The Insufficiencies of Liberalism

by Chris Horner

The world we live in is changing, and our politics must change with it. We are in what has been called the ‘anthropocene’: the period in which human activity is threatening the ecosystem on which we all depend. Catastrophic climate change threatens our very survival. Yet our political class seems unable to take the necessary steps to avert it. Add to that the familiar and pressing problems of massive inequality, exploitation, systemic racism and job insecurity due to automation and the relocation of production to cheaper labour markets, and we have a truly global and multidimensional set of problems. It is one that our political masters seem unable to properly confront. Yet confront them they, and we, must. Such is the scale of the problem, the political order needs wholesale change, rather than the small, incremental reforms we have been taught are all that are practicable or desirable. And change, whether we like it or not is coming anyway: between authoritarian national conservative regimes, which with all the inequality, xenophobia, or that of a democratic, green post-capitalism. The thing that won’t survive is liberalism.

‘Liberalism’ is a notoriously hard term to pin down. But for the sake of clarity, I would just say that I am not using it in the sense that many in the USA do: as just the alternative to ‘conservatism’, the kind of thing the New York Times, the Democratic Party and so on might represent, a set of attitudes and policies contrasted with the kinds of things a Republican might might hold dear. Rather, I mean an entire political philosophy that most of those in both the aforementioned parties support, as well as those of no party at all. And this applies to most of the ‘centrist’ political parties in western Europe, Canada and Australia. So what is it? 

Any textbook can give you a list of the features that liberalism is supposed to embrace: a state that leaves individuals free to pursue their private good undisturbed by government; a law based on the principle that one is free if one does no harm to others; rights; a commitment to free speech; the promotion of autonomy. And one should add: the acceptance that freedom means that unequal outcomes for individuals will be inevitable, even welcome. The main difference between liberals will is often the extent to which they are bothered by the inequality such an approach entails, and the extent to which individual freedom should be limited by ‘traditional values’ and mores. So there are liberals who call themselves ‘liberal’ and those who don’t; between social democrat ‘progressives’ and conservatives. Argument is typically focused on issues of taxation, redistribution and the supposed inviolability of individual rights against the common good. In this sense both ‘liberals’ and ‘conservatives’ share a basic liberalism.

The problem with this is what it misses out. To the question ‘what is liberalism?, we often get a self-flattering description of liberalism by liberals, about their commitment to the core values of individual freedom, human rights, free speech and so on. But this entirely omits the history and reality of actually existing liberalism. A key point here is that the liberal order is based on a capitalist nation state, marked by a fundamental  distinction between the ‘political’ and the ‘non political’, a distinction which is itself political, of course. The ‘political’ is where one votes, stands for office, etc; the ‘non political’ is the realm of civil society, where everything else is put. It includes family life, religious and ethnic affiliations and much more, but it is dominated and shaped by the economy. In fact, all the aspects of civil society are shaped by the imperatives of capitalism. Democracy doesn’t apply here, and nor does equality or solidarity. You don’t vote for your CEO or the way in which a corporation should be run or located, for instance. Since the key material relations between people are formed and sustained in this second zone, much of the liberal aspiration for individual freedom is rendered empty and abstract. The economy is beyond political choice: you don’t get to question capitalism itself. What matters here is the core imperative of capitalism: the accumulation of capital, the drive for infinite growth on a finite planet. The alienation and inequality, exploitation and injustice this entails aren’t contingent blemishes on an otherwise benign system, but are rather integral to that system. Liberalism and capitalism were born together and have been bonded for a long time. But it is a bond that is being loosened: liberalism relies on capitalism, but capitalism is finding it can do without liberalism.

Liberalism and capitalism begin to be a force at the same time, in the late 17th and 18th centuries, especially, at first, in England. The early manifestations of it were marked by the appearance of chattel slavery on a huge scale. Millions of humans were transported and worked, often to death, to generate the resources and commodities that the emergent mode of production required. The commons were plundered and enclosed, with the landless becoming, by stages, propertyless workers. And it’s here, around the end of the 18thc, as industrial capitalism gets under way,   that we see the beginning of the steep rise of carbon in the atmosphere. This is the Anthropocene  (or rather, the ’Capitalocene’). It has been described as a Thanatocracy – rule through the threat and reality of death, by the rope or the lash. Slavery, exploitation, genocide and conquest are integral to the project that we associate with Locke, de Tocqueville, the ‘founding fathers’ of the USA, and other proto liberals.

To imagine that liberalism is the product of fine minds owned by a small group of white men that only accidentally had something to do with expropriation and enslavement is unhistorical and idealist, as if Liberalism were the product of its own idea. But it is clearly an historical phenomenon. Domination is integral to it, in a conception of freedom for a limited community (initially, white men with property) and unfreedom for the rest. It’s important to see that although times have changed, the basic principle remains. It continues today, though in altered form, as the wealth of capitalism is predicated on the sweatshops of Bangladesh, the mines of the Congo and the multitudes assembling parts for our gadgets or delivering them to our doorsteps. The history of liberalism and capitalism isn’t the story of the spread of freedom across the globe; rather it has always been this dialectic of freedom and unfreedom. The canonical figures of liberal philosophy are deeply implicated in it. Locke owned shares in slave trading company; Washington, Jefferson and Madison all owned slaves; the new American republic ruthlessly dispossessed native Americans of their lands; de Tocqueville was an enthusiastic supporter of colonisation, racial segregation and the most brutal measures against the Arabs of North Africa And so on.

Capitalism is now global, and is widely presented as the best possible system achievable by humanity. It is certainly able to generate a huge mass of commodities. But it demands a huge amount of the most precious thing we have – our time. This, if we have a job, must be  devoted directly or indirectly to the generation of profit. The necessary labour time that it takes to supply us with the necessities, even the luxuries, of life diminishes all the time as automation speeds up the labour process, which ought to be good news. The effect, though, is not the gradual shortening of the working day, or the massive increase in leisure time one might expect. Instead, those who do not lose their jobs are worked long hours, generally for no more renumeration in real terms than their parents or grandparents. How did we get to this?

Capitalism is premised on endless accumulation. This is an absolutely basic point about it that must be grasped: capitalism means, and must mean, endless growth, which is why ‘green capitalism’ is a chimera. Capital is amassed by an ever smaller number of huge corporations, via the extraction of value from labour, rent and interest. Rent seeking and the pursuit of profit through the financial sector (neither of which produce anything useful) has now become particularly prominent. The owners of assets, whether material, financial or wholly speculative, have become hugely rich. Their grip on politics and on the media render the platitudes of liberals fatuous, as the economic realities of an unstable, crisis prone capitalism seep into every part of the body politic. Meanwhile the massive pressure on the natural world that the search for endless growth entails, which brought Covid to us and will soon bring much worse, continues apace. This is what, above all, that now renders the situation critical and a change of course urgently necessary.

Another world is possible. Its outlines exist among us here, now. But we cannot passively wait for it to come good. Nor can we rely on the social democracy of ‘progressive neoliberalism’, the Blair-Clinton brand that epigones like Biden in the USA and Starmer in the UK represent. Liberalism has run out of ideas,. Meanwhile, we see the rise of authoritarian, nationalist leaders, committed to violence and racism. The political ‘centre’ is a kind of intellectual black hole, still committed to fiscal rectitude while the world burns. We can have liberal-capitalist Nation State and economy, built around the extraction of value via alienated labour and the endless push for profit, or the continued survival of tolerable life on this planet. We cannot have both. I am aware that this point is deeply unwelcome to many, but it is true. Humans have only lived in capitalist societies for approximately 0.01 of our natural history: the idea that nothing beyond that is possible is absurd. In this context, there is nothing safe about the middle ground: a radical crisis demands radical action. A political project focused on saving the natural world, embodying the values of cooperation, participatory democracy and solidarity might save us, for only that  could fulfil the unmet promises of liberalism. A way to take us beyond the ruinous logic of perpetual growth, something to meet the climate crisis with the collective will and determination to act effectively that we haven’t seen outside of wartime. For make no mistake, nothing less than this will do.


Books consulted for this article:


Climate Leviathan. A Political Theory of Our Planetary Future Geoff Mann and Joel Wainwright, Verso, 2017

Liberalism, A Counter History. Domenico Losurdo  Verso, 2014

Red Round Globe Hot Burning Peter Linebaugh, University of California Press 2021.