What does it mean to be a ‘liberal’?

First published by the Guardian, ‘Comment is Free’, 15/8/11

What is liberalism? The term is deployed frequently in political discussion but, confusingly, can refer to a great range of ideological positions. So, for example, one type of liberal (a “social” or “leftwing” liberal) might favour generous welfare provision and redistribution, while another (an “economic” or “classical” liberal) might prefer laissez-faire economics and minimal state intervention. The picture becomes even more bewildering when the US political landscape is taken into account. There, the term “liberal” is often used interchangeably with “leftwinger”. To make it still more confusing, liberal-hating US conservatives are usually free-marketeers – ie, economic liberals.

How can we get a firm conceptual grip on this rather slippery political philosophy? Political theorists often identify a series of fixed values that are taken to be the essential properties of liberalism. These might include liberty, democracy, tolerance, constitutionalism and human rights, for example. Some of these are more convincing as core principles than others – until relatively recently, many liberals were decidedly hostile to democracy, for instance. Liberty, constitutionalism and tolerance are more plausible, but are hardly the exclusive property of liberalism. Part of the problem in seeking to define liberalism in this way is that liberalism is the dominant world view (in the west, at least). It is no longer a sharply defined political movement but, in a sense, the very political condition of modernity. There are few political traditions that are clearly separate from it, because most other traditions are situated within this hegemonic context. Thus, modern conservatism is really a variant of liberalism, and socialism, too, is not wholly distinct from it.

Liberalism is best understood as “a specific historical movement of ideas”(Arblaster) rather than as a collection of fixed, abstract values. As such, it has evolved over time. As a political discourse, liberalism provides a set of ideas which can be articulated in different ways. Liberalism has been constantly reshaped and adapted and has, over time, split into different branches. The predominant form it has taken has varied historically from period to period and it has acquired different emphases in different countries. The specific historical, social and political context, then, will inform the precise meaning of the term.

It is helpful to regard liberalism as a political tradition that has developed, in part, as the legitimating ideology of the bourgeoisie. This explains its broad historical trajectory over the centuries. Liberalism emerged as a revolutionary ideology reflecting the ambitions of the rising bourgeoisie in relation to the abolition of feudal privilege. Liberalism won its decisive political victories in the revolutions in England, the US and France in the 17th and 18th centuries. Its rise was concurrent with the rise of capitalism. With the consolidation of capitalism, the tenor of liberalism shifted from emancipatory optimism to a more conservative stance, suspicious of grand projects of social change.

Nevertheless, because liberalism proclaimed radically universalistprinciples – most notably, liberty and equality for all – the doctrine provided ideological resources that could be taken up by hitherto oppressed groups. Those excluded from the early realm of liberal equality and freedom – slaves, women and working-class men – drew on the universalism of liberal principles in order to demand inclusion. So the historical development of liberalism was shaped not only by the interests of the wealthy but also by the struggles of the marginalised.

We can trace some of the major changes in liberalism with reference to these shifting interests, struggles and material conditions. In its earliest form, as we saw, liberalism was the political doctrine of a revolutionary class pitted against the ancien regime. By the 19th century, classical liberalism reflected the interests of a triumphant, confident bourgeoisie, extolling the virtues of laissez-faire capitalism. From the late 19thcentury, a form of social liberalism favouring welfare reforms and state intervention emerged under pressure from a growing challenge from organised labour. Bolstered by the economic theories of Keynes, social liberalism became hegemonic in the wake of the 1930s crisis, which shook capitalism to its core. This branch of liberalism absorbed a strand of the socialist tradition to form what became known as social democracy. The late 20th century saw a revival of economic liberalism –“neoliberalism” – as the postwar social liberal consensus disintegrated with the petering out of the “long boom” in the early 1970s. Round about the same time, a return to classical ideas was also evident in a more egalitarian strain of modern liberalism. Theorists such as Rawls revived the social contract tradition associated with Locke, for example, and sought to combine this with the egalitarian aspirations of social liberalism.

But what is the property shared by these disparate variants of liberalism that makes them all, precisely, liberal? There is a common thread running throughout liberalism’s history – present in all major strands of the tradition. Liberalism is founded on a particular view of human nature and society – the assumption that humanbeings are, first and foremost, individuals. This foundation is simultaneously ontological and ethical. That is, it sees the individual as more fundamental, more real, than society, and at the same time regards the individual as much more morally valuable than any collective entity.

Furthermore, this view of human nature suggests that the individual is fundamentally complete and whole in and of him/herself. This view contrasts with earlier beliefs about human nature – in ancient and medieval times, humans were not regarded as self-sufficient individuals. For Aristotle, for example, the nature of humanity could not be conceived in abstraction from the polis (political community). It also contrasts with traditional conservatism, which sees social tradition as taking precedence over the individual, and with Marxism, which regards humans as fundamentally social creatures.

Liberalism’s ontological basis is, in my view, unconvincing in both philosophical and anthropological terms, but it has, undeniably, a powerful intuitive force – it has sunk deep roots in the modern consciousness. Perhaps liberalism’s greatest strength, however, is its remarkable adaptability. It’s this quality that explains the bewildering variety of types of liberalism – each with an equally valid claim on the term – today.

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