Today, liberalism seems under greater threat than at any time since the end of the Cold War. Books with titles like Why Liberalism Failed have received laudations from both the Left and the Right. The European Union, United States and Latin America have witnessed the rise of postmodern conservative movements calling for the formation of illiberal democracies, in the service of a return to traditionalism and community, to counteract the atomism and meaninglessness of liberal individualism. As Patrick Deneen, author of Why Liberalism Failed, expresses it: “The fundamental premise of liberalism is that the natural condition of man is defined above all by the absence of culture.” Liberalism, for Deneen, targets the local generational customs, practices and rituals that traditionally make up a culture. The organic community is replaced by a collection of autonomous individuals all pursuing their own interests, only united by a “uniform and homogenized governance of promulgated law.”
Even the young seem to have caught on. Polls suggest that, while millennials and Gen Zers hold highly liberal social values, they are increasingly willing to flirt with socialism and other economic arrangements that many argue are antithetical to the capitalist ethos of liberal politics.
This development must seem startling to many liberals. By the end of the twentieth century, liberalism seemed to have outlasted all its potential rivals. Francis Fukuyama and others predicted we had reached the end of history, since both communism and fascism had been utterly disgraced and defeated by the liberal states. So, how did we move from such triumphalism to claims that liberalism has failed in less than forty years? Suggested answers have ranged from liberalism’s indifference to economic inequality to the desire for a more communal nationalist polity. I will not address how we arrived at this point. Instead, I want to look at what liberalism still has to offer to progressives looking for radical change. Liberalism has quite a lot going for it, and we need to be careful not to dismiss these boons even as we agitate for extensive social reforms.
The Story of Liberalism
There is danger in speaking so generally about “liberalism,” a danger that has often plagued feminist debates. “Liberalism” is not a single position but a family of positions; Kantian liberalism is profoundly different from classical Utilitarian liberalism, and both of these from the Utilitarianism currently dominant in neoclassical economics.—Martha Nussbaum, Sex and Social Justice.
Liberalism in its current form emerged in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as a doctrine emphasizing liberty, an emphasis derived from a foundational reinterpretation of the human subject as a rational being. Human beings apprehend the world as a collection of objects, which can be manipulated to advance our interests. Great stress should therefore be placed on enabling individuals to freely use their reason to better understand the world, so that it can be more efficiently organized to promote human welfare. At first, the connection between these high level intellectual claims and liberal politics was tenuous. Pre-liberal thinkers like Grotius and Hobbes stressed our capacity to use reason to understand the world, but were unwilling to entirely break with the political model of an authoritarian monarchy. Things began to change quite rapidly from the late seventeenth century onwards, when luminaries like Locke, Voltaire and Wollstonecraft came to argue that truly emancipating human reason to advance the welfare of all also meant emancipating people from political tyranny. Gradually, these initially abstract calls helped foment the liberal American, Haitian and (initially liberal) French revolutions which helped establish liberalism as a practical political ideology.
Most early forms of liberalism were highly inconsistent in their calls for emancipation: liberals are often quite willing to accept the subjugation of certain people, so long as they enjoy freedom themselves. Think of Martin Luther King’s scathing denunciations of moderate white liberals, willing to tolerate segregation to preserve order. John Locke was a revolutionary in demanding representative government and respect for the natural rights of white male property owners, but, as the late Connor O’Callaghan observed, was quite willing to accept slavery and the appropriation of indigenous lands in North America when it suited him. The bourgeois French revolutionaries had a great deal to say about the universal rights of man—but were rightly criticized by Olympe de Gouges and Mary Wollstonecraft for scoffing at the idea of granting the same rights to women. J. S. Mill was an impassioned champion of individual liberty and the emancipation of women, but also defended British imperialism in India for allegedly bringing civilization to a backward people. The list of liberalism’s exceptions, hypocrisies and failings is long.
But there is another, more charitable way to interpret liberalism. Following Will Kymlicka, we can describe liberalism as helping to gradually expand the circle of moral and political equality. The moral impulse behind liberalism is that each person is of equal value. This is why, gradually, liberalism felt compelled to criticize hierarchical institutions and ideologies that earlier liberals had supported. From Locke’s insistence that the only people who truly mattered were white male property owners, we moved within a century to Immanuel Kant’s grudging admission that everyone possesses a fundamental dignity “beyond price.” We went from the insistence that women are not people and therefore not entitled to the “rights of man” to enshrining those same rights specifically for women in many liberal constitutions (though, sadly, the United States has not taken such steps). Liberal egalitarian thinkers like John Rawls, Martha Nussbaum and Amartya Sen claim that a sincere liberalism cannot condone poverty. If everyone possesses equal moral value, dramatic inequality in welfare and quality of life is fundamentally unfair: especially since—as we now know—poverty and income inequality often result from arbitrary circumstances for which the poor are not responsible, any more than the rich are responsible for inheriting advantages which enable them to get ahead. A sincerely liberal state must therefore ensure that the least well off are society’s prime concern.
However, even if this Whiggish history of liberalism is correct, liberalism still has serious problems. Its efforts to respect the equal moral value of all have been halting and often insufficient. The failure of liberal institutions to heed the calls of Rawls, Sen and others to care for the least well off has led to dramatic inequalities and resentments in many developed countries. It should therefore come as no surprise that illiberal postmodern conservatism seems attractive to many. But these failures do not mean leftists should be unreservedly pleased that liberalism seems to be giving way—particularly if the illiberal conservatism that replaces it is far more exclusionary.
Liberalism and the Left
The history of liberalism and the Left is a story of true love: its course never runs smooth. In most developed countries, leftists are admirably carrying on liberal inspired projects, such as agitating for the inclusion of traditionally marginalized groups like women, gays and lesbians, trans people and immigrants. But there is also a deep cynicism and even dismissal of the soft liberalism of Hillary Clinton or Tony Blair as insufficiently radical, conformist or even covertly reactionary. Given the failures of technocratic liberals to take seriously demands for a comprehensive redistribution of wealth and political power, I can understand these concerns. But liberalism still has a great deal to offer the left, and we dismiss its insights at our own peril.
The Emphasis on Individualism
Leftists going back to Karl Marx have criticized liberalism for its emphasis on abstract individual rights at the expense of group rights. The contention is that liberal individualism supports respect for private property and capitalist self-interest at the expense of universal emancipation for those marginalized by economic deprivation. These critiques have been expanded in recent decades to include the way in which the liberal emphasis on color blindness has prevented us from recognizing the still substantial discrepancies in wealth and power between certain social groups.
Such critiques aren’t without merit, though developments like liberal multiculturalism and an emphasis on legal group protections address these concerns. But the criticisms often miss the shared moral impulse left-wing critics share with liberals: that the point of reforming society is emancipation for all, and that this is fundamentally an individualistic moral enterprise. Leftists want a society in which each person enjoys equal opportunities to live a meaningful life, without facing marginalization or demands to conform to traditionalist morality. The point of criticizing society for marginalizing groups like women, LGBTQ individuals and so on isn’t to create a world where all members of such groups must be the same. It is to create a world where they can live their life as they see fit, without facing condemnation for their gender or sexual orientation.
The Emphasis on Creative Potential
One of the great boons of liberalism has been to emancipate large swathes of human society from traditionalism. Early liberals celebrated human potential to deploy reason to develop new ways of thinking, being and engaging in politics. This had a tremendously alienating impact on traditionalists and conservatives, who saw these developments as disruptions to both the ideological and political status quo. That is why the most severe, but honest, reactionaries like Joseph De Maistre condemn reason and creativity, demanding that people submit to their rulers and traditional hierarchies as a matter of faith. As he puts it in his Studies of Sovereignty:
All known nations have been happy and powerful to the extent that they have more faithfully obeyed this national reason, which is nothing other than the annihilation of individual dogmas and the absolute and general reign of national dogmas, that is to say, of useful prejudices. Let each man call upon his individual reason in the matter of religion, and immediately you will see the birth of an anarchy of belief or the annihilation of religious sovereignty. Likewise, if each man makes himself judge of the principles of government, you will at once see the birth of civil anarchy or the annihilation of political sovereignty. Government is a true religion: it has its dogmas, its mysteries, and its ministers. To annihilate it or submit it to the discussion of each individual is the same thing; it lives only through national reason, that is to say through political faith, which is a creed.
Liberals were amongst the first to push back against these tyrannical sentiments, and leftists have followed since the nineteenth century. The goal of emancipation for both liberals and leftists is to enable individuals to transcend the traditions and contexts into which they were born and develop what Zizek calls their “creative potential.” This doesn’t mean destroying traditions. But it does mean rejecting the state’s right to enforce a traditionalist morality or creed upon people, who should be as free as possible to define themselves without coercion. Fully achieving this project means embracing what Robert Unger would call a “super liberal” position and calling for a socialized deliberative democracy. But liberals and leftists share many of the same moral impulses on these points.
The Moral Equality of All People
Related to this emphasis on universal emancipation is a shared commitment to moral equality. Liberals from Kant onwards have, sometimes grudgingly but increasingly ubiquitously, accepted that all individuals are morally equal: that no one’s life is more valuable than anyone else’s, from a moral point of view. Now whether this means that we should aspire to greater material equality is a point on which many leftists differ from classical liberals, who often contend that a high degree of material inequality is acceptable in a liberal society, either because it is a necessary consequence of economic liberty or because inequalities incentivize individuals to work harder and stimulate economic growth. This is one of the major distinctions between the Intellectual Dark Web and leftists today. But the gap is hardly unbridgeable. Many twentieth and twenty-first century liberal thinkers have acknowledged that respecting the moral equality of all is incompatible with high levels of material inequality. Rawls and Nussbaum have many nuanced arguments on these points. It is quite possible to blunt the impact of these ideological disagreements through careful engagement and the development of sound policies.
As the ancient Chinese saying goes we may be cursed to live in “interesting times.” Leftists and liberals are both confronted with the specter of xenophobic right-wing movements sweeping the globe and attempting to retrench traditionalism and group identities at the expense of individualism and the emancipation of everyone’s creative potential. This is a serious threat that can only be dealt with by looking more closely at the ties that bind liberalism and the Left, while seeking to generate an overlapping consensus as to the kind of society which can best realize our shared ambitions. Leftists can contribute to this project by recognizing what aspects of liberalism they relate to, and building bridges wherever possible.