Peter Ramsay – Vulnerability as Ideology: Why there is no alternative

Why vulnerability became a key aspect of the ruling ideology of authoritarian liberalism in recent times notwithstanding its evident irrationality, and how this ideology has frustrated the development of any political alternative to it by converting politics into culture war. 

Peter Ramsay is Professor of Law at the London School of Economics. 

He is also one of the founding editors of The Northern Star

This article originally appeared at The Northern Star

Category:NATO Headquarters, Brussels - Wikimedia Commons

Photo: Wikimedia Commons  NATO Headquarters in Belgium

Identification with the vulnerable is the virtue of the neoliberal professional middle class (PMC) and the ideology of contemporary  authoritarian liberalism. It permits the political class to promote both relentless anxiety about other people and forms of government characteristic of permanent emergency rule.  The remnants of the political left and the right are sometimes able to criticise and reject particular vulnerability claims. But they cannot resist promoting their own preferred vulnerabilities. Politics has been reconstituted as a conflict between competing claims of vulnerability—and, therefore, of virtue—a conflict that is sometimes referred to as the ‘culture war’. By reconstituting politics as this cultural contest, the ideology of vulnerability is sustained despite its irrational character.  

Many left-wingers, for example, have retained a principled opposition to NATO’s warmongering. Although the Stop the War socialists have been put on the backfoot by the hyperbolic framing of the Ukraine war as resistance to a genocidal campaign by a fascist Russian Reich, some at least have maintained their longstanding suspicion of Western militarism. However, the left wholeheartedly bought into the idea of Covid as an existential threat to all. The absurd effect of the British left’s ideological commitment to the virtue of vulnerability was demonstrated in an astonishing volte-face executed by leftists in the face of the Covid epidemic. In the autumn of 2019, left-wing commentators had been insisting that Brexit was nothing less than a coup mounted by a racist, far-right government. But six months later, and only weeks after this ‘far-right’ government had enacted Brexit, the left was demanding that the same government suspend civil liberties (including the left’s own) to protect them, and the NHS, from Covid. One day it was a fantasy threat of fascism to which the left was vulnerable, the next it was a less fantastical but still hugely exaggerated threat of disease. These leftists turned on a sixpence politically, but nevertheless retained their virtue by emphasising their vulnerability.

The idea of vulnerability as virtue is one that lies deep within the contemporary left’s DNA. This is because the idea is a remnant of the lost and lamented welfare state, a political order that emerged in the late nineteenth century, triumphed in the mid-twentieth century, but was shattered by Margaret Thatcher. The old welfare state was a liberal solution to the problem that wage-earners, since they lacked property, were dependent on a labour market that systematically tended to reduce wages to a bare minimum. The result was that workers were vulnerable, in a way that the propertied were not, to harms associated with poor housing, lack of education, poor environmental conditions, industrial accident, lack of healthcare and so on. This radical inequality in the experience of vulnerability presented a particular political problem as workers achieved the vote and joined trade unions which, in the later nineteenth century, started to organise political parties. The welfare-state solution aimed to use the state’s fiscal powers to mitigate, and to reduce the inequality in, vulnerability to these various harms. This method of mitigating and equalising vulnerability had the specifically ideological aim of ensuring that all citizens, though divided by property ownership, could nevertheless understand themselves to be part of ‘a single civilisation’, as TH Marshall put it in his classic account. [1] The management of risk and vulnerability was, therefore, long part of the left’s project, although in the heyday of class compromise it tended to be articulated as a question of welfare rights rather than vulnerability explicitly.

The old class compromise was destroyed in the struggles of the 1970s and 1980s. Margaret Thatcher defeated the trade unions and declared in victory that ‘There is no alternative to the market’. She did not destroy the state’s welfare bureaucracies as such (in fact, welfare spending rose as a consequence of her policies of de-industrialisation), and the NHS in particular remained central to Britain’s national identity. She did, however, demolish the influence of the organised working class and with it the idea that the state’s central purpose was to reduce the degree of vulnerability between the social classes. In the wake of the destruction of the working class as a political force, all that the left had left was its welfare-state era commitment to the management of vulnerability. As we shall see, this gave the left a language in which, following the end of the welfare state, it could still compete with authoritarian liberalism on its own ground of vulnerability claims, offering alternative policies to the neoliberal centre, but within the same broad ideological terms of vulnerability, risk and safety. As a result, the socialist left offers no systematic critique of vulnerability as an ideology even as it rejects some claims made from within it.

Today, when the left’s political timidity and authoritarianism has stripped it of all credibility as a democratic political force, it is more significant that the right also finds it very difficult to resist the lure of vulnerability claims. Most conservatives have been the opposite of the old Stop the War left: instinctively suspicious of the purported rationale for Covid lockdown, but credulous when Russia is presented as the threat to Europe. Of course, conservatives have long targeted outsiders as a threat to the community; and foreigners, along with criminals, have always been a chief source of their preferred threats. The Russians were notable rivals of the old British Empire as far back as the nineteenth century, and Cold War politics was organised around the purported threat posed by the Soviet Union, in which Russia again played the key role. The old imperial myth of Britain standing up to foreign tyrants is once again being wheeled out in respect of Ukraine, but the context has changed. The critical point to grasp today is that the fear-mongering style of politics developed during the Cold War—and later with the war on crime—is all conservatives have left. 

All the old commitments, once proclaimed by conservatives, to traditional virtues, such as faith, family, sacrifice, duty, deference to hierarchy, have decayed in practice into a fear-driven politics in which liberals, socialists and foreigners are constructed as threats to ordinary citizens, bringing woke tyranny, socialism, crime, terrorism, overpopulation or overbearing regulation. Conservatives are less likely to use the V-word explicitly, but these fear campaigns invoke the purported vulnerability of the population just the same. And the parties of the right have to couple these vulnerability claims with particularly vigorous flag-waving, to provide a thin veneer of legitimacy over their transparently venal relationships with big business.

Of course, some conservatives bemoan the absence of true conservatism, of any political cultivation of the older virtues, still less any real veneration for traditional institutions. But such true conservatives have little influence for a simple reason: traditional institutions have lost their practical authority, and the virtues associated with them cannot be restored within the framework of a capitalist society which can no longer sustain them. Indeed, it is the historical decay of the old virtues and institutions that is a big part of the explanation for the rise of vulnerability as a virtue. While the fact of human vulnerability has been ever with us, it has only acquired its unchallenged supremacy in the political imagination since the 1980s because the victory of neoliberalism over the old social-democratic welfare state was a decidedly partial one. 

Though Margaret Thatcher was able to destroy the old welfare state and the labour movement that created it, she was not able to replace it with any truly conservative alternative. She decried the welfare state because, as she put it in a notorious interview:

I think we’ve been through a period where too many people have been given to understand that if they have a problem, it’s the government’s job to cope with it. ‘I have a problem, I’ll get a grant.’ ‘I’m homeless, the government must house me.’ They’re casting their problem on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. [2] 

For Thatcher, the solutions to wage-earners’ problems were hard work, family and charity. A consequence of this view was that she loudly proclaimed the necessity of a return to ‘Victorian values’. But for all her decisive victory over social democracy and the workers’ movement, there was no return to Victorian values in either policy or social attitudes. The Christian religion continued its steady decline in the UK. Despite Tory backbenchers passing the notorious Section 28, intended to prevent teaching about homosexuality in schools, the lesbian and gay movement went from strength to strength and social attitudes to sex became ever more liberal. Divorce rates continued to rise throughout Thatcher’s time in office. When John Major, the Tory prime minister who succeeded her, declared the need to get ‘Back to basics’, his moralising campaign had to be aborted within days as sex scandals engulfed his ministers. 

The old patriarchal order, and all the religious and moral values that accompanied it, had not survived the unprecedented horrors of the twentieth century’s wars and the unprecedented pleasures of its peace. Only vestiges remained. A gendered division of labour persisted, and men derived power over women from it in many situations; but the ancient and venerable traditions that once supplied that division of labour and men’s power with legitimate authority, and thereby provided the basis for an entire social order, had melted into air—as Karl Marx predicted they would back in 1848. 

In making her (ineffective) call for a return to earlier traditions, Thatcher was a dutiful disciple of the founder of neoliberalism, Friedrich Hayek. Throughout his work Hayek recognised the necessity for religion and tradition as complements to the rule of the market. In his first major work, The Road to Serfdom, he explained why:

A complex civilisation like ours is necessarily based on the individual adjusting himself to changes whose cause and nature he cannot understand: why he should have more or less, why he should have to move to another occupation, why some things he wants should become more difficult to get than others, will always be connected with such a multitude of circumstances that no single mind will be able to grasp them…[3]

In other words, in a market society, individuals are vulnerable to forces beyond their control, or even their understanding; and Hayek thought that superstition would be required to reconcile them to that vulnerability:

The crucial point is that it is infinitely more difficult rationally to comprehend the necessity of submitting to forces whose operation we cannot follow in detail, than to do so out of the humble awe which religion… did inspire. [4]

As he would later write, ‘all progress must be based on tradition’. [5] Hayek’s point is fundamental. If we live in a market society then vulnerability to forces beyond our control is our condition as individuals— at least, it is if we are part of that large majority that lacks adequate wealth in property to mitigate any uncontrollable outcomes that may come our way. That was the point of the trade unions: to monopolise the supply of labour to give wage-earners some market power. That was the point of the welfare state: to mitigate and equalise the risks that people faced by redistributing resources. In seeking to overturn that solution, because he thought it was an oppressive restriction on liberty, Hayek nevertheless conceded that, without state intervention, the irrational traditions of the past would be needed to reconcile the majority of the population to their vulnerable condition. 

Margaret Thatcher’s inability to see through on the traditionalist moral aspect of Hayek’s programme was equally fundamental. She pulled the plug on the welfare state as a legitimate way of organising the distribution of vulnerability, and she destroyed trade unions as a mechanism for wage-earners to protect themselves from the effects of the market; but she was unable to replace them with older traditions with which to reconcile the majority to their vulnerability. That left nothing with which to legitimise the social order except the idea of vulnerability itself. And that is why the explicit promotion of awareness of vulnerability began to emerge in official policy during Thatcher’s time in office. 

It was present in the adoption of harassment offences in the Public Order Act 1986, which criminalised the causing of mere ‘alarm’ or ‘distress’. It was much more prominent in the 1986 public health campaign around AIDS. This pointedly did not condemn homosexuals for promiscuous sexual habits, as Thatcher’s  government was urged to do by reactionary voices. Instead, with its famous slogans ‘AIDS is not prejudiced’ and ‘Don’t die of ignorance’, the official campaign channelled the marginalised status of gay men, the large majority of AIDS sufferers, in order to urge awareness of risk and the practice of ‘safe sex’ for the entire population. In repudiating the old sexual morality and promoting awareness of a purported universal vulnerability, the AIDS campaign would provide the model for what was to come. As with so many later health campaigns (culiminating in Covid), and as with crime, terrorism, and now Ukraine, in the AIDS campaign highly specific risks were represented as a universal vulnerability. There never was any evidence of this universal vulnerability to AIDS in the developed world, and there were good reasons to suppose that it would remain largely confined within the very specific social groups at high risk, as in fact it did. The mid-80s health campaigners later admitted that they had known this at the time. [6] 

Nevertheless, the inflation of a specific vulnerability to a universal one permitted the expression of the new virtue, that was emerging from a new moral order that had developed across the course of the twentieth century as the professional middle classes had abandoned the old Victorian traditions, at first slowly after the First World War and then very quickly in the wake of the ‘counterculture’ of the 1960s and 1970s. When the organisation of the state around class compromise was destroyed but without traditional institutions having the political authority needed to legitimate the market’s distribution of vulnerability, this new market-based moral order, grounded in the social experience of the PMC, emerged to fill the vacuum. The new order was that of the consumer society, and it was articulated most clearly by British sociologist Anthony Giddens, who became a guru for Tony Blair’s New Labour. At its heart is the pursuit of ‘the self [as] a reflexive project’ whose aim is ‘self-actualization’: the discovery and realisation of our authentic self through developing a reflexive self-knowledge. The process of self-actualization, of ‘finding oneself’, requires, as one of its moments, ‘achieving fulfilment’.  For the middle classes, this highly self-regarding search for meaning was the substitute for the old shared public traditions that they were now thoroughly disenchanted with. As Giddens points out, the ‘fulfilment’ to be achieved ‘is in some part a moral phenomenon, because it means fostering a sense that one is “good,” a “worthy person”’. [7] To foster this sense of self-esteem in turn requires the cooperation of others. 

For the atomised individual consumer, a precondition of fostering self-esteem is the maintenance of what Giddens called ‘ontological security’, which is the ‘protective cocoon that all normal individuals carry around with them as the means whereby they are able to get on with the affairs of day-to-day life’. [8] Without this ontological security, individuals would be beset with an enervating ‘existential anxiety’ in which the elaboration of any ‘self-identity’, let alone actually achieving authentic self-knowledge or fulfilment, would be impossible. In other words, ontological security implies ontological vulnerability. From the highly individuated standpoint of the consumer, the self-esteem necessary to the self-regarding project of self-actualisation is always vulnerable to the hostility or indifference of others. This assumption of the ontological vulnerability of individual autonomy is an essential component of the individual consumer’s self-discovery. The reflexive project of the self takes place in the shadow of its essential vulnerability. And this is the point at which awareness of one’s own vulnerability and that of others becomes virtue, for it is maintaining that awareness that shows concern for and helps maintain the self-esteem of other vulnerable selves.   

Giddens drew out the political implications of this understanding of the individual subject of the consumer society: since we pursue the realisation of our authentic selves through our lifestyles, and the maintenance of our self-esteem depends on others’ recognition of our mutual vulnerability, the autonomy of each individual is dependent on the lifestyle choices of others, for these must maintain the mutual need for security through awareness of vulnerability. This entails a new ‘life politics’ or politics of lifestyle. [9] In other words, the awareness of the risks we all pose to others’ ontological security is our virtue. And, as I argued in Part One, that’s what the PMC likes to signal.

Writing in the early 1990s, Giddens was giving an account of the outlook of the PMC that had already developed as the old moral order had decayed. And by the mid-80s, it was this outlook that dominated the thinking of public health professionals in response to the AIDS crisis. Such was the practical decline of the authority of ‘Victorian values’ that the experts were able to convince even Thatcher’s health ministers that it was the only basis for a plausible response to the disease, and she did not oppose them. The morally virtuous response to AIDS could no longer be condemnation of gay men because they were only seeking self-actualisation through a sexually active lifestyle. Instead the virtuous response was the promotion of a universal embrace of the risks of sex, and an awareness of our mutual vulnerability through the practices of safer sex. 

At the heart of Giddens’s ‘life politics’ are questions of identity, self-esteem and mutual vulnerability. And here we can see the germ of what we now call the culture wars, in which the politicisation of lifestyle choices, and of sexual, religious and cultural identities (that are to a large extent sustained through particular patterns of consumption), constitutes the principal form of politics. However, Thatcher’s Tory Party was not a natural vehicle for the institutionalisation of this new order, even if it emerged at the moment of her victory over the working class. The promotion of vulnerability in place of traditional morality really got going under Blair’s New Labour government. Blair accepted the Thatcherite doctrine that ‘There is no alternative to the market’ but he did so in the form of Giddens’s ‘Third Way’, which at its core replaced the old class relations that structured the welfare state with the psychic welfare of the  individual consumer’s self-discovery project. [10] And from this standpoint the reorganisation of the state around the lifestyle politics of cultural identity, and its accompanying ideology of vulnerability could be embraced by New Labour with real enthusiasm.

The old morality was ditched as the focus of official discourse and policy shifted to new wrongs, such as child abuse, homophobia and racism. Anxiety about crime remained a central focus of policy, as it had been under Conservative governments, but the emphasis changed entirely. Where the Tories had emphasised that crime and anti-social behaviour were a problem of immorality and welfare-dependency, New Labour turned them into a problem of security, freedom from fear and control of the dangerous. [11] Under New Labour, anxiety about healthy lifestyles, healthy diets and mental health mushroomed. Vulnerability became the explicit value that motivated all areas of social policy, inspiring a vast bureaucracy of risk-awareness and an official culture of safety first. And, of course, the global vulnerability of all to climate change provided a constant backdrop. 

The same essential transformation occurred in Britain’s foreign policy over the same period. Thatcher had sought to revive the imperial patriotism of an earlier era. In 1982 she went to war with Argentina when it invaded the Falkland Islands, which Britain had occupied since the early nineteenth century. But her triumph in expelling Argentine forces from some remote moorland in the South Atlantic only drew attention to how decisively ended the actual Empire really was. While her militarist flag-waving helped win her the next election, Empire offered little in the way of long-term political resources, either domestically or internationally. By the late 1990s, therefore, vulnerability had taken over as the rationale for a new militarism, with humanitarian intervention against human rights abusers being the centrepiece of an allegedly ‘ethical’ foreign policy. This concern for the vulnerability of others to genocide and dictatorship could be seamlessly integrated into the promotion of the West’s own alleged vulnerability through the War on Terror. 

If Diana Spencer’s funeral inaugurated the new era in Britain, it was 9/11 that was probably the globally defining ideological event of the period, precisely because in its wake the most powerful state in the world got to present and understand itself as the victim of a system of international relations that it had done more to create than any other state. David Blunkett, Blair’s Home Secretary at the time, explained that 9/11 did not create the ideology of vulnerability, but was merely a moment for that ideology to take centre-stage:

The 11 September atrocity has come to crystallise the fear and insecurity many people feel in this new globalised age. It was such an appalling, inexplicable and morally unimaginable act of terror that it appeared almost to symbolise our vulnerability itself. [12]

Blunkett was clear in his mind that the vulnerability symbolised by 9/11 pre-existed the attack itself, as a condition of ‘this new globalised age’, the age in which the Thatcherite doctrine that ‘There is no alternative to the market’ ruled supreme. Just as there was no alternative to the market, so there was no alternative to the moral conditions of life in the market: no socialist alternative and no traditional alternative. There was just the vulnerability and insecurity that the life of the individual consumer in the market system entails. 

Over time this ideological worldview has reached into every corner of social life. It is a simple fact that there is no aspect of human social life that does not entail some risk of harm, somewhere down the line, however remote. Once it is normal for the state to legitimise itself by the explicit invocation of the vulnerability of its subjects to harm, then there is no aspect of life that is not open to regulation and policing in order to prevent the materialisation of the risks to which we are constantly vulnerable. The virtue-signalling culture of vulnerability awareness has, as a result, invaded every nook and cranny of social life. Of course, it remains true that among the most common risks to which people are vulnerable are those that arise from their lack of property. This lack still tends to result in vulnerability to poor educational outcomes, to low wages, and to poorer health and life expectancy: in other words, to the problems that the old welfare state was intended to solve. Why does this particular vulnerability, and its mitigation, not return to dominate politics and the state as it once did in the twentieth century? 

The old welfare state failed as a political settlement for a fundamental reason that we will return to in Part Three. But the immediate obstacle to reviving any true social democracy is socialists and social democrats themselves, and their devotion to the ideology of vulnerability. The left picked up on the Third Way conversion of welfare into a question of well-being through the realisation of identity and began vigorously to promote the vulnerability of oppressed and formerly oppressed members of British society—women, sexual and ethnic minorities—to the prejudicial attitudes of their ‘privileged’ fellow citizens. In this way, the Third Way politics of self-realisation, authenticity and cultural identity could be represented as a radical challenge to the old conservative, imperial Britain. This in turn allowed the Third Way to evolve into cosmopolitan intersectionalism, to move from Blair’s ‘Cool Britannia’ to today’s Penitent Britannia. 

From the point of view of  intersectionalism, capitalist society is understood as a morass of intersecting and overlapping identities marked by their relatively privileged or subordinated positions, and by their mutual vulnerabilities. In the first instance, these tend to emphasise specific vulnerabilities (particularly those generated by the legacy of the collapsed patriarchal order and the defunct Empire) that were once largely overlooked by the Labour Party in preference to the vulnerability of wage-earners as a social class. In this way, the working class is fragmented by racial, gender and sexual identities. But more significant is that, from within the intersectionalist worldview, the working class reappears as just another of the intersecting vulnerable identities, and this in itself precludes the possibility of anything approaching the old welfare state, let alone a more radical socialism. 

Workers are now understood merely as one group among ‘the many’ victims of capitalism. This representation of the working class as a vulnerable identity group serves the narrow material interests of a section of the professional-managerial class: the aspirant public sector managers and NGO leaders whose careers depend on large welfare budgets that require management. But it cannot be the basis for a return to the old welfare state because historically that was a consequence of the working class asserting its political agency in the state. The trade unions created a political movement that fought for improvements to its social conditions, and that, by the middle of the 1940s, had also delivered victory in the Second World War, so that by 1945 it would settle for nothing less than the old welfare state. It was exactly this political agency – the labour movement – that was liquidated in the 1980s, and the left’s devotion to wage-earners’ vulnerability is a major obstacle to any revival. 

Like all ideologies, the perspective of the ideology of vulnerability contains a truth but presents it in a one-sided way so as to obscure other aspects of reality. The ideology of vulnerability is true in so far as workers really are vulnerable to the effects of the labour market but, in the same moment, it obscures the fact that a free labour market also provides a condition of individual freedom, permitting a degree of social and political agency that was unavailable to pre-modern peasants and labourers. This potential disappears in the contemporary left-wing imagination where workers appear to be the objects of politics rather than its subjects. The adaptation of the British left to Thatcher’s defeat of the working class—the left’s commitment to wage-earners’ lack of agency and dependence on the state—was perfected when most leftists refused to back Brexit which the poorest workers had voted for in 2016. The Corbynite left preferred the EU’s paltry working-time directive to the possibility of seizing political control of the economy back from what leftists knew full well was the EU’s neoliberal constitutional order. 

The left’s politics of vulnerability are not merely an obstacle to the sort of state that its adherents often claim to want to create, but to the return of democratic mass political agency as such. The left’s commitment to mitigating our alleged vulnerability to climate change is an adaptation to the elite green campaign of austerity that targets the living standards of the masses as the primary threat to our continued existence as a species. This is one engine of the so-called culture wars, as is the left’s Third Way cosmopolitan intersectionalism, which produces an endless litany of demands for the state to police the speech, opinions and behaviour of the allegedly privileged white, heterosexual, patriotic population in order to protect marginalised identities in their vulnerability. Remarkably, the privileged sections of society who must be silenced have recently expanded to include women, whose campaign to protect young people from potentially unnecessary life-changing medical treatment, and female-only spaces from men who have decided they are women, is apparently akin to genocidal fascism. The nutty comic-opera authoritarianism of the PMC-dominated left has been enthusiastically adopted by large corporations, the civil service, local government, the police, academia, the cultural elite and the NGOs that surround the state institutions. They have adopted ‘wokeness’ for the ideological benefits that it offers to the powerful. It is intrinsically divisive; it provides a justification for repudiating any requirement that the elite ought to be accountable to an allegedly backward, racist population; and it inspires a sense of permanent emergency that also facilitates the evasion of political accountability. The left’s provision of these ideological services to the capitalist elite leaves most working people with nowhere to go politically but the right. 

However, here, too, all citizens are served up is the other side of the culture war generated by the ideology of vulnerability: populism. And populism is a further obstacle to democratic politics. 

Right-wing populism indulges the perception of many ordinary citizens that they are being victimised by a conspiracy of liberal and leftist globalists determined to trash the traditions and culture they hold dear in order to promote the interests of green doomsday cults, recent migrants, Muslims, trans activists, and so on. Since the numerical majority of citizens is white, heterosexual, patriotic and indigenous, populism appears to have a stronger claim to be a democratic form of politics. And, of course, there is a germ of truth in the populist claim, just as there is in the intersectionalist claim. Britain was until relatively recently an aggressively racist imperial power, as the woke maintain, and this legacy really is now being mobilised by liberal elites to undermine the position of working people, as populists aver. The problem is that both of these conflicting claims of vulnerability trade in the currency of the ruling ideology: vulnerable cultural identities. The apparent radicalism, intransigence and all-pervading character of the culture wars conflict only perfects the ideological effect of vulnerability claims. The cultural clash seems vital but it is really an evasion. It is true that in their universities, liberal elites are training new cosmopolitan, multi-ethnic, and queer cadres to police the unreconstructed masses of poorer, patriotic citizens still mired in their heteronormativity. It is true that almost every aspect of people’s lifestyle is being turned into a political battleground through which this policing can operate. But complaining that the traditions of the majority are being trashed and repressed by ‘political correctness gone mad’ is only to plead one’s own vulnerability and press the elite to return to the (already bankrupted) past. The cultural divisions only harden, and the population continues to lose ground, politically and economically. The ideology does its work and only our oligarchs are left laughing, literally all the way to the bank. Populism is an evasion of the political problem of democracy, the problem of how in the future we are to rule ourselves. We cannot do that through a mere competition of rival vulnerability claims.

The more sophisticated conservative version of the culture war is no less evasive. In this account, European civilisation is under attack from the politics of vulnerability and identity, and with it the universal ‘values’ that Europe’s Enlightenment contributed to human civilisation are threatened, the values of reason, of calculated risk-taking, of freedom itself. The challenge posed by the culture war is to fight for these values, to morally ‘re-arm’ society, so that people will have the cultural resources to escape their passivity, grasp the potential of their own agency, and once again engage in a politics of genuine self-determination. But, on this account, we are invited to fight for a Western civilisation that has become vulnerable to its own preoccupation with personal vulnerability. Like the official liberal ideology, or indeed like intersectionality and simple populism, this story also has a germ of truth: the achievements of bourgeois civilisation are vulnerable to its decay into obsession with health risks, emotional safety, speech crimes, microaggressions and all the rest. The irrationality of the official ideology of authoritarian liberalism and its hostility to individual freedom are a threat to democracy and even to more basic forms of political liberty. But, like the other contemporary tendencies generally, this cultural critique misrepresents and diverts political agency into the dead end of life politics, of a moral rejection of the new order. Like populism in particular, this cultural critique is an adaptation to the PMC’s life politics that postures as a challenge to it. 

The cause of freedom and reason cannot be revived in the abstract, but only through a concrete democratic political effort.  Neither freedom nor reason are  cultural ‘values’. Freedom is a political practice, an assertion of our will to realise ends that we give to ourselves in collaboration with our fellow citizens. And if we are going to establish either collective ends that make sense for us, and the means that are necessary to achieve those ends, then we will need to think logically and come to rational judgements about the historical political circumstances in which we find ourselves. To be practised, freedom needs political ideas that are compelling enough to make the effort worthwhile. And these ideas will have to do more than defend the Enlightenment concepts of reason and freedom. They will have to reckon with a key historical circumstance of our era. They will have to identify the reasons why the European Enlightenment, and the political traditions it spawned, have failed. Helpfully, Hayek has already explained the essential reason for this failure to us: reason cannot defend the distribution of vulnerability achieved by the market system, and so less rational sources of legitimacy are needed. Where religious tradition is exhausted, the irrational, fear-driven life politics of vulnerability is all the market system has left. Conservative cultural thinking evades this fundamental problem. 

The ideology of vulnerability, with its permanent emergency and politics of culture war, is the necessary ruling ideology of a market system after the demise of democratic politics in its liberal-democratic and social-democratic varieties. The vulnerability of wage-earners in the wake of this historic failure provides the ground for these politics because that vulnerability is real; but it is also a wholly distorted, one-sided representation of modern individuals in which they reappear as vulnerable consumers whose agency has been narrowed to questions of identity and lifestyle. What is obscured is that we are also free, if we wish, to think for ourselves about the way we produce our lives together, as well as the way we consume our lifestyles. Indeed, the new ideology is so effective and suffocating politically because it constructs our freedom as individuals as the source of our mutual vulnerability.

In its recognition of our ultimate individual freedom, albeit as the problem to be contained, the ideology of vulnerability can be thought of as within the liberal tradition, albeit as liberalism in decay, as authoritarian liberalism. In Part Three of this series, I will consider liberalism’s historical career, and how it proved to be strong enough to see off both conservatism and socialism, but did so only at the cost of fully developing its internal contradictions, leading to its ultimate exhaustion. Breaking the hold of the irrational ideology of vulnerability means breaking the death grip of liberalism over democracy. 



[1] TH Marshall, Citizenship and Social Class, (Pluto Press, 1992) 44

[2] D Keay, ‘AIDS, Education and the Year 2000!’, Woman’s Own, 31 October 1987 

[3] FA Hayek, The Road to Serfdom (Routledge, 1944) 151

[4] Hayek, The Road to Serfdom 151

[5] FA Hayek, Law, Legislation and Liberty: A New Statement of the Liberal Principles of Justice and Political Economy Vol 3 (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979) 167 

[6] M Lawson, ‘Icebergs and Rocks of the “Good” Lie’ Guardian 24 June 1996

[7] A Giddens, Modernity and Self Identity (Polity, 1991) 75-79

[8] Giddens, Modernity and Self Identity 40

[9] Giddens, Modernity and Self Identity 214

[10] A Giddens, The Third Way (Polity, 1998) 117

[11] S Waiton, The Politics of Anti-Social Behaviour: Amoral Panics (Routledge, 2008) 63-67; P Ramsay, The Insecurity State: Vulnerable Autonomy and the Right to Security in the Criminal Law (Oxford University Press, 2012).

[12] D Blunkett, ‘What Does Citizenship Mean Today?’ Guardian, 15 September 2002

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