Public ideas

Are we in a post-liberal age?

We’ve become acquainted with the nihilistic philosophy of post-modernism. Now we are reading about the emergence of post-liberalism, and writers on the authoritarian right are discussing what the post-liberal world will look like.

That is, if you believe liberalism is dead or dying.

It is one thing to acknowledge that liberalism is going through tough times, assaulted from the right by authoritarian populists in office in many democracies, and from the left by movements that see the wrongs of the world being righted through identity politics rather than through liberal principles of universal rights.But it’s quite another matter to suggest liberalism is now on the way out.


Russell Blackford of the University of Newcastle (our Newcastle) has made a contribution to tracing liberalism’s trajectory in a book How we became post-liberal: the rise and fall of toleration – a title that seems to summarize its content.

Jane Goodall of the University of Western Sydney reviews Blackford’s work in a Conversation contribution: Liberalism is in crisis. A new book traces how we got here, but lets neoliberal ideologues off the hook. Her review is a neat summary of the main streams of liberal thought and their political manifestations, before she gets on to Blackford’s dismal conclusion that liberalism has suffered a mortal wound from the bitterness and intolerance of social justice movements.

Without denying the existence of this influence, Goodall asks “Why focus on social justice movements as the heart of the problem, rather than the culture of extreme individualism generated by neoliberal orthodoxies?”She goes on to warn that “the contemporary post-liberal movement is showing a distinct bias towards targeting identity politics and social justice campaigns”.

Liberalism has been through rough patches: Blackford himself mentions McCarthyism as one. As Goodall points out the extreme asymmetries of economic power resulting from neoliberalism is a present threat. But she warns:

Beware of those who seek to herald new forms of sanity. They may be harbingers of the next wave of tyranny.

The virtue of doubt

How often do you hear a politician say “I don’t know”? The politician who cannot deliver a confident, categorical statement may not have an easy time in his or her party ranks – even if the public welcome an admission of uncertainty and doubt.

Michelle Simmons, known for her contribution to atomic electronics (the technology of quantum computing), was the 2023 Boyer lecturer. For her final lecture she chose to talk about the importance of doubt.

Her lecture can be regarded as a passionate defence of the scientific method, without which physics, her chosen field, would never have progressed. It’s a field in which the more we know the more we find we don’t know. and had we not been guided by curiosity and doubt we might never have gone into those unknown territories. Surely that holds in all domains of human knowledge, even if we don’t know a quark from a positron.

She fears, however, that our education practices, and our general norms of public behaviour, reward certitude backed by a display of confidence. To quote:

There has been a movement across society, and in educational circles, that is more interested in the promotion of self-esteem and empowerment than in the measurement of competence or the discovery of knowledge. As a consequence, I sometimes wonder whether we live in a time and place where we are not allowed to have doubts anymore.

It's often the highly credentialed, the most experienced, who express the most confidence in their ideas, because they have been rewarded for doing so. We are socially accepted when we go along with opinions that are fashionable, particularly if they are endorsed by those with academic authority.

She acknowledges that those who are open about their doubt can be considered to lack confidence. She refers to the damaging power of self-doubt, which is different from what could be called productive doubt – doubt based on skepticism and curiosity – particularly but not only as it affects women.