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Can Liberalism Survive?

Marxian critique of liberalism is powerful and penetrating. It splits liberalism into two parts—an intellectual part and a social part—and shows a conflict.

· 13 min read
Can Liberalism Survive?

The political situation throughout Europe and North America has become increasingly volatile. For decades, a pro-business centre-right and a pro-labour centre-left have combined to dominate politics in most Western countries, allowing for a steady political situation with only modest changes between election cycles. Yet in recent years, this stability has come under pressure. Deutsche Bank’s Populism Index, updated after the recent Italian election, indicates that voter support for populist parties across key European countries is at its highest level since World War II, at over 30%. The Timbro Authoritarian Populism Index is more modest, measuring populist support last year at around 20%, having doubled since 1980.

These figures might even underestimate dissatisfaction with the status quo. During the 2016 U.S. election, both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders ran distinctively anti-establishment campaigns from within the established parties, meaning that voters didn’t need to shift parties to express their dissatisfaction. Trump has continued much of his anti-establishment rhetoric even after becoming president, and the Democratic Party has seen a surge in more left-leaning candidates who are convinced the country is in need of a radical fix. In the U.K., Labour has experienced a strong leftward pull from parts of the party. And throughout Europe, centrist parties have been forced to adopt rhetoric critical of immigration and policies previously found only on the right to avoid losing more support, the latest example being Sweden.

What’s causing all this dissatisfaction? Several high-profile events have undoubtedly had an impact. For example, the 2007-2008 financial crisis and associated bail-outs led to widespread protests and the perception of an unfair economic system, the 2014 Ferguson unrest brought the Black Lives Matter movement and issues of social justice to the broad public awareness, and the 2015 European migrant crisis sent more than a million people to Europe in a short space of time and was widely covered in the news media. Many other events have also helped create the perception of a society in need of radical change.

Events aren’t perceived in a vacuum though—people interpret them in relation to their values, attitudes, beliefs, and expectations—and these events have undoubtedly exposed a gap between the current state of society and what people expect of it, perhaps a greater gap than they had previously thought existed. There’s more to it than that, though. If people simply had a single value to which they could compare society, there would probably be less political confusion. What seems to be happening rather is that these events have exposed conflicts within people’s values, forcing them to choose between them. They assumed their values were coherent but have come to realise they aren’t.

For example, on the centre-right immigration concerns might be leading voters to recognise that pro-business and pro-nationalist attitudes are in conflict under current conditions of globalisation. Likewise, the Ferguson unrest and similar events might be leading voters on the centre-left to recognise that a belief in colour-blind individualism is in conflict with a desire to reduce racial inequality under current social conditions.

The fact that this sometimes occurs provides a valuable analytical opportunity: rather than simply viewing societal events as directly causing political shifts, we can view them as exposing conflicts in people’s underlying values (or beliefs or expectations), thus leading to political re-evaluations that reduce dissonance. The benefit of this approach is that we don’t have to predict specific events as a basis for determining future political shifts. If we can identify conflicts in people’s underlying values, we can predict that sooner or later they’ll be exposed and force a political shift, even if we can’t say precisely what those events will be.

My aim in this article is to examine the values of the political centre in order to figure out why so many people are turning away from it. My hypothesis, in accord with the above explanation, is that liberal values are in conflict to some degree and are being exposed as such by an accumulation of contemporary events. I’ll use the term liberalism to refer broadly to the political centre, ranging all the way from small-government conservatism, libertarianism, and classical liberalism on the centre-right, to social liberalism and social democracy on the centre-left. This is a slightly broader application than is typical for the term liberalism. What matters though is not the label, but the basic values.

Furthermore, I’ll define liberalism as the political embodiment of two core values: 1) objectivity, achieved primarily through science and reason, as the basis for decision-making; and 2) individualism, defined as freedom from coercion.

In examining whether these two values are congruent, I’ll draw on two philosophers who argued they aren’t, albeit from very different angles: Karl Marx, who argued that individualism (as defined under liberalism) is an impediment to objectivity; and Friedrich Nietzsche, who argued that objectivity is an impediment to individualism. Furthermore, I’ll link their critiques to movements on the left and the right, respectively, in an effort to understand why these movements are increasingly rejecting liberalism. I should note that I don’t necessarily endorse any of these views. I will, however, try to present them as strongly as I can. My intention is not to make definitive claims but hopefully to expand the current discourse a bit among liberals/centrists.

Marx’s Critique of Individualism as An Impediment to Objectivity

Something is commonly said to be objective if it’s observer-independent. (It’s “in the object.”) Since humans perceive the world through their particular perspectives, achieving objectivity—or at least moving toward it—must therefore entail transcending one’s own perspective. In the Republic, Greek philosopher Plato used a cave as an allegory for this process: due to the limits of their perspectives, people only see shadows of reality, yet it is (perhaps) possible to break free and see things as they truly are.

This implies a secondary definition of objectivity: to be objective is to be disinterested or neutral. In order to transcend their perspective, people must set aside personal interests and attachments. (The two notions are so closely related that this is commonly the main definition of objectivity.) These two notions of objectivity are central to much of Western thought. Both modern science and law, for instance, have adopted mechanisms that try to ensure that personal interests don’t prevent the pursuit of objectivity. (For example, you can’t be a juror if you know the person on trial.) This is a more modest approach to the pursuit of objectivity than Plato’s, focussing on removing the most blatant impediments to people transcending their perspectives, rather than on a singular jump from the particular to the objective.

Some liberal thinkers took the notion of disinterest further. British philosophers John Stuart Mill and Bertrand Russell, for example, emphasised the importance of open-mindedness and listening to opposing views. In other words, achieving objectivity isn’t just about eliminating personal interests, it requires an active process of seeking out and embracing different viewpoints. On closer examination, though, this produces a tension between the intellectual and the social sphere: intellectually, liberals should strive to transcend their own perspectives and to actively seek out and integrate the perspectives of other people, but socially, they should pursue their individual interests. (Scottish economist Adam Smith’s invisible hand, a core liberal concept, suggests that society is better off when everyone pursues their own interests.)

This implies that people should treat each other differently depending on whether they’re engaged in intellectual or social (especially economic) activity. This isn’t necessarily a problem—it might just be that the two spheres require different approaches, but it does at least highlight a difference. This is especially relevant because there are areas where these spheres overlap. For example, a political debate is partly an intellectual pursuit of objectivity and partly a social pursuit where individual interests are at stake.

Marx addressed the problem directly. He argued that the intellectual sphere reflects society’s underlying economic base. As long as a subset of society disproportionately controls its economic resources, society’s beliefs will not be objective; they’ll be partial to the interests of those people. However, they’ll seem to be objective. (Marx referred to these beliefs as “ideology” and acceptance of them as “false consciousness”.) This has important implications for intellectuals. An intellectual committed to objectivity must also be committed to social change, because the latter is a prerequisite for the former—only through social change can false consciousness be overcome, and objectivity achieved. In fact, we can think of it as expanding the liberal idea of disinterest—to achieve objectivity, intellectuals shouldn’t just strive to remove their immediate personal interests, but also to remove the economic conditions that at a societal level serve their interests over those of other people, since these too are intellectual impediments.

Later thinkers, perhaps most notably those working under the label of critical theory, expanded this idea to areas beyond economics—dominance works through many different mechanisms, and to achieve objectivity intellectuals must identify and remove the variety of interests that distort it. For example, people might think it objectively true that people are competitive, or that women are aren’t suited to high pressure jobs, or that ethnic minorities are unambitious. People form their beliefs by observing the behaviour around them, so if they see people being competitive, or women not being executives, or ethnic minorities seemingly not striving hard to improve themselves, they think these are objective facts of human nature. So, to achieve objectivity, intellectuals need to identify the contingent circumstances limiting human behaviour and then facilitate social change that allows people to act more freely, thus revealing their true nature and leading to more objective beliefs.

This approach has proven very successful and has become increasingly influential in Western academia. The point to note is that it hasn’t occurred via appeal to empathy, but to truth. By consistently demonstrating to other intellectuals that the beliefs they thought were objective in fact were not, but rather were partial to particular interests, intellectuals have increasingly been forced to accept this methodology. Anyone committed to objectivity must change their views when these are shown to be unobjective. More recently, this line of thought has gone from academic discussions to specific mechanisms designed to weed out contingent beliefs: privilege training, subconscious bias training, and whiteness training, for example.

In summary, the Marxian critique of liberalism is powerful and penetrating. It splits liberalism into two parts—an intellectual part and a social part—and shows a conflict. A person can’t be committed to objectivity and to social policies built around individualism. Liberals like Mill and Russell have tried to do both, often finding it difficult to do so, but Marx showed they are doomed to fail.

(I should note that Marx didn’t reject individualism outright, only liberalism’s version of it. He and co-author Friedrich Engels write somewhat cryptically in The Communist Manifesto that: “we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.” Nevertheless, his critique still applies: liberal individualism is an impediment to the pursuit of objectivity, thus making liberalism’s values incongruent.)

I’ll now leave this critique of liberalism and move on to a very different one.

Liberalism Can Succeed
The first concerns the relationship of theory to practice; the second, the relationship of liberalism to its preliberal inheritance.

Nietzsche’s Critique of Objectivity as An Impediment to Individualism

Nietzsche argued that Western society since the Greek philosopher Socrates has been obsessed with objectivity, which reached its pinnacle in the image of the all-seeing, all-knowing Christian God. (The physical embodiment of objectivity—the perspective from everywhere.) And so, as Christianity fades, so must our belief in objectivity. And while it might be painful, this is ultimately a good thing, because belief in objectivity limits human creativity and individualism. To accept an objective worldview—whether religious, moral, or scientific—is to surrender one’s own perspective; it’s an act of self-abnegation. In fact, part of the reason for Christianity’s success lies in it making self-abnegation a virtue. Eventually, individuals will emerge who are unapologetically self-driven and unobjective.

While Nietzsche echoes the Marxian critique of liberalism’s attempt to separate the intellectual and social spheres, his criticism runs much deeper than that. Marx extended the tradition of trying to achieve objectivity by removing distorting interests. Eliminating economic interests would eliminate unobjective beliefs (ideology), which in turn would lead to freedom. But for Nietzsche, this is wrong. It’s not a lack of objectivity that suppresses individual freedom, it’s objectivity itself. This follows from what it means for a belief to be objective—independent of the observer. But the more people’s thoughts and behaviour are determined by things outside themselves, the less freedom they have as individuals.

But this raises a difficult question. If liberals regard objectivity as a core value that they pursue in order to improve society, wouldn’t that eventually lead to a society where there is no freedom? For example, British philosopher Jeremy Bentham developed a moral system, Utilitarianism, where moral behaviour can be quantified in terms of pain and pleasure. While Bentham was no advocate for totalitarianism, it does raise a tough question: if suffering can be minimised and happiness maximised through a top-down system, shouldn’t it be enforced? The same applies to a lesser degree to various contemporary social justice measures, which liberals have consistently had to wrestle with. But it’s also simply a consequence of the ongoing effects of liberalism, which have been accumulating for centuries. The European Union is a good example. Its formation was built around rational decisions to improve economic activity and minimise the potential for armed conflict. Yet, the result is a more universalised system where decisions are made centrally, and local identity and decision-making have been reduced. Not only does this minimise the decision-making influence of the individual, but it also reduces local identity. This is a far less direct consequence than, say, implementing Utilitarianism, but arguably the end result is the same: a gradual implementation of objective measures ultimately leaves no room for particularism of any kind, neither individual nor local.

It makes sense to view the growing resistance on the right through this lens, I think. Many people are finding their local perspectives removed in favour of intellectual and social universalism. On top of that, people on the left are trying to push the universalism even further. Liberalism is already taking away national and cultural identities through globalisation, and then people on the left exacerbate the situation by tearing down statues and declaring nationalism bigoted. Liberalism is already putting pressure on traditional gender roles through changing work environments and the fall of blue-collar male occupations, and then people on the left exacerbate the situation by declaring masculinity toxic and attacking traditional family structures as oppressive. Liberalism is already tearing down ethnic unity through immigration, and then people on the left exacerbate the situation by attacking whiteness and trying to dismantle it.

(Of course, people on the left are doing this is in part because they believe they’re attacking elements that are preventing the embrace of universalism. Nevertheless, it’s clear that at least in the short term the interests of the left and right are diametrically opposed.)

Accompanying this is a culture of self-abnegation that has seeped from the left and into parts of the mainstream, manifesting itself in an increasingly all-encompassing concern over privilege and the valorising of victimhood. The natural response is for a growing number of people on the right to become sceptical of universalism, both intellectual and social, and instead embrace particularism. Trump, for example, has been unapologetic in his adoption of an “America first” strategy, essentially replacing the universalist perspective of his predecessors with a more local perspective from which his decisions derive. Something similar can be said of the many nationalist movements that have grown in popularity throughout the West.

(It should be noted that Nietzsche, as a staunch individualist, wasn’t in favour of nationalism. Nevertheless, his critique helps us understand the problems with objectivity and universalism.)

In summary, the Nietzschean critique of liberalism is powerful. Like Marx’s critique, it rejects the separation of the intellectual and social spheres. But it’s far more direct in rejecting the liberal belief that objectivity and individualism are compatible. Liberals who are committed to objectivity will invariably find that there’s no place for individualism in their systems—not in their intellectual frameworks, and not in their social structures. To rationalise this, self-abnegation must become a prime virtue.

Possible Solutions

How will this play out? It seems clear to me that liberalism will continue to come under pressure from both the left and right, and that it might not prevail. An incongruent value system will eventually be exposed as such, and both the Marxian and Nietzschean critiques suggest that liberalism is indeed incongruent. Liberals should take these critiques seriously and avoid brushing off people on the left or right as misguided. Superficially, it seems that liberalism offers a compromise between the left and right, but closer examination shows that it satisfies neither. It will need to integrate their critiques more fully in order to prevail.

One might argue that postmodernism is an attempt to do just this—to combine elements of Marxian and Nietzschean thought in order to rescue a version of liberalism. French philosopher Michel Foucault, who referred to himself as a Nietzschean on occasion, has been very influential on the left, but it seems to me the Nietzschean elements it has adopted are superficial, evidenced by its intense focus on privilege and social justice. The fact that there’s such a strong pull on the right suggests their concerns haven’t been addressed.

A different argument might be that a religious framework is necessary for solving the problem. The concepts at issue—objectivity, universalism, self-abnegation—are central to many religions. German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel, whose ideas helped shape the intellectual environment both Marx and Nietzsche were responding to, was influenced by Christian mysticism, for example. (In mysticism, self-abnegation is illusory because the self, in its physical embodiment, is illusory.) That said, it’s difficult to reconcile a religious framework with modern science.

Finally, what if there is no possibility for integration—what if one of these lines of thought must prevail over the other? If it were the left, I suspect we’d see a gradual shift towards an increasingly totalitarian society. Not the simple totalitarianism of past communist regimes, but a more sophisticated one built around utilitarian concepts that seek to minimise harm and promote well-being. It’s not difficult to imagine some of the mechanisms currently emerging from universities into broader society—unconscious bias training, microaggression lists, hate speech limitations, equity mandates—gradually expanding into a totalitarian system. And who can argue with reducing harm and promoting well-being? It might simply be the case that individualism is a naïve idea, and that a confluence of scientific and moral advances eventually produces an objective moral system that supersedes it.

What if the right were to prevail? It’s difficult to imagine what that would look like, because our notion of progress seems inextricably tied to a move towards objectivity and universalism, and therefore that any move towards particularism would just be temporary. (Although this notion of progress might be quite recent.) That said, maybe the past few thousand years of human history have been like stretching out an elastic band that must eventually snap back, laying bare millions of years of tribalism. This strikes me as unlikely, but it’s certainly possible.

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