No serious political scientist or pundit today would deny that liberalism, the foundational ideology of the Western world for the last few centuries, is under attack. Autocrats like Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, or Turkey’s Recip Erdogan have offered an illiberal challenge to liberal democracy that has gained strong appeal with its constituents. But in the very bastions of the liberal West, liberalism is also succumbing from the onslaught of far-right populism. That people like Donald Trump or Boris Johnson would become leaders of their respective countries would have seemed inconceivable just a few decades earlier. Now the question seems to be which country will be the next to fall into the cracks.
Despite these concerns, liberals from both the left and right of the political spectrum appear hopeful in their hubris. In the first two centuries after its inception, liberalism successfully dismantled the political absolutism of the ancien regime, and universalized the Western values of individual rights and liberties that almost every society on earth now takes for granted. In the 20th century it also fended off two great illiberal challenges in the form of fascism and communism. Although the term is annoyingly taken as a synonym of “left-winger” in the US, almost everyone in the Western world today believes him or herself to be a liberal from a political-philosophical perspective. Unfortunately, this label is usually self-applied without stopping to think what being a liberal actually means which is extremely problematic: a foundational political ideology that remains unchallenged eventually becomes a hindrance rather than a help to human progress when its adherents fail to realize it may be obsolete.
This post will make the controversial point that liberalism has reached that point of obsolescence. More so, I will argue that it is a political ideology tarnished with blood, riddled with hypocrisy and contradictions, and which has become a rhetorical concept intended to justify the presumed superiority of Western civilization and thought as a justification for Western hegemony. And even if by the end of these lines you remain steadfast in your belief that liberalism is a sacred pillar of modernity and must be defended at any cost, hopefully it would make you uncomfortable enough that you will never look at liberalism the same way.
What is liberalism?
The first thing to know about liberalism is that there is no consensus of what it actually is. Liberalism has meant so many things to some many people in so many different periods of history that it is impossible to pin down a universal definition of what liberal values are, so we are left with gross simplifications like “a liberal is a man who believes in liberty”. In other words, anyone who claims that they are a liberal, is a liberal. By today’s standards, hardly any country that considered itself “liberal” in the 19th century would meet that standard today. Women could not vote, nor could adult male who didn’t own land. Homosexuality was treated as a crime and was even subject to the death penalty. Even in the 20th century things were not much better. When the Allied armies stormed the beaches of Normandy in 1944, ostensibly for the liberation of Europe against fascist totalitarianism, one of those countries (the US) still legally segregated its black population while the other (Britain) kept 400 million people around the world as its colonial subjects.
It is also important to separate liberalism from democracy, even if they are typically taken together. In the broadest sense, democracy is about the distribution of power, whereas liberalism is about its limits. Democracy also does not deal with issues such as individual rights and liberties which are intrinsic to liberalism as a philosophical project. From a historical perspective, democracy precedes liberalism by nearly two thousand years and can therefore exist without it. The proliferation of “illiberal democracies” in the post-Cold War era, countries that had relatively free and fair election but without the accompanying respect for the rule of law and civil rights that are characteristics of liberal states. It is also possible to have liberal autocracies, as most European monarchical states in the 19th century were to greater or lesser extent (the Austro-Hungarian Empire comes to mind). For the most part, this essay will not discuss democracy and will focus entirely on liberalism on its own.
If we cannot arrive at a definition of what liberalism is, at least we can agree on certain ideas that we accept as being intrinsic (but not necessarily exclusive) to liberalism. Perhaps the most important one is the consent of the governed. This means that political authority must be justified and not be based on natural or supernatural rights such as the divine right of kings that characterized the age of absolutism in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries. Another is secularism, the separation of church and state. There is also the rule of law, which states that all people should be treated equally when facing justice. Liberalism is also strongly concerned with individual rights, such as the right to life, property, free speech, free association, among others. Indeed perhaps the best way to define liberalism from a philosophical perspective is that it is an ideology that takes the individual as the center of the human project, or as the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes: “running throughout liberal political theory is an ideal of a free person as one whose actions are in some sense her own”. A more recent addition to the liberal ideology is free enterprise, whereby private citizens have the right to engage in productive activity, preferably with as little interference from the state as possible.
To set a starting point for this essay, it worth reading two of the most well-known statements from two of the most well-known liberals of the Anglo-Saxon tradition. The first comes from John Locke in his Two Treaties of Government, and deals with the idea of the consent of the governed as the only legitimate constitution of any state:
“Thus that which begins and actually constitutes any political society is nothing but the consent of any number of freemen capable of a majority to unite and incorporate into such a society. And this is that, and that only, which did or could give beginning to any lawful government in the world.”
The second comes from John Stuart Mill and illustrates the liberal notion that liberty is the default option in human affairs:
“In practical matters, the burthen of proof is supposed to be with those who are against liberty; who contend for any restriction or prohibition, either any limitation of the general freedom of human action, or any disqualification or disparity of privilege affecting one person or kind of persons, as compared with others. The à priori presumption is in favour of freedom and impartiality.”
As rousing as these statements might seem, the history of liberalism shows no evidence that liberals ever intended these to be universal concepts of human governance. For much of its history, liberalism has actually worked against these two ideas being implemented in the widest way possible, but rather, in ways that only would benefit a white, Western bourgeoisie. All the while denying these rights to everyone else.
We won’t be their Negroes!
In the Anglo-Saxon political tradition, we generally trace the roots of liberalism to the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and Locke’s Two Treatises of Government which were published the following year. But let’s start analyzing what is problematic with the above statement, namely the “the consent of any number of freemen”. Note the key word here is freemen. Locke wasn’t talking about all citizens, merely those that weren’t slaves which were still around in England during Locke’s time. It was only until 1706 that the first piece of legislation was passed that banned slavery in the country but it nevertheless persisted in some forms (such as domestic slavery) until Somersett’s case in 1772. Indeed, Locke seemed to only really care about slavery when it involved Englishmen. His quote “slavery is so vile and miserable an estate of man, and so directly opposite to the generous temper and courage of our nation” contrasts to the fact that he had no opposition whatsoever to the taking of slaves in war under the logic that slavery is preferable than death, and that any person taking up arms against another (presumably even in the defense against aggression) has effectively given up the right to their life:
“Indeed, having by his fault forfeited his own life, by some act that deserves death; he, to whom he has forfeited it, may (when he has him in his power) delay to take it, and make use of him to his own service, and he does him no injury by it.”
This double standard has proven to be embarrassing for liberal apologists in retrospective since it made it obvious that to Locke (like most liberals of his time), it was only the enslavement of Europeans that was condemnable but other races were fair game. The liberal indifference to slavery would reach new levels of hypocrisy in the United States of America, the first nation on Earth founded on the liberal principles and whose Declaration of Independence famously stated that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Clearly not all men were created equal, given the fact that so many of the Founding Fathers owned slaves. But what is perhaps more disturbing was how many liberals saw their own subjugation by the English crown as somehow worse than what they were subjecting their own slaves to. One of the US’s Founding Fathers, John Adams, went so far as to write the following in a Massachusetts newspaper (under a pen name) before the Revolution:
“Our fore fathers came over here for liberty of conscience, and we have been nothing better than servants to ’em all along this 100 years, and got just enough to keep soul and body together, and buy their goods to keep us from freezing to death, and we won’t be their negroes. I know, for if it had it wou’d have given us black hides, and thick lips, and flat noses, and short woolly hair, which it han’t done, and therefore never intended us for slaves. This I know is good a sillogissim as any at colledge, I say we are as handsome as old England folks, and so should be as free.”
It must be said that most liberals not only were fine with slavery, most of them actively opposed its abolition. And when abolitionist sentiment was too much to resist, this was not driven by liberals but by Quakers and other religious folk, the polar opposite of the secular liberals. All in all, this first century of liberalism that was the 18th century was when the Atlantic slave trade was in full swing, with millions of people deprived of their life, liberty, and freedoms in Africa for a life of bondage in the New World. The English poet William Cowper (an evangelical Christian and abolitionist) summed up the hypocrisy of tolerating slavery in a poem:
I own I am shocked at the purchase of slaves,
And fear those who buy them and sell them are knaves;
What I hear of their hardships, their tortures, and groans
Is almost enough to draw pity from stones.
I pity them greatly, but I must be mum,
For how could we do without sugar and rum?
Especially sugar, so needful we see;
What, give up our desserts, our coffee, and tea?
The 19th century may have seen slavery end in most countries, but two other stains in the liberal tradition appeared. The first was colonialism. During the 19th century the grand majority of the territory of Africa, the Middle East, and Asia was conquered and colonized by liberal European countries. Rebellions like the Indian Mutiny of 1857 were squashed with brutal force. Famines became commonplace not only in places like India but in that other forgotten English colony known as Ireland, where a tenth of the population died in the 1840s all the while the liberal Anglo-Protestant landowners continued exporting Irish food abroad for their own profits. A 1910 map of the British Empire had the farcical title of “Flags of a Free Empire” when it is obvious than an empire, by definition, involves the deprivation of freedom to its subjects. And so the “liberal” champions of imperialism were committing a similar double standard to that of Locke: demanding life, liberty, and freedom for themselves while at the same time denying it for others. Science and reason, another supposed hallmark of liberalism, came to their aid with the proliferation of race theories like Social Darwinism and eugenics which pretended to add a rational justification for the subjugation of other races.
By this time, industrialization and capitalism were in full swing back home, and this added a further element of cruelty to liberalism’s colonial subjects. Although the slave trade had ended, the indentured servitude of many colonial subjects like the Indian and Chinese “coolies” was only a modest upgrade in personal freedom. In many countries, however, colonialism was imposed with such savagery that it approached genocidal conditions. By far the most notorious was in the Belgian Congo, which became a major source of rubber production to feed the voracious appetite of European industry in the late 19th and early 20th century. Not only were the Congolese dispossessed of their lands by their liberal Belgian colonizers, but they were subject to barbarous punishments such as chopping off the hands of the wives and children of those men who refused to serve in the rubber plantations. The men were also subject to mutilations for failing to work as hard as their masters demanded. As with slavery, most 19th century liberals made little effort to condemn this even if an earlier generation had been more critical of it: Adam Smith was a staunch anti-imperialist. In contrast, John Stuart Mill had this to say about colonialism:
“In the first place, the rules of ordinary international morality imply reciprocity. But barbarians will not reciprocate. They cannot be depended on for observing any rules… In the next place, nations which are still barbarous have not got beyond the period during which it is likely to be for their benefit that they should be conquered and held in subjection by foreigners”
You would think that liberalism would be much kinder to its own people, but in the 19th century, this was not the case. The “dark satanic mills” of the industrial revolution made many cities in the West festering sores of poverty, malnutrition, and destitution, with millions of formerly economically independent farmers and artisans becoming wage slaves for their factory owners. Undesirables like vagrants were thrown, young and old, into workhouses without their consent, the idea being to make idleness so punishing that nobody would dare not work. Like slavery and colonialism, all of this came to be unopposed by liberals if not actively supported by them. Because by now free enterprise was more important, and the work ethic needed to support the back-breaking work in the factories was believed to be only attainable through harsh imposition.
Were it not for the efforts of “illiberal” socialists, anarchists, and trade unionists, the Western world would not have had things like minimum work hours, an end to child labor, health and safety standards, and basically anything that provides people today with dignified working conditions. You would also have none of the political rights that they fought like extending the voting franchise to non-landowners and women. All of this happened in spite of liberalism, not because of it. And yet liberalism has claimed all of these victories as its own in retrospective and perhaps that has been is greatest success: to support the most abhorrent and indignant aspects of human existence only to later pretend that it eradicated them.
And now we reach the end of this story, the 20th century. The century where liberalism became a truly hegemonic ideology mostly because it won the battle against its two main challengers: fascism and communism. Or to put it in simpler terms, liberalism won the battle against totalitarianism. And who would not want that? With all its flaws and contradictions, certainly nobody in their right minds would rather live in Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia than in a liberal democracy. To use the term coined by Francis Fukuyama, we had reached the “End of History”, the point in which ideology had ceased to become a point of contention:
“What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such … That is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”
But just as the Berlin Wall was being torn down, another wall was slowly being erected. Liberalism, the triumphant ideology of the century, had no opposition. And this became incredibly problematic because it seemingly won another great battle: economics. Liberal economics, the idea that individuals and private businesses should engage in free, voluntary exchange with each other with the least amount of interference from the state also became the standard template for economic policymaking in the West, and particularly in the Anglo-Saxon world. Once again, a certain group of liberal economists would appropriate the term for themselves. This was the Austrian School led by people like Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek, who opposed the post-war social democratic consensus believing that this would inevitably pave the Road to Serfdom, in other words, socialism. They saw themselves as the true heirs to the liberal tradition, even though rival economists like John Maynard Keynes would have also considered themselves as such.
Economic liberalism claims that it gives people choice, and that free markets are the best way in which economic interactions can take place. But do we become more or less free the more liberal an economy is? Are people less free here in the UK where the NHS offers every citizen free healthcare than in the US where most healthcare coverage is private? Are people less free when they don’t pay for university tuition than when you pay a market price for your higher education and carry student debt on your shoulders for decades? Are people less free when they have unions that ensure fairer wages? Are they less free in an employee-owned business like John Lewis than in hyper-capitalist Amazon or Walmart? It is one of the great ironies that the more an economy pursues free markets and free enterprise, the less free it becomes for ordinary citizens. Tellingly, the US is actually the Western economy with the lowest social mobility despite waxing lyrical about its “American Dream” of rags to riches. In contrast, the statist, social democracies of Scandinavia have the highest.
When we have political parties so committed to economic liberalism that you end up with no alternative, are you also more or less free? Because that is pretty much what has happened in many parts of the world since the 1980s. In 2001 The Economist endorsed Tony Blair with the headline: “Vote Conservative” and had his face superimposed over the outline of Thatcher’s head. Here’s a quote from an American president:
“I actually believe that capitalism is the greatest force for prosperity and opportunity the world has ever known. I believe in private enterprise, not government, but innovators and risk-takers and makers and doers, driving job creation.”
No, this was not a Republican free marketeer like Reagan or Bush. It was Obama, a president who inherited the worst crisis brought upon by economic liberalism since the Great Depression. But at least one can argue that in Western democracies, it was their own citizens which voted economic liberalism into power. What about the rest of the world? Well, as with slavery, and as with colonialism, economic liberalism has also been imposed by force by the very liberal democracies that trumpet liberty and freedom. Since the 1980s, virtually every country in the world that has suffered some kind of economic crisis, often through no fault of their own, has had the same laissez-faire policies rammed down their throat: Privatize. Deregulate. Open markets to capital. Today every region in the world except East Asia (and this largely because of China and India) is poorer relative to the West than they were half a century ago. Mexico, for example, had a GDP per capita (in purchasing power parity terms) that was just under half of that of the US in 1980. Today it is barely a third. But we have McDonald’s and Starbucks on every street corner. Progress!
There is a word for this type of liberalism. It’s called neoliberalism. And it effectively involves using illiberalism in the political and international sphere to promote economic liberalism at home. International financial institutions like the IMF and World Bank that are not democratic. World Trade Organization deals that are negotiated in so-called ‘Green Rooms’ where only big Western countries are present. Economic support for third-world dictatorships and kleptocrats insofar as they retain property rights for foreign capital and open markets for foreign goods. If you call yourself a liberal but do not find any of this morally revolting, I’m sure you would have also supported slavery and colonialism back in the day.
So to answer the opening question: what is liberalism? My definition would have it as a hegemonic, all-encompassing, meta-category of Western political discourse. It means everything and nothing simultaneously. It can support slavery and later demand its abolition. It can support colonialism and then call for the right of self-determination of peoples. It can support laissez-faire and a welfare state. It can spread democracy and free markets – by force. In the end it becomes not unlike the socialist realism. A mythical, idealized representation of Western civilization’s self-proclaimed superiority. But one that is ultimately full of so many contradictions, it can only truly be defined by that which it opposes rather than for what it actually is. That leaders as ideologically disparate as Franklin D. Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, or economists like John Maynard Keynes and Friedrich Hayek or political philosophers like John Rawls and Robert Nozick could all self-describe themselves as “liberal” shows how meaningless the term become once it monopolized political ideology in the West.
Liberals might be tempted to respond by saying that liberalism isn’t so much a framework for what an ideal society should be but rather, the process of achieving it. This would set it apart from other “utopian” ideologies like socialism. In this sense, that liberalism is an ever-evolving idea that gradually encompasses new conceptions of liberty across an increasing number of beneficiaries is not so much a weakness but its greatest strength. But I personally think this is a colossal intellectual cop-out. It implies a false presumption that the limits to liberty that earlier generations of liberal thinkers envisaged (to slaves, to colonial subjects, to minorities) would only be temporary affairs. Nothing in their writing suggests that the ultimate objective of the liberal project was the maximum amount of liberties to the maximum amount of people and even if they mentioned this in passing, there was never a preoccupation for how this was to be done. For example, when Alexis de Tocqueville, the liberal admirer of democracy in America, defended France’s brutal subjugation of Algeria in the 1830s for the “glory of our country”, he showed no evidence of ever believing that this served the long-term purpose of their people’s enlightenment and progress. In fact, quite the contrary. It was never anything more than an imperialistic endeavor serving no benefit other than France’s glory:
“I have often heard men whom I respect, but with whom I do not agree, find it wrong that we burn harvests, that we empty silos, and finally that we seize unarmed men, women, and children. These, in my view, are unfortunate necessities, but ones to which any people who want to wage war on the Arabs are obliged to submit”
But as damning as this should be for liberalism’s moral credentials, we don’t even need to resort to historical hypocrisies to show its utter failure. Liberalism today has no answer to most of the world’s most pressing needs. It has no answer to inequality or climate change because it cannot reconcile free enterprise and profit with redistributing wealth and saving the planet. It has no answer to the internet’s assault on democracy because it finds limits to free speech abhorrent, even when they are necessary. Even before the internet, it had no solution to the corporate takeover of the “free” traditional media. It has found no answer to the challenges of immigration and diversity, which despite their undeniable economic benefits often come with very real consequences to social cohesion. It insists on taking structural problems like the mental health epidemic and consumerism as a matter of individual choice. It props up plutocrats who are above the law. And on the global stage, it is obvious to all but the most deluded internationalists that the idea of a world order based on liberal values is a myth: modern geopolitics still revolves around the preservation of strategic and economic interests of a small number of powerful states. Just because tiny island nations get a chance to speak at the UN General Assembly does not make modern international relations more just.
Why I’m not a liberal
As a socialist, it is easy for me to take the position of not being liberal even if many of the positions are thoroughly compatible. I certainly believe in the consent of the governed (I am a democratic socialist, not a Stalinist) and I would even dare take democracy much further than most liberals, namely into the workplace. I believe in secularism and the rule of law, and I am also not opposed to free enterprise either insofar as it is labor not capital which controls the means of production (no liberal would ever call this free enterprise but I’ve explained why it is not contradictory in a previous long post). My main disagreement with liberalism, however, is the primacy of individualism. Quite simply put, I do not believe that the individual is and should be the center of the human project and consequently, that maximizing individual freedom is the only viable framework for human well-being. This should not be a controversial position. For one thing, there is a half century of scientific evidence from the fields of psychology, biology, and neuroscience that has proven that we are not the rational, utility-maximizing individuals that liberals have long believed we are, from Benthamite utilitarians to Homo Economicus. When Thatcher said “there is no such thing as society”, she was echoing this very liberal-individualist view of the human condition. It is scientifically wrong.
The liberal obsession with the individual has not just been subject to criticism by socialists, but also from within the Anglo-Saxon political philosophical tradition. Communitarianism was a movement that rejected even the more benign Rawlsian conception of liberalism precisely because it remained individual-focused even despite its egalitarian focus. Communitarians like Michael Sandel, Charles Taylor, and Alasdair MacIntyre were effective in making note of liberalism’s universalist pretensions such as Rawls’ famous thought experiment, the Veil of Ignorance, which they argued was not an applicable theory of justice for every society. The communitarian critique was powerful enough to have made Rawls himself offer numerous intellectual concessions later in his life going so far as to claim that “justice as fairness assigns a certain primacy to the social”. Unfortunately, communitarianism was yet another victim of Fukuyamist liberal hegemony after the end of the Cold War. Furthermore, it offered no grand alternative narrative to liberalism. Liberalism is appealing because at its most basic, it offers a simple formula to maximize human well-being: more liberty insofar is it doesn’t infringe on others. What could possibly go wrong? Well, as recent history shows, plenty: a breakdown of communal values, unrelenting competition in all spheres of life, an amoral framework for society where markets determine your worth, and where cruelty and greed become the determinants of success.
The lack of an alternative grand narrative to liberalism’s universalist and individualist pretensions should be a challenge but not an impediment. Liberals have no problem, for example, in agreeing that democracy should have limits due to concerns over the tyranny of the majority, but what about the very real problems caused by maximizing individual liberty? Even though most liberals do not embrace their own libertarian extremes, the very notion of limiting liberty is an uncomfortable one to most. It shouldn’t be. Why can’t we have a discussion on whether it is interests of a free society to allow plutocrats like Rupert Murdoch to purchase media networks? Why can’t we restrain free enterprise in order to avert climate change? Given that we have little more than a decade before the latter becomes irreversible, resorting to the usual sclerotic channels of liberal deliberation will prove catastrophic. Liberalism, once a radical, emancipatory idea now embraces the very reactionary urges it once so passionately opposed. It is an ideology terrified of grand political and social change at a time that this is desperately needed.
With this in mind, it’s easy to see exactly why far-right populism is succeeding all around the world. First and foremost, because liberalism in the post-crisis era has failed to provide the single most important element for any modern political ideology to exist: economic prosperity. But by fooling Westerners into thinking that the current political/ideological struggle is between liberalism and illiberalism, liberals are marching to battle with an imaginary enemy. The Putins and the Trumps of the world have no ideology. And they don’t need it. They only need liberalism to keep failing. Liberalism’s complicity in the annihilation of the social bonds that once held Western societies together, the unions, the communities, the class solidarity, now gives no recourse for people to seek them in the arms of far-right populists. That nearly all alt-right/alt-light pundits calls themselves “classic liberals” and embrace radical libertarian ideas on individual rights (notably free speech and free enterprise) alongside nationalism, xenophobia, and misogyny just goes to show how this unholy matrimony between liberalism and far-right extremism is not as mutually exclusive as more centrist liberals would like to think it is.
And so those of us who live in “liberal” societies have a choice. We can stick to the delusion that liberalism needs defending at all cost, and envisage the twenty-first century struggle with far-right populism as yet another titanic battle of ideologies. Or we can wake up and realize that the rot comes from within. Liberalism had its time and place. But we are not at the end of history. We need to move on and find a new foundational narrative for modernity in the twenty-first century.