Monday, August 05, 2013


Liberal Mondays 4: Ralf Dahrendorf Vs Utopia #LibDemValues

Earlier in the year, I started an occasional series of Liberal quotations that made me think. Perhaps I’ve not been thinking enough, but I haven’t published any for a while. So today I opened Duncan Brack’s 1999 Dictionary of Liberal Quotations at random and found myself nodding at a few thoughts from Ralf Dahrendorf, German, British and European Liberal thinker and politician. Here are three that seem to me to go together:
“Liberty remains a response to the fact that we live in a world of uncertainty.”

“Utopia is always illiberal, because it leaves no room for error or correction.”

“There is no state of affairs in which Liberalism has been completely realised. Liberalism is forever process, the process by which human beings explore new opportunities for more people.”
These three quotations from different times and places – a book in 1975, a paper to the Liberal International Congress in 1988, and one the Dictionary couldn’t pin down – but of all the quotations selected from his works these leapt out at me as part of the same train of thought. Perhaps because I’ve read so many dystopias and remembered that they’re the same thing as utopias (so many people having taken the satire literally), perhaps because my heroes are messy and resist filing, perhaps because I suspect or hope I’d always be the one asking the awkward questions in the ‘perfect society’ and spoiling the party, the idea of utopia instinctively fills me with dread.

These three lines from Ralf Dahrendorf appealed to me because they sum up why utopia’s deadly and why Liberalism is a better answer – because it doesn’t pretend to have all the answers and put aside people who don’t fit into ‘perfection’, and because it’s not so rigid that the whole thing shatters when reality gives it a twist. Freedom is messy and awkward, but it’s both more human and more practical: trying to force people to fit your utopian ideal hurts real people and is never going to work anyway, so you’re better off leaving whatever system you have with room for people to grow into it.

Chiming so much with me, you’ll not be surprised that I’ve written along similar lines before: you can read here my critique of “the end justifies the means”. Like Liberals rejecting the left-right axis for a Liberal-Authoritarian one, I argue that utopians get it wrong even in assuming there’s a difference between ends and means: the ‘end-point’ of utopia is mythical and only means they trample the real ‘ends’ in politics, every unique individual, along the way.

I understand that Duncan Brack and Mark Pack are at work on a new edition of the Dictionary of Liberal Quotations; I’d like to get round to making lots of suggestions, but suspect I won’t (I can see lethargy beating vanity for proposing my own lines). But you might…

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As far as my Liberal friends are concerned, the idea that Doctor Who is inherently Liberal is already part of our lexicon.
For me, too, instinctively (as, infamously, the series made me a Liberal). But no less reason to keep holding Doctor Who to account, either!
Oh, and also what you said about how before videos the only way a person could see Doctor Who between Saturdays was in nightmares, I quote that a lot. :)
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