Book: Liberalism: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)

Previous: The seductiveness of liberalism
Next: The sounds of liberalism_ an initial sampling

A plethora of particular liberalisms

There is another issue at stake. Liberalism originated out of a European set of beliefs, but it does not have an agreed meaning, even on that one continent. Within Europe its reputation, and the connotations it arouses, have located it on very different points of the political spectrum: left of centre in the United Kingdom, right of centre in France and Germany. In Scandinavian countries, particularly in Sweden, many liberal ideas have been disseminated under the heading of social-democracy, while what is labelled as liberalism there has frequently been linked to elitist or middle class individualism. In much of Europe and beyond, socialists of all stripes have accused liberalism of acting against the interests of the working classes and of furthering anti-social selfishness, defying the message of inclusiveness that many liberals wish to spread. In Eastern Europe since the fall of communism in 1989 liberalism has been seen to offer protection from the intrusiveness of states and to provide a sanctuary within civil society for those fleeing from centralization. But other East Europeans see it as holding out the delectable fruits of a market-driven prosperity that their societies had been denied by their past ideological and political systems. Liberalism is also the target of misrecognition and ambivalence. In the United States it is seen as a supporter of big government and human rights, or conversely as the enfeebling gospel of the nanny-state. In some highly religious societies, liberalism is tantamount to heresy, falsely deeming human beings, not God, as the measure of all things, elevating the secular hubris of individual preferences above the divine will.

All this is hardly surprising, for a doctrine with such a high profile is bound to attract heavy criticism and suspicion in the course of its history. There are those who condemn liberalism as an officious, hazardous, and enervating doctrine under whose banner both social and personal harm have been inflicted. Many poststructuralists have accused liberals of fostering false ideals of harmony and cooperation, and of being damagingly individualist. Some of its cultural opponents fault it for setting itself up over accumulated and traditional social wisdom. It has been denounced as a manifesto for capitalism, however caring. It has been repudiated as a Western cluster of ideas that seeks to replace or subjugate other culturally significant understandings of social life, offering a cover not merely for large-scale exploitation inside Europe but—no less perturbingly—for the former colonial policies in Europe’s ex-colonies. It has been castigated as a doctrine that has failed to give women their proper social due; derided as an exaggerated view of the rationality of human conduct at the expense of both emotion and passion; or disparaged as a rosy-eyed theory of artificial consensus that papers over the vitalizing diversities and discontinuities among human beings.

In sum, liberalism has been adopted by truth-seekers, endorsed by humanists, campaigned for by reformers, cast aside by rival ideologies, deliberately misappropriated by those who wish to disguise their real political intentions, and attacked by those who regard it as a self-deluding smoke screen for anti-social conduct. In its multiple guises, liberalism has been, at the same time, something to be proud of and something to censure and bemoan. Yet, when all is said and done, liberalism is one of the most central and pervasive political theories and ideologies. Its history carries a crucial heritage of civilized thinking, of political practice, and of philosophical-ethical creativity. In the course of its emergence its diverse currents have borne some of the most important achievements of the human spirit. Without liberalism one could not conceive of the modern state. The state liberals had in mind was one that places the good of individuals before that of rulers; that recognizes both the limits and the possibilities of government; that enables the market exchanges that are necessary to proper standards of living; that justifies the holding of private property beneficial to individual prosperity; that releases individuals from burdensome hindrances to their freedom and flourishing; and that respects the law and constitutional arrangements. Without liberal conceptions of human dignity, it would be difficult to imagine, let alone sustain, personal originality and uniqueness. But liberalism has achieved more than that. In its more recent history it has also upheld the concern for the plight and welfare of others, and it has insisted on sensitivity to social differences within societies.

Previous: The seductiveness of liberalism
Next: The sounds of liberalism_ an initial sampling