The end-game of liberalism is unachievable; what this means for the liberal project.
Liberalism has been in the driving seat politically for the past 100 years. Possibly the best indicator of the liberal triumph is the fact that parties who sport the liberal trademark are often non-existent or else minority parties. This is a paradox but easily explained. Every political party, be it conservative or socialist or democratic, incorporates numerous elements of liberalism into its own political programs. The relationship between liberal ideology, on the one hand, and parties which operate under different trading names to liberalism, on the other, is the quintessential love that dare not speak its name.
Historically, there are two different forms of liberalism and these two forms define the split between the modern pseudo-liberals. First, there is classical liberalism. This emphasizes individual entrepreneurship and moral-decision making. Many conservatives are basically classical liberals. Then there is the modern form of liberalism. This is heavily influenced by socialism. Here, government intervention isn’t anathema. Many left-wing movements identify with this type of liberalism.
Despite the variation in means, there is a general consensus on ends amongst any bona fide or crypto-liberals. What liberalism promises – a promise relayed to other political parties who have a different trademark – is a personal sovereignty. Humans, at both a domestic and international level, must not be controlled, coerced, must not live under authority or tradition, they must have all laws written down and promulgated to them, they must not be subject to cultural nuances or what is not rational. They must be at liberty to form their own opinions, lifestyle, material surroundings. They must be a government unto themselves.
Because of its promise, liberalism is atrractive to many people, especially those who value individual freedom over stability. Indeed, when governments topple – as they have done in many countries over the last 30 years (including US-backed military dictatorships) – liberal freedoms feel like fresh oxygen.
When we look at many countries that have experienced revolutions, however, we find that they lapse back into authoritarianism. Egypt is a good example. Egyptians overthrew their government and then overthrew the democratic process when it didn’t deliver change. Hungary is another good example of this, where a proto-Fascist party rules.
Yet there are many countries, like the Baltic states, who have committed themselves to Westernization. These have joined the stable of countries who have been liberalized decades ago. Furthermore, unlike in the Cold War, there are no impediments to the spread of liberal ideas. Countries can easily realise a liberal society.
Now, it is true that liberalism has led to the erosion of traditional power structures. A monarch cannot behave absolutely nor can a religious body impose its will. Contrary to the promise of liberalism, however, power has not dissipated but merely shifted. It is now largely concentrated in finance, business, and tech-industries. While these seem to be neutral, it is evident that there remain power structures. A small elite of bankers have the wealth of every country at their disposal, corporations put their ‘man’ into office and tech-industries are playing the role that the State censorship board used to play, managing content to generate consensus that are ‘acceptable.’
Such concentration of power is not just a bug in the system. No matter what we do, power will always shift and collect in certain places. This is the nature of power and any industry de-regulation or detachment of government from society does not solve this quandary.
Since power has this inherent dilemma, what does this mean for liberalism? I would argue that it means the liberal project is unrealisable and it also means we have to be more mature about how we deal with power. We shouldn’t always bury our heads in the sand, hoping that power will just go away. People vie for power over others. That is always going to happen. Instead, we should engage with power as adults and realise that power is not there to constantly liberate us from others or liberate minorities domestically or in other countries. Complete freedom, that which liberals promise us, is never going to materialise. In lieu of this utopian ideal, citizens and subjects should seek to put their relations with others (which sometimes must take on a hierarchal form) within the context of justice. By justice, I don’t mean the justice of the social justice warriors who want to make everything level and the same but a discriminatory justice that upholds virtues over vices, good over bad, and right over wrong. Power should be in the service of justice, and not a dirty word that becomes a taboo.