Strauss, Weimar and the Crisis of the UK liberal democracy

Benedict de Spinoza: moral problems and our em...

Benedict de Spinoza: moral problems and our emotional responses to them should be reasoned from the perspective of eternity. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Last night I sat down with Strauss’s Liberalism Ancient and Modern to read the chapter on Spinoza (Preface to Spinoza’s Critique of Religion).[1] I did this to improve my understanding of Strauss’s approach to the tension between reason and revelation for some research on ISIS/ISIL challenges the West and its idea of liberalism.

As the UK had voted on 23 June 2016 to leave the EU, the vote and its outcome had been on my mind. I live in the UK on a EU passport. With that vote, my immigration status became radically uncertain. There was a larger problem though as in the months, weeks, and days leading up to the referendum, the far right extremist groups had become more active. The far right political parties, those that have registered to be legal parties, had been particularly active and vociferous on social media about immigrants, foreigners and traitors.

The far right animus appeared to crest with the murder of Jo Cox MP an outspoken supporter of the Remain campaign and champion for immigrants. Her attacker was a far right activist. Although he was quickly announced as being mentally ill, he was also arraigned under the Terrorism Protocols, which suggest that this was not being treated as a random event. In any case, the case was quickly overshadowed by the vote, which followed a few days, and the outcome.

In the days after the election, the anti-immigrant views which included EU nationals, intensified. People have been racially abused, far right posters have increased, and people have been attacked for appearing or acting “foreign”. Although the police and the government have taken steps to reassure the public by investigating reported incidents, a general fear has developed within immigrant communities and within families of foreign nationals. Even though one high profile case was quickly addressed where the culprits were arrested shortly after a video of their racial abuse was posted online, the attacks have continued and in some cases intensified. While the UK remains uncertain as to whether and how it will implement the Article 50 decision, the immigrants and foreigners remain caught in the fear generated by uncertainty.

What is apparent as many commentators have noted is the UK is in the midst of a serious constitutional crisis. Both of the main political parties are in the midst of leadership crisis. The Conservative party appears to be choosing between a future PM who will leave the EU quickly and one who will leave it slowly, if at all. Whoever is the next PM, they will have to harvest the bitter crop sown by the referendum since neither side will be satisfied with the outcome. For the Remain supporters, the old order will have been lost in an uncertain political landscape fraught with severe economic consequences. For the Leave campaign, the benefits do not yet, if they ever will, outweigh the costs for their goal was to unshackle themselves from the European political rights regime. Neither campaign will be fully satisfied for what has been promised to this point cannot be delivered. In that dissatisfaction, fear becomes hatred, and hatred becomes violence as the more extreme elements on the right are embolden to act against foreigners. Even as the crisis intensifies, the candidates for the leader of the Conservative Party are being purposefully vague about whether EU nationals, even those married to UK citizens, will be allowed to stay.

With that prelude, I was struck by Strauss’s description of Weimar. As I read the first several paragraphs, I replaced Germany with the UK and the text came alive to the situation I saw unfolding around me. The UK is not a liberal democracy. It has the veneer of a liberal democracy, but it is a constitutional monarchy with an imperial core that resents liberalism. Many of the Conservatives campaigned to repeal the Human Rights Act, which is a direct and clear descendent of the Rights of Man as brought forth by the French Revolution of 1789. One can understand that the UK Crown remains firmly opposed to such a radical idea since it means its extinction for it cannot exist as an imperial entity, where the Monarch rules by hereditary right, and accede to the idea of universal human rights which invalidate the inequality of a hereditary ruler. The Conservatives resent Liberalism’s intrusion into UK society and all that it brings for it attacks their customs, culture, and conservatism. The EU exit is seen by some as a first step to restoring the British rights and values opposed to European rights. As read through Strauss’s work, the UK is experiencing a crisis of its claims to be a liberal democracy.

In his work, Preface to Spinoza’s Critique of Religion, Strauss describes the crisis of the Weimar Republic. In the first two pages, he describes the philosophical beliefs and historical events that contributed to the Weimar Republic’s collapse. He describes the details by which Germany’s liberal democracy’s internal contradiction, liberalism inherent inability to solve the Jewish problem[2], showed its limit when faced with extremist political groups bent on destroying it.

Even though the UK is not the Weimar Republic, what Strauss describes offers a powerful insight into the crisis of the UK’s liberal democracy. If we change the Jewish problem to the immigrant problem and modify some of the words within the first two pages, one could almost believe that Strauss was writing about the UK in 2016 instead of Weimar in 1933.

The following, taken from the first two pages of the article, are a paraphrase of key passages. pp224-225. I have italicized the words that were changed.

At the time, the United Kingdom was a liberal democracy. The regime was known as the Remain campaign.

In the eyes of Leave, Remain stood for the leanings to the EU, if not for the inner dependence of the English on the French and above all on the Germans, and a corresponding aversion to everything foreign.

By linking itself to Remain the United Kingdom liberal democracy proclaimed its moderate, non-radical character: its resolve to keep a balance between the dedication to the principles of 1789 and the dedication to the highest British tradition.

Remain was weak. It had a single moment of strength, if not of greatness: its strong reaction to the murder of the MP Jo Cox in June 2016.

The vote for Leave showed everyone who had eyes to see that the Liberal Democracy only had a sort time to live: the old England (Leave) was stronger in will than the new UK (Remain).

The victory of Leave became necessary in the UK for the same reason for which the victory of Communism had become necessary in Russia: the man who had by far the strongest will or single-mindedness, the greatest ruthlessness, daring, and power over his following, and the best judgement about the strength of the various forces in the immediately relevant political field was the leader of the revolution.

Half-Marxists trace the weakness of the Remain campaign to the power of monopoly capitalism and the economic crisis of 2008, but there were other liberal democracies which were and remained strong although they had to contend with the same difficulties.

It would be more reasonable to refer to the fact that the Remain campaign had come into being through the defeat of the No campaign in 1972, although this answer merely leads to the further question as to why England had not succeeded in becoming a liberal democracy under more auspicious circumstances (for instance 1688, 1789), that is why liberal democracy had always been weak in England.

Above all, the radicalization and deepening of neo-liberalism by Western economists culminated in the thought of the Leave campaign which legitimated a kind of constitutional monarchy which is based on the recognition of the rights of man and in which government is in the hands of highly educated civil servants appointed by a hereditary monarch… But Burke prepared not only the response to the French Revolution and English Philosophy but also that extreme reaction to the French Revolution which is English romanticism.





[1] Leo Strauss, Liberalism Ancient and Modern (University of Chicago Press, 1995)

[2] Here is how Strauss describes the Jewish Problem.

“To realize that the Jewish problem is insoluble means never to forget the truth proclaimed by Zionism regarding the limitations of liberalism. Liberalism stands and falls by the distinction between state and society or by the recognition of a private sphere, protected by the law but impervious to the law, with the understand that, above all, religion as particular religion belongs to the private sphere. As certainly as the liberal state will not “discriminate” against its Jewish citizens, as certainly is it constitutionally unable or unwilling to prevent “discrimination” against Jews on the part of individual and groups. To recognize a private sphere in the sense indicated means to permit private “discrimination,” to protect it, and thus in fact to foster it. The liberal state cannot provide a solution to the Jewish problem, for such a problem would require the legal prohibition against every kind of “discrimination,” that is, the abolition of the private sphere, the denial of the difference between state and society, the destruction of the liberal state.” P.230

About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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11 Responses to Strauss, Weimar and the Crisis of the UK liberal democracy

  1. Ben says:

    What utter nonsense in this article.

  2. liz727 says:

    I thought it very interesting, thank you.

  3. Colin Honnor says:

    Lawrence, not nonsense, but the constitutional crisis will on!y be averted by severance of the UK into a federal construct as the Salisbury group proposes, ironically just the reverse of Weimar’s transition from Federation to 3rd Reich!
    Spinoza is highly pertinent….

    • Thanks for the reference to the Salibury Group. Such a change would be a post-Monarchical UK. I would not want anyone to think that the UK was susceptible to a Hitler.Far from it since the UK has a strong Monarchy to avoid such a debased situation. The descent into dissolution will take a different a form likely to be with a UK flavour than Germanic one.

  4. khittel says:

    Respectfully, I need some clarification in re: “The liberal state cannot provide a solution to the Jewish problem, for such a problem would require the legal prohibition against every kind of “discrimination,” that is, the abolition of the private sphere, the denial of the difference between state and society, the destruction of the liberal state.”

    The legal prohibition against every kind of discrimination — or certainly most every kind of legal discrimination in the US — however imperfect and continually embattled — does not abolish the private sphere or deny the difference between state and society. Is it not the specific intention of the separation of church and state in the US to allow (no, not allow but enable) the flourishing of maximum liberty in the private sphere and, as well, the establishment of the liberal state?

    Whatever is the “Jewish problem” in the US — is there a “Jewish problem” in the US? — it certainly isn’t what Strauss had in mind in re: Germany. And isn’t that at least largely because of separation of church and state and all it implies?

    • I think what Strauss meant was the the liberal state is predicated on the idea of the rule of law. In that role, to fulfill that promise, it has to push the law into all areas of life. As a result, what might have been private, thus impervious to the law, is made public so that the law can apply. The recent case in the United States where marriage was redefined by the law is such an example. The liberal state has intruded into the private sphere to stop “discrimination”.
      As for the separation of church and state, the US provides the best bonding of the two, by keeping them institutionally and politically separate, so that they can reinforce each other. Political and religious freedom go together. Thus, to the extent that the state intrudes on the religious sphere, the private sphere, it renders freedom nugatory. We may not see the effects immediately but the long term effect is to undermine another private space.

      However, we have to understand Strauss’s comments in context. Weimar failed on its promise and that promise is what made its failure that much more bitter and spectacular. Jews had believed in Weimar’s offer of religious tolerance and euality which made them that much more vulnerable to the horrors that followed according to Strauss. Spinoza’s solution, to remove religion from the public space to the private space was devoured as it relied on reason, but reason became suicidal in its inability to confront the demonic force from the extremists on the right and the left who cooperated to destroy it. Since reason believed that any differences could be worked out reasonably.
      As for the Jewish problem, it existed until such time the new jewish state, Israel, emerged. However, that founding has its own problems for Judaism which Strauss thought would be problematic. However, that is a longer discussion beyond this essay or this comment. 🙂

  5. Colin Honnor says:

    What Strauss calls radical uncertainty Spinoza calls revelatory intuitionalism, whereby the apprehended is translated into its private experience.
    And here the creative or destructive tensions between the private and the political begin for how are men without hope or money to live?
    It is little use attacking Otherness rather it should be embraced. So there is no “problem” but men and women finding a home wherever that may be.
    The danger comes from collective insecurity, of the psyche and of government. When the two contend then ideas dissipate with tragic results.

  6. Ian says:

    Avoiding a purely academic approach. There is a striking alignment of many factors in writings from the beginning to the middle of the 20th century, covering the causes of the rise of fascist ideologies and their eventual domination, which have become more visible over at least the last decade. A note previously made to myself observes that “Ignoring the obvious prejudicial biases of that age there are many parallels between that era and the beginning of 21st century.”

    An ongoing concern has to be that things could progress into reality based merely upon political rhetoric, and reported sentiment will become construed as a real sentiment. (If you ever read Harold Wrights 2004 A Short History of Progress and relate his Progress Traps to politics it would be interesting to hear your views. I have not myself read it yet.)

    Although born british, many of my own recent experiences reflect yours and seem to concur with those of Matthew Paris as certainly since the Brexit vote Britain is being presented as a bigoted intolerant and nationalistic nation by the few apparently ordinary people within the UK speaking with me directly(am away on the continent touring), whereas before that vote similar issues were more frequently muted by a more tolerant approach with occasional attempts to understand other views. This does not appear to be merely the representation of a polarization of views creating a protective stance for particular social boundaries, a pure selfishness is exhibited within the individual perspectives which as expressed seem to have become linked within more entrenched social group and nationalistic perspectives; Many of which seem more reflective of the past than any present situation. Most deny any wider harm, so often no consideration of other areas is given beyond how the UK is still able to gain global attention, so any consequential moral/ethical conflict, which could beneficially assist, is avoided.

    Following brexit attempting to understand the financial arena’s contrasting stance provides a reality check – see graph to directly compare the Euro and GBP currency performance against the USD over the last six months or so. A key starting date in considering those charts would be from 20 February 2016. It looks to my untrained eye as though the Euro was the least affected. And that interestingly links in to observations above when note is taken of the purely internally focused financial benefits which at the moment continue to be reported in the UK media.

    So, do you consider that those UK tendencies towards Liberality are being excised as a consequence of an inherent competitiveness being exercised in the political arena using a type of nationalistic jingoism in negotiations with the EU during an extended period of global recession? If so will England v Scotland (May v Sturgeon) do any more than recreate and strengthen those same difficulties causing the UK to then lag on the global as well as european levels of social awareness if the brexit button is eventually pushed?

  7. Pingback: Morning Ed: Britain {2016.07.18.M} | Ordinary Times

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