The fall of the liberal elite

Adrian Pabst’s The Demons of Liberal Democracy provides a vital takedown of the new establishment.

Jon Holbrook


Thirty years ago, as the Cold War came to an end, Francis Fukuyama published his seminal essay ‘The End of History?’. He argued that human development had reached its end point in the form of a liberal democratic state underpinned by a market economy. A generation later, most political commentators agree that liberal democracy is not in good shape. Even Fukuyama is now at pains to point out that his essay had a question mark at the end of the title.

Adrian Pabst, a politics professor at the University of Kent and influential force in the Blue Labour movement, has added his voice to today’s critics of liberal democracy. In The Demons of Liberal Democracy he criticises the post-Cold War development of liberal democracy by describing how it has morphed into a political system characterised by the four demons of oligarchy, demagogy, anarchy and tyranny.

Pabst explains how each demon is a feature of a modern society that has elevated minority interests over the collective interests of society. He argues that economic power has been concentrated in the hands of unaccountable elites, especially with the monopoly power of tech giants and global finance (oligarchy). Public debate is susceptible to being manipulated by unrepresentative elites (demagogy). Social cohesion has been ruptured by social policies that have elevated individual freedoms at the expense of shared interests (anarchy). And by drawing these three demons together, Pabst argues that liberalism itself is beginning to resemble tyranny as its underlying values of free speech, free inquiry and tolerance are themselves eroded.

The extent to which each of these demons corresponds to reality can be debated, but few would doubt that they capture, up to a point, an underlying reality. Pabst does not blame liberalism per se for this descent into a society that fails to serve collective interests. He notes that ‘the liberalism which has failed is not the whole liberal tradition, but rather a contemporary radicalisation of specific ideals’. Liberalism, he argues, has become one-sided, a form of ‘hyper-liberalism’, because of its celebration of individualism, while the liberal tradition that elevated social solidarity has been largely ignored.

Equally, Pabst does not blame democracy for the development of this one-sided liberalism. Indeed, he notes how a ‘genuine democracy tries to reconcile estranged interests in a negotiated settlement based on leadership and popular participation’. He also points to how democracy could be the antidote to the individualistic liberalism that has spawned his four demons. As he rightly observes, democracy ‘involves the forging of a common life around shared principles and practices that seek to balance freedom with fraternity, equality with reciprocity, and tradition with modernity’.

So, if liberalism is not to blame and if democracy ought to have paved the way for the social solidarity that hyper-liberalism has undermined, why has liberal democracy developed in recent decades as a celebration of minority interests?

In a revealing section of The Demons of Liberal Democracy, Pabst explores two problematic approaches to modern-day social policymaking. On the one hand, there are liberals who see social policy as being determined by science and instrumental rationality, a hallmark of today’s technocratic elite with their ‘evidence-based’ policy solutions. And on the other hand, there are liberals who base their approach to policy formation, not just on science, but on a broader form of discursive reasoning — the preserve of, as they see it, an enlightened intelligentsia. These two liberal approaches to policy formation have much in common in that they vest a superior class with the right to develop public policy. Pabst calls these people the ‘liberal elites’.

Pabst explains how the liberal elites have drawn ideological strength from both the left and the right. The New Left, from the mid-1960s onwards, took socialism away from working-class interests, with its embrace of identity politics and a narcissistic focus on ‘the personal being the political’. This resulted in a left that ‘preferred progress to tradition, identity to class, and free choice to common purpose’. This approach suited a middle-class stratum of professionals and public-sector managers, while alienating most ordinary workers. The New Left enabled left-wing politics to jettison the interests of ordinary working people in favour of the interests of the liberal elites.

Slightly later, a New Right was formed that combined a libertarian economics with a corporate capture of the state. Pabst notes how this ‘had the effect of aligning conservatism with borderless capitalism and with individual freedom devoid of mutual obligation’. It was, he argues, an ‘unholy alliance of fundamentalist faith with an aggressive consumer culture’ that ‘trumped the historic commitment to citizenship’. This re-positioning of right-wing politics has also served the interests of the liberal elites.

Pabst notes that the ‘problem today is not “elitism” itself’, because in any society there will be elites that are vying for influence. But he then claims that the problem with contemporary elites is that they are ‘corrupt’ and ‘lead by bad example – actively promoting greed and selfishness’. Accordingly, he concludes that today’s elites need ‘educative guidance’ to become ‘virtuous’ at ‘every level and in every field’.

It is at this point that Pabst’s argument falters. It cannot seriously be argued that the monopoly power of tech giants and global finance can be overcome by telling their leaderships to be less greedy and less selfish. And neither will the policymaking elites, following a spot of educative guidance, give up their assumed right to make policy in their own image. Pabst’s accurate description of how the liberal elites have drawn strength from the New Left and the New Right shows that the elites are bolstered by ideologies that have reasonably broad and deep roots. The liberal elites’ ideological underpinnings need to be countered with an alternative ideology, not a lesson in virtue.

Pabst fails to note the distinctive feature of contemporary elites. It is not just that they govern (a timeless descriptive fact); it is that they govern in accordance with their own interests (a contemporary political problem). In an earlier era, elites sought to govern in the interests of society as a whole. Traditionally, the values held by the captains of industry, trade union leaders, academics, professionals, civil servants and the political class more generally connected with views that were widely held within broader society. Political debates took place along class-based lines, which were reflected in shades of opinion between the left and the right. Within this class-based framework the elites responded to democratic pressure and ruled according to democratic sentiment somewhere on the left-right spectrum.

But as class-based politics declined, a new elite-based politics arose. Conflicts between bosses and workers, the left and the right, abated and new conflicts arose between the leaders and the led, the elites and the people. This is new and important, and it is a point that Pabst does not grasp. Society is now being shaped by liberal elites with policies that serve their interests, and which are hostile to the interests of society as a whole. The hyper-liberalism that Pabst so accurately describes is a politics of the elite, by the elite and for the elite. Once this key fact is grasped it becomes clear that the elite is beyond the sort of ‘educative guidance’ that Pabst advocates.

The antidote to the demons of liberal democracy will come from channelling the people against the elites. Yet this is a project that Pabst rejects. He characterises the current division in society as being between the liberal elites and the anti-elite insurgents. In doing so, he overlooks the people in order to focus on their populist leaders, like Donald Trump, whose movement he dismisses as ‘built on conspiracy theories, misinformation’ and ‘naked appeals to both bigotry and race’. By framing the current divide as being between the elites and their Trump-like insurgents, Pabst can dislike each with equal vigour. It enables him to argue for a third force, a revival of ‘intermediary institutions’, such as professional associations, trade unions, universities and free hospitals. By ‘intermediary’ he means institutions ‘that stand between these two poles’ of the liberal elites and their, as he sees them, insurgents.

Pabst sits in a long line of utopian reformers who dislike what they see in contemporary society and write blueprints for their alternative better, fairer society. But their alternatives are utopian because they cannot connect with a political force capable of bringing them about. Across the Western world today, elites are being challenged by ordinary people. These are the people who can change society for the better. Their current leaders, like Trump, may be flawed, but the task for any social reformer is to connect with people’s experience and direct it. The ability to do this separates the effective reformer from the utopian dreamer.

There is much to admire in The Demons of Liberal Democracy. But his analysis is better than his prescription. For while he gets close to recognising the pernicious role of today’s liberal elites, he distances himself from the force that can confront them. Ultimately, Pabst is not against elite-based politics. He just wants a different and re-educated elite that shares his communitarian approach. His desire to re-educate the hyper-liberal elites to make them ‘virtuous’ and communitarian will achieve nothing. The demons of liberal democracy will only be slayed with a popular politics that is of, by and for the people.

Jon Holbrook is a barrister. Follow him on Twitter: @JonHolb

His essay on ‘The Rise and Fall of the Rule of Law’ is published in the book From Self to Selfie: A Critique of Contemporary Forms of Alienation.

The Demons of Liberal Democracy, by Adrian Pabst, is published by Polity Press. (Pre-order this book from Amazon(UK).)

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alan coombs

4th May 2020 at 3:52 pm

This article would carry more weight if this site was not dominated ( as all such sites are ) by people who are part of the “elite”, as ordinary people would perceive them..
If you want “ordinary” people to take note ,then you need to promote the views of “ordinary” people .
There are many “ordinary” people capable of writing lucid, pertinent articles on many
subjects alongside current affairs.
Until such time as articles from “ordinary” people appear on this site, it will continue to be exactly what it is, a small echo chamber for part of the “elite”.
Like all “elites” , you do not really want to open up your “club”.
Whether you like it or not, you are part of this countries problem, not the solution that you think you are.

K Tojo

6th May 2020 at 1:27 pm

The trouble with ordinary people is that, often, they are just too damned ordinary.

I prefer to read pieces written by people with exceptional knowledge and insight not something written by the opinionated bloke next door.

You may not have noticed but very many ordinary people contribute their views in the comments section here. Many of them fancy themselves to be writers in need of a publisher and contribute lengthy, verbose essays. Others (Wee Johnny Henly for example) behave as though this were an online version of Speaker’s Corner.

Are you advocating an egalitarian weeding out of the exceptionally skilled, intelligent and able in favour of giving the mediocre, average and just plain ordinary a fair crack of the whip (so to speak)?

Marvin Jones

3rd May 2020 at 11:53 am

“The lefty liberal elite”. What do they really want? what sort of country do they want to live in?
They wrap themselves in human rights and civil liberties, but only for the criminals, rapists, murderers and the worst type of savagery, but never for the real innocents and victims. They have absolutely no idea of the consequences of mass, incessant migration including illegal, which could be adding a million a year who will probably depend on the state for eternal provision for housing and surviving. They are obsessed with re-habilitating of brutal arrogant non fearing feral savages in place of real hard punishment, and retribution to their victims. AND! the on top of all this, they want total domination and humiliation in obeying every order and rule from a corrupt and crumbling federal heap of a rotten system.

Steele Rudd

4th May 2020 at 8:05 am

Well expressed, but while their base motivation may be simplistic, it’s easily seen.

The liberal elite, chatterati, woke progressives – whatever chichi name is applied, the visible result is the same. Their dominant paradigm is egocentric self, so their highest priority is to maximise the number of likes from their equally vacuous peers.

Concepts involving intelligence and common sense are foreign to their milieu; consequently the only valid markers in their global view are those that point to them.

nick hunt

23rd May 2020 at 8:33 pm

How about the wonderful ‘wankerati’? I think Delingpole may have coined that one.

nick hunt

23rd May 2020 at 8:34 pm

How about the wonderful ‘w_nkerati’, for which Delingpole may deserve credit?

David J

30th April 2020 at 9:48 am

I was living with a left-leaning gf during the last GE period.
As a devout centrist, I was struck by the anger generated by her political landscape.
It seemed to brook no real discussion, having a rage against not only ‘The Tories’ but anyone who didn’t share the angst.

Jonathan Marshall

30th April 2020 at 10:16 am

The Left’s whole ethos is based on hatred and envy.

Dick Turnip

30th April 2020 at 1:02 pm

While the right’s is based entirely on greed—gimme, gimme, gimme….

Steve Roberts

30th April 2020 at 9:33 am

Holbrook certainly has his finger on the pulse here, in perhaps a much more wide ranging way than appears intitially, this article deserves a re read and critical thoughts.
He highlights the very serious problem in society that there is little organised or indeed ideological opposition to TINA, there appears to be many critics of the status quo, of the elites throughout society but when this is unpicked it reveals very much an empty vessel, in truth it also reveals another layer of society below the elites who build careers and lifestyles, in public and academia, upon their apparent criticism , or “holding to account” and yet as Holbrook writes they all eventually reject any serious radical transformative force, one that could challenge TINA, that force is the demos.
Actually that needs refining, these people do not entirely reject the demos , but they want it confined, not to be unleashed to possibly be the force to change society, they write and speak in such convoluted and abstract terms and broadly define it as ” communitarianism” .
It takes many forms, from the supine to the relatively more but not truly radical.
There are many protagonists and many variants but broadly, Blue Labour, Red/ social conservatives, SDP, labourist adherents in all their forms left right and centre in and out of the LP, that’s quite a social gathering, they are all in my view obstacles to building a genuine radically transformative progressive social force that puts the demos and humanist politics at the centre.
It is the failure of all these tendencies, that form and reform, to build an alternative to TINA among the demos that is the startling issue of the last 100 years.
They dress up their opposition by often reinventing categories and saying this particular new form is what needs to be addressed, recently the “enemy” has become neo liberalism, or globalism, or a specific variant of “liberal democracy” and so much more especially from academics removed from the real world.
But it is all an avoidance to building an alternative to the status quo, to degnerate and destructive capitalism and those who protect and defend it, the presentists. That requires clarifying and defining a visionary idea of the possibilities of unleashing our humanity and the world around us,rather than the dominance of the “hidden hand of the market” to grow and progress exponentially in all areas of life not retreat, to understand what are the ideas and people that are the obstacles to building anew. None of the above mentioned will suffice, they are part of the problem, it is time all their adages of acceptance of the status quo but “critially with no illusions” is exposed for what it is and always has been, a critical apology for TINA. Not good enough, never was.

Dominic Straiton

30th April 2020 at 8:54 am

Just look at that picture. What a shower of sht. In the new world with the CCP threatening world domination we need to do much better at producing leaders. Thank gawd for Boris. Hes got a hell of a job on his hands. An almost impossible task.

Jonnie Henly

30th April 2020 at 3:48 pm

Boris’ record suggest he’ll do a p*ss poor job of standing up to the CCP.
He can’t accept that his ideology is what has allowed the CCP such influence over us. No one can really, admitting your personal ideology is wrong is very difficult.

Highland Fleet Lute

30th April 2020 at 6:14 am

Contrary to popular belief, that beautifully honed invitation to tyranny “the personal is political” wasn’t concocted in a 1970’s rad fem squat, it comes from Stalin era Russia.

In a civilised society, the personal is personal.

Jane 70

30th April 2020 at 5:14 am

An appeal to more virtuosity from the elites seems to be another example of academic hand waving.

Virtuosity/ virtue signalling: we’ve witnessed an excess of the latter in recent years; where to draw the line between the two?

And where would the media, authors like Professor Pabst and the commentariat in general be without Trump, Putin, Salvini, Modi and Farrage?

And as for elites governing’ in the interests of society as a whole’ : would this apply to most of European history? Don’t think so.

Brief attempts following the Civil War here, the French Revolution- ended in a barbaric blood bath, the mid-19th century attempts in France and Germany, the Weimar Republic , the early Russian revolts before the establishment of communism.

Repression resulted in virtually every case, and now we witness a far subtler kind-(my tin hat is in place)- the spread of no-platforming, cancelling, twitter pile-ons, the hate speech legislation, the shutting down of rational dissent and debate and the promotion of an overly and overtly emotional public mood.

Populism, so reviled is a reaction to the trends considered in the article; it cannot simply be dismissed and neutralised .

Claire D

30th April 2020 at 10:41 am

Great comment Jane, I entirely agree with you.

a watson

10th May 2020 at 9:39 am


Jonnie Henly

30th April 2020 at 2:48 am

“This resulted in a left that ‘preferred progress to tradition”

The left has always preferred progress to tradition. This is something that goes right back to when the first notions of left and right were formed in the French revolution. The left supported progress and opposed tradition.

Class politics opposes tradition as well, since traditionally in a class system the working class always fared the worst. The left sought to change this by usurping tradition and improving the lot of the working class.

“In an earlier era, elites sought to govern in the interests of society as a whole”

Pretty flimsy suggestion. The whole reason class politics is so divisive and sometimes so violent is precisely because on one side there was an elite who didn’t govern in the interests of the rest of society and weren’t in touch with the values and aspirations of ordinary people.

The elite has always been self serving first and foremost. Romanticising the past does no one any favours.

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