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J.S. Mill: Equiliberal

“For [Patrick] Deneen, the most nefarious influence in the history of liberal political thought is John Stuart Mill, son of Enlightenment radical James Mill, godson of utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham, and the author of the canonical 1859 liberal text, On Liberty.”

Shortchange for Regime Change 

A specter is haunting Europe. No, a specter is haunting the worldthe specter of illiberal democracy. In the space of just over 30 years, liberal triumph has given way to liberal decline. Liberal hubristhe confident announcement that History had ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991—has succumbed to liberal despair, the candid acknowledgment that if liberalism is to survive then it has to change, and it has to change quickly. 

For some, principally its opponents, liberalism is dead already. It died when liberals exchanged tolerance for tyranny in the name of tolerance itself. The market fundamentalism of “neoliberalism,” the hegemonic form of liberalism in the world since the revolution of President Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, was a self-inflicted injury. Liberal societies, we know from the interwar years, cannot sustain vast economic inequalities without breaking down. Yet, the political and social instability experienced across the world in the wake of the global economic crisis of 2007-8the chaos incurred by the debt crisis in Greece, the impassioned Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom, and the election of an unabashedly populist President Donald Trump in the United States of America, for examplewas a result of greed and myopia rather than active self-abuse. The solipsistic individualism of “progressive” liberalism was, by contrast, self-immolation. Liberalism self-consciously destroyed itself in the 2010s and 20s for not being liberal enough. So, at least, the postliberal critics of liberalism argue. 

According to the American political theorist, Patrick Deneen, one of liberalism’s fiercest and most uncompromising adversaries, it is time then for “regime change.”  It is time for a postliberal mode of governance, based on stability, order, and continuity, and the reconciliation of “the few” and “the many.” Liberalism in both its economic and “progressive” guises must be overthrown. Insensitive to bonds of obligation and the common good, the corrupt and self-serving meritocratic elites who currently rule must give way to reactionary national aristocracies attentive to the instinctive conservatism of the demos. Or so the argument goes. 

For Deneen, the most nefarious influence in the history of liberal political thought is John Stuart Mill, son of Enlightenment radical James Mill, godson of utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham, and the author of the canonical 1859 liberal text, On Liberty. It is Mill’s advocacy of “progress” and individual sovereignty, which“inevitably”brought Western society to its present impasse. Western society as a whole, Deneen asserts with conviction, has been “transformed in perfect conformity to Millian ambitions.” Disdainful of conservatives and contemptuous of “ordinary people,” Mill sought nothing less than the destruction of Western traditions, Deneen claims, especially the traditions of classical antiquity and Christianity. Mill’s “harm principle,” which sanctions coercion only to “prevent harm to others,” has been causing harm ever since it was first formulated in the mid-nineteenth century. 

Whatever the merits or otherwise of Deneen’s critique of contemporary liberalism, his portrait of Mill is a portrait few actual Mill scholars would recognize. 

Procrustean Rule, Ok?

Far from being unduly hostile to conservatism, Mill drew substantially on conservative and reactionary thinkers to formulate his own distinct brand of liberalism between, roughly, 1829-30 and the year of his death, 1873. He was “delighted” by the confirmed Tory Walter Scott’s novels as a child. Reading the Burkean conservative William Wordsworth’s poetry was “an important event” in his life. And he derived a huge amount from engaging with the work of Wordsworth’s fellow Lake poet, the romantic conservative Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Coleridge’s disciples, the founder of Christian socialism F. D. Maurice and the Tory radical John Sterling. Indeed, Thomas Carlyle, the most vituperative antiliberal of the agedescribed by one scholar as a “prophet of fascism” no lessproclaimed Mill “a new Mystic” after reading Mill’s 1831 essay “Spirit of the Age.” In his 1873 Autobiography, Mill asserted that Carlyle’s earlier writings made a decisive impact on his “opinions and character.” 

Likewise, spurning flattery and idealization, Mill commended the “complete straightforwardness” of the British working classes, defending in parliament their right to assemble in Hyde Park to protest the dropping of William Gladstone’s Reform Bill in 1866. Mill refused to join the primarily proletarian Reform League chiefly because it did not openly advocate for the enfranchisement of women, as well as for men. During the American Civil War, he praised the Lancashire cotton spinners and weavers, too, for their “good sense and forbearance,” contrasting their support for Abraham Lincoln’s Northern Union with “the rush of nearly the whole upper and middle classes” to defend the Southern slave states. Blind or indifferent to the cause of evil the Confederacy violently upheld, the British middle and upper classeswith the exception of a smattering of intellectualsshared none of the courage and insight of their so-called inferiors, Mill held. 

Reared according to the moral inculcations of the “Socratici viri” (justice, temperance, veracity, perseverance, readiness to encounter pain, regard for the public good, estimation of people according to their merits, a life of exertion, as opposed to self-indulgent sloth etc.), Mill, similarly, never ceased to find inspiration in the ancient world, and he described Jesus of Nazareth’s golden rulethe instruction, namely, to do as one would be done by and to love one’s neighbor as oneselfas “the complete spirit of the ethics of utility,”  which he subscribed to. 

Finally, Mill repudiated Lord Byron precisely because of Byron’s supposedly ruinous influence on individual character. Like contemporary liberals such as Francis Fukuyama, who are concerned that, recently, we have begun to abuse our freedoms, Mill, too, believed that the doctrine of self-development was often pushed to barely defensible extremes. 

The Restoration…of Balance

An advocate of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s notion of “many-sidedness,” Mill, in other words, was a many-sided man and thinker. The political ideas he espoused were a combination of liberal and conservative principles. In fact, retrospectively, Mill described himself as a socialist. Disapproving of state socialismoutside of state ownership of natural monopolies, such as land, gas, water, and railwayshe was receptive to the non-utopian socialism of Robert Owen, Charles Fourier, and Louis Blanc. His political thinking as a young man was transformed, indeed, above all, by the disciples of Henri de Saint-Simon, who rejected the principle of hereditary property. 

Mill, however, was only ever a “qualified” socialist, too unsentimental and ready to recognize the benefits of competition to give it his full support. While competition undoubtedly had “its evils,” it kept the price of commodities low and the quality of commodities high. Moreover, where there is no competition, there is monopoly, and “monopoly, in all its forms, is the taxation of the industrious for the support of indolence, if not plunder.” 

In truth, Mill was neither a liberal (or conservative liberal), nor a socialist. He was what we might call an equiliberal, a proponent of balance, of harmonybalance in society and balance in the individual psyche. Mill advanced a neo-Roman conception of liberty, which foregrounded intelligence, independence, and virtue. Following Saint-Simon and his most talented follower Auguste Comte, Mill endorsed the idea of a Religion of Humanity, a secular form of worship which placed the conceptual triad of altruism, order, and progress at its core. And Mill argued that the best state for human nature is the stationary state, where no one is poor and no one desires to be richer. 

The last time a specter haunted Europenamely the specter of communism, or rather nationalism and thoughtful and philosophic socialismin 1848, Mill heartily welcomed its appearance. If Mill was alive today he would be horrified by the presence of the new specter of “aristopopulism.” He would be even more horrified still to find out that his name had been attached to the coarse, acquisitive, and self-loving species of liberalism that has, unintentionally, brought it into being. Instead of blaming Mill for enabling the rise of illiberal democracy we should recognize that, in reality, Mill’s equiliberalism gives us the best chance of exorcizing it, as “Pope and Tsar, Metternich and Guizot, French Radicals and German police-spies” once exorcized the equiliberal-adjacent experiments in cooperation Mill applauded so enthusiastically almost two hundred years ago. 

Self-Dependence vs Dependence and Protection

As his relationship with Carlyle attests, Mill himself was no stranger to romantic paternalists who sought to put the clock back to a time when the rich were, ostensibly, “in loco parentis to the poor, guiding and restraining them like children.” He even found the picture of society they presented, to some extent, seductive. He knew, though, it was fictitious, superannuated, and, ultimately, patronizing too. 

Fictitious, because the conduct of “affectionate tutelage” they invoked belonged, at best, to a tiny number of individuals. For the most partindeed overwhelminglythe privileged and powerful used their power to further their own selfish interests, despising, rather than lovingly caring for, the laboring classes beneath them. Superannuated, because, protected by law, the poor no longer needed chivalric aristocrats to protect them from danger. (On the contrary, protectorsoften husbands and parentswere, above all, what they needed protection from.) And patronizing, because the poor did not seek protection, either; they sought dignity, a fair portion of the wealth they helped to create, a say in how it was made, and the right to participate on an equal basis in the governance of the countries to which they belonged. 

Rejecting the “leading strings” in which they had been placed, in which the paternalists would place them again, the poor, in short, sought justice and self-government. Always generous to his opponents, granting, in this instance, that loyalty and chivalry were principles which were once useful and noble, Mill was adamant that the laboring classes were right to demand individual sovereignty.

The corollary of Mill’s open mind was a cautious dispositionthe recognition that every thesis had its antithesis and that there was usually an element of truth in both. If the aspiration then for a condition of self-dependence was legitimate, it might, all the same, Mill conceded, take some time to realize. The laboring classes, like their employers, weren’t fully rational yet. They needed to acquire the virtues of republican independencea form of independence which is civic-minded and sustainable rather than selfish and quixotic. Mill had no doubt they soon would obtain the requisite qualities, however: first, through associating in partnership with their employers and second, and better still, by associating among themselves in cooperative corporations. 

The Cooperative Principle

Profit-sharing and piece-work gave workers a stake in the firms which employed them. Mill argued that tying the economic fortunes of the workers to the success of the corporations by whom they were employed helped promote their intelligence, autonomy, and moral elevation in so far as it encouraged the workers’ initiative, their interest in their employment, and their sense of mutuality. Workers, however, were still subordinate to a capitalist or a boss under these arrangements. They did not have a voice in management. They did not elect and remove their managers themselves. And they did not collectively own the capital by which the firm carried on its operations. Even in these kinds of partnerships then (Mill invoked the Whitwood and Methley collieries of Messrs Briggs, but, today, we might think of Waitrose or Huawei) workers were fundamentally unfree and they suffered, accordingly, a variety of minor and major indignities, indignitiesuncertainty, irregularity, impotence, maltreatmentthey were exempt from in cooperative production. 

Amassing their own capital, imposing their own rules, and agreeing to obey them voluntarily, cooperation affirmed the self-worth of the cooperators; it was inherently dignifying. Cooperative labor, Mill maintained, was unalienated labor. The workers were in control of what they produced and how they produced it, and if they were not it was not for want of participation in the decision-making process. For that reason it was more productive than labor undertaken in conventional, individually-managed, primarily profit-seeking firms. Cooperative producers, therefore, with their capacity to compete with, and beat, their rivals in the free market, had a promising future. Indeed, by its own demonstrable success and by sheer force of examplefor who thereafter would consent to work all their lives for wages alone once a more desirable and advantageous alternative existed?the principle of cooperation, Mill prognosticated, was destined to gradually supplant the capitalist profit motive. Its salutary rise, furthermore, would be accompanied by neither violence nor spoliation. 

Indulging momentarily in his 1848 work Principles of Political Economy in a spot of utopian thinkingor probably covert encouragement, rather (for Mill, a dancer with words and ideas in the Nietzschean mode, frequently exaggerated for effect)owners of capital would choose to terminate the ongoing class war, he averred, finding the new situation to their own advantage in the end. The choice, after all, was this: comply and assimilate or simply be outdone and defeated. From the multiplication of cooperative associations Mill expected nothing less than a “moral revolution in society.” A keen student of the murderous and patricidal French revolution of 1789, a revolution in public ethics was the only kind of revolution he could conscionably countenance. It would affect, at any rate, those at the top as much as those at the bottom, who instigated the revolution in the first place. 

For Mill, human nature was plastic. Human beings were neither inherently sinful and selfish, nor inherently selfless and decent. They were adaptive, rather, and thus capable of immense evil and immense good. “The deep rooted selfishness which forms the general character of the existing state of society, is so deeply rooted,” he wrote, “only because the whole course of existing institutions tends to foster it.” Ancient institutions, he notedbetraying his strong predilection for the Greeks and Romans once morewere more benign, since they routinely called on individuals to do things for the public without reward. Eschewing in advance the property-spreading doctrine of distributism, which emerged from Catholic social teaching in the late-nineteenth century, “the aim of improvement,” Mill argued, “should be not solely to place human beings in a condition in which they will be able to do without one another, but to enable them to work with or for one another in relations not involving dependence.” 

Cooperation accomplished that aim. The economic system of equiliberalism, it is compatible with republican liberty in a way that capitalism fundamentally is not. 

Equiliberalism in Labour

Romanticizing somewhat, but not wildly, Mill enumerated the benefits of cooperation as follows. First, it healed “the standard feud between capital and labour.” Second, it transformed human life “from a conflict of classes struggling for opposite interests, to a friendly rivalry in the pursuit of a good common to all.” Third, it elevated the dignity of labor. Fourth, it furnished “a new sense of security and independence in the labouring classes.” And fifth, it converted “each human being’s daily occupation into a school of the social sympathies and the practical intelligence.” 

Besides the evidence of successful cooperative associations in Britain, France, Germany, Piedmont, and Switzerland Mill himself provided in his published writings, if proof was needed that the architect of equiliberalism had not succumbed to an Eden-like dreamworld, then the experience of the Mondragon Corpóration in Spain’s Basque Country today, an employer of 70,000 workers, supplies it. Established in 1956, consistently putting “people over capital,” it continues to prosper as an efficacious business, turning over more than €10bn in revenues a year. Coupling competition with reciprocity and responsibilityeffectually harmonizing private and public interestscooperation does indeed work. 

Cooperation is precisely the kind of alternative to the technocratic iteration of social democracy characteristic in Britain, and elsewhere, in the post-War years that the political theorist, Maurice Glasman, a proponent too of non-domination and subsidiarity, a paradoxical politics of the common good, set Blue Labour up to represent. Yet, despite the striking affinity between Millian equiliberalism and the Blue Labour politics of virtue, vocation, and relationships, Blue Labour thinkers do not see Mill as an ally. They see him, instead, like their capital “C” conservative postliberal counterparts, as an adversary, an irresponsible individualist and a dishonorable, coldly calculating utilitarian. 

The first ever cohort of Labour Party MPs, in contrast, elected to parliament in 1906, formed a radically different appraisal of the erstwhile Liberal MP. For them, Mill was very definitely a progenitor of Labour values. He thus joined the cosmopolitan patriot and republican political refugee, Guiseppe Mazzini, the single-tax advocate Henry George, the reactionary Christian socialist John Ruskin, and the hero-worshiping medievalist Carlyle in the nascent Labour canon. Noted by parliamentary leader Keir Hardie for his “human failings and weaknesses,” as well as his genius, Carlyle, too, described utilitarianism as mere Pig Philosophy.” If this may be a fairly accurate, if uncharitable, designation for Bentham’s doctrine of utility, it could scarcely be more inappropriate as shorthand for Mill’s.

Socrates Happy

As a young man, Mill was widely regarded as a “made” or manufactured person. The principal subject of his father’s educational experiment, which aimed to discover if an unexceptional child could, through rigorous training, acquire knowledge which is usually acquired in adulthood, Mill began learning Greek at three years of age, Latin at eight, and Logic at twelve. He was expected to instruct his younger brothers and sisters in these areas, in turn, in a kind of cottage industry of philosophic radicalism Mill senior ran from their Westminster home. Beneficial or abusive (Mill maintained that the former was the case, revealing later, however, in his Autobiography, an Oedipal, or simply retributive, urge to kill his father), he emerged, at any rate, a “mere reasoning machine.” Mill, consequently, acutely aware all of a sudden of the impoverished state of his emotional life, suffered a bout of extreme depression in his early twenties. 

It was then that Mill first discovered the power of poetrya form of literature Bentham vehemently disliked, describing verse as simple “misrepresentation.” Far from being something purely optional, or worse, corrupting and ignominious, Mill perceived at once that the “internal culture of the individual” was, in fact, a chief ingredient of human well-being. In a healthy, balanced mind, reason was educated by emotion and vice-versa. A wholly rational person was a deficient person, he realized. A person governed by emotion alone, meanwhile, was an anti-social person. 

Enraptured by Wordsworth’s poems, which expressed “states of feeling” and “thought colored by feeling, under the excitement of beauty,” Mill did not cease to take an interest in “the common feelings and common destiny” of humanity. Rather, tranquil contemplation, communing with the natural world and the human interiora source of permanent happiness, he concludedenhanced “the social feelings,” offering the individual who fleetingly detached themselves from others, Henry David Thoreau-like, a vastly improved vantage point from which to understand them.  

Mill’s “Greatest Happiness Principle” holds that actions are right in proportion as they maximize pleasure and minimize pain. Contrary to the caricature of utilitarianism as a philosophy impervious to beauty, Mill, rejecting a mere quantitative estimation of pleasures, made happiness, accordingly, commensurate with pleasures of an elevated nature and feelings of a noble kind. Better “to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied,” he famously wrote; “better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, is of a different opinion, it is because they only know their side of the question.” 

Once again, Mill stressed that the foremost obstacle to making happiness actual for the multitude was the extant “wretched social arrangements,” which forced nineteen twentieths of the human population to go without happiness their whole lives and quickly extinguished it during young adulthood for those fortunate enough to belong to the remaining five per cent. Next to want of mental cultivation, selfishness, Mill heldthe ideology of the agewas what primarily made life unsatisfactory. As a general rule, pain began to get the better of pleasure at the point when the privileged adolescent metamorphosed into Economic Man, when, that is, he embarked upon a career. 

Civil Religion

Utilitarianism, in Mill’s hands, then, was a humanistic creed, not a harsh and bureaucratic one. He reiterated that “there was absolutely no reason in the nature of things why an amount of mental culture sufficient to give an intelligent interest in” objects of contemplation such as nature, art, poetry, and history, “should not be the inheritance of every one born in a civilized country. As little is there an inherent necessity that any human being should be a selfish egotist, devoid of every feeling or care but those which center in his own miserable individuality.” In point of fact, the social feelings of mankind, the desire of individuals to be in unity with their fellow creaturesthe urge even to put their fellow creatures’ interests before their ownwas remarkably persistent, Mill argued. However much (other) political economists insisted on the wisdom of enlightened selfishness, instinctive altruism tended to reassert itself in human affairs. 

Now suppose that feeling of unity was taught as a religion, Mill hypothesized; suppose that every person grew up from infancy “surrounded on all sides by the profession and the practice of it”what then? Quite plainly: the general happiness would soon be vastly expanded. 

Mill senior, finding it impossible to believe that a world so full of evil could be the work of an infinitely powerful and perfectly good and righteous God, looked upon religion as “the greatest enemy of morality.” Worship of a hateful Divine Being vitiated ethical standards. John Stuart saw a civic religion, akin to Comte’s Religion of Humanity, as a remedy, precisely, for moral shortcomings. Mill believed that a religion emptied of Revelation was a tremendously useful social tool. His only worry was that the altruistic subjectivity it promoted might become “so excessive as to interfere unduly with human freedom and individuality.” A religion compatible with equiliberalism balanced self-denial with self-assertion. 

When it comes to ethics, equiliberalism is custom observing. It permits the unfavorable judgements of others. But it is never coercive. Hence Mill’s commitment to the “harm principle,” the postulate that “the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually and collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection.”

Equiliberal Growth

Clearly, equiliberalism is a mere distant relative of the liberalism which dominates today. Profane through and through, the primary form of worship contemporary liberalism engages in is worship of economic growth. The same is true of contemporary conservatism and even contemporary socialism, although the latter is more attuned to the conflicting needs of the natural environment. In contrast, Mill believed that a stationary state of capital and wealth would be “a very considerable improvement on our present condition.” Equiliberal growth means personal growth. It means the flourishing of the individual, which means the flourishing of the collective in turn. 

Contemptuous not of working people or the conservative desire to conserve what’s worth conservingnatural beauty, space for people to experience the sublime, the arts, humanities, and sciencesMill derided the advocates of a mere increase of production and accumulation. The “ideal of life held out by those who think that the normal state of human beings is that of struggling to get on” betrayed a deplorable lack of imaginationa deplorable lack of public spirit. 

The “trampling, crushing, elbowing, and treading on each other’s heels, which form the existing type of social life” was, on Mill’s view, vile. Ever the pragmatist, “[w]hile minds are coarse,” he wrote, “they require coarse stimuli, and let them have them.” But economic growth was, ultimately, a vulgar objective. What was needed, as we have heard, was not growth but better, more equitable, distribution. The single justification for further growth in already industrialized nations was national security, growth to ensure that a country did not fall behind a belligerent neighbor. It was only undeveloped countries which needed to grow economically. In itself, growth for industrialized nations was of little importance. 

Crucially, a stationary state of economic production does not imply a stationary state of human improvement. The opposite is true; when minds are not engrossed by the art of getting on, or, more typically, the necessity of getting by, they can concentrate on what mattersthe pursuit of moral and social progress and the expansion of mental culture. They can concentrate, namely, on the Art of Living. 

Truly a thinker for our time, Mill opposed the Promethean spirit, which sought to bring every piece of land into cultivation, readily exterminating animal species and destroying precious flora in the process. A proto-environmentalist, he sharply criticized the greed and stupidity which activated the, as yet still embryonic, human demolition of the natural world. 

Mill’s ecologism was moral and aesthetic. It was also political. A world where human beings cannot be solitary, because nature has been conquered and cordoned off, is a world in which any depth of meditation is almost impossible. It is a world where thought is stymied and the formation of character interfered with. And liberal society cannot do without thinking individuals. Without thinking individuals, society is vulnerable to tyranny. 

Through the Mill

An unrecognized visionary, it was apparent to Mill, fifty years in advance of the creation of the Soviet Union, that state socialism must entail oppression. To concentrate economic power and political power in the hands of the same people was destined to be injurious to the working classes, rather than liberatory. Motivated by justice, as opposed to the ressentiment characteristic of Marxists, Mill championed the principle of “those that do not work do not eat,” arguing that it must apply impartially to all. A foe, above all, of privileged idlers, those who derived an income from economic rent, Mill would have been a fierce critic today of platform capitalism, of rent extracting companies such as Google, Meta, Uber, and Airbnb. Yet contemporary liberalsthink only of the erstwhile leader of the British Liberal Party, Nick Clegg, now President of Global Affairs at Metaare typically unruffled by monopolies and parasitic rent-seeking practices. We can learn from Mill, then, in a variety of ways. 

Besides his economic and ethical strictures, his support for plural voting also merits reconsideration. That voting should be weighted is not a bad idea. On the contrary, arranged intelligently, giving people an unequal say in the outcome of democratic elections could incentivize the civic virtue of the electorate. However, instead of education conferring more influence to voters as Mill recommended, it should be civic participation that earns citizens greater electoral cloutacademics who volunteer to teach in prisons, for example, language teachers who offer free English tuition to refugees and asylum seekers, people who spend time with lonely pensioners or the mentally illany activity which helps others in some tangible way. Practical, and difficult to exploit for grasping, influence-enhancing purposes, this kind of civic participation-based system of plural voting would be a rift healing exercise in countries like Britain, which are currently divided into two nations or more. Bringing citizens from disparate social groups and with radically different life experiences into close proximity, it would foster greater mutual understanding and sympathy.

Mill was germane also in making the cause of freedom indivisible from the duty to offer shelter to refugees. Assisting to defeat the Extradition Bill in parliament in 1866a piece of legislation which would have made it necessary to surrender political refugees charged with indirectly aiding insurrection to the governments against which they’d rebelledhe rightly claimed that he’d saved the dignity of the British government, preventing it from becoming “an accomplice in the vengeance of foreign despotisms.” 

In a beautiful recent essay the political scientist Bryan Garsten pointed out that the “crucial indicator of liberalism is whether a society produces refugees.” An uncontroversial observation, “[r]efuge,” he argued more contentiously, “is the form of liberty that liberals should care most about.” With the prediction that 1.2 billion people could be displaced by climate related events by 2050, Garsten is surely right. But he is wrong to think that the Liberalism of Refuge can be achieved by liberalism alone. We need merely account for liberalism’s propensity to create economic migrants, its tendency to uproot people from their homes through its dogmatic commitment to market forces and its addiction to cheap labor. Actually Existing Liberalism has in fact been a displacing force in world affairs, and when it accommodates it accommodates, typically, ineffectually by setting indigenous working classes and incoming migrants against each other in a struggle for jobs and resources. A system of predatory capitalism creates hostility to all forms of migration. Actually Existing Liberalism is indecently hypocritical, then. 

A decent politics is an equiliberal politics. It is a politics which harmonizes the conflicts between capital and labor, competition and state management, rivalry and cooperation, individualism and collectivism, rationality and emotion, pleasure and virtue, self-denial and self-assertion, solitariness and sociality, the sacred and the profane, human activity and the needs of the natural world, order and progress, gradualism and radicalism, and realism and utopianism. 

Mill was an equiliberal, because he recognized the truth in both the conservative critique of liberalism and in the socialist critique of liberalism, without consequently disposing of liberalism itself. Nations, like people, have personalities. A generous nation, a hospitable nation, a nation which is magnanimous is a nation which is cohesive, a nation which is fair, joyous, and rational, where one class is not dominated and exploited by another. In the twenty-first century, nations capable of offering sanctuary to refugees are equiliberal nations, nations in which selfishness is disparaged and intolerance scorned. There are no equiliberal nations. But there could be. 

Turn! Turn! Turn!

It has long been repeated that 1848 was the turning point at which modern history failed to turn.” Initially embracing alliances with working class radicals, the revolutionary zeal of middle class moderates soon faltered, having grown fearful of their allies ambitions, allowing the counter-revolution eventually to succeed in country after country. Not everything was lost, though. Some of the revolutionaries’ achievements (a parliament in Austria, for example, or the abolition of labor obligations due to landowners in Hungary) were maintained; and liberalism and democracy both triumphed in the long run, along with the principle of national self-determination. 

History, plainly, is at a new turning point. If it fails to turn this time liberty and democracy will not survive. The future is equiliberal or it is violently libertarian and anarchic, or authoritarian. 

Mill may have been thesaint of rationalism.” He was also, however, a (un)quintessentially misunderstood romantic. As the originator of equiliberalism, the ideology of balance, which arranges the most cogent aspects of the ideologies of liberalism, conservatism, and socialism into one harmonious whole, the only ideology that can rescue liberal democracy from its current multifaceted existential crisis, it is about time we made the effort to understand him properly.

Seamus Flaherty is a historian of ideas and the author of Marx, Engels and Modern British Socialism. He lives in the United Kingdom. 

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