Liberalism’s Last Legs?

By destroying traditional social habits of the people, by dissolving their natural collective consciousness into individual constituents, by licensing the opinions of the most foolish, by substituting instruction for education, by encouraging cleverness rather than wisdom, the upstart rather than the qualified, by fostering a notion of getting on to which the alternative is a hopeless apathy, Liberalism can prepare the way for that which is its own negation: the artificial, mechanized or brutalized control which is a desperate remedy for its chaos.

– TS Eliot

Liberals may be surrounded at all sides but it has done little to shut them up. From the ramparts, a gaggle of gargoyles, their expressions at once haughty, ludicrous and insane, unload their protestations: we are still right, it’s the world that has gone wrong!

There is little doubt that these liberals, in a post-Iraq War, ’08, Brexit and Trump world, are besieged. Online, a hefty portion of what passes for political discourse is directed at attacking the “new” centrists. It is genuinely bewildering, however, how anyone could’ve made it through Iraq, ’08, Brexit and Trump and remained a liberal. Iraq showed up the fatal limitations of their universalist vision, the Great Recession did that for their economic models, and 2016 shattered any illusions of democratic legitimacy.

But the likes of Blair, Adonis, Soubry, the so-called Cameronite Tories, as well as their media cheerleaders, don’t want you to see it that way. Indeed, their proposed solution to the disasters of liberal centrism is unreformed liberal centrism. Although mass appeal eludes them, they are finding a hearing among the middle classes.

While the working class is enthusiastically taking up new (that is to say much older) illusions, it’s among the further educated you will find this article’s target. In Britain, the now dead in the water Change UK, the Lib Dems, and Starmer’s Labour draw their support almost exclusively from this demographic. An old anarchist can perhaps help make sense of this. Education in the hands of the state and business (which is what universities increasingly are), Noam Chomsky has remarked, is a synonym for indoctrination.

And yet this slightly conspiratorial explanation isn’t enough: liberalism persists, despite it all, because it is the ideology of capitalism.

As understood by way of John Gray, the liberalism which now dominates is indebted to the radical individualism of the Enlightenment, rather than being a product of philosophical realism. (The latter being conservative, communitarian and suspicious of upstarts.) This is the liberalism of Thatcher and Reagan, of the Victorians, of the go-getting man of means. He who considers tremendous waste a necessity, and a wasted opportunity the very worst of sins. His religion rails against want while feeding off it; it’s the friend of poverty and an enemy of the poor. He was born during Polanyi’s “Great Transformation” of the 18th century, and he’s been getting one over on the rest of us ever since.

Liberalism is paradox. This is the conclusion drawn by Domenico Losurdo in his “counter-history” of the project. There’s the contradiction just alluded to: its unencumbered economy being born from, and dependent on, ravaging its accompanying society in order to survive. (The host has the unenviable task of regulating its own devourment.) But there’s also the uncomfortable fact that, right at the moment liberalism was most vociferously demanding liberty, it did so while upholding the most depraved chattel slavery. When it declared the necessity of self-determination, its ideologues were undertaking the almost total annihilation of North America’s first nations. The continent had to be made safe for the free market.

But today’s liberals can’t countenance this reality, it doesn’t fit with their cognitive maps. To them, the logic of the market — that leviathan that they will sacrifice everything to — is above criticism. After all, through it we have equality (in that, with enough money, intrinsic qualities are no constraint), freedom (regardless of previous error there’s always the option of succumbing to exploitation or starving), and smart phones (late modernity’s bread). This perfect system, which works best of all in minds poisoned by game theory, is forced into every part of society. The idea of a moral economy — i.e. all economies that existed before the Industrial Revolution — is lost; a dangerously utopian one is born.

It is usually enough to dissuade someone of their quixotic fantasies with a persistent “but how would that work, exactly?” No imagination is required for the liberal to see how their utopia has failed, and so, inevitably, they resort to mythology.

This is not as anachronistic as it might sound. As Adorno and Horkheimer made clear in that eerily beautiful text of theirs, Dialectic of Enlightenment, “myth is already enlightenment, and enlightenment reverts to mythology.” Enlightened liberal modernity, far from being a sceptical age, is one steeped in illusion.

This claim can be approached from the hard Left, Right, and, even, somewhere in the middle: that’s with the aid of “Adorkheimer”, Carl Schmitt and Karl Polanyi respectively.

For the Frankfurt School duo, liberals in Western nations prior to WWII were captured by an ideology that blinded them to the pitfalls opened up by technical and rational development. Moral progress, it was believed, was inextricably tied up with that of technics: as machines got better so did their makers. But social dynamics are far more complex, and under certain conditions — such as came with the domination of instrumental rationality (i.e. when moralistic ends are overtaken by their technological means) under capitalism — technology can become an existential threat to the ostensible master. In Adorno and Horkheimer’s own country, Weimar liberalism gave way all too easily to National Socialism and the industrial slaughter of millions. The Atom bomb wasn’t far behind — this time thanks to the world’s foremost liberal regime. To employ some Greek imagery of my own: Prometheus, self-immolated.

Humanity, whose skills and knowledge become differentiated with the division of labor, is thereby forced back to more primitive anthropological stages, since, with the technical facilitation of existence, the continuance of domination demands the fixation of instincts by greater repression. Fantasy withers. The calamity is not that individuals have fallen behind society or its material production. Where the development of the machine has become that of the machinery of control, so that technical and social tendencies, always intertwined, converge in the total encompassing of human beings, those who have lagged behind represent not only untruth. Adaptation to the power of progress furthers the progress of power constantly renewing the degenerations which prove successful progress, not failed progress, to be its own antithesis. The curse of irresistible progress is irresistible regression.

A belief in unstoppable, uncomplicated and irreversible “Progress” (examined previously here) may be comforting but it leaves a people utterly unprepared in the face of history. Much as Lasch wrote:
“Believers in progress like to think of themselves as the party of hope, actually have little need of hope, since they have history on their side. But their lack of it incapacitates them for intelligent action. Improvidence, a blind faith that things will somehow work out for the best, furnishes a poor substitute for the disposition to see things through even when they don’t.”

Progress is the biggest crutch of the liberal, but this concept, which borders on the theological, isn’t the only one. The idea that late capitalism is a meritocracy is yet another cherished fantasy: a review of the literature found it to be not only a false belief, but a socially pernicious one. Even Hayek, if only in private, had to admit that success in the market was a little more than a matter of chance.

Another is the commonplace faith in civil discourse.

Liberals love debate, and all this talk can give liberal polities the appearance of genuine plurality (the telling phrase “the free marketplace of ideas” is incessantly used). They claim that this is how differences are mediated, conflicts settled, and, ultimately, progress made. For Schmitt, this is self-indulgent guff. Throughout history the major political shifts were made, not as a result of squabbling — or the clashing of memes, as they might have it — but through exercises of power. This goes for the struggle for democratic rights nationally, as much as for the establishment of our “liberal world order”.

Questions of power are always something liberals wish to avoid, attached as they are to abstract thought experiments, where everything can be imagined as equal — most of all opportunity. This tendency, highlighted by the much-missed Michael Brooks, is evident in Sam Harris, Steven Pinker, Jordan Peterson, and all those other New Charlatans.

They claim that everything is up for debate. Be it underlying sexual antagonisms, the true nature of virtue, racial differences in intelligence, or your gender identity; seemingly nothing is off limits.

Despite the renegade pretence, liberals of this type, which is to say “classical”, understand exactly which side their bread is buttered on. To ensure endless publicity in the mainstream, questions which might implicate empire, or trigger a serious interrogation of the reigning economic myths are entirely absent from their performances (the supposedly hegemonic Left is left with these).

Commenting upon the latter, Schmitt wrote:
“That production and consumption, price formation and [the] market have their own sphere and can be directed neither by ethics nor aesthetics, nor by religion, nor, least of all, by politics was considered one of the truly unquestionable dogmas of this liberal age.”

Consequently, politics under this regime concludes where private enterprise and property begin. Public energies are instead funnelled into mostly inconsequential, and infinitely tedious, arguments. On the important issues, Walter Lippmann wrote, “the public must be put in its place … [so that we may] live free of the trampling and the roar of a bewildered herd”. By ‘we’ he meant the political and intellectual elite, liberal and conservative. The people at large could have their outlets — they could certainly have their never-ending “culture wars” — but, where it mattered, they were designated spectators.

Liberalism may have developed in an effort to ease tensions between religious communities in Europe – undoubtedly worthwhile – and to some extent been successful, but it came at a price. In Schmitt’s account, in moderating difference over the centuries, liberalism birthed a new subject: universal man. Someone stripped of former, troublesome particularities, he became part of the utopian endeavour to standardise the human animal in line with rationalist ideals. In other words, this was yet another way liberals sought to put a cap on politics. This time by undermining the very basis of those contentious groupings which give life meaning; be they regional, class-based or otherwise. In doing so, he proved to be the perfect accompaniment to the globalised capitalism also emerging — with no ties to get in the way of profit-seeking, the world was truly up for grabs.

In time, universal man became intolerant of everything that didn’t conform to his new, and supposedly wholly rational, standard. The old bonds of community, once nurtured or at least respected, had now to be neutralised. The Enlightenment ideal of sameness everywhere and, consequently, eternal peace was within reach. (Adorno and Horkheimer would compare this pursuit of a false universality to commodity production.) Recent talk of a Somewheres-Anywheres distinction, although crude, aligns with this analysis.

Schmitt was dismayed to see this trend at the level of states. Internationally, it seemed to be that liberalism was doing all it could to “level down all civilisations to a single cheap and dreary dream”, as George Santayana put it.

Declaring its constituents the species as a whole, liberalism leaves nowhere free from its remit. In stark contrast to the petty nationalisms it ultimately wished to erase, like a painter with a bad smudge, liberalism claims to speak for everyone. For Schmitt, this is what makes the venture so menacing: if you oppose it you are at base opposing “humanity”. And, surely, an “enemy of humanity” deserves no quarter. As a result, when not engaged in bluster and theatrics at home, it was doggedly enforcing its bland principles upon an unsuspecting world.

Karl Polanyi began writing at a time when one behemoth, the British Empire, was giving way to another, the equally dogged United States. Both entities, although the latter will go to huge lengths to deny it, are liberal empires par excellence. Hegemons in a global system that promotes the doctrines of the capitalist faith, chief among them the illusion of a “self-regulating market”. As before, market fundamentalism of this sort depends on the phony division of the political and economic. From the very start of the Great Transformation, the institution of the market society made apparent the marriage of both.

What was enclosure, the forceful dispossession of lands held in common, and putting them into private hands, if not political? Was not the implementation of high tariffs on foreign goods, in order to shore up domestic industry, a political act? Surely the physical decimation of rival industries — such as England did in India — impinged on the deep-seated interests of some group or other? It is only after the event, when everything has been privatised, built up and the necessary elements have been crushed, that our liberal friends decide politics has had its day.

These policies, alongside wholesale ethnic cleansing and racialised slavery, were what made the UK and US forces to be reckoned with. Only, in the 20th century they began to preach from quite a different hymn sheet. Suddenly high tariffs and sizeable state intervention equalled economic ruin. And so poorer nations were taught, with a mixture of disciplinary wars and, later, IMF strong-arm tactics that they had to keep their economies open to foreign exploitation. No doubt this made some very rich, but it left entire nations impoverished.

This is where Polanyi comes into his own: the relationship between liberalism and democracy on a national level. For him, a liberalisation of the economy corresponds with a social counterforce: the “double movement”. This consists of those social forces which seek to put a check on the all out anarchy of the fundamentally undemocratic market, with all its sudden lay-offs, environmental destruction and endless demands on labour. These can come in the form of trade unions, corporate regulation, welfare states, etc.

For Polanyi, although economic liberalism was always studiously planned, the popular — if not populist — reaction, taken in the forms mentioned, was spontaneous. They are mostly of a red bent, but, if for whatever reason those paths are closed off, the double movement will take a right-wing course. Walter Benjamin comes to mind: “behind every fascism there is a failed revolution.”

With an infuriating sleight of hand, after fighting bitterly against it, capital’s most strident defenders will declare the successes of the double movement — increased life expectancy, greater political engagement, fewer working hours, clean air — as achievements of capitalism. Alternatively, when we’re left with conflict-ravaged (Iraq and the Congo), cartel-ridden (central and south America, post-Soviet Russia) and ecological disaster zones (Gulf of Mexico, India), we’re told, by the very same people, that it was because economic liberalism wasn’t pursued with enough vigour in these places. What is chalked up to being a lack of will should be seen as what it really is: that great liberal vice, hubris.

But what exactly will come of all my talk? Nothing, of course. Liberalism won’t be defeated with words, any more than feudalism was brought down by verse. Liberalism, in its rationalist mode, created the world we live in. It will ultimately be the victim of it.

When Locke, Smith and Jefferson penned their lines, nature was considered, in the “civilised world” at least, little more than land, a commodity to speculate on. Stock wasn’t an issue: the horizon in every direction held plenty more, even if people with different nose shapes needed liberating from it. And, regardless, Earth, the old bitch, would keep putting out, when or if reserves ran dry: new New Worlds were ripe for discovery. Their models based on infinite growth demanded it.

If liberals today find it difficult accepting their errors in other regards, the clear eyed and honest among them must see the overwhelming problem nature now presents them. Arable soil is disappearing, ice caps are melting, the sea is rising, whole forests are alight. And, of course, all this means: people are on the move. The number of climate refugees by 2050 is estimated to be in the hundreds of millions. The centre will not hold.

We shall see just how committed the liberals remain to their ideals when faced with these cataclysms. How tolerant of dissent they will be when a groundswell rejects capitalist progress and all that goes with it. How open they will be when the starving millions are at the gate. How devoted to laissez-faire they will be when the state is the only institution with the power to respond to the demands of the citizenry.

It won’t be long before the great political metamorphosis is upon us. Which way will your favourite liberal go?