed this line of reasoning far enough, the world fell down: maths, geometry, physics, politics, religion, civilisation. Everything was built on shaky foundations.
Descartes, an aimless 23-year-old Frenchman, decided to dedicate his life to finding certainty. He roamed the world, speaking with scientists and theologians, trying to find bits of knowledge, priceless slivers of certainty, which he could be absolutely sure were true. He was engaged in an act of existential quarantine: finding and isolating facts that someone could believe without any shadow of doubt.14
‘During the following nine years I did nothing other than wander around the world trying to be a spectator rather than an actor in the dramas that unfold there,’ he wrote. ‘I rooted out of my mind all the errors that could have slipped into it.’ Then, eventually, he settled down and started to write philosophy. It was not until he was 45, in a work called Meditations on First Philosophy, that he properly grappled with the dream and its implications. It is arguably the most important book ever written, but not for the reason Descartes thought. He intended for it to be an affirmation of religio...

Table of contents

Citation styles for How To Be A Liberal
APA 6 Citation
Dunt, I. (2020). How To Be A Liberal ([edition unavailable]). Canbury Press. Retrieved from https://www.perlego.com/book/3040264/how-to-be-a-liberal-the-story-of-freedom-and-the-fight-for-its-survival-pdf (Original work published 2020)
Chicago Citation
Dunt, Ian. (2020) 2020. How To Be A Liberal. [Edition unavailable]. Canbury Press. https://www.perlego.com/book/3040264/how-to-be-a-liberal-the-story-of-freedom-and-the-fight-for-its-survival-pdf.
Harvard Citation
Dunt, I. (2020) How To Be A Liberal. [edition unavailable]. Canbury Press. Available at: https://www.perlego.com/book/3040264/how-to-be-a-liberal-the-story-of-freedom-and-the-fight-for-its-survival-pdf (Accessed: 15 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Dunt, Ian. How To Be A Liberal. [edition unavailable]. Canbury Press, 2020. Web. 15 Oct. 2022.