By Greg Godels
December 8, 2023
These are difficult, perilous, and frustrating times. Many cherished beliefs are coming unraveled. Many once-shared values are no longer shared. And distrust of unshakeable institutions is widespread.
Yet it was only a little more than three decades ago that North American and European intellectuals joined in acknowledging the triumph of the Western world’s “gift” to all: political and economic liberalism. For nearly half a century, Western liberalism had waged a “cold” war against the most serious challenge to its dominance. Apart from the fascist counter-revolution of the 1930s against political liberalism, no movement shook the Western liberal establishment and its self-confidence as did revolutionary socialism. Seemingly, that threat ended in 1991.
In that crowning moment, many saw the values of the European enlightenment as proven to be universal and timeless. It was Francis Fukuyama who boldly stated the unstated in 1992: history had found its dialectical resolution with the victory of capitalism and its political institutions.
If it was a victory in the minds of many, it was a victory in two respects: it proved that there were states — nested in two continents, Europe and North America– that won because they adhered to and promoted the victorious values and also that those values were, in fact, the most advanced, most righteous values of all time.
Europe’s sordid twentieth-century history of imperialism, war, and inhumanity make for a poor example of sustaining Enlightenment thought, of meeting standards of equality, democracy, and social justice.
The US, on the other hand, embracing its isolation from European misanthropy, celebrating its youth, vigor, and revolutionary tradition, and whitewashing its own destruction of indigenous peoples, posed as the paragon of political and economic liberalism. Fixated on continental expansion (displacing native peoples), the US came late to the global imperialist scramble, relying more on economic coercion than military might in international affairs.
With some merit, the US points to its progress: its endurance through a great civil war to cast off the bonds of chattel slavery, its past openness to immigration, its uninterrupted history of electoral practice and enduring social and political stability. Of course, on closer inspection, none of these glories bear the weight that they carry within the national mythology.
Nonetheless, for better or worse, they have stood as the best example of the West living up to standards set by the revolutionary transition from feudal despotism, from economic backwardness, and from religious oppression. The US Declaration of Independence remains one of the most advanced ideological reflections of those moments.
Ironically, soon after the dissolution of the USSR — the ending of a great struggle for the allegiance of billions of people — that US liberal image was quickly and greatly tarnished beyond repair. With the need to show an enlightened face to the world apparently gone, the mask came off, revealing a country ruled by an intolerant, privileged, and rapacious ruling class with little regard for the long-professed values of classical liberalism.
A refreshed militarism constructed around a ludicrous war on “terrorism” shaped a destructive, bullying foreign policy. The blowback jihadist attack upon US civilians in 2001 served as the excuse for a government war on citizens’ privacy and civil liberties that was unprecedented in its sweep and its technological sophistication. Little attempt, beyond a feeble, transparent weapons-of-mass-destruction lie, was made to clothe the unprovoked 2003 invasion of Iraq. After only a few years of the twenty-first century, an Orwellian curtain had dropped on US public and private life. The myth that the US was never an aggressor was in tatters.
Both Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib destroyed another myth, the deception that the liberal icon would never torture its prisoners. Philosophical musings about the efficacy of torture were no longer hypothetical.
US pundits freely embraced imperialism, speaking openly of the Old World and ancient empires as precedents for US intervention globally and for the US role as global arbiter and enforcer. The US refused to accept international courts’ findings or democratically determined United Nations resolutions as binding. The negative findings of human rights organizations — willing, useful tools in the Cold War — were shrugged off when they were even modestly critical of US practices.
Liberalism’s promise of universality and equality before the law was shattered by an explosion of racially skewed, draconian incarcerations in the 1990s, filling the US prison system beyond capacity and making a mockery of judicial process and fairness.
The vast inequalities of wealth and income in the US — rising geometrically over the last fifty years — are like sand in the gears of the heralded liberal political mechanism: frequent, informed, and trusted elections. As more than half of the jaded citizens do not bother to register or vote, as election to most significant offices requires a campaign investment well beyond the means of most citizens, as most candidates have sold their souls to wealthy funders, as the media sensationalizes and trivializes issues, the value of “democratic” procedures diminishes sharply.
The sharpest edge of these economic inequalities strikes those minority populations historically denied full participation in civic life — the center-piece of liberalism. Racism, anti-immigrant nationalism, and intolerance rage through the former liberal bastions of Europe and North America.
The failings of economic liberalism have only added to the stresses on political liberalism. Global capitalism has endured several severe shocks since the dawn of the twenty-first century: financial crises, debt crises, and now inflation.
Contrary to Francis Fukuyama and other smug celebrants of Communism’s “demise,” the wheels began to rapidly fall off of the liberal train. By 2023, confidence in the destiny of liberalism had collapsed.
Voters have little recourse but to stay the course or to turn to a new populism with one foot in the past (“Make America Great Again!”) and one foot in the promise of a vague, shapeless future without the corruption and hypocrisy of the mainstream parties.
To be sure, hip, youth-driven new movements arose to meet the collapse of mainstream consensus, promising new, fresh wine in shiny new bottles. Movements like OCCUPY and formations like SYRIZA, PODEMOS, and FIVE STAR dazzled many with their ultra-liberal, ultra-tolerant agenda, aimed at an educated middle and upper-middle strata economically relatively secure, but pushing past older lifestyle and cultural frontiers. When these movements matured, often into politically influential parties confronting the old guard, they proved to be the same old wine, leaving their supporters with an ugly taste.
Today’s politics are at a miserable impasse, with much noise and fractiousness, but, nonetheless, still contained in the narrow vessel of classical liberalism in one flavor or another. Remarkably, the unease among the intellectual strata and the anger of the citizenry has stoked a kind of tribalism. Academics and pundits write and speak of saving “our democracy” as though anyone believes that we can have democracy when candidates, votes, and the news are bought and sold. Their right-wing-oriented counterparts celebrate the sanctity and virtues of the US Constitution, as though it were from God rather than Enlightenment reason.
But left and right, in the confines of mainstream politics, are now ready to cast away the tolerance and civility of liberalism to thwart — even proscribe — their political opponents. Freedom of expression, of speech, of association, of advocacy carry little value in today’s sordid world with liberalism’s most self-righteous advocates violating liberalism’s most sacred values and supporting censorship and cancellation.
The once hallowed doctrine of rights has been stretched so far beyond human rights as to be trivial and meaningless, by including corporations, all organic creatures, and even inanimate objects. All now widely accepted to be rights-bearers.
Liberty– the cornerstone of liberal constitutions — is today divorced from its roots in liberation and reduced to personalized and individualized self-indulgence, the decadent product of corporate consumerism.
The few remaining true-believing liberals — people like Glenn Greenwald and Matt Taibbi — are roasted by all sides for their defense of free speech for everyone and “neutral” journalism. In an age of gross hypocrisy, they are true naïfs.
If Karl Marx were alive, he would not be surprised by this turn. He associated classical liberalism’s emergence with the origin and maturation of capitalism. The rise of the bourgeoisie as a class spawned its own ideology, an ideology that broke the chains of hereditary noble privilege and religious obscurantism, and spread hope for the masses consigned to an unchanging future of peasant labor and grinding poverty. That hope for working people — based on the potential of natural, universal human rights, fraternity, and universal suffrage — served to cement the alliance of the bourgeoisie with working people against the nobility and its supporters.
Bourgeois ideology, classical liberalism, challenged the foundations of medieval privilege based on Divine Right and on fixed stations in life. In place of the old thinking, enlightenment thinkers proposed natural rights — the social counterparts to the natural laws of the emerging sciences. Like the laws of nature, social laws were to be grounded in reason and not God or birthright.
For Western societies, the new ideology was a welcome gift, broadening political participation, enhancing social mobility, freeing economic and scientific development, and creating more democratic political institutions. Accompanying these advances came a conceit that the ascendant classes had revealed universal truths, that the new economic, social, and political orders were the best that could be devised.
Bourgeois academics have been obsessed with providing a rational foundation for this conceit for centuries, but without success.
The young Karl Marx would have none of it. Writing dismissively of the bourgeois fetish for natural rights in Bruno Bauer’s Die Judenfrage, Marx said: “None of the supposed rights of man, therefore, go beyond the egoistic man… that is, an individual separated from the community, withdrawn into himself, wholly preoccupied with his private interest and acting in accord with his private caprice…”
He recognized that the bourgeois social apparatus — classical liberalism — “fit” and served, in its time, the emancipation, the liberation of the bourgeois class and to a limited degree the working class. But he also recognized that it was limited by its class perspective. With property and the sanctity of private ownership at the center of classical liberalism, the emancipation of humanity could not be completed.
In the revolutions of 1848 that rocked Europe, all three classes — the nobility, the bourgeoisie, and the proletariat– participated and forged temporary, unstable alliances to secure their diverse goals, a time beautifully captured by Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire. But the differences between the ascending bourgeois order and a future proletarian order were tersely conveyed by the popular slogan: “Not freedom to read, but freedom to feed!”
Today, capitalism is moribund. Its decline was in plain sight in the last decades of the twentieth century, only to be lifted by its expansion in People’s China and the counter-revolution in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Nonetheless, capitalism’s ability to deliver an adequate standard of living, safety, and security grows weaker with every economic crisis and war. It should come as no surprise that its political and social superstructure, inclusive of the ideologies of economic and political liberalism, would also be in crisis, showing similar signs of decline and dysfunction.
Just as political liberalism rose with the ascent of capitalism, it is falling with capitalism’s decline. The cancer of corruption and greed, the rot of political practice, and the decadence of culture and social media ensure the further demise of the institutions of classical liberalism.
What will replace them?
It is a good time to recall and consider Rosa Luxemburg’s words: “Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to socialism or regression into barbarism.”