The purpose of this essay is to critically examine the historical dynamics of liberalism and its impact on contemporary Western polities. This essay will argue a) that liberalism today provides a comfortable ideological “retreat” for members of the intellectual elite and decision makers tired of the theological and ideological disputes that rocked Western politics for centuries; b) that liberalism can make compromises with various brands of socialism on practically all issues except the freedom of the market place; c) that liberalism thrives by expanding the economic arena into all aspects of life and all corners of the world, thereby gradually erasing the sense of national and historical community which had formerly provided the individual with a basic sense of identity and psychological security. This essay will also question whether liberalism, despite its remarkable success in the realm of the economy, provides an adequate bulwark against non-democratic ideologies, or whether under some conditions it may actually stimulate their growth.
In the aftermath of the second world war, liberalism and Marxism emerged as the two unquestionably dominant ideologies following their military success over their common rival, fascism. This brought them into direct conflict with each other, since each contended, from their own viewpoint, that the only valid political model was their own, denying the validity of their opponent’s thesis. Beaud writes that when the liberal and socialist ideas began to emerge, the former quickly cloaked itself in science (“the law of supply and demand,” “the iron law of wages”), while the latter had the tendency to degenerate into mysticism and sectarianism.
Some critics of liberalism, such as the French economist Francois Perroux, pointed out that according to some extreme liberal assumptions, “everything (that) has been happening since the beginning of time (can be attributed to capitalism) as if the modern world was constructed by industrialists and merchants consulting their account books and wishing to reap profits.” Similar subjective attitudes, albeit from a different ideological angle, can often be heard among Marxist theorists, who in the analysis of liberal capitalism resort to value judgements colored by Marxian dialectics and accompanied by the rejection of the liberal interpretation of the concept of equality and liberty. “The fact that the dialectical method can be used for each purpose,” remarks the Austrian philosopher Alexander Topitsch, “explains its extraordinary attraction and its world-wide dissemination, that can only be compared to the success of the natural rights doctrine of the eighteenth century.” Nevertheless, despite their real ideological discord, liberals, neo-liberals, socialists, and “socio-neoliberals,” agree, at least in principle, in claiming a common heritage of rationalism, and on the rejection of all non-democratic ideologies, especially racialism. Earlier in this century, Georges Sorel, the French theorist of anarcho-syndicalism, remarked with irony that “to attempt to protest against the illusion of rationalism means to be immediately branded as the enemy of democracy.”
The practical conflict between the respective virtues of liberalism and socialism is today seemingly coming to a close, as some of the major Marxist regimes move in the direction of a liberalization of their economies, even though the ideological debate is by no means settled amongst intellectuals. Undoubtedly, the popularity of Marxist socialism is today in global decline amongst those who have to face the problem of making it work. In consequence, despite the fact that support for Marxism amongst Western intellectuals was at its height when repression in Marxist countries was at its peak, liberalism today seems have been accepted as a place of “refuge” by many intellectuals who, disillusioned with the failure of repression in the Marxist countries, nevertheless continue to hold to the socialist principles of universalism and egalitarianism.
As Francois B. Huyghe comments, welfare state policies accepted by liberals have implemented many of the socialist programs which patently failed in communist countries. Thus, economic liberalism is not only popular among many former left-wing intellectuals (including numbers of East European intellectuals) because it has scored tangible economic results in the Western countries, but also due to the fact that its socialist counterpart has failed in practice, leaving the liberal model as the only uncontested alternative. “The main reason for the victories of economic liberalism,” writes Kolm, “are due to the fact that all defective functioning of the non-liberal model of social realization warrants the consideration of the alternative liberal social realization. The examples of such cases abound in the West as in the East; in the North as in the South.” In the absence of other successful models, and in the epoch of a pronounced “de-ideologization” process all over Europe and America, modern liberalism has turned out to be a modus vivendi for the formerly embattled foes. But are we therefore to conclude that the eclipse of other models and ideologies must spell the end of politics and inaugurate the beginning of the Age of Liberalism?
Long before the miracle of modern liberalism became obvious, a number of writers had observed that liberalism would continue to face a crisis of legitimacy even if its socialist and fascist foes were miraculously to disappear. More recently, Serge-Christophe Kolm has remarked that liberalism and socialism must not be viewed in dialectical opposition, but rather as a fulfilment of each other. Kolm writes that the ideals of liberalism and Marxism “are almost identical given that they are founded on the values of liberty, and coinciding in the applications of almost everything, except on a subject which is logically punctual, yet factually enormous in this world: wage-earning, location of individuals and self.” Some have even advanced the hypothesis that liberalism and socialism are the face and the counter-face of the same phenomenon, since contemporary liberalism has managed to achieve, in the long run and in an unrepressive fashion, many of those same goals which Marxian socialism in the short run, employing repressive means, has failed to achieve. Yet differences exist.
Not only do socialist ideologues currently fear that the introduction of free market measures could spell the end of socialism, but socialism and liberalism disagree fundamentally on the definition of equality. Theoretically, both subscribe to constitutional, legal, political and social equality; yet their main difference lies in their opposing views regarding the distribution of economic benefits/rewards, and accordingly, as to their corresponding definition of economic equality. Unlike liberalism, socialism is not satisfied with demanding political and social equality, but insists on equal distribution of economic goods. Marx repeatedly criticized the liberal definition of equal rights, for which he once said that “this equal right is unequal right for unequal labor. This right does not acknowledge class difference because everyone is only a worker like everyone else; but it tacitly recognizes unequal individual talents, and consequently it holds individual skills for natural privileges.” Only in a higher stage of communism, after the present subordination of individuals to capital, that is, after the differences in the rewards of labor have disappeared, will bourgeois rights disappear, and society will write on its banner: “From each according to his capacity, to each according to his needs.”
Despite these differences, it may be said that, in general, socialist ideas have always surfaced as unavoidable satellites and pendants of liberalism. As soon as liberal ideas made their inroads into the European feudal scene, the stage for socialist appetites was set – appetites which subsequently proved too large to fulfil. As soon as the early bourgeoisie had secured its position, liquidating guilds and feudal corporations along with the landed aristocracy, it had to face up to critics who accused it of stifling political liberties and economic equality, and of turning the newly enfranchised peasant into a factory slave. In the seventeenth century, remarks Lakoff, the bourgeois ideas of equality and liberty immediately provided the fourth estate with ideological ammunition, which was quickly expressed by numerous proto-socialist revolutionary movements. Under such circumstances of flawed equality, it must not come as a surprise that the heaviest burden for peasants was the hypocrisy of the bourgeoisie, which had hailed the rights of equality as long as it struggled to dislodge the aristocracy from power; yet the minute it acceded to power, prudently refrained from making any further claims about equality in affluence. David Thomson remarked with irony that “many of those who would defend with their dying breath the rights of liberty and equality (such as many English and American liberals) shrink back in horror from the notion of economic egalitarianism.” Also, Sorel pointed out that in general, the abuse of power by an hereditary aristocracy is less harmful to the juridical sentiment of a people than the abuses committed by a plutocratic regime, adding that “nothing would ruin so much the respect for laws as the spectacle of injustices committed by adventurers who, with the complicity of tribunals, have become so rich that they can purchase politicians.”
The dynamics of liberal and socialist revolutions gathered steam in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, notably an epoch of great revolutionary ferment in Europe. The liberal 1789 revolution in France rapidly gave way to the socialist Jacobin revolution in 1792; “the liberal” Condorcet was supplanted by the “communist” Babeuf, and the relatively bloodless Girondin coup was followed by the avalanche of bloodshed under the Jacobin terror and the revolt of the “sans-culottes.” Similarly, a hundred years later, the February Revolution in Russia was followed by the accelerated October revolution, replacing the social democrat, Kerensky, by the communist Lenin. Liberalism gobbled up the ancient aristocracy, liquidated the medieval trade corporations, alienated the workers, and then in its turn was frequently supplanted by socialism. It is therefore interesting to observe that after its century-long competition with socialism, liberalism is today showing better results in both the economic and ethical domains, whereas the Marxist credo seems to be on the decline. But has liberalism become the only acceptable model for all peoples on earth? How is it that liberalism, as an incarnation of the humanitarian ideal and the democratic spirit, has always created enemies on both the left and the right, albeit for different reasons?
Free Market: The “Religion” of Liberalism
Liberalism can make many ideological “deals” with other ideologies, but one sphere where its remains intransigent is the advocacy of the free market and free exchange of goods and commodities. Undoubtedly, liberalism is not an ideology like other ideologies, and in addition, it has no desire to impose an absolute and exclusive vision of the world rooted in a dualistic cleavage between good and evil, the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, the “chosen and the unchosen ones.” Moreover, the liberal ideal lacks that distinctive telos so typical of socialist and fascist ideologies. Contrary to other ideologies, liberalism is in general rather sceptical of any concentration of political power, because in the “inflation” of politics, and in ideological fervor, it claims to see signs of authoritarianism and even, as some authors have argued, totalitarianism. Liberalism seems to be best fitted for a secularized polity, which Carl Schmitt alternatively called the “minimal state” (Minimalstaat), and stato neutrale. It follows that in a society where production has been rationalized and human interaction is subject to constant reification (Vergegenstandlichung), liberalism cannot (or does not wish to) adopt the same “will to power” which so often characterizes other ideologies. In addition, it is somewhat difficult to envision how such a society can request its citizens to sacrifice their goods and their lives in the interests of some political or religious ideal. The free market is viewed as a “neutral filed” (Neutralgebiet), allowing only the minimum of ideological conflict, that aims at erasing all political conflicts, positing that all people are rational beings whose quest for happiness is best secured by the peaceful pursuit of economic goals. In a liberal, individualistic society, every political belief is sooner or later reduced to a “private thing” whose ultimate arbiter is the individual himself. The Marxist theoretician Habermas comes to a somewhat similar conclusion, when he argues that modern liberal systems have acquired a negative character: “Politics is oriented to the removal of dysfunctionalities and of risks dangerous to the system; in other words politics is not oriented to the implementation of practical goals, but to the solution of technological issues.” The market may thus be viewed as an ideal social construct whose main purpose is to limit the political arena. Consequently, every imaginable flaw in the market is generally explained by assertions that “there is still too much politics” hampering the free exchange of goods and commodities.
Probably one of the most cynical remarks about liberalism and the liberal “money fetichism,” came not from Marx, but from the Fascist ideologue Julius Evola, who once wrote: “Before the classical dilemma, your money or your life, the bourgeois will paradoxically be the one to answer: ‘Take my life, but spare my money.'” But in spite of its purportedly agnostic and apolitical character, it would be wrong to assert that liberalism does not have “religious roots.” In fact, many authors have remarked that the implementation of liberalism has been the most successful in precisely those countries which are known for strong adherence to biblical monotheism. Earlier in this century, the German sociologist Werner Sombart asserted that the liberal postulates of economics and ethics stem from Judeo-Christian legalism, and that liberals conceive of commerce, money and the “holy economicalness” (“heilige Wirtschaftlichkeit”) as the ideal avenue to spiritual salvation. More recently, the French anthropologist Louis Dumont, wrote that liberal individualism and economism are the secular transposition of Judeo-Christian beliefs, noting that “just as religion gave birth to politics, politics in turn will be shown to give birth to economics.”
Henceforth, writes Dumont in his book From Mandeville to Marx, according to the liberal doctrine, man’s pursuit of happiness has increasingly come to be associated with the unimpeded pursuit of economic activities. In modern polities, he opines, the substitution of man as an individual for the idea of man as a social being was made possible by Judeo- Christianity: “the transition was thus made possible, from a holistic social order to a political system raised by consent as a superstructure on an ontological given economic basis.” In other words, the idea of individual accountability before God, gave birth, over a long period of time, to the individual and to the idea that economic accountability constitutes the linchpin of the liberal social contract – a notion totally absent from organic and traditional nationalistically-organized societies. Thus Emanuel Rackman argues that Judeo-Christianity played an important role in the development of ethical liberalism in the USA: “This was the only source on which Thomas Paine could rely in his “Rights of Man” to support the dogma of the American Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal. And this dogma was basic in Judaism.” Similar claims are made by Konvitz in Judaism and the American Idea, wherein he argues that modern America owes much to the Jewish holy scriptures. Feurbach, Sombart, Weber, Troeltsch, and others have similarly argued that Judeo-Christianity had a considerable influence on the historical development of liberal capitalism. On the other hand, when one considers the recent economic success of various Asian countries on the Pacific Rim, whose expansionary impetus often overshadows the economic achievements of the countries marked by the Judeo-Christian legacy, one must take care not to equate economic success solely with the Judeo-Christian forms of liberal society.
Equal Economic Opportunity or the Opportunity to Be Unequal?
The strength of liberalism and of free-market economics lies in the fact that the liberal ideal enables all people to develop their talents as they best see fit. The free market ignores all hierarchy and social differentiation, except those differences which result from the completion of economic transactions. Liberals argue that all people have the same economic opportunity, and that consequently, each individual, by making best use of his or her talents and entrepreneurship, will alone determine his or her social status. But critics of liberalism often contend that this formula is in itself dependent upon the terms and conditions under which the principles of “economic opportunity” can take place. John Schaar asserts that liberalism has substantially transformed the social arena into the economic field track, and that the formula should read: “equality of opportunity for all to develop those talents which are highly valued by a given people at a given time.” According to Schaar’s logic, when the whims of the market determine which specific items, commodities or human talents are most in demand, or are more marketable than some others, it will follow that individuals lacking these talents or commodities will experience an acute sense of injustice. “Every society, Schaar continues, “encourages some talents and discourages others. Under the equal opportunity doctrine, the only men who can fulfil themselves and develop their abilities to the fullest are those who are able and eager to do what society demands they do.” This means that liberal societies will likely be most content when their members share a homogeneous background and a common culture. Yet modern liberalism seeks to break-down national barriers and promote the conversion of hitherto homogeneous nation-states into multi-ethnic and highly heterogeneous political states. Thus, the potential for disputation and dissatisfaction is enhanced by the successful implementation of its economic policies.
It is further arguable that the success of liberalism engenders its own problems. Thus, as Karl Marx was quick to note, in a society where everything becomes an expendable commodity, man gradually comes to see himself as an expendable commodity too. An average individual will be less and less prone to abide by his own internal criteria, values or interests, and instead, he will tenaciously focus on not being left out of the economic battle, always on his guard that his interests are in line with the market. According to Schaar, such an attitude, in the long run, can have catastrophic consequences for the winner as well as the loser: “The winners easily come to think of themselves as being superior to common humanity, while the losers are almost forced to think of themselves as something less than human.” Under psychological pressure caused by incessant economic competition, and seized by fear that they may fall out of the game, a considerable number of people, whose interests and sensibilities are not compatible with current demands of the market, may develop feelings of bitterness, jealousness and inferiority. A great many among them will accept the economic game, but many will, little by little, come to the conclusion that the liberal formula “all people are equal,” in reality only applies to those who are economically the most successful. Murray Milner, whose analyses parallel Schaar’s, observes that under such circumstances, the doctrine of equal opportunity creates psychological insecurity, irrespective of the material affluence of society. “Stressing equality of opportunity necessarily makes the status structure fluid and the position of the individual within it ambiguous and insecure.” The endless struggle for riches and security, which seemingly has no limits, can produce negative results, particularly when society is in the throes of sudden economic changes. Antony Flew, in a similar fashion, writes that “a ‘competition’ in which the success of all contestants is equally probable is a game of chance or lottery, not a genuine competition.” For Milner such an economic game is tiring and unpredictable, and if “extended indefinitely, it could lead to exhaustion and collapse.”
Many other contemporary authors also argue that the greatest threat to liberalism comes from the constant improvement in general welfare generated by its own economic successes. Recently, two French scholars, Julien Freund and Claude Polin, wrote that the awesome expansion of liberalism, resulting in ever increasing general affluence, inevitably generates new economic and material needs, which constantly cry out for yet another material fulfilment. Consequently, after society has reached an enviable level of material growth, even the slightest economic crisis, resulting in a perceptible drop in living standards, will cause social discord and possibly political upheavals.
Taking a slightly different stance, Polin remarks that liberalism, in accordance with the much vaunted doctrine of “natural rights,” tends, very often, to define man as a final and complete species who no longer needs to evolve, and whose needs can be rationally predicted and finalized. Led by an unquenchable desire that he must exclusively act on his physical environment in order to improve his earthly lot, he is accordingly led by the liberal ideology to think that the only possible way to realize happiness is to place material welfare and individualism above all other goals. In fact, given that the “ideology of needs” has become a tacit criterion of progress in liberalism, it is arguable that the material needs of modern anomic masses must always be “postponed,” since they can never be fully satisfied. Moreover, each society which places excessive hopes in a salutary economy, will gradually come to view freedom as purely economic freedom and good as purely economic good. Thus, the “merchant civilization” (civilization marchande), as Polin calls it, must eventually become a hedonistic civilization in search of pleasure, and self-love. These points are similar to the views held by Julien Freund, who also sees in liberalism a society of impossible needs and insatiable desire. He remarks that “it appears that satiety and overabundance are not the same things as satisfaction, because they provoke new dissatisfaction.” Instead of rationally solving all human needs, liberal society always triggers new ones, which in turn constantly create further needs. Everything happens, Freund continues, as if the well-fed needed more than those who live in indigence. In other words, abundance creates a different form of scarcity, as if man needs privation and indigence, “as if he needed some needs.” One has almost the impression that liberal society purposely aims at provoking new needs, generally unpredictable, often bizarre. Freund concludes that “the more the rationalization of the means of production brings about an increase in the volume of accessible goods, the more the needs extend to the point of becoming irrational.”
Such an argument implies that the dynamics of liberalism, continually begetting new and unpredictable needs, continually threatens the philosophical premises of that same rationalism on which liberal society has built its legitimacy. In this respect socialist theorists often sound convincing when they in effect argue that if liberalism has not been able to provide equality in affluence, communism does at least offer equality in frugality!
Conclusion: From Atomistic Society to Totalitarian System
The British imperialist, Cecil Rhodes, once exclaimed: “if I could I would annex the planets!” A very Promethean idea, indeed, and quite worthy of Jack London’s rugged individuals or Balzac’s entrepreneurs – but can it really work in a world in which the old capitalist guard, as Schumpeter once pointed out, is becoming a vanishing species?
It remains to be seen how liberalism will pursue its odyssey in a society in which those who are successful in the economic arena live side by side with those who lag behind in economic achievement, when its egalitarian principles prohibit the development of any moral system that would justify such hierarchical differences, such as sustained medieval European society. Aside from prophecies about the decline of the West, the truism remains that it is easier to create equality in economic frugality than equality in affluence. Socialist societies can point to a higher degree of equality in frugality. But liberal societies, especially in the last ten years, have constantly been bedevilled by an uneasy choice; on the one hand, their effort to expand the market, in order to create a more competitive economy, has almost invariably caused the marginalization of some social strata. On the other hand, their efforts to create more egalitarian conditions by means of the welfare state brings about, as a rule, sluggish economic performance and a menacing increase in governmental bureaucratic controls. As demonstrated earlier, liberal democracy sets out from the principles that the “neutral state” and free market are the best pillars against radical political ideologies, and that commerce, as Montesqieu once said, “softens up the mores.” Further, as a result of the liberal drive to extend markets on a world-wide basis, and consequently, to reduce or eliminate all forms of national protectionism, whether to the flow of merchandise, or of capital, or even of labor, the individual worker finds himself in an incomprehensible, rapidly changing international environment, quite different from the secure local society familiar to him since childhood.
This paradox of liberalism was very well described by a keen German observer, the philosopher Max Scheler, who had an opportunity to observe the liberal erratic development, first in Wilhelmian and then in Weimar Germany. He noted that liberalism is bound to create enemies, both on the right and the left side of the political spectrum: On the left it makes enemies of those who see in liberalism a travesty of the natural rights dogma, and on the right, of those who discern in it the menace to organic and traditional society. “Consequently,” writes Scheler, “a huge load of resentment appears in a society, such as ours, in which equal political and other rights, that is, the publicly acknowledged social equality, go hand in hand with large differences in real power, real property and real education. A society in which each has the “right” to compare himself to everybody, yet in which, in reality, he can compare himself to nobody.” In traditional societies as Dumont has written, such types of reasoning could never develop to the same extent because the majority of people were solidly attached to their communal roots and the social status which their community bestowed upon them. India, for example, provides a case study of a country that has significantly preserved a measure of traditional civic community, at least in the smaller towns and villages, despite the adverse impact of its population explosion and the ongoing conflict there between socialism in government and liberalism in the growing industrial sector of the economy. By contrast, in the more highly industrialized West, one could almost argue that the survival of modern liberalism depends on its constant ability to “run ahead of itself” economically.
The need for constant and rapid economic expansion carries in itself the seeds of social and cultural dislocation, and it is this loss of “roots” that provides the seedbed for tempting radical ideologies. In fact how can unchecked growth ever appease the radical proponents of natural rights, whose standard response is that it is inadmissible for somebody to be a loser and somebody a winner? Faced with a constant expansion of the market, the alienated and uprooted individual in a society in which the chief standard of value has become material wealth, may be tempted to sacrifice freedom for economic security. It does not always appear convincing that liberal societies will always be able to sustain the “social contract” on which they depend for their survival by thrusting people into material interdependence. Economic gain may be a strong bond, but it does not have the affective emotional power for inducing willing self-sacrifice in times of adversity on which the old family-based nation-state could generally rely.
More likely, by placing individuals in purely economic interdependence on each other, and by destroying the more traditional bonds of kinship and national loyalty, modern liberalism may have succeeded in creating a stage where, in times of adversity, the economic individual will seek to outbid, outsmart, and outmaneuver all others, thereby preparing the way for the “terror of all against all,” and preparing the ground, once again, for the rise of new totalitarianisms. In other words, the spirit of totalitarianism is born when economic activity obscures all other realms of social existence, and when the “individual has ceased to be a father, a sportsman, a religious man, a friend, a reader, a righteous man – only to become an economic actor.” By shrinking the spiritual arena and elevating the status of economic activities, liberalism in fact challenges its own principles of liberty, thus enormously facilitating the rise of totalitarian temptations. One could conclude that as long as economic values remained subordinate to non-economic ideals, the individual had at least some sense of security irrespective of the fact his life was often, economically speaking, more miserable. With the subsequent emergence of the anonymous market, governed by the equally anonymous invisible hand, in the anonymous society, as Hannah Arendt once put it, man has acquired a feeling of uprootedness and existential futility. As pre-industrial and traditional societies demonstrate, poverty is not necessarily the motor behind revolutions. Revolution comes most readily to those in whom poverty is combined with a consciousness of lost identity and a feeling of existential insecurity. For this reason, the modern liberal economies of the West must constantly work to ensure that the economic miracle shall continue. As economic success has been made the ultimate moral value, and national loyalties have been spurned as out of date, economic problems automatically generate deep dissatisfaction amongst those confronted with poverty, who are then likely to fall prone to the sense of “alienation” on which all past Marxist socialist success has been based.
One must therefore not exclude the likelihood that modern liberal society may at some time in the future face serious difficulties should it fail to secure permanent economic growth, especially if, in addition, it relentlessly continues to atomize the family (discouraging marriage, for example, by means of tax systems which favors extreme individualism) and destroys all national units in favor of the emergence of a single world-wide international market, along with its inevitable concomitant, the “international man.” While any faltering of the world economy, already under pressure from the Third World population explosion, might conceivably lead to a resurgence of right wing totalitarianisms in some areas, it is much more likely that in an internationalized society the new totalitarianism of the future will come from the left, in the form of a resurgence of the “socialist experiment,” promising economic gain to a population that has been taught that economic values are the only values that matter. Precisely because the “workers of the world” will have come to see themselves as an alienated international proletariat, they will tend to lean toward international socialist totalitarianism, rather than other forms of extreme political ideology.