Liberalism and our Present Discontents

by Chris Horner

The political philosophy, and more importantly, political practice that took root in the wake of the ‘Age of Revolutions’ (say 1775-1848) was liberalism of various kinds: a commitment to certain principles and practices that eventually came to seem, like any successful ideology, a kind of common sense. With this, however, came a growing sense of dissatisfaction with what it seemed to represent: ‘bourgeois society’. Here is a paradox: at the very point at which the Enlightenment promise of the free society seemed to be coming true, discontent with that promise, or with the way it was being fulfilled, took hold. This was a sense that the modern citizen and subject was somehow still unfree. If this seems at least an aspect of how things stand with us in 2020 it might be worth looking back, for doubts about the liberal project have accompanied it since its inception.

The End of the Ancien Regime

Three political philosophies were contending for the inheritance of the age of revolution: Radical/egalitarian, Conservative and Liberal. For conservatives, after the more extreme response of figures like Joseph de Maîstre  (1753-1821) who  wanted the speedy eradication of the fact and the idea of the revolution; a total return and restoration of the ancien regime, a more pragmatic ‘reaction’ remained possible. Edmund Burke  (1729-97) stands here in an interesting position. No bone-headed follower of despotism, he had argued the case of the American colonists in their Revolution with great eloquence. But things changed when he considered events in France. His Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) stems from a horror at many things, not only sans culottes rampaging through the Tuileries, but also the pretensions of the ‘democratic’ revolutionary elite. He can be seen as a mere counterrevolutionary, yet the conservative tradition to which he belongs (which includes Carlyle and Ruskin) did develop a critique of the liberal individualism of the new century.

 Edmund Burke

Burke’s thinking is rooted in his conception of political economy and his linking of Utility and Natural Law. For Burke the free market and the old order he defended were intertwined, because custom, tradition and habit were the necessary pillars of a successful capitalism. Since the free market would necessarily imply the subordination of the working class we have an outlook that combines a faith in nascent capitalism with a profoundly anti democratic perspective. Here we have a conservative outlook that links markets not to any egalitarian outlook, but to hierarchy. Not every conservative was to prove as sanguine about the providential working of the free market as Burke.

John Ruskin’s Unto This Last (1860), for instance,  belongs to a tradition of social criticism that was to prove influential on the labour movement of the early Twentieth Century as well as the leaders of the struggle for independence in India (Gandhi translated it into Gujarati). Ruskin’s book is an extended attack on liberal ‘political economy’ with John Stuart Mill’s volumes on the subject as one of its main targets.  Ruskin was certainly no socialist (he makes the point repeatedly that he does not support egalitarianism) but the force of his attack is on the way in which the ideology of ‘free-property, free-trade, free-labour’ dehumanised and atomised social life. The outlook is one that emphasises not equality or liberty, but fraternity, or social solidarity, a rejection of ‘value free’ liberal political economy as bogus and destructive. 


John Ruskin

Nevertheless, liberalism entrenched itself in power and wrote the narrative that made its dominance seem inevitable and right, a part of a new common sense. While one can contrast liberal theory from liberal practice, it is worth noting that liberalism has a number of problems even considered as a group of ideas. And there were economic and historical forces that would inhibit liberalism in fulfilling the enlightenment promise of a responsible, ‘mature’ citizenry in the driving seat of power. These forces were present from the start. In effect, the development of conception of liberal freedom – that is, one restricted to political freedoms, associated with the inegalitarian principle of ‘free-trade, free-property, free-labour’ meant that the goal of a republic in which all the people had a role to play in government, in politics, would be subordinated to the private interests of one class. In the light of this, it is clear that an account of politics that forecloses consideration of political economy, is bound to be incomplete.

‘Liberal’ is a protean word. Most liberals would presumably agree that at its heart is a concern for freedom of the individual, here thought of as the opportunity to choose freely. The state is supposed to respect the individual’s freedom by being neutral on the question of what would be good for him/her to choose (this would include lifestyle, beliefs, choice of occupation), while acting to ensure that the exercise of freedom by individuals and groups should not cause harm to others. This is the famous ‘harm principle’ we find in JS Mill’s On Liberty (1859). 

John Stuart Mill

So law regulates intercourse between individuals and does not promote a particular view of ‘the good’, and a strict distinction is maintained between public and private, the latter including not only individuals and families but also economic activity in civil society. The state is an essentially external agency to society. The problem is that although citizens are encouraged to vote, join parties etc, there is a growing tendency for public political life to become the preserve of an elite class of politicians and bureaucrats. 

Historically, this approach has tended to be linked to capitalism, although there is no necessary connection between free markets and liberalism anymore than there is between markets and democracy, as Burke realised And one only needs to consider Lee Kuan Yu’s Singapore or China today to see that capitalism can thrive in non-liberal societies. We should take note of this, as it could be that ‘western’ capitalism too may find that it doesn’t need democracy or liberal norms in order to thrive. 

The historic link between liberalism and capitalism has meant that liberalism has accepted inequality of distribution of wealth and property. This is not a contingent point, but rather a necessary outcome as free individuals in a competitive society will not all be economically successful, and although the state may provide a welfare safety net or assistance in overcoming bad luck there is no expectation of an end to actual inequality. That this has serious implications for the liberal conception of freedom is clear, and is a point that Marx and others have made with great force: freedom without the power to actualise one’s choices is empty because it is ineffective. Furthermore the category of the ‘political’ itself which comes under threat in this kind of society, and it is on this point that Hannah Arendt also makes some telling points.

Karl Marx

What is crucial for Arendt is that the powerful forces unleashed by capitalism (especially technology and the class of technical ‘experts’ who direct and administer it) threaten to eliminate political life itself. Arendt, like Marx, is much struck by the dynamic, endlessly revolutionising quality of modern capitalism, the way in which ‘all that is solid melts into air’ and there are passages in her work (especially in The Origins of Totalitarianism and The Human Condition) which rival Marx himself on the subject of the bourgeois-liberal approach to private gain at the expense of public good. For it is the res publica, the public thing, that is squeezed out by the kind of society we have been discussing. This is important for Arendt because it is through acting and speaking together that humans realise their unique potential to bring something entirely new and unprecedented into the world, what she calls ‘natality’.

This may seem a surprising claim to make, given that a defining feature of modernity is the idea of openness to the new, to change itself. Yet the new promoted by capitalism is arguably a ‘false new’. This is concisely expressed by Adorno in his section called ‘Late Extra’ in Minima Moralia (1951): ‘The cult of the new, and thus the idea of modernity, is a rebellion against the fact that there is no longer anything new.’


TW Adorno

Capitalism generates a universe of commodities, and a cult of the new, which is a kind of rebellion against the fact that ‘there is no longer anything new,’ since ‘new’ here simply means one more thing to be consumed. In this sense we are like addicts, seeking to enjoy the new, again and again. Like addicts, this is experienced as compulsion, not freedom, and as cyclical, not linear or progressive. No one is getting anywhere and nothing new occurs, for all the innovations in technology stimulated by the process. For Arendt, Adorno and Marx it is not in this essentially private realm of pleasures that there is true freedom. The role of political elites becomes one of managing and influencing the masses, here conceived as essentially irrational and incapable of autonomy. An example of this view is Public Opinion (1922), in which Walter Lippmann argued that it was the essentially selfish, herd-like mass of private individuals, essentially an aggregation of potentially conflicting interests, who had to be manipulated by the elite into agreeing with what was good for them, by a process he called ‘manufacturing consent’.  

It is against this threat to human freedom that Arendt stresses our capacity to begin anew. This is the idea that people can act and speak in ways that are not bound by the past, or by inherited norms and rules. In this she was a good student of Kant: a free citizenry must act and speak for itself, and not take direction from experts, priests or technicians. For this to occur, there must be a public space of freedom, where people can show who and what they are; it is therefore vital that we preserve a public dimension because only there are we at our most human, displaying our individual uniqueness as part of the plurality of the human condition. What went wrong with political modernity is that we lost the place, or practice, of genuine politics. 

Hannah Arendt

Liberalism achieved certain important goals – a notion of the importance of individual autonomy in fashioning one’s life goals, the idea that rights are there to delimit the powers of governments and majorities, and more.  So in what ways did it fail? For Marx, it failed to achieve the Enlightenment promise of freedom as genuine autonomy because of its close identification with an economic system that does not serve human good, and which must be overcome. Arendt’s complementary insight is that if the private pursuit of happiness-as-consumption substitutes for public engagement (what Jefferson called ‘public happiness’) we are delivered into the hands of our equivalent of the aristocrat and the priest: the bureaucrat and the expert, the manufacturers of consent. Politics is replaced by management. But politics is indispensable for human flourishing because it is the activity in which we disclose possibility, and a public space survives only where new beginnings are perpetually added to the flow of things that have already been initiated. Without a public space of this kind the modern citizen will continue to be enmeshed in the false ‘freedom’ of consumption, which cannot make up for the absence of freedom in the world of work and politics. The result is anomie and alienation. Arendt can sometimes seem conservative and sometimes radical because she is Janus-faced: she looks to the past, to a delicate ecology of the shared human world, that Burke and Ruskin prized; but she sounds most like radical when she grasps the centrality of our capacity to begin again, because, as she said, ‘we are all new, we are all new beginnings.’