02 dicembre 2020

Liberalism between Past and Future: a Conversation with Andrew Gamble

Pensiero politico


Questa intervista è il primo di una serie di Dialoghi con personalità dell'accademia e della cultura che la sezione di Pensiero Politico sta realizzando nel contesto di un approfondimento del rapporto fra Liberalismo e cultura politica in Italia e in Europa.


Andrew Gamble è professore emerito di Politics and International Relations all’Università di Sheffield. Dal 2007 al 2014 ha insegnato all’Università di Cambridge, dove ha diretto il dipartimento POLIS. Nel 1994 ha fondato il Political Economy Research Centre (PERC), di cui è stato anche direttore. Si è occupato di economia politica e di storia del pensiero politico, con particolare attenzione per la politica britannica e il rapporto fra teoria economica e le principali ideologie della modernità (liberalismo, socialismo, conservatorismo). In italiano sono disponibili i suoi Fine della politica? (Il Mulino, 2002) e Friedrich von Hayek (Il Mulino, 2005).



1) This year, the Political Thought section of our magazine is reflecting on liberalism, on its history and its contemporary relevance. “Liberalism” is known to be a complex concept: to what extent do you think it is appropriate to speak of a “liberal tradition” in Western political and economic thought? And how appropriate or possible is it to identify “liberal” positions today?


It is possible to talk about a liberal tradition but it is obvious, once you begin to study liberalism, that it is made up of many different strands and that there are many different traditions within it. Because it has been such a central tradition in Western political thought it is often very difficult to pin down. But I think that if we didn’t have the idea of liberalism and of a liberal tradition actually it would be very difficult to make sense of lots of currents of thought, so it seems to me it’s wrapped up in the way we think about modernity and the history of the West. We have to try and make sense of it, but it’s not easy. Liberalism is not one thing.



2) The book you wrote on Margaret Thatcher, regarded as one of the key figures in the renaissance of liberalism in the second half of the 20th century, is titled The Free Economy and the Strong State (Gamble, 1988): a dichotomy which points to the uneasy relationship between the classical liberal and the conservative elements in her political project. What was, in your view, the relationship between them? And what is now (more than thirty years later) the legacy of such an endeavour in the political culture of the United Kingdom?


Margaret Thatcher was in many respects a traditional conservative and many of her instincts were those of a traditional conservative in the sense that she thought a lot about social and political order and traditional values around the family and crime and so on. What was remarkable about her was that she came to be leader of the Conservative Party in a period of great ideological and political turmoil in the 1970s and she drew on a ferment of ideas around economic liberalism in which people like Hayek were extremely important. Although she herself was not a very deep thinker, she drew on these ideas and she was a remarkable politician: she fused together a traditional conservatism with these radical ideas about how to change the balance between the State and the market. She became a catalyst for changing those relations in the 1980s and breaking decisively with many features of the post-war settlement in Britain - but also in many other Western countries - which conservatives and social democrats had come to accept. The economic liberalism she drew on was influenced by thinkers like Hayek but it had particular relevance to Britain and to Britain’s problems in the 1970s, and I think that the changes that took place in the 1980s proved in the end to be very far-reaching. They didn’t happen all at once, it was a much more gradual process than some people thought at the time, but it continued to develop through the 1990s and the 2000s, so that the whole shape of British society and the whole relationship between the State and the market were set in those years.



3) You recently argued (Gamble, 2019) that despite the financial crash in 2008 and the rise of communist China on the global stage, neo-liberalism has remained resilient as an ideology and as a policy regime. Why is it so resilient? Do you think it is likely to preserve it dominance or not?


The ascendency of neoliberalism really starts in the late 1970s and is then most evident in the 1980s and through the 1990s. The 1990s is the period of the great triumph of neoliberalism following the collapse of the Soviet union: neoliberalism at that point appears to be the only ideology that is left standing. Neoliberalism is tested almost to destruction in the 2008 financial crash in the West, but it is remarkable that, in the ten years or so that have elapsed since, neoliberalism, although greatly weakened, hasn’t been fundamentally challenged. There have been movements which have tried to challenge it but there haven’t really been any major breakthroughs, and I think that one of the major reasons for that is that we’re in a very transitional period. We’re not sure at all what is going to come. Particularly with the effects of the pandemic at the moment this is a very extraordinary time. One of the reasons for the ascendency of neoliberalism from the beginning was the position of the United States: neoliberalism depended upon the leading role which the United States played in governing the international economy and I think that what we are now seeing is that the United States is partly not able and partly no longer willing to play the kind of role which it did. But the United States is still in a leading position even during the Trump presidency and this has meant that there isn’t really an alternative international order which could supplant neoliberalism. This is one of the explanations for the resilience of neoliberalism. The most significant opposition to it has come from populist nationalists, but they don’t have a very clear economic program at all: some are very strong supporters of the free market, others are national protectionists. They don’t have a clear sense of the sort of world order that they want to replace the liberal world order, which the United States created and sustained from the Second World War onwards. Neoliberalism is still the dominant ideology because the United States is still the dominant power, but it has been shaken enormously by what has been happening over the last ten years and particularly during the Trump presidency, during which Trump has been undermining many of the foundations of US leadership. It remains to be seen – we’ll know next week[1] – whether Donald Trump is going to have a second term, in which case I would imagine that the process of fragmentation will gather pace in the international order, or whether, if Joe Biden wins, there will be an attempt to recreate a more traditional kind of American leadership and Western alliance.



4) Almost 25 years ago you wrote that “far from being the negation of liberalism, socialism can plausibly be seen as part of the same project as liberalism, even as its fulfilment” (Gamble, 1996: pp. 182-183): what do you think is or can be the relationship between the two in the face of contemporary challenges?


What I meant by that was that liberalism and socialism are both Enlightenment doctrines: they both have a view of modernity which believes in the possibility of progress and of the world being made a better place by human agency. There are some very important differences between them, but they both contain ideas about liberty, equality and solidarity which are the very bases of these ideologies of modernity and therefore they are part of what I’ve called elsewhere “the Western ideology”. Socialists always believed that they would replace liberalism as the dominant form of the Western ideology and for a time it did look as if that was going to happen. In more recent decades, socialism has fallen back and liberalism has revived and become once again the dominant expression of the Western ideology. But I believe that there are still very important ways in which the two doctrines are connected and actually feed off one another. Right from the beginning they were challenged by conservatism and ideas that rejected the Enlightenment, the possibility of progress, of reason, of a rational order of human affairs and rejected science. And now of course they’re challenged by something that has elements of that conservative tradition, particularly visible in the doctrines of populist nationalism: again there’s a rejection of expertise, a rejection of science, a rejection of the possibility of progress, a dislike of cosmopolitanism, a dislike of what they call “globalism” and a desire to go back to much more pre-scientific, pre-Enlightenment, pre-modern ideas about how society should be run. So there is quite a strong ideological contest going on between those ideas, but the forces of modernity are immensely strong, so that the ability of populist nationalist forces permanently to dethrone the Western ideology is uncertain. But there’s no doubt that we’re seeing an increase in authoritarianism and in nationalism around the world, and many of these doctrines are instinctively hostile to either liberal modernity or socialist modernity as the West has understood it.



5) This year marks the 60th anniversary of the publication of The Constitution of Liberty, one of the best-known works by Hayek. In the book you dedicated to his thought, The iron cage of liberty (Gamble, 1996), you claimed that Hayek the ideologue should be distinguished from Hayek the social scientist: from this point of view, what is the legacy and relevance of his thought for today’s liberalism?


Hayek is still a fundamental thinker. His greatest contribution was his theory of knowledge and his ideas about the evolutionary basis of institutions and spontaneous order, which were a development of ideas of the Austrian school. The importance of those ideas is that they’re not anti-rationalist or irrationalist - like populist ideas often are. They belong to a tradition of critical rationalism which goes back to the 18th century and which I think introduces an important element of skepticism into how institutions are designed and what the limits of human knowledge and planning and social engineering are. Hayek has a lot to teach all political traditions about how institutions are actually constructed and how they evolve. On the ideological positions which he took on many questions of the day there’s disagreement: many people reject his conclusions. For instance he was a very strong critic of environmentalism and of steps to deal with global warming, but it seems to me that his actual thought offers a very powerful critique of the way in which human beings have not just changed the social world, but have also changed the natural world. But he never applies his critique to the way in which human beings have changed the natural world. His thought, like any great thinker, goes beyond the uses he himself made of it. There are possible interpretations of Hayek which can still be of great use to us today.



6) One of your critiques of Hayek is that he does not take into account sociological explanations of the spread of ideas and that he overestimates the force of theories and ideologies in shaping historical processes. What do you think is an appropriate evaluation of the role and potential of ideas in today’s world dynamics?


Hayek does place a huge role on the importance of ideas and the ability of ideas to influence social development, and I agree with that to some extent. I don’t dispute that ideas do have a very powerful role but I don’t think they have an autonomous role, and I think that you always have to understand ideas within their historical context and the roles they play in them. To understand why ideas have the effects they do the analysis has to be historically grounded, and I think there’s always a tendency in certain types of thinkers, and Hayek at times displays this, to believe that ideas are uniquely important. Keynes did the same actually: Keynes and Hayek are very alike in believing that ideas had an autonomous power and were the most important factor of all in changing things. And again, in terms of Hayek’s own theory, you could come to quite opposite conclusions, because his whole view of spontaneous orders and the way they develop would suggest that ideas had a rather subordinate role in the way that human societies develop. But at other times he wants to say that actually ideas are all-important: for instance, he says that socialists ideas have this extraordinary power to destroy the Great Society and undermine the basis of human freedom. If you apply his own method and view the growth of the State historically and institutionally, then you understand how the State is intricately involved in the development of markets and of civil society more generally. If Hayek had studied sociology and history some more then he’d actually have strengthened some of the basic insights of his own thought. He did move in that direction, but he remained in some ways to the end a prisoner of his early economic training and of the influence of people like Ludwig von Mises.



7) According to many, the rise of right- and left-wing populist parties throughout Europe contributed to the crisis of the EU and to the deadlock of the European integration. Do you agree with them? To what extent is the EU still linked to a liberal legacy?


A lot of the problems stem from the various democratic deficits that have arisen: the difficulty of having a system which is both inter-governmental and supra-national at the same time and the inability to achieve an accountability for the supra-national level of the EU as far as citizens are concerned. That has given openings for populist nationalists to attack the EU as being unrepresentative, undemocratic and against national interests. So I do think that’s been a very powerful part of the explanation why the EU has been in such difficulties. But the EU has fundamental liberal legacies within it and it was a project right from the beginning which expressed confidence in the future and in the possibility of progress and of building an association which would end war in Europe and promote cooperation to make everyone more prosperous and increase solidarity. Some of that has worked out and some of it hasn’t. We talked about Margaret Thatcher earlier. Margaret Thatcher became, particularly in her old age, an intransigent critic of the European Union. But when she was in government as Prime Minister she was of course one of the main architects and promoters of the single market, which has now become opposed by so many in her own party. The single market was a classic economic liberal project: what she recoiled from was the social Europe which accompanied the single market. But Margaret Thatcher was a supporter of a single market and she even supported qualified majority voting in order to get rid of the opposition from those member states who resisted. There was a strong liberal influence on the way the EU developed: many economic liberals saw the EU as a vehicle for achieving what they wanted to achieve, but of course there were other economic liberals who from the start were opposed to the EU and the attempt to create a supra-national association.


Immagine: Dust storm approaching. Credits: darrylkeith. Creative Commons Licence: Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0.



Gamble, A. (1988), The Free Economy and the Strong State. The Politics of Thatcherism, London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Gamble, A. (1996), Hayek. The Iron Cage of Liberty, Cambridge: Polity Press.

Gamble, A. (2019), Why is Neo-liberalism so Resilient?, in Critical Sociology, XLV/7-8, pp. 983-994.


[1] Questa intervista è stata realizzata prima delle elezioni americane.

© Istituto della Enciclopedia Italiana - Riproduzione riservata