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). 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, 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.
 Leo Strauss, Liberalism Ancient and Modern (University of Chicago Press, 1995)http://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/L/bo3627385.html
 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