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

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A liberal deficit in democracy?

Although liberalism has displayed its ability to reinvent itself from time to time, the richness and variety of the traditions under the family name ‘liberalism’ are often compromised. The potential of that richness is still there but its conceptualization and implementation are far from optimal. Large chunks of the first layer were assimilated into the term ‘liberal-democracy’ but eventually the ‘liberal’ prefix faded out. Democratic practices are largely thought of as egalitarian, participatory, and inclusive, and they are part of the constitutional equipment of many states. But giving a voice to all people does not necessarily ensure that it is a liberal voice, and we have yet to witness a full-scale revolution that was liberal, from the French through the Bolshevik revolutions, let alone to lesser upheavals such as the various so-called ‘Arab Springs’. As Europe democratized in the second half of the 20th century the resounding call was for democratic Europe, not for liberal Europe. Even current appeals to human rights focus on basic first layer rights concerning life, liberty, and dignity, often at the expense of social and cultural rights. The problem is not only the danger that basic rights are mistaken for a fully-fledged liberalism but that in political rhetoric they have come to be disassociated from liberalism altogether. Thus, the grating phrase ‘muscular liberalism’ is flaunted by conservatives who wish to enforce certain liberties and constitutional practices on some non-‘Western’ societies but have a truncated interest in the third and fourth layers of liberalism.

Beyond that, the frequent paring down of liberalism to basic constitutional practices and rights is not entirely surprising. The third layer, with its personalist stress on self-development, has run up against numerous cultural and epistemological perspectives that regard social context as the driving force of human conduct. It has, for instance, become theoretically outmoded among those poststructuralists and post-Marxists who explain social life as embedded in hegemonic discursive practices, that is to say, in the manner in which dominant forms of political and social language control human thought and conduct. The commitment of liberals to the primacy of individual agency is side-lined in such theories. But more than that—as global views loom large—the aspirations of the third layer are held to be a luxury unattainable for most people on this planet who are bereft of basic rights pertaining to adequate food, shelter, and protection from violence. Hence that layer speaks to very few.

The fourth layer’s antiquated and rosy-eyed assumption of benevolent regulation and social harmony disappears under closer scrutiny, as societies display ever-greater fragmentation coupled with the legal surveillance of their members, from speed cameras, to Internet tracking of consumption patterns, to electronic tagging. Theories of benign social evolution have also gone out of fashion, while the costs of bringing welfare and well-being to all have proved astronomical, made further unsustainable by waves of human envy and suspicion and by large-scale disasters, whether avoidable or not. Slenderer instances of those liberal features still exist within the broad confines of humanist liberal ideology, but the 1990s’ claim of Francis Fukuyama that liberal democracy has emerged victorious sounds as hollow as George W. Bush’s promise over a decade ago to bring ‘freedom and democracy to Iraq’. In particular, as will be argued in , the unfortunately named ‘neoliberalism’ has discarded the third and fourth liberal sheets, and has partly re-written the second liberal sheet of free trade, leaving a heavily thinned-out sheaf that has little bearing on the complexity, diversity, and ethical force of the liberal heritage.

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Next: Chapter 4: The morphology of liberalism