What is liberalism? What is the relationship between liberalism and economism? Why did the Second International condemn social democracy and social liberalism, those philosophies that are often publicly proclaimed as “radical” and “socialist” by philosophical dilettantes, though not having any relationship to actual socialism? Also, is liberalism about “natural rights” or is it actually a rejection of natural rights and embraces “conventional rights” that get pawned off as “natural rights” by its defenders?
Economism is a term used in philosophy to describe the rise of a philosophy that is related to the Historical School of Economics, it is also a term widely used by orthodox (anti-revisionist) Marxists to describe the “revisionists” in Marxism. For those unaware, in Marxist circles, to be called a revisionist (e.g. a “liberal” or “social democrat”) is about the worst insult one can hurl at another.
Economism, in short, is a philosophy that asserts all human existence, life, and “human nature” itself can be reduced to economics. That is, life is about economic consumption. Life is about economic production. Life is about “making money.” Politics is about economics – “it’s the economy stupid!” or “good jobs and good wages.” Justice is about economics, or social justice – the redistribution of wealth to “oppressed” classes or social groups, or social justice as “lifting up” people to higher heights of economic and material well-being. Religion, even, is about economics. The core of religion is about “social justice” to the poor, widow, and orphan, rather than deep anthropological and philosophical concerns (such as the consummation of happiness, or eudemonia, and the attainment of wisdom and truth, as what it means to achieve salvation as traditional forms of Christianity and Judaism maintain). Economism is the philosophy that reduces all life to “matter in motion,” the free-flow of commerce, industry, and capital across all corners of life and the globe, the breakdown of communities to achieve economic industrialization and advancement, and through greater production and consumption, humans fulfill their desire for self-advancement and empowerment (conatus).
Liberalism is a word that means many things to many people. In philosophy, unlike the talking heads on Fox News or Breitbart, liberalism is also the prevailing spirit of “center-right” and “conservative” parties in the Anglosphere. That is, the Republican Party and the British Conservative Party, at least among their leadership and politicians in power, are really just liberals – classical liberals, or in their more modern incarnation, neoliberals. They are far from conservative in any meaningful or traditional sense. As Noam Chomsky has said, “conservatives” today are the farthest thing from conservative, “they’re radical statists,” which, as we will see, also reflects their embedded liberalism.
The origins of liberalism are universally traced back to the English Enlightenment: Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Sidney Algernon, Adam Smith, and David Ricardo. While they were confronted by the likes of Richard Hooker, the Earl of Shaftesbury, the Jacobites, the Caroline Divines, and partly by Edmund Burke, the success of English liberalism was a victory unseen in the history of philosophy. Three fundamental texts undergird the foundations of liberal theory and thought: Hobbes’s Leviathan, Locke’s Two Treatises, and Smith’s Wealth of Nations. While we might call these figures “classical liberals,” by the end of this essay one should understand why we, in political philosophy, do not really see a difference between “modern” or “social” liberalism and “classical” liberalism in contrast to David Rubin’s assertions.
The heart of Hobbes’s and Locke’s philosophy rest on three key principles. First, human existence has its origins in the “state of nature.” Second, the social contract represents “progress” out of the state and nature, and the formation of a livable condition for humans. Third, the essence of the purpose of the social contract is to avoid violent death which allows peaceable production that aids consumption. As Locke plainly states in Two Treatises, “The great and chief end, therefore, of men’s uniting into commonwealths, and putting themselves under government, is the preservation of their property. To which in the state of nature there are many things wanting.” The purpose of the State, in liberalism, is to secure a peaceable society to allow for the machinations of property ownership to play itself out: production to consumption, which is self-advancement, which is the fulfillment of conatus.
Liberalism takes on the false attribution of being a philosophy promoting “natural law” and “natural rights,” the “rule of law,” and “justice” in order to undercut its competitors. As Leo Strauss highlighted back in 1953, the purpose of the social contract is, definitionally, and at inception, constrictive and restrictive. “It entailed a deliberate lowering of the ultimate goal [in life],” and “The world of our constructs is therefore the desired island that is exempt from the flux of blind and aimless causation. The discovery or invention of that island seemed to guarantee the possibility of a materialistic and mechanistic philosophy [to take root].” The social contract is established not only to achieve a peaceability that was formerly impossible in the state of nature, but it was one that, more explicitly, and insidiously, aimed at the legitimization of only way philosophy, one way of life, and one way of thinking: economism.
In classical liberalism, the purpose of the social contract, which becomes the State, is to advance the interest of private producers by ensuring that all persons have a right to “life, liberty, and property.” Life, here, is the life that is impossible in the state of nature. Liberty, here, is the liberty that is left over after quitting the state of nature and enshrined in law, which primarily is meant to serve the interest of property. For Locke, all persons were private producers. They produced for themselves, since production was the means of trade and economic acquisition in order to consume. The farmer produces what the craftsman needs, and the craftsman produces what the farmer needs. Thus, both produce for the purpose of consumption, and both engage in “trade” with each other in order to fulfill the end of their producerism, which is consumerism. The only reason to produce is to eventually trade, barter, or sell, in order to gain something to consume.
You might ask, didn’t Locke say that the state of nature was good and “better” than the state of nature of Hobbes? This is a deliberately misleading proposition of high school textbooks and civics books, as well as Wikipedia. The short answer is no. The short answer is also yes. For Locke, the state of nature was not the “war of all against all” that led to life that was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” as Hobbes presented. Insofar that Hobbes’s state of nature is one of absolute war and chaos, it demanded the absolute sovereign (the Leviathan, “that mortal god”) in order to “save us.” Thus, in Hobbes, what saves people and progresses people to new heights is the State. For Locke, it is the same principle, but is the benign slow encroachment of the leviathan rather than its immediate establishment as Hobbes claimed.
For Locke, the state of nature, while somewhat more pleasant and sweet, is one in which progress is ultimately impossible. We simply produce and consume on a subsistence basis according to Locke. While not the outright war of Hobbes, Locke, nevertheless, explicitly states that the state of nature is ultimately undesirable and that humans cannot, and will not, choose to live in it:
If man in the state of nature be so free, as has been said; if he be absolute lord of his own person and possessions, equal to the greatest, and subject to no body, why will he part with his freedom? why will he give up this empire, and subject himself to the dominion and control of any other power? To which it is obvious to answer, that though in the state of nature he hath such a right, yet the enjoyment of it is very uncertain, and constantly exposed to the invasion of others: for all being kings as much as he, every man his equal, and the greater part no strict observers of equity and justice, the enjoyment of the property he has in this state is very unsafe, very unsecure. This makes him willing to quit a condition, which, however free, is full of fears and continual dangers: and it is not without reason, that he seeks out, and is willing to join in society with others, who are already united, or have a mind to unite, for the mutual preservation of their lives, liberties and estates, which I call by the general name, property (Second Treatise, IX.123, emphasis my own).
So, Locke straight up states that the state of nature is one of uncertainty and exposure to invasion, unsafe and unsecure, beset by continual fear and danger. Thus, we see what governs all human action in Locke: fear. Just as fear of violent death is what governs human behavior in Hobbes, fear of uncertainty and loss of property (e.g. our security) is what governs all human behavior in Locke. In this fear, humans turn to each other to form the social contract: the State. The State is erected to cultivate, through its law, a positivistic account of human society. The social contract creates the boundaries of what is legitimate and what is illegitimate in the new society. The State, while taken on the guise of “limitedness” in Locke, is really a slow-moving march to Hobbes’s Leviathan anyway.
As mentioned, Locke maintains that fear (diffidence) is the principal force that governs human agency. Thus, just as fear and anxiety propelled humans to quit that free and equitable state of nature, it is fear and anxiety that, in the new civil society, turns humans not to look at themselves or their concrete community for help (self-reliance and independence), but to the State. Whenever there is economic fear and anxiety, humans turn the State. In turning to the State, the State takes on greater responsibility and power. Whenever there is political fear and anxiety, humans turn to the State. In turning to the State, the State takes on greater responsibility and power. Thus the cycle repeats itself over and over again. Every time society is wrought with fear and anxiety, according to Locke, we will turn to the State to sooth us.
And, perhaps most surprisingly, we’ve consented to this. The State is the new “sacred and unalterable legislature” in Locke’s own words. “And to this I say, that every man, that hath any possessions, or enjoyment, of any part of the dominions of any government, cloth thereby give his tacit consent, and is as far forth obliged to obedience to the laws of that government, during such enjoyment, as any one under it; whether this his possession be of land, to him and his heirs for ever, or a lodging only for a week; or whether it be barely travelling freely on the highway; and in effect, it reaches as far as the very being of any one within the territories of that government.” There you have it, the “father of limited government” (which is a philosophical and historical lie anyways since many preceding philosophers argue for a limited State before Locke, not discounting the fact that Locke’s “limited State” is no limited State at all) asserts that all are subject to the State.
The State takes on your sovereignty and knows what is best for you, because you turned to the State to save you from the State of nature, thereby transferring the principle of sovereignty to the “sacred and unalterable legislature” that we are now eternally subject to. Even in Locke’s “limited government,” it is the government, the State, that saved us from the unbearableness of the state of nature, and now we are subject to it in the consent of being born into the social contract society. Locke’s political leviathan, in many ways, is more dangerous than Hobbes’s – with Hobbes, one sees the immediacy of the leviathan and will either willingly accept it, or be weary of it – with Locke, his leviathan starts small, but grows and grows and grows over time. Like the frog in a slowly bowling and heating bowl, by the time the leviathan reaches full bloom, one is left wondering how did this happen?
According to classical liberalism, the State is what liberates us from the oppression of the state of nature. Hence, progress, in classical liberalism, is emancipation or liberation – emancipation and liberation from a supposedly oppressive and dark way of existence and life. The aim of this emancipation is to unleash the “wheels of commerce” as historian Fernand Braudel explained in his magisterial three volume history of the rise and consummation of capitalism. Humans are, in classical liberal thought, weak and powerless to advance themselves. Thus, it is necessary for a community, or the State, to act on our behalf. (Furthermore, rather than naturally social animals, as classical philosophers maintained, Hobbes and Locke maintain that humans are essentially atomized and solitary beings – nothing more than “matter in motion” as Hobbes described us.)
The heart of liberalism is reducing human nature, if we can call it that, to homo aeconomia, that man is an economic being. However, to the critics of liberalism – to traditionalists and conservatives who understand humans as having innate ideas and deep roots that form one’s identity and subjectivity – liberalism is also a social engineering philosophy that aims to create a new man, the novus homo economicus (“new economic man”). Modern and contemporary century liberal economists even celebrated the ongoing “progress” of humanity to becoming the “rational economic man” as Martin Hollis proclaimed back in 1975. Mathematical economic decision making is the hallmark of rationality, and it is also what it means to be human.
The emphasis on “tolerance” and “acceptance” in classical liberal thought is not merely about “being kind.” Though it is also that. The emphasis on tolerance and acceptance in liberalism is to achieve peaceability. To emphasize schism, difference (i.e. real pluralism; not “liberal pluralism” which is really about “sameness” rather than difference), and sectarianism would be dangerous to the peaceableness of what the social contract of Hobbes and Locke desires. Thus, the cutting off of one’s identity, history, and roots are necessary to achieve the peaceable and open civil society, which is precisely what the social contract of liberalism seeks. Only in uprooting people from their differences can we embrace a universalism of the novus homo economicus and achieve perpetual peace because rather than being different we’re actually “all the same.” What’s the difference between me and you?
The mentality of liberalism is one of unfettered fetishistic materialistic optimism. Progress represents the unleashing of capital, commerce, and industry – the fruits of property production. But as Adam Smith notes in Wealth of Nations, the purpose of the universal market to allow the maximization of the free flow of commerce and industry so as to benefit producers, but more importantly, also consumers. Thus, Smith is really the intellectual father of what becomes social liberalism. The State should do everything necessary to advance this cause of open consumerism. As Smith himself even states, when two or more businessmen come together to collude, the State “ought to do nothing to facilitate such assemblies; much less to render them necessary.” In other words, the State should try to prevent economic collusion because this is detrimental to our public consumption as economic consumers. Smith is building from classical liberal ideas, but is now moving them toward their logical, modernized, conclusion: consumerization.
Modern liberalism, or social liberalism and social democracy, are the derivations of classical liberal philosophy. Karl Popper, one of the foremost 20th century “modern liberals,” in his magisterial two volume work The Open Society and Its Enemies, even wrote, “Liberalism and state interference are not opposed to each other. On the contrary, any kind of freedom is clearly impossible unless it is guaranteed by the state.” Popper is not changing liberalism; he is fundamentally carrying forth its own logic as laid out by liberalism’s “classical” founders. (Sorry libertarians, libertarianism is a totally different philosophy than what you claim it is.)
Historian and philosopher Kathleen Donohue, in her work, Freedom from Want: American Liberalism and the Idea of the Consumer, directly explains how New Deal liberalism, social liberalism, and economic progressivism, are extensions of liberal thought. When Roosevelt famously laid out his “Four Freedoms” (freedom from) and uttered his infamous phrase “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” Roosevelt was building directly off liberal theory. Freedom from reflects the Lockean impulse to try and avoid anxiety. Freedom from is fundamentally the freedom from diffidence, the diffidence that governs all human action according to Locke. In philosophical terminology, Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms are the freedoms established by government from human anxiety so as to suppress human anxiety. Basically, it is the understanding of political philosophy as laid out by Hobbes and Locke. But the question is, if freedom from want, desire, is what liberalism seeks, how can we ever achieve this satisfaction of desire if desire is what the human being is?
It is precisely because liberalism, and social democracy, are economistic philosophies centered on soothing anxiety from the perspective of individualistic consumers, that it was condemned by the Marxists during the Second International. “Welfare capitalism,” not only saved capitalism, it is the logical corollary of what capitalism should become in order to maintain itself without the possibility of revolution from the proletariat. As historian Richard Hofstadter also noted in his book The Age of Reform, the progressive reformers were all upper- and middle-class capitalists who saw the “tidal wave of progress” as leading to urban, industrial, and capitalist society, but they instinctively knew that pragmatic social reforms were needed to heed off revolution and upheaval. In fact, Karl Marx critiqued the first party platform of the German Social Democratic Party in his “Critique of the Gotha Program” precisely because it was insufficiently Marxist, eschewed the dialectic, and advanced a benign form of Spinozistic-Kantian liberalism more than anything else. (For a history lesson too, Marxists and other revolutionary socialists rejected the notion of social welfare because it was understood as a form of economism that would suppress, or prevent, class consciousness and the internationalism of the proletariat.)
In political philosophy, the key difference between classical and neoliberalism, and modern liberalism, is where the focus on economism rests. In classical and neoliberal theory, the purpose of the State is to advance the interest of private producers. In modern liberalism, or social liberalism and contemporary social democracy, the purpose of the State is to advance the equity and interest of the private consumer. Even the more leftward reflections of liberal economism, traditional social democracy (like the Gotha Platform of the German Social Democratic Party at its inception) and “democratic socialism” emphasis the role of the State for the collective consumer. The purpose, however, in classical liberalism’s producerism is ultimately for a consumerism. Thus, one should see why philosophers don’t see any meaningful difference among the varieties of liberal economism, they all fundamentally assert the same thing: life is about economics, the purpose of the State (and politics) is to advance peaceable economic production and consumption, and the enhancement of production, consumption, and the “growth of wealth” is what “Progress” is.
One of the confusing things to understand in all of this is the role of “free trade” in liberal thought. Classical liberals, some say, advocate free trade along the lines of Smith and Ricardo. Others claim that classical liberalism initially rejected free trade and favored economic modernization and protectionism (classical Whiggism). One must remember the idea of progress that is inherent to liberalism’s optimistic view of the world and human history – advance from primitiveness, darkness, to “enlightenment.” If the focus of liberalism is economic production and consumption, and it is, then it logically follows that liberalism would initially seek protection as the means to “build up our producers.” And this is what the Whigs in Britain, and the Federalists and Whigs and Republicans, in American political history, followed. Protectionism first, erect the ladder of protectionism so as to build up one’s economic production base first.
But progress is never static. Modern liberalism, in its shift from producer to consumer, is the real force behind global international trade. Since production has reached an optimal level, the new optimization in social liberalism is the equilibrium of consumption. Industries needed to “kick down the ladder” in order to reach “new markets” and “open new opportunities.” As all first year economic students learn, the principle of comparative advantage not only enhances the production possibilities frontier, but more importantly, allows for greater consumption within a society.
The revered Franklin Roosevelt, after all, is the president who laid the foundations for the modern global free trade system. Part of Roosevelt’s New Deal program was the reduction of all the protective barriers on American industry and trade that had been established by Hoover but going ever farther back in American history to Alexander Hamilton, Henry Clay, and Abraham Lincoln.
Roosevelt established the Export-Import Bank (EX-IM Bank) to facilitate free trade between the United States and other countries. Roosevelt also established, in the same year, the Reciprocal Tariff Act (RTA) that primarily aimed to advance trade with Latin American nations. The RTA later became the basis for the General Agreement on Tariff and Trade (GATT) in 1949, which later evolved into the World Trade Organization (WTO). Furthermore, the RTA and Ex-Im Bank became the foundational framework for the economic ideology to be promoted at the Bretton Woods Conference in 1944 and the post-war world.
To be sure, the aim of much of Roosevelt’s free trade agenda was to pull the U.S. out of the Great Depression. But at the same time, philosophy students should understand the why to it all. The why, of course, is the advancement of the consumer society. Consumption, as Keynes maintained in General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money, was the key to economic recovery and reviving economic growth. Thus, classical liberalism’s emphasis on advancing and protecting the interests of producers, which is what the Smoot-Hawley Tariff under the Hoover Administration was enacted to achieve, was part of the problem. The progressive nature of liberalism mandated the shift from protectionism to free trade.
Now, is all this rational? Mathematically, yes. But a nagging question always arises. Should we do this? To the liberal, the answer is yes. To be concerned with community, nation, or labor, is to be concerned with petty notions of morality, the common good, and the nation-state. Whatever advances economic growth and consumption is what triumphs in economistic philosophy. Thus, if the macro economy stands to benefit from trade liberalization, then one should undertake “destructive construction” regardless of what happens to labor.
The reason for this is because economism maintains human life is solely about economic gain and advancement. Material advancement is empowerment, it is the fulfillment of conatus, it is the nature of “Progress.” Everything else is backward, superstitious, irrational, and so forth. Naturally this leads to a conflict with conservative philosophy, which sees life as being more than just about economics and material consumption. Life is about teleological consummation, ontological flourishing, which is ontological happiness. Life is about community, family, the bonds of civil society and the common good, being true to one’s “rootedness,” religion, and culture, and the appreciation and preservation of cultural achievement: literature, art, architecture, music; but it is also about the building upon of cultural achievement. When political commentators talk about “people voting against their [economic] interests,” such persons highlight themselves as the liberal economists that they are – surely there can’t be other reasons as to why people vote against their economic interests if economics is the only concern and priority of human life; they’re either stupid or bigoted, subject to racial, national, or other forms of demagoguery. The great 20th century conservative literary critic Albert Jay Nock even said that the mentality of liberalism was to “[reduce] the whole sum of human life in terms of the production, acquisition, and distribution of wealth.” Liberalism is a thoroughly mechanical, industrial, and factory-oriented nuts and bolts outlook about the world. We are machines, and we can make ourselves into anything we want because we are machines.
Karl Marx, in his own critique of liberalism, maintained that liberalism’s economistic heart necessarily leads to the alienation of labor. Laborers see each other as threats to their own job security, rather than being concerned with the welfare of another human, I see another human as economic competition. Likewise, Marx noted that the natural outcome of economism’s inherent utilitarianism is “commodity fetishism.” For Marx, commodity fetishism was the seeing of all things not as relational to oneself, but as embodying a utilitarian or economic value to be held for ransom in the market place. Instead of seeing people as people, with some sort of inherent worth and value, people begin to see people as a means to end, ‘what value does this person bring to my want of self-advancement’ in other words.
Furthermore, philosopher and cultural critic Henry Giroux has written, “Fundamental to the construction of the neoliberal subject is the acceptance of this official set of orthodoxies: the public sphere, if not the very notion of the social, is pathology; consumerism is the most important obligation of citizenship; freedom is an utterly privatized affair that legitimates the primacy of property rights over public priorities; the social state is bad; all public difficulties are individually determined; and all social problems, now individualized, can be redressed by private solutions.” The intent, again, of the social contract and liberalism is to create a public orthodoxy, and established way of life and thinking that is backed by the force of the social contract (State and law) that restricts, deliberately, alternative perspectives of life and philosophy from achieving “legitimacy” in the public sphere. It, as Giroux says, relegates opposition to “internal privatization,” which one can have as long as they remain good ‘public citizens.’
This notion of public citizenship is what some philosophers call the ‘public orthodoxy,’ the ‘accepted’ and ‘legitimate’ views and values allowed in public society that all must subscribe to in order to be citizens. Like with Thucydides, who during this recount of the Funeral Oration of Pericles declared the exceptionalism of Athens as one in which all Athenians submit themselves to Athenian public law, but Athens otherwise allows its people to hold to diverse beliefs in private, liberalism molds people into conformity to what the social contract desires, and permits such other beliefs to be held in private but never allowed to threaten the public orthodoxy (which is why they must remain private). Therefore, there can be no official opposition in liberalism, only specters of the same ideology arguing with each other over which sub-tradition should be implemented to achieve the goal of ever greater economic consumption and societal atomization. In other words, the Social Contract devalues the dialectic and seeks the eradication of the true conversation of dialectical opposition.
One of the hallmarks of liberalism is its claim to “individualism.” While the concept of the self, in philosophy, is universally regarded as not being synonymous with individualism, studies on the nature of individualism itself has been a major focus of philosophers and sociologists. We do not have time to overview this long history of scholarship, instead, we will focus on what the individualism of liberalism entails: social atomization and the atomized individual. Furthermore, the etymological origins of “individual” come from Latin individuum, meaning “indivisible” (implying a social animus of uniting together to be made indivisible rather than separating and making divisible or liberated).
According to Hobbes and Locke, humans are not social animals with innate instincts or desires for community. Rather, humans are entirely solitary, and already atomized insofar that they come into being, and the world, without any obligations to the society, or even the parents, that they find themselves in. For liberalism, community is a barrier not only to progress, but more importantly, to consumerism. Obligations and duties to a common good and civil society (civic republicanism), to prayer, faith, and religious life, or even to family and one’s most immediate township, restrict the time “to make money.”
The object of atomization and individualism, within the confines of liberalism, is as the philosopher and writer R.R. Reno has written:
Neoliberalism is the word that gets tossed around to describe our current system. It describes an economic and cultural regime of deregulation and disenchantment. The ambition of neoliberalism is to weaken and eventually dissolve the strong elements of traditional society that impede the free flow of commerce (the focus of nineteenth-century liberalism), as well as identity and desire (the focus of postmodern liberalism). This may work well for the global elite, but ordinary people increasingly doubt it works for them. The disenchantment and weakening that define the postwar era liberate the talented and powerful to move fluidly through an increasingly global system. But ordinary people end up unmoored, adrift, and abandoned, so much so that they are fueling an anti-establishment rebellion that demands the return of something solid, trustworthy, and enduring.
By unmooring people, uprooting them from community and civil, civic, and filial obligations and duties, liberalism “opens up” the individual to pursue their own consumeristic desires. The free flow of commerce, and persons, is what is required for atomization. Cultural integrity and homogeneity, for instance, foster a bond of “commonality” in a civil society. Closed society desires to be self-sufficient and self-reliant. Switzerland is an example of a conservative closed society, in intellectual analysis, irrespective of its internal domestic politics. After all, Popper highlights his animosity toward “closed society” in the title of his famous work, The Open Society and Its Enemies.
Hobbes famously deconstructed human nature in three simple words; humans are nothing but “matter in motion.” Humans, therefore, are nothing more than billions of tiny particles and atoms bouncing off of each other that propel humans into motion. This motion is the highest form of freedom. Thus, for Hobbes, the ability to be in motion is the highest reflection of freedom. When translated into economics, the free flow of economic goods, resources, and capital represent the highest form of economic liberty. Thus, from Hobbes, the eventual expansion of economics to the global market of free trade and the universal market of globalism is what naturally follows. As Strauss said of Hobbesian liberalism, its internal logic demands “the establishment of a world state.”
The world state can achieve the monostic (one), or monopolistic, market which allows for the greatest movement of not only economic goods, but economic agents. Open immigration follows from this principle. To deny an economic agent, who is “matter in motion,” his or her fundamental freedom of motion, is tantamount to restrictive oppression. Borders, nations, and communities erode and dissolve in the process.
One might say that Hobbes and Locke never talk about “globalization.” This is, in the strictest sense, accurate. However, in philosophy, one is trained in the art of understanding logical argumentation and “what necessarily follows” from a basic premise. The premises of liberalism necessarily lead to globalization and the eradication of borders and nations as the means to advance the continual free flow of motion: both human and commercial. Furthermore, nations, insofar that they represent potential macro agents of conflict, must also be merged, or transcended, in order to avoid conflict and arrive at what Kant called “perpetual peace.” After all, the whole purpose of the Hobbesian social contract is to avoid conflict by outlawing or restricting in the definitions and legalities of the social contract, what is permitted and what is not permitted. In the 17th century, the national community still served a purpose for the advancement of economism, but, after the 20thcentury, nations are seen as agents of conflict and barriers to economism, therefore, by liberalism’s own logics, the walls and barriers of nations must come crashing down – this is the “right side of history” and the embodiment of “progress.”
Coming out of the state of nature were many social contracts, which became the multiplicity of nations. However, since these new nations of the social contract may lead to conflict, much like how individuals conflicted with one another in the state of nature, the logic of Hobbesian liberalism is where there is conflict, there needs to emergence transcendence. In transcendence, which is progress, we avoid conflict. Thus, as Strauss correctly wrote, “the spirit of Hobbes’s political philosophy is the outlawry of war or the establishment of a world state.” Or perhaps both.
Locke, likewise, in his “Essay on Human Understanding,” assaults the idea of innate ideas. Human nature, then, Locke also eviscerates through his argumentation for a tabula rasa, or blank slate. Humans have no innate ideas. In other words, humans have no innate understanding of anything – no “Forms” to use the language of Plato and Aristotle, and no natural want for wisdom, truth, beauty, and happiness, as St. Augustine maintained, and as Catholic doctrine proclaims. The only things we can know are the thing we create according to Hobbes and Locke. Thus, the world, and everything in it, is nothing more than a social construction. Human nature, that is to say, maleness and femaleness, biology, beauty (as a Form), etc., are all social constructions – and, if you’re a postmodernist, these social constructions are probably oppressive and a means of social control.
The issue of transhumanism is the direct extension of liberalism’s internal logic of emancipation and abolition, and that abolition equates to progress. Human nature, then, is necessarily oppressive and must be transcended in order to achieve “progress” and “freedom.” As eminent philosophers Roger Scruton and Peter Augustine Lawler have noted, the logic of liberalism’s view of anthropology necessarily exhausts itself in transhumanism. The ablation, or abolition, of humanity is the price of progress and freedom. Transcending ourselves to become better “rational consumers” is the end of liberalism. Meanwhile, Nietzsche might be begrudgingly smiling that his prediction of “Last Man” is coming true after all – just without the “Overman” in the picture that he also thought would be the achievement of “the end of history.”
This was originally published on Hesiod’s Corner, August 14, 2017.