Why Liberalism Fails

When the Berlin Wall fell, the eastern bloc “freed,” and the Soviet Union dissolved, euphoria and hubris swept the liberal West. The twentieth-century struggles against poverty, depression, racism, colonialism, fascism, and communism seemed to have proved the success of liberal democratic capitalism, or market-liberal societies, as the culmination of the movement of political conflict and reconciliation. Beneath the surface, however, cracks abounded, and old fissures would soon burst to the fore.

As I’ve written here, part of the internal logic of liberalism once you understand it philosophically, even in its “classical” form, is the freedom from harm and responsibility. This is one of the ironies of political liberalism which often presents itself as the steward of limited and non-intrusive government becoming a totalizing State controlling every aspect of our lives as Friedrich Hayek already saw coming over the horizon when he published The Road to Serfdom in 1944. As persons seek more pleasant, peaceful, and non-conflictual lives, the State accrues ever greater power and responsibility to make this a reality. Even John Locke’s political theory entails this from the movement out of the state of nature and into civil society.

Beyond holding to a false anthropology of atomistic individualism in which man is, at best, an a-social solitary creature or, at worst, an anti-social and solitary creature, the real reason liberalism fails—and will fail—is its internalization of what Carl Schmitt calls “de-politicization”, what Georg W.F. Hegel archetypally captured as the “Victim of History”, or what Friedrich Nietzsche called “The Last Man.” That is, the atomized hedonist which liberal politics and culture produces is a man who shuns sacrifice, struggle, and conflict in favor of compromise, comfort, and peace. Man has lost his “will to power,” his spirit of group solidarity, his willingness to sacrifice for others.

From Christianity’s doctrine of original sin to its secularized iterations through Charles Darwin and Friedrich Nietzsche, there is the understanding of a “tragic” world in which man is a domineering creature who lusts for domination or struggles to survive. In contrast to this view is the so-called “Enlightenment” anthropology of benign goodness in which man’s natural constitution is one of a-moral self-interest (Locke) or moral common compassion (Rousseau). These two views are, of course, bitter opposites with significant consequences especially if the first is right while the latter is what is promoted by liberal politics and culture. Then add in the ancient anthropologies of man where he was understood to be an instinctively social creature seeking community to the modern anthropology of man as an anti-social or a-social creature who is miserable in community and seeks to be liberated from it, you have a conflict of anthropologies and the fundamental constitution of human nature.

Because liberalism cannot call her citizens to a higher life of sacrifice which surrenders the self to others, or the state, liberalism finds itself in a paralytic state when confronted with crisis. The natural inclination of liberals is to compromise or capitulate—accept the demands of the oppositional force to a new synthesis of peace where sacrifice and the implementation of force is not called upon. The problem with this natural inclination to peaceful resolution is that it rests on the false presumption that humans are naturally satisfied with compromise. Given the wealth of scientific data showing that humans are, in fact, violent and domineering mammals more-so than all other lifeforms on earth,[1] the liberal construction runs into a problem when it is met by a forceful opposite unwilling to compromise.

One might say this isn’t true given the victory of liberalism of determined foes like fascism and communism in the twentieth-century. The problem with this outlook is that it doesn’t consider the multitude of other forces and cultures that propped up and called liberalism to a higher plane of living of sacrifice and confrontation with “evil”: patriotism, duty-based citizenship, Christianity, or even the simple instinct for revenge. It also doesn’t consider that, in the 1930s and 1940s, liberal societies were far less atomized and hedonistic than today; more traditional, more Christian, and far more patriotic than liberal societies in the present. It also doesn’t consider, as I’ve written here, that chance circumstances of violent and ideological struggle helped lead to Western internationalism which, in absence of the Big-Other (fascism or communism) recedes into domestic divisions and disputes which characterized liberal democracies long before the rise of twenty-first century populism and nativism.

Liberalism will fail because of its false anthropology. And from its false anthropology we, who live in liberal societies, will have to deal with this crisis of liberalism. Either liberal societies will swing toward a more communitarian and sacrificial ethos in which hedonistic individualism will be curtailed for the greater good, or liberal societies will continue the march to a slow suicide of capitulatory compromise until there is nothing left to compromise.

We should not necessarily welcome this either; for there are many good things that have come from the rise of liberalism: a more open and tolerant society without fear of constant sectarian conflict; a relatively open economy of choice and efficient supply and demand; and, for the moment at least, civil liberties and civil rights. But all that may easily slip away as liberal polities are unable to call her citizens who don’t even like the notion of “citizenship” to sacrifice, unwilling to exercise and employ the use of force to confront enemies, and incapable a fostering an esprit de corps either. If Rome burns but I get to die comfortably in a warm bed and three meals provided by the State, then let Rome burn as I die comfortably is the ultimate fruition of the liberal mentality.

 

[1] See “The Phylogenetic roots of human lethal violence,” Nature, Vol. 538 (October 13, 2016), 233-243.

2 thoughts on “Why Liberalism Fails

  1. Oh man, I would not quite be surprised if I had heard that you had watched “Food” by Jan Svankmajer, the subjects that this film represents would definitely be spot on for the definition of Liberalism.

    Liked by 1 person

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