Our Brave New Century

Michel Foucault famously wrote in Madness and Civilization, “The ultimate language of madness is that of reason.”[1]  Foucault was referring to liberal civilization—born of the Enlightenment—a civilization that extolled the virtues of materialistic rationalism, individualism, market economics, private property, which ends in the slow erosion of the communitarian bonds that had shaped human society since pre-modernity.  The rise of liberalism has directly led to globalization, and globalization has led to the proliferation of liberal democratic politics, the globalization of trade and market economics, the universalization of international law and human rights—and as Tom Friedman has long noted, the economic liberation of women.  But the process of globalization, and universalism, has sparked fierce counteraction by all political and social movements rooted in Romanticism and communitarian particularism that rejected the Enlightenment model of philosophy, politics, and society, seeing it as leading to a decadent, immoral, and sterile civilization driven by mass consumerism, industrialization, and environmental plunder under the name of “progress.”


The term liberalism (and its contingent political philosophy) is poorly understand in public consciousness, and is often conflated, demonized, or misappropriated for something that it is not.  In philosophy however, there is a concise and solid understanding of liberalism—from the liberalism of the Enlightenment promoted by philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes, Benedict Spinoza, John Locke, Charles Montesquieu, Adam Smith, and David Ricardo, to the more modern (social) liberalism promoted by the likes of John Stuart Mill, Karl Popper, Isaiah Berlin, and John Rawls.  What unites liberalism, in its classic and modern form, is an unflinching commitment to metaphysical monism and materialism, leading to universalization, progression out of the State of Nature toward a collectivized harmony and peace, and shedding the notion that particularism, atavism, and innateness are not only not good, but in some ways, not real.

As a systematic political philosophy, liberalism is a philosophy of emancipation and abolition that asserts that greater emancipation and abolition leads to rights.  These rights, however, are contingent upon the backing of the state, and primarily serve the purpose of political and economic hedonism.  From Locke to Rawls, all Enlightenment liberal political philosophers—far from restricting and minimalizing the state per libertarian claims—strongly endorsed a strong state to promote and achieve liberal goals.  State-sanctioned action to achieve liberal ends is the cornerstone of liberal political philosophy.  Understanding the State of Nature and why, in the state of nature, one doesn’t enjoy “rights” is part of the key to understanding the evolution of liberalism from its early foundations to current state (and far from the “abandonment of liberalism,” modern liberalism is its logical fulfillment).

One of the great misnomers about classical liberalism is that it endorsed a weak state.  True, classical liberalism sought to limit the power of monarchial individuals (in the form of the absolutist monarch at the time, at least in the work of Locke), but it equally viewed the state as a legitimate force that safeguarded and promoted the natural rights endowed to all humans and to achieve the long sought after modus vivendi after a century of sectarian violence, civil war, and absolutist overreach.  But only after the (re)establishment of the modus vivendi could the progression out of the state of nature begin.  The very notion of the social contract is to establish the legitimacy of political governance, not weaken or constrain it.

This is why John Locke ultimately advocates for some form of stately government rather than living without the social contract in Two Treatises of Government.  The American Declaration of Independence echoes this liberal ideal of a state that backs liberty, “to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men.”  This is what the American Constitution sought to achieve after the failures of the Continental Congress and Articles of Confederation—not a reduction of state power, but a strengthening of it, not to limit liberty, but to fulfill the power of liberty.  This is why Adam Smith argues in Wealth of Nations that government should do all in its power to prevent market collusion between scheming businessmen.  And this is why Karl Popper, in The Open Society and Its Enemies, eruditely states, “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.”[2]

Popper was just building from Locke when Locke says quite clearly:

And to this I say, that every man, that hath any possessions, or enjoyment, of any part of the dominions of any government, doth 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.[3]

Like Locke, Popper understands liberalism’s social contract as constricting and defining the boundaries of liberty and proper action.  And like Locke, having consented to this system of government, the government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” (the self-sovereign government of the “general will” of the people, per Rousseau’s language), has every right to not tolerate the intolerable, and improve the social welfare of its subjects.  And contrary the petty myths of “perpetual revolution,” no, Locke believes you only get one revolution in accordance to his Whiggish ideology—once the revolution has succeeded and the new social contract established, the eternal age of obedience sets in; you’ve consented after all.

Growing up in the Age of Enlightenment, liberalism embraced epistemological empiricism.  Whereas classical neo-Platonic rationalism (the brand of rationalism associated with Greek and traditional Christian philosophy) asserted rational cultivation and self-introspection could let one understand one’s innate nature and a priori truths (about one’s fixed ontology and telos).  Enlightenment empiricism asserts the opposite—through observation of material phenomenon (and only material phenomenon since this is all our senses are capable of) you come to realize the falseness of innate ideas, fixed ontology, teleology, and so forth.  It is the epistemology of the tabula rasa.  Eventually, this led to the usage of mass-production of industrial technology for human gain, often at the expense of nature and less technologically advanced peoples.

“Reason” informed liberal philosophers to push for individualism and the liberation of rational individuals against external constraints—whether these constraints take the form of the community, aristocracy, religion, absolutist governments, or economic dependency.  This stems from the Enlightenment’s monistic and atomistic view of humanity—per Hobbes, humans are nothing more than “matter in motion,” over and against the classical assertions from the likes of Aristotle, Cicero, or St. Augustine who all maintained humans were instinctively social and communitarian animals.  Lastly, liberalism promoted the idea of universal humanity with the universal desire of peaceable material consumption, a direct outgrowth of the monistic impulses of Enlightenment philosophy that came at the expense of particularity and communal bonds.  Today’s thrust for economic globalization, the expansion of human rights and democracy, and international law is the direct outgrowth of Enlightenment rationalism, monism, and liberalism: novus homo economicus or the “economic man.”  All the classical liberal philosophers: Hobbes, Locke, Spinoza, Smith, and Ricardo maintain that all humans truly desire, apart from their flight from fear of violent death, is peaceable consumerism.

Classical liberalism, then, is best understood as a philosophy of systematic economism, where the power of the social contract supports the endeavors of private producers for the purposes of material self-advancement.  Modern liberalism is best understood as the extending corollary of classical liberalism modified to the newer realities of capitalist and urban society.  The state’s new emphasis is on private consumers rather than producers.  Neoliberalism is the revival of classical liberalism, putting the emphasis of state policy back in favor of producers.  Regardless, the logic of classical, social, and neo- liberalism is the same as laid out by Hobbes, Locke, and Spinoza: peaceable consumption and political hedonism.

The result of the internal logic of classical liberalism leads to progressivism, and self-exhausts itself in transhumanism and post-humanism once human nature and humanness become barriers to progress and is seen as restrictive and oppressive.  In other words, liberalism’s materialistic, soulless, and tabula rasa foundations necessarily is Hobbes’s human of nothing more than “matter in motion.”  The destruction of Lebenswelt, the cutting away of all the roots of human culture and civilization, will lead to Laputa.


Enlightenment liberalism was not without its critics.  The old order of Europe, the Ancien Régime, was one of the most ardent opponents to the political project of liberalism.  But the Ancien Régime was only a political foe to politicized liberalism.  On the intellectual level, Romanticism was liberalism’s great opponent, and remains so today in all its evolved and contemporary forms.

Romanticism was the greatest intellectual movement in Western history in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  Moreover, then the Enlightenment, Romanticism held great sway in the development of modernity.  Romanticism even produced concepts that are now readily embraced by liberal society but were originally the children of Romantic philosophers adamantly opposed to liberalism.

Pluralism, as the great twentieth century liberal Isaiah Berlin noted, was originally an outgrowth of Romantic particularism.  Nationalism too, was a radicalized conception of Johann Gottfried von Herder’s conception of the volksgeist (“people’s spirit”)—the idea that a collective culture (or society) constituted a particular spirit, character, and set of customs.  The volksgeist was an updated reflection of a form of communitarianism in the age of the emergent nation-state.  (Not to mention that Herder’s volk also provided the foundation for pluralistic nationalism and cultural particularism to emerge.)  The strong national state is widely accepted as an evolved byproduct of philosophy of Georg W.F. Hegel—especially as contained in his magnum opus The Phenomenology of Spirit—of which he too was influenced by Herder’s cultural ideas and applied them to history.  In fact, many scholars of German Idealism and Romanticism note that it was the intellectual rebellion against bourgeois materialism and liberal universalism encroaching upon Germany and threatening to destroy centuries of German culture and identity.  (And this rebellion also led some Germans to new expressions of Christianity, since many saw an unnerving liberalism and universality contained within traditional Christianity.)

For Herder, all cultures have primordial foundations which distinguish them (and that primordialism is language).  For Herder, Kultur (culture) is radically different from civilization. Culture is pluralistic, bound by historicism, and grows organically via organic evolution that grows from its primordial seedlings.  Civilization, by contrast, is monistic and materialistic; it is the bourgeois ethos that characterizes Spinozistic-Hobbesian-Lockean liberalism.  The triumph of civilization is the death of culture since civilization is cold, rationalistic, and sterile.

The hallmark of Romanticism, apart from its rebellion against liberal civilization (bourgeois materialism), is the three-fold rejection of industrialization (capitalism), individualism, and modern deconstructive rationalism.  Rather than extol and promote reason, Romanticism emphasized the fallibility of reason to sufficiently provide an understanding of human existence and the material world.  In place, of reason, Romanticism emphasized emotion, passion, and mysticism as leading to the fulfillment of human experience and knowledge.  Instead of individualism, Romanticism sought a return to community and particularity—communitarianism—where the individual finds his place, meaning, and fulfillment as a member of community rather than as an autonomous individual agent per the liberal philosophers of the Enlightenment.  Romanticism was also a deeply anti-capitalist movement.  As Michael Löwy and Robert Sayre, two of the foremost and erudite contemporary Marxist intellectuals, highlighted in their work Romanticism Against the Tide of Modernity, “Romanticism is anti-capitalist by its very nature.”[4]

Romanticism influenced politics, the arts, culture, and philosophy.  Its anti-capitalist overture was reflected in the writings of Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle, who in turn, influenced Karl Marx (who was also influenced by Hegel).  William Blake, the famed English poet of the early nineteenth century also incorporated into his poetry the anti-capitalist nature of Romanticism and the want to return to nature.  “And did the Countenance Divine, Shine forth upon our clouded hills? And was Jerusalem builded here, Among these dark Satanic Mills?” wrote Blake.  (Those “dark Satanic Mills” that Blake speaks of is metaphor for the industrial revolution sweeping across Britain leading to the ruination of the rural, idyllic, and serene agrarian lifestyle.)

In all facets of life, Romanticism swept through Europe like a revolution that would have made Napoleon envious.  Romanticism even made its way to the shores of America, remembered in the United States though a litany of literary figures remembered as the “Dark Romantics” that produced huge figures in American literature and like Edgar Allen Poe and Herman Melville.  Romanticism’s anti-capitalist and pro-nature impetus is clearly noted in Melville’s masterpiece Moby Dick, which has long been viewed by Marxist-inspired literary critics as a story contrasting the insanity of industrial capitalism (Ahab) against the peaceful serenity of nature (Moby Dick).

Romanticism viewed the advancement of rationalism and capitalism as bringing forth the sterilization of life and human culture.  In Decline of the West, Oswald Spengler decried the rationalist project as one that destroyed the rural agrarian culture and transformed it into a sterile, urban, and alien “civilization.”  Culture is organic and living, civilization is sedentary and decadent; sterilizing.  How could anyone, unless mad, advocate for the sweeping elimination of culture, tradition, and communal morality?  For those reasons, in his history of the Enlightenment, Foucault wrote those infamous words “the ultimate language of madness is that of reason.”

Many contemporary philosophers and intellectual historians trace the roots of Romanticism to French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who was not, as often taught, the “last of the Enlightenment philosophers” but the first of the Counter Enlightenment philosophers.  Rousseau believed that the inversion of private property, the state, and economic competition (capitalism) as the origins of inequality and class division in society.  In his Discourse on the Origins of Inequality, Rousseau attacked both Hobbes and Locke.  And Rousseau’s ideas influenced the worldview of Karl Marx, who was one of liberalism’s fiercest and most persistent critics.

Although Rousseau is the father of Romanticism, in no other place did Romanticism and its contingent rebellion against liberalism take a greater hold of society than in Germany.  An entire school of philosophy—German Romanticism—produced giant figures like Johann von Herder and Georg W.F. Hegel, but other titanic figures in philosophy like Johann Hamann, Johann Fichte, and Friedrich Schelling.  Romanticism also gave birth to the Sturm und Drang (“storm and stress”) movement in literature and music that produced Wolfgang von Goethe, Friedrich Shiller, and Joseph Hayden.  This movement came into existence at the end of the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century, and emphasized passion, emotion, and organic vitalism in arts and culture—a cultural and literary rebellion against the mechanistic and mechanistic and industrial aesthetic of the Enlightenment.

Romanticism, at its heart, emphasized a rebellion against Enlightenment liberalism and materialistic-rationalism (German Romantics often quarreled with the Enlightenment rationalists, foremost among them Benedict Spinoza), and especially a vicious rebellion against the French Revolution—particularly the revolution after Napoleon’s rise to power.  Fichte’s “Addresses to the German Nation” was meant to arouse an outpouring of German nationalism, the embodiment of Herder’s volksgeist, which would expel the foreign French occupiers from their lands.  Even the Habsburg Court in Vienna—after their humiliation in 1805—saw the titanic struggle against the Napoleonic Order in apocalyptic terms that would either end in victory and the restoration of the medieval Holy Roman Empire or ending in a disastrous götterdämmerung that would spell the demise of the ancient Habsburg Monarchy.

Romanticism later spawned Irrationalism, which despite its name, was a deeply intellectual movement that dominated late nineteenth century German intellectual activity and culture.  Figures in the Western philosophical canon like Arthur Schopenhauer (also influenced by Hegel) and Friedrich Nietzsche are exemplars of German Irrationalism.  (Soren Kierkegaard is another prominent Irrationalist and is often considered the father of Existentialism.)  Irrationalism continued a pilloried assault against liberal rationalism, for irrationalism maintains the inadequacy of reason to solve problems and provide answers in life.

Out of irrationalism emerged Existentialism, a philosophy that promoted the incomprehensibility of the world and human existence.  As William Barrett states in his study of existentialism in Irrational Man, “Romanticism [was] the protest of feeling against reason…or the protest on behalf of nature against the encroachments of industrial society.”[5]  Thus, with the Romantic genesis of Existentialism well-grounded he concluded, “Existentialism is the Counter-Enlightenment come at last to philosophy.”  A very radical outgrowth of irrationalism was nihilism, the complete rejection of beliefs and values as the end-point of Romanticism’s rebellion against rationalism taken to its logical extreme.

The rejection of reason, capitalism (having taken the form of industrialization and urbanization in the nineteenth century), universality, and individualism were the underpinnings of the romantic revolution against the encroachment and globalization of liberal civilization.  After the old order of Europe passed away in the fires of World War I, Romanticism was politicized to replace the Ancien Régime as the chief competitor to political liberalism.  The politicization of Romanticism tended toward unitary political rule—the embodiment of the Rousseau’s “general will of the people”—and embodied anti-rationalist and anti-capitalist ideas that later exhausted themselves into fascism and communism.  After the horrors of World War II, many scholars sought to outline a theory of totalitarianism.  Most arrived at the same damning and condemning conclusion.

Hannah Arendt, Isaiah Berlin, and Karl Popper concluded that Romanticism, in its rebellion against liberalism, laid the groundworks of the totalitarian movements of the far-left and far-right.  More recently Paul Berman, in his work Terror and Liberalism, agreed with the premises that Romanticism was, in part, responsible for the totalitarian movements that mobilized society with a utopian vision of the future.   These movements were mobilized to combat the encroachments of liberal civilization and to inaugurate the millennial kingdom on earth, for the romantics saw liberal civilization as, “a gigantic lie…a horror…a civilization that ought to be destroyed as quickly and violently as possible.”[6]

Berman extended this romantic rebellion against liberal civilization to contemporary Islamist movements.  Highlighting the Romantic influences upon Michel Aflaq and symmetrical parallel with Romantic quarrels with liberalism found in the writings of Sayyid Qutb, both figures were appalled by the horrors of liberal civilization, the primacy of reason over faith, secularism, materialism, and the encroachment of individualism (which produces libertine ethics in their eyes) against the pure, communitarian, and faith-based foundations of human society.  Here, however, it should be noted that all the scholars and intellectuals who find totalitarianism and romanticism to be closely linked are all liberal theorists—the natural opponent of Romanticism.

In place of the corrupt and decadent liberal civilization, the romantics mythologized a past in order to actualize that golden past in the present.  It would be wrong to stereotype Romanticism as wanting to return to the past; rather Romanticism idolized a past “golden age” that had been swept away but using all the benefits of modern technology, Romanticism promised a restoration of that golden age in the present—with all the benefits of modernity too!  The irony is readily visible though, for a movement that rejected modernity and protested industrialization, it would use all the benefits of the present to make true its dream of restoring the golden age.

Romanticism, in its politicized form, has the ever-present overture of utopianism.  Isaiah Berlin noted the impulsive want for utopia, and ideal universe, as resting in the heart of the Romantic revolt against liberal civilization which they saw as leading humanity away from that ideal.  “The Utopia,” Berlin states, “although we may not be able to attain to it, is at any rate that ideal in terms of which we can measure off our own present imperfections.”[7]  Norman Cohn, the great medievalist historian whose study on the millenarian and utopian movements of the late Middle Ages—The Pursuit of the Millennium—also noted that this ancient impetus for an ideal community is reflected in modern Romanticism.  “In fact, one can already recognize this medieval heresy that blend of millenarianism and primitivism which has become one of the commoner forms of modern romanticism,” wrote Cohn.[8]

It is curious that Romanticism often looked back to the Middle Ages (or even further back) for its inspirations but understanding Romanticism as a deeply moralistic movement helps to understand why the medieval period serves as their inspiration.  The Middle Ages held the perfect social-communitarian bonds of society, a society that did not promote individualism but oriented the individual to be a person to be an integral component of the community.  This communitarian feeling led to self-sacrifice and moral cooperation (communitarian altruism), rather than self-interest and the pursuit of individual corporeal happiness—often at the expense of others—that became rampant in liberal civilization due to the breaking of communal bonds from individualism.  The Middle Ages, despite its religious nature, was deeply moralistic—a moralism that rightly saw good and evil and sought good (the community) over evil (individualism, exploitation and the destruction of nature, and economic competition).  Medieval myth-making, according to Tim Blanning, was the epoch in which the romantics were drawn to (medieval) particularism, vitalistic organic growth, and communalism.

What becomes readily apparent is that Romanticism rejected individualism in favor of certain versions of communitarian particularity (conversely, it can be argued that this communitarianism provides the true fulfillment of individualism—the individual finding his or her true self within the structure of community).  For fascism that particularism was the nationalistic tradition.  For communism, it was the class nationalism that bound the proletariat—regardless of the borders, united together against the superstructural oppression of liberal capitalism.  For the fascist, the cosmopolitanism and universality promoted by liberalism threated the particularism of the “purist” society.  For communism, the lumpenproletariat and bourgeoisie threatened the revolutionary class consciousness of the proletariat that would prohibit the inauguration the millennial kingdom on earth.  All that was needed was a sweeping revolutionary passion to make a reality that utopian past.

At its heart Romanticism was a reactive movement against the changes wrought by Enlightenment liberalism and rationalism.  It was a movement that rebelled against industrialization, urbanization, and cold rationalization and saw such outcomes as extremely destructive toward human nature and humanism. Romanticism, more-so than just the Enlightenment, has held great sway and influence in the development of modernity, from concepts like nationalism, collectivity, artful passion, dreaming of past golden ages, and pluralism, to more troubled developments toward the march to political totalitarianism.  At its heart, Romanticism seeks a restoration of the simple, primitive, and “noble” lifestyle of the past—a past which is now viewed as a utopia in comparison to the present (for the leftist revolutionary), or a reflection of the sacred against the profane (for the conservative counter-revolutionary).

But the condemnation of Romanticism has generally been one-sided.  It is noteworthy that liberals were all the post-1945 (and contemporaneous) writers and scholars who assert Romanticism exhausting itself in fascism and Marxism and the various totalitarianisms of the 20th century.  But what if, just what if, the romantics weren’t exactly wrong in seeing the monistic, materialistic, and econocentric philosophy of liberalism as being a gigantic lie, out to transform and uproot humanity, communities, and organic societies?  (Something that was, and still is, at the heart of Marxist theory.)  After all, Johann Hamann, the “Magus of the North,” was not a petty irrationalist.  Hamann’s “Höher als alle Vernunft” (that which is higher than reason) was really the attempt to liberate reason from the shackles of Baconian-Hobbesian materialism and economism.  For Hamann, there was much more to life than peaceable production, consumption, and economic advancement.

For Hamann, as with Herder and their interpreters, there are cultures, civilizations, the roots of cultures and civilizations, religion, consciousness, identity, and all the forces that constitute what Martin Heidegger called bodenständigkeit—the deep roots of our Dasein (being).  Culture, which we, as humans, are part of, are organic, vitalistic, and naturally evolving rather than socially engineered to fit what the social contract desires of us.  In running from Laputa, the romantics, in their own way, were attempting to save humanness.  One only need read Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels to see how Lemuel Gulliver ends up and that is what the romantics are trying to avoid: The loveless, passionless, animalized rationalism of dead bodies the Enlightenment outlook is portending to consummate. The romantics were, at heart, a humanistic movement more than anything else—a humanist movement that saw liberalism as necessarily leading to transhumanism and, in this, the ablation of what it means to be human.


Progressive politics was once on the side of liberal modernity, and, in many ways, is the logical progression and outgrowth of the foundations of liberalism itself.  It hastened the evolution of liberalism into social liberalism in order for liberalism to be an applicable philosophy of the industrialized and urbanized world brought forth by the Industrial Revolution.  Progressivism celebrated the new twentieth century as a century of boundless opportunity and progress made manifest by the transition away from the old constitutional order of aristocratic feudalism to the new order of the nation state demanded by the realities of industrialized, urbanized, and mechanized civilization.  Indeed, the weak state paradigm was structured on localism, agrarianism, and feudalism, and the departure from that world demanded the strong-state to emerge in the wake of the Industrial Revolution.

This pivotal transition in socio-political development, the rise of the strong-willed nation state that promised the material improvement of the lives of its citizens according to Philip Bobbitt, nonetheless still reflected an ageless communitarianism—or tribalism—that had been the foundation of human society since the first pre-modern man walked.  The new tribalism was nationalism, or in its more “respectable” form, patriotism.  The new tribalism was national unity, a product of Romanticism rather than liberalism, even though liberal societies had come to mix some aspects of Romanticism into liberalism. (And the strong-state model was the simultaneous product of industrialization and romantic nationalism.)

The paradoxical embrace of nation state nationalism against the universal impetus of liberalism is why Carl Schmitt, in The Concept of the Political and The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy, wrote of the Manichean “friend-enemy distinction” and the inherent problems that liberal democratic societies faced in promoting universal human rights and dignity.  Schmitt maintained that the symbolic universal rights promoted in liberal documents would never be truly extended to the foreigner.  For Schmitt, there was an inherent conflict between the universalism of liberalism, and the fact that liberalism emanated from nation states with largely homogeneous communities which reflected some form of communitarianism (nationalism or patriotism).  This would pose problems with how liberal democratic societies interacted with the wider world.

As Schmitt argued (through observation), there was an inherent tension between parliamentarianism and democracy.  Parliamentary liberalism, informed by bourgeois materialism, promoted universalism.  The “other” was not really the other, but “the same.” There is no culture, no identity, just one. (Is this not multiculturalism when really unmasked?)  Democracy, being an expression of the volksgeist represents traditional culture and values from among the people—who understandably feel threatened by the foreign other.  Democracy is built on true plurality and identity, by plurality Schmitt means recognizing difference.  Liberalism does not ultimately recognize difference but seeks to assimilate the other.  Conflict emerges between those who hold true to identity and culture.

Unlike the romantics who rebelled against modernity, the progressives of last century embraced modernity and all the opportunity that it brought.  The new strong-nation state was used as means to achieve political legitimacy, as well as to combat social problems wrought by urbanization, industrialization, and capitalism.  This is the origins of social liberalism, a liberalism that holds true to its classical foundations but concurrently used the new paradigm of governance—the strong-state—to combat social ills.  Poverty, lack of education, racism, and lack of women’s suffrage were all seen by liberals as constraining liberty.  Thus, combating social problems was a means to promote an expansion and more authentic liberty in the minds of social liberal theorists.

Poverty was the greatest target of the social liberals, and with the rise of strong-states, national regulatory and social welfare programs and agencies were established.  Herbert Croly, one of the most important turn of the century progressive intellectuals, in The Promise of American Life, argued such.  For Croly, and other progressives, it was the responsibility of the state to ensure the flourishing of liberty for all its citizens—accomplished by reducing poverty which restricted one’s liberty.  Croly defended his philosophy through an appeal to nationalism.  Croly’s ideas influenced Theodore Roosevelt, and it is therefore no surprise that Roosevelt campaigned in 1912 on a platform of “New Nationalism.”

The Liberal Party Welfare Reforms of 1907 in Britain, the enacting of the National Health Services by the post-war Labour Government under Atlee, and the New Deal established by Roosevelt all aided in the reduction of social ills—namely poverty—while simultaneously serving for an expansion of “new” freedoms to be enjoyed by the domestic populations.  Freedom from want and fear were the foremost freedoms now enjoyed by the populations of the strong-state model of liberalism. The strong-state, in liberal societies, retained the separation of political powers which mandated democratic politics in place of unitary political rule.  In romanticist societies, strong-states trended toward unitary political rule, eventually ending totalitarianism according to liberal theorists.  And unlike the liberal states that promised a new beginning and eagerly embraced the future, the romanticist strong-states promised a restoration of the golden age through state action.

The liberalized strong-states, while establishing strong bureaucratic and national regulatory bodies, structures, and agencies, simultaneously set the path for the destruction of the strong-state paradigm.  In part, this reflects liberalism’s inherent opposition to communitarianism, promotion of universalism and atomistic individualism, and the idealism that liberal theorists embraced in the aftermath of World War I and World War II to produce a lasting peace.  National rivalry and competition fostered the arms race, produced petty jealousy and envy among nations, as well as races to highlight who had the superior culture, nation, and military.

All of this contributed to the outbreak of World War I.  After 30 million dead and wounded, Woodrow Wilson—America’s first modern liberal—wanted to establish the League of Nations and liberalize global trade as means of achieving a lasting peace.  The French and British, however, wanted to punish Germany for the war.  The Weimar Republic was therefore set up to fail before it began.  When it did, the Germans looked at liberalism, as they had done in the nineteenth century, as their scapegoat for all that was wrong with modern civilization.

The Great Depression and World War II were partly blamed on American isolationism.  An isolationism that was ill-timed and ill-informed.  Hoover’s signing into law the Republican-backed Smoot-Hawley Tariff only made the Great Depression worse, and the failure of the United States to join the League of Nations (the brainchild of American President Woodrow Wilson) meant that the organization was doomed to fail, setting the path for the global aggression of Germany, Italy, and Germany in the 1930s.  In place of these failed policies of isolation, Franklin Roosevelt campaigned for a reduction of the tariff and renewed internationalism in economics and foreign policy.  The Reciprocal Tariff Act, passed in 1934, granted the President the power to reduce tariffs with other heads of states, and helped to liberalize the global economy.  The Export-Import Bank, which has received much attention in public political debate all the sudden, was also established to foster a new global trade network as an essential part of Roosevelt’s New Deal order.

While Roosevelt’s New Deal also reflected the strong-state nationalist paradigm established in the twentieth century, other aspects of his New Deal reforms reflected Roosevelt’s inherent commitment to liberalism (after all, Roosevelt saw Thomas Jefferson as his hero).  The RTA became the foundation for the International Monetary Fund and General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.  John Keynes, who advocated for temporary state action during the Depression, was a key architect in the establishing of the first international economic system: the Bretton Woods System.  The United Nations, a revamped version of the League of Nations, was also established to promote political and economic cooperation and integration to preserve the peace fostered at the end of 1945.

Paradoxically, all these international institutions were established through the strong-state paradigm.  Indeed, their establishment could have only been possible from the strong-state paradigm.  Chief among these states that took that lead in establishing the new international order was the United States, who had entered the post-war era with the strongest and most legitimate state of any nation in the world—widely respected domestically and internationally, which aided in its political ability to establish organizations that 20 years earlier, had met fierce opposition.

The bringing about of the globalized, integrated, and international order was a commitment to the universalist, globalist, and capitalist roots of liberalism.  But it was also due to the strong-state paradigm that had emerged in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  Without the strong-state paradigm that produced national regulatory bodies, policies, and structures, the decentralized, globalized, integrated, and international world would not have been made possible.  Yet, at the same time, the usage of the strong-state model to achieve the foundations for internationalism, globalization, and integration served to provide the eventual transition away from the strong-state to a decentralized and globalized network of commerce, international law, and politics.

In a certain sense, the first half of the 20th century served as the “Resetting of History.”  Like the old state of nature theories of liberalism, the post-1945 progressives saw nation-states, their contingent isolationism and self-interested “realism,” and, in some circles, religion, as the root of all the ills and conflicts of the 20th century.  Therefore, just as the Hobbesian-Lockean contract propels one out of the state of nature and into the new progress and peaceable economism, the liberal order founded in 1946 sought the transcendence of nation-states, isolationism, nationalism, and relegated religion out of public life and into the inter-personal private sphere.  Anything that was a possible source of conflict with the hopeful and optimistic “perpetual peace” of a globalized and networked and interconnected liberal democratic union of states had to be shunned.  The social contract, as all philosophy students learn, is one of restriction and exclusion: the restriction and exclusion of all non-accepted perspectives; the social contract established the new orthodoxy for society to strive for and be shaped into by positive law.


In his works The Shield of Achilles and Terror and Consent, Philip Bobbitt outlines the emergences of the “market state,” the next stage of socio-political governance in human history.  Whereas the strong-states of the twentieth-century maintained legitimacy by promising, and delivering, the material well-being of its citizens, Bobbitt maintains the market state will gain legitimacy by delivering increased economic choices to its consumerist citizens as well as the protection and expansion of civil and political liberties that allow citizens to exercise the choices provided in the market state.  For Bobbitt, the market state thrives on globalization, universal human rights, and economic integration and cooperation.

This new, emerging market state is the logical conclusion of liberalism, and the result of the liberal globalism and integration established by the victorious liberal parties at the end of World War II.  While the Bretton Woods System dissolved by the 1970s, a new successor took its place in the form of the policies articulated by the Washington Consensus, promoted by international organizations like the IMF, GATT, and World Bank.  The Washington Consensus has been described by philosopher John Gray as the latest reflection of the Enlightenment model in his work False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism.  The Consensus advocated for greater economic decentralization, privatization, outsourcing, trade liberalization, and fiscal responsibility as being integral for economic development and wealth creation.  This is the much maligned “neoliberal consensus” talked about in Marxist, romantic, and other anti-capitalist circles.

Moreover, the market state that Bobbitt sees as becoming the newest stage of socio-political governance—this globalized, decentralized, and networked world growing out of globalism and the expansion of capitalism—is bringing forth a fundamental transformation of the nature of human society and how humans view and relate to one another.  When Schmitt wrote about the friend-enemy distinction and the contradictions of liberal democratic societies extolling the virtues of universal rights while often never extending their rhetoric to applicable rights to foreigners, the world was still largely isolated and structured on communitarian foundations.  Whether these foundations were religious communities, homogeneous ethnic groups, class unity, or the broader “nation” that Benedict Anderson calls an “imagined community,” they were all grounded in a communitarian conception of society.  Imagined or not, nationalism is structured on the foundations of some sense of community.

These communal bonds of society, which Romanticism fought liberalism to maintain in the face of the advancement of liberalism in the nineteenth century, are reemerging in the twenty-first century as the politics of reaction in light of an increasingly globalized and interconnected society that erodes these communitarian bonds.  Tribalistic communitarianism, regardless of the form it has manifested itself in: the tribe itself, religious community, class unity, the polis, or the more recent strong nation-state, has been the structure of human civilization since the first steps of pre-modern man.  That structure is not only undermined by liberal globalism and integration, it is being phased out in the next stage of human historical evolution, aided by the politics of globalization and integration.

This pathway to globalism, as mentioned, was established in the heyday of the strong-state paradigm to avoid the carnage and conflict of the last two world wars.  The Cold War only hastened the expansion of the globalized, decentralized, networked state.  Although the Cold War was a proxy struggle between the two most powerful strong-states of the twentieth century paradigm, the United States and Soviet Union, the fundamental advantage of the U.S. and its allies was the neoliberal revolution and the already inherent privatized, decentralized (to corporate producers), and networked societies of the West that were the result of the consummation of the dream of the Enlightenment.  The strong, centralized, and globally networked world of states moving to singularity in economic spheres and unions is what has followed.

As Paul Berman states in Terror and Liberalism, Lenin’s revolution was the first of the anti-liberal revolutions that swept across Europe that promised a golden age and building of a literal utopia.  The Washington Consensus and neoliberal revolutions of the late 1970s and 1980s led to new means to fight the Cold War, increase economic growth, and put pressure against the stagnating Soviet Union.  By 1989, the fall of the Berlin Wall and larger Eastern Bloc prompted Francis Fukuyama to write about the “end of history” theorizing that liberal democracy was the final stage of political order and structure in human society.  As he put it, liberal society had won.  The Cold War was more than a political struggle between liberal capitalism and quasi-industrial socialism.  (Although Fukuyama equally warned in the same essay that “boredom” might get history started again—while it is not boredom that has done so, Fukuyama at least recognized the consummation of liberal-democratic-capitalism was not set in stone.)

However, even the world at the end of the Cold War was not the networked, decentralized, integrated, and globalized world of today.  Even the world at the end of the Cold War was not as interconnected and pluralistic as today’s world.  Human interaction could not take place with the click of a button, nor was it capable of taking digitized form across the internet and electronic tablets and smart phones.  Economies are so highly integrated that products are constructed in faraway nations find their way to local supermarkets in the matter of weeks.  Global travel has been made easier and more convenient, to the point that fast travel can take one from New York, to London, to Paris, to Istanbul, to Shanghai, to Los Angeles, and back to New York within a week if necessary.

As the world globalizes and integrates, the erosion of communities and cultural homogeneity that the romantics feared in the nineteenth century has become exacerbated in the twenty-first century.  This social upheaval has produced a nervous angst within all communities who are struggling to make peace with the brave new century that humanity finds itself living in.  This nervous splendor reflects itself in many forms: From the romantic-nationalist independent movements of Scotland and Catalonia, to the anti-capitalism and anti-globalism of the far-left, to the Euroscepticism of far-left and far-right parties in Europe, and to the revival of ethno-nationalist identity and anti-immigrant politics of the far-right.

All, in their own way, reflect a communitarian commitment to the ideals of Romanticism: a revolution against rationalism, universalism, and liberal capitalism; a turning back of the clock against the forward march of history.  They all exhibit a strong belief in identity-politics which reflects a mentality of being the besieged and beleaguered children of God against the forces of cosmopolitanism, capitalism, and sterilizing ideas of reason.  And this nervous anxiety manifesting itself against the twenty-first century world is reflected in the new “progressive” politics and policy-advocacy of the global progressive movement.  Twenty-first century progressivism is a revolution against liberal modernity but seeks to replace contemporary globalization with something new.  In contrast, the right-wing reaction to liberal modernity retreats into the mire of nationalism, identity, and in some cases ethno-religious nationalism.

Romanticism and leftism have strong links, and Tim Blanning notes of the importance of Romanticism upon the development of populism.  The romantics, he notes, spoke the language of populism (taking the form of romantic nationalism in the early nineteenth century).  There was also a vehement hatred for the erosion of purity, the pollution of universalism over particularism, and the encroaching globalism of Enlightenment ideas: capitalism, industrialism, individualism, and rationalism.

The Romantic revolt has also taken root in America.  Unlike the class-oriented economic communitarianism promoted by the populist-left, the populist-right is fixated on what romantic rightists have always been fixated on: ethnicity, religion, and nation.  It is with the German romantics, more-so than the liberal Founding Fathers, that the new right romantics are fascinated with. After all, it was von Kleist—the great romantic nationalist poet—who penned, “The storm-winds that blow through the forests will cry out: insurrection!  And the waves that beat the shore will roar: Liberty!”

Likewise, though not necessarily romantic, the New Left of the 21st century has grown skeptical of neoliberalism (modernist liberalism) and social liberalism and social democracy.  The likes of Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Jeremy Corbyn all represent the internal cannibalization and implosion of liberalism; though all three represent a various outgrowth of liberal economism (American progressivism now embracing the economism of consumers instead of producers) and Corbyn representing the most-leftward expression of liberalism: democratic socialism, their concern over the global liberal project is not unwarranted. In fact, it is welcomed—and should be welcomed.

To return to Bobbitt, the opposing movement to the established order always manifests itself as a reflection of its opponent.  As the contemporary world is globalized, networked, and decentralized, so too is the global progressive movement; a movement that is global and spans all continents, networked across the internet and media, and highly decentralized insofar that its ideas are shared by political parties on every continent, intellectuals on every continent, and publications on every continent that are not overseen like twentieth century socialism through the Internationals or held together by the party apparatus.  This is the intellectual foundation of the contemporary global “progressive” movement—still fighting the revolution against liberal modernity inaugurated by the romantics more than 200 years ago.

The next stage in socio-political governance rests upon this decentralized (again, decentralized to corporate techno-industries), globalized, and networked model that compliments the global market state.  This model promotes individualism, consumerism, internationalism, mass migration, open immigration, and the inevitable expansion of universal rights to all persons and nations (or will attempt to at least).  This model is the logical outcome of liberal philosophy, strengthened by the emergence of techno-commercialism that serves to strengthen the superstructure of the decentralized and globalized universal network system.

But like every stage of human history and evolution, this system will not advance without conflict.  The politics of reaction, emanating from the left and right, rooted in philosophical romanticism, serve as the mirroring bulwark against the advancement of the global, decentralized network system that is also eroding communitarian bonds previously unseen in human history.  This poses an uncertainty for many moving into the future.

The romantic revolution against materialism and liberalism has not ended; it is entering its apogee, an apogee ironically produced by the factors it loathes: globalization, networking, and capitalism.  It has reached its apogee precisely because the world now stands at a precipice of change and evolution—the strong state paradigm that emerged and gave fuel to Romanticism is now on life-support.  If it dies, the Romantic heart goes with it.

But the revolutionary and combative blood of Romanticism has not dissipated either.  To all romantics, including their twentieth century heirs, the ultimate language of madness is that of reason.  And reason is leading to the mechanization, sterilization, and alienation of civilization.

The rational arguments of economic development, increased health and longevity, and global access mask, in Romantic eyes, the degradation of nature and the breaking of the communitarian bonds of humanity.  Not to mention that this mechanization and urbanization as constituting “progress” is viewed as a horrendous lie, one propagated by Whig Historiography.  As Jeff Goldblum’s Ian Malcolm states in Jurassic Park, “What you call discovery [(progress)], I call the rape of the natural world.”  The words of William Blake best summarize the revolutionary impetus of Romanticism:

Bring me my Bow of burning gold; Bring me my Arrows of desire: Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!  Bring me my Chariot of fire!  I will not cease from Mental Fight, Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand: Till we have built Jerusalem, In England’s green and pleasant Land.

The brave new century humanity finds itself in is nothing less the inauguration of a brave new world.  The social angst being produced is due to the uncertainty and the breaking down of familiar walls that humanity has grown used to.  The not so new Romanticism manifesting itself in the twenty-first century holds fast to a utopian image of the past, and sees the increasing rush to globalization, the proliferation of global capitalism and international trade, and the increasing urbanization and exploitation of nature as trending away from that utopia.  Not to mention that romantics constantly maintain that the means of achieving this urbanization and globalism is the result of state-sanctioned action and imperialism.  And in anticipation of Foucault by over 150 years, it was the Romantic poet and philosopher Georg Forster who declared, “The world is facing the tyranny of reason…every kind of damage inflicted by fire and water, are nothing compared with the havoc that reason will wreak.”

The conflict between Romanticism and Liberalism that began more than 200 years ago, is not yet over, in fact, is hastening another episode of the long struggle between the two competing philosophies that was previously thought to have ended after the Second World War (in the West) and after the collapse of the Soviet Union (more globally).  In many ways, it is the root of the disenchantment of the West, with liberalism’s mechanistic, materialistic, economistic (e.g. economism), atheistic, and ultimately trans-humanistic philosophy clashing with the desire for rootedness, community, and some form of enchantment: filial, traditional religious, or neo-spiritualist.

The truth is that “Western civilization,” that long and remarkable thread of thought and inheritance begun with Homer and passed down through Hesiod, Plato, Aristotle, Virgil, and Plotinus, and eventually mixed with Hebraic-Christianity is not, and has never been, “liberal.” Liberal civilization is something new, anti-Western (in the sense of being opposed to the bodenständigkeit of Western civilization), and is in fundamental conflict not only with Western history and foundationalism; moreover, it threatens to uproot,  the deep roots of other cultures too.  Oh, brave new world that has such people in it!


[1] Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization (New York: Rutledge Press, 2001; 1961), p. 90.

[2] Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013; 1945), p. 106.

[3] John Locke, “Second Treatise,” Two Treatises on Government, VIII.119.

[4] Michael Löwy and Robert Sayre, Romanticism Against the Tide of Modernity (Durham: Duke University Press, 2001), p. 15.

[5] William Barrett, Irrational Man (New York: Anchor Books, 1962), p. 123.

[6] Paul Berman, Terror and Liberalism (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2004), p. 42.

[7] Isaiah Berlin, The Roots of Romanticism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999), p. 27.

[8] Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970; 1957), p. 181.

5 thoughts on “Our Brave New Century

  1. You have a lot of interesting points in here. However, I disagree strongly with your identification of Marx with the Romanticists and Counter Enlightenment. Marx does place humans in a social context where theorists such as Locke and others had an ahistorical and a social view of humans. But Marx does not romanticize the past and if anything, he celebrates industrialism while criticizing capitalism. That’s not to say that Marx doesn’t have shortcomings but I think you really should view Marx and the early socialist movement as an expression of Enlightenment traditions. The Enlightenment also had a radical wing: Condorcet, Mary Wollstonecraft and even in some ways Touissant L’Ouverture.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Indeed. I have written on the Enlightenment and progressivist elements of Marxism elsewhere, but in this reflection I wanted to focus on — what many other scholars have noticed — the romanticist element to Marxism. And you’re quite right to highlight that he celebrates industrialism while tepidly criticizing capitalism though (imo) he is a tacit celebrator of capitalism within his dialectic, if only for the reason that it is necessary for the eventual dissolution into socialism and, eventually, communism.



  2. Perhaps the only thing about the Eblightenment was that such departure from nature would lead to social harmony, or whatever.

    In other words, Elightenemtn just brings us back to a ‘new’ nature. Of humans just thinking they have over come or parted from nature. But in truth, we behave the same as we always have. Words and thoughts being fantasies of our evolved minds, like a microbe in a culture. still people die and kill one another, environments get changed. Some humans continue. Some don’t.


  3. You’ve caused me to think now. Damn you !! You have cursed us both! 😄

    Because when you think of these various philosophies, I think that it is sensible to ask what were they really talking about? I mean, upon what, or towards what, were or are these great arguments being made? What is the ultimate ground, as in purpose, as in foundation, as in what are they talking in reference to? And I don’t mean this by the point of their arguments; I mean this in the sense of what is underneath, what is provoking them to make such arguments or sex suggestions about what might be the case?

    And I would say that is the idea that somehow we can bring some sort of good to the world. Or bad, as the case maybe, but ultimately even if I was arguing for some bad case, the foundation that I would be making that statement upon would be a want for goodness. But then what is this good?

    Personally, I think it’s the ethical idea that we should have as most human beings live as we can, and at that have as many as possible will be happy.

    But there’s an argument to be made that it doesn’t matter what argument I make or wet activities I might do, still in unfathomable Number of people die every day from “natural and unnatural“ causes, whether it be nature or human. And all sorts of horrendous terrible things happen to humans by humans regardless of what great ideas I might have about how the economy works or what the history of man is.

    Even the idea of nihilism is a pointless postulate, because really the only reason that I would say that what I’m arguing is a kind of nihilism is based on that fundamental assumption that there is this whole human capacity to affect its world in that very ethical way.

    I think that’s why we still haven’t gotten beyond the enlightenment.

    And it makes me ponder whether Heidegger will be eternally correct: have we even begun to think?


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