The political philosophy of liberalism was invented to solve a specific problem. That problem was the challenge of pluralism, the difficulty of achieving peace in European societies that were increasingly riven by disagreement about core beliefs, especially religious beliefs. Liberalism’s early architects – figures like Thomas Hobbes, Baruch Spinoza, and John Locke – believed that government needed to be reconceived to resolve the conflicts arising from a diversity of world views. It was John Locke who proposed that the state could act as a neutral arbiter – a “referee” – allowing for the free expression of a variety of viewpoints and beliefs while reserving legitimate powers to restrain public expressions of those beliefs only when they caused harm to others or fostered instability to the political and social order. In addition, it was believed that through such promotion of freedom and tolerance of belief, people could craft their own life paths as they saw fit and, as a result, contribute to the peace and prosperity of society and power of the nation.
Liberalism thus proposed itself as a “container” of diversity, in two senses of this word. First, it would “contain” the potential for diverse elements in society to descend into violent disagreement, an experience fresh on many people’s minds in the aftermath of the wars of religion between Catholics and Protestants. Liberalism provided a “container” in which these differing beliefs could co-exist. However, it also sought to “contain” belief itself. For liberalism to work, it demanded a primary allegiance to the regime of toleration itself. What this meant in effect was that each person was required to recognize for political purposes that one’s own belief was in the first instance merely opinion. Liberalism thus demanded – if not at first, but over time – a profound transformation in which all beliefs outside liberal toleration itself were transformed into mere opinion, including those religious claims that once were regarded as so profoundly true that they resulted the willingness to commit and suffer violence.
While at the outset this first “container” seemed to many supporters of liberalism to be the ideal resolution by which societies could at once secure peace and genuine pluralism, the second form of “containment” over time manifested itself in the dissolution and breakdown of these very communities that were animated by forms of “true belief.”
The liberty that was originally to be accorded to groups was increasingly claimed by individuals in the name of their liberation from those groups
Cultural practices – frequently the result of longstanding religious belief – having now been rendered into mere “opinion” – over time became viewed as arbitrary impositions upon the liberty of individuals who no longer shared those opinions.The liberty that was originally to be accorded to groups was increasingly claimed by individuals in the name of their liberation from those groups. And the protector of this individual liberty became the liberal state, which ultimately became not simply tolerant of plural belief, but intolerant of belief that demanded certain restraints of the liberal individual.
The logic by which the “containment” of belief itself undermined these kinds of communities has now made those who defend such communities and beliefs the very portrait of “illiberalism.” While liberalism was created in the name of giving space for, and respecting, a variety of cultures, the formative beliefs of religion, the centrality of the family, all secured by the power of the nation in protecting the rights of such institutions, today the disintegrating logic of liberalism is aimed squarely at those very practices and institutions: culture, religion, family, and nation.
Enacted liberalism was largely able to dissolve strong cultural traditions and practices through the seductions of individual liberty and free expression, the transferral of the locus of liberty from groups to the individual. Cultural traditions and forms were not conquered, they were dissolved. It was especially the power of the liberal market that acted as a solvent on cultural forms, demanding mobility, flexibility, a priority on efficiency and utility over practices that often sought to teach opposite lessons of self-sacrifice, generational continuity, tradition, and stability.
The relationship of liberalism and religion is more complex, with more direct intervention by the state. From the very outset, religion was the main competitor for the devotions of its people, and the liberal state historically sought to restrain religious expression and belief not only by the transformation of “true belief” into “opinion,” but the imposition of power itself – for instance, in the United States, removing religious symbols from public places, banning public prayer, legalizing abortion on the grounds that opposition to abortion was based solely upon irrational faith claims. But, as in the case of culture more broadly, religious belief has waned as liberal faith has gained traction, with young people today especially attracted to the vision of self-making and individual liberty contrary to the basic tenets of the main religions.
The family was always the most difficult unit for liberalism to be reconciled to, given that the relationships between parents and children are not “chosen,” and thus, do not conform to the liberal belief holding that only commitments based upon consent are legitimate. The scientific project of “planning” birth ushered in a great revolution moving this relationship toward consent, and efforts to imbue children with rights protected by the liberal state are increasingly used to restrain the efforts of parents to raise children contrary to liberal beliefs (for instance, witness recent decisions to ban home schooling in Germany). The general movement toward childlessness (and, when there are children, the absence of siblings) is a culmination of the liberal belief in the “self-making” self. While today immigration is seen as the necessary form of replacing a population, developing technologies may one day make it possible to create children without parents, now to serve the needs and demands of society.
Finally, and most paradoxically, liberalism today regards as suspect the very political unit that was believed to be essential for the securing of rights – the nation-state. Early liberal thinkers believed that the state was the most comprehensive form of political and social ordering that could be brought into being by consent, and the comprehensive organization that would ensure the individual liberty of its constitutive members. However, today the state is increasingly regarded by many as an arbitrary limitation upon that same liberty, particularly the right to complete mobility in a world now emptied of geographic, cultural, technological, and even linguistic barriers.
The vanguard of advanced liberalism today takes on the role of actively seeking to root out and destroy any last vestiges of these forms of “true belief.”
Advanced liberalism delegitimizes the political form that brought it into being, now in the name of greater liberty. Indeed, the vanguard of advanced liberalism today takes on the role of actively seeking to root out and destroy any last vestiges of these forms of “true belief,” regarding them today as obstacles toward the realization of a fully liberal regime. The religions of old have been replaced by a new “religion” of liberalism, in which any dissent from the new orthodoxy of radical liberationism from culture, religion, family and state is seen not as legitimate disagreement, but a form of heresy requiring active persecution by liberal elites, whether through state power or social pressure.
In response, defenders of culture, religion, family and state – mainly drawn from the “less advanced” part of liberal societies – have arisen as a political force in opposition to these internal trajectories of the liberal project. Some see themselves as recovering “original” liberalism, embracing the notion of a limited state that exists to preserve those forms of human organization. However, a growing number of the leaders of these “populist” movements understand that they are protesting liberal logic itself, and thus, enter new waters in exploring different ways of grounding political society in distinction from the dominant liberal norms that have reigned for the last century. As liberalism devours the sources of its nourishment, the demands of human craving for belonging in a world of meaning, membership, and community reasserts itself. How that will be manifest is the great question and challenge of our time.
Cover photo by Vincenzo Metodo, Usa, New York City, Brooklyn, 2017