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

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Has liberalism triumphed?

Both as a political-ideological creed and as a philosophical reflection on the features of a just society, countless liberal enthusiasts regard it as a great success story. One of their most ardent voices has been that of Francis Fukuyama, an American philosopher who, over twenty years ago, announced the victory of the ‘liberal idea’. Liberalism, in his view, had become universally accepted, and no other ideology could make a similar claim to such universality. Was that then the end of ideological conflict? Were we all liberals now? Three problems with that confident view immediately come to mind. First, where is the finishing post of an ideology positioned? When does an ideology cross the line and breathe with relief: ‘we’ve finally beaten the others!’? History offers little indication of such finality, particularly when we judge present events and ideas. After all, even a belief in magic—once a powerful factor in interpreting what happens in the world—has not entirely disappeared in modern societies. Unless we know what the criterion of an ideological victory is, and unless we can establish a clear end to ideological clashes, the question remains meaningless. In effect, those who assume the victory of liberalism merely assert uncritically that one version of liberalism has won and the others have lost. That, too, must remain unsubstantiated, for what counts as victory in the field of ideas, theory, or ideology will always be contested. Short-term victories may well end up as long-term defeats: the history of 20th century communism attests to that, but who knows what may happen to communism’s fortunes in the even longer term?

Second, there is scant evidence that liberalism has been accepted in most parts of the globe. Side-by-side with aspirations to some kind of liberal democracy we encounter ideologies based on religion, forms of radical populism, autocratic states of belief and rule, and, of course, many conservative regimes. In Fukuyama’s own society, in the USA, a considerable amount of invective is piled up against liberalism. But is there nonetheless a process of growing convergence on liberal points of view? Well, it seems premature and wrong-headed to pass judgement on the future spread of other ideologies. Predicting the future of ideas has become more, not less, difficult in a fast-changing and increasingly fragmented world. Even those who claim to witness a move towards growing globalization may be talking about competing visions of globalism that differ markedly from one another: for instance, a globalization of market values as against a globalization of human solidarity. So the globalization of liberalism is still a glint in someone’s eye, and it may never happen.

Third, Fukuyama implied that there was one clear thing called liberalism. The evidence suggests otherwise. We can be greatly assisted in understanding liberalism by recognizing that there are various ways of looking at it. Each perspective will illuminate some of its features while obscuring others. When we look at a painting, we may ask questions about the artist, about its composition, about its aesthetics, about the techniques and materials used, about its commercial value, or about its place in the history of art. It all depends on which subject interests us most. Similarly, with liberalism as with all ideologies, there is no distinct approach that will tell us all we want to know about it, no easy single definition that will cover all its manifestations.

This book will therefore explore liberalism from a number of angles. Using Fukuyama’s flawed metaphor, there are many liberal runners in that so-called race, so even were we impetuously to declare liberalism a winner, this would not reveal which of liberalism’s many versions has ‘won’. The ideas and arrangements nesting under the label ‘liberalism’ may mutate significantly, as indeed they already have done in the past. The frequent bouts of ‘endism’ that afflict political commentators as well as social prophets exude more than a whiff of utopianism, of teleological inevitability, or perhaps even cynicism. Yet even though no definition of liberalism can include all its varieties, its more durable features will be spelt out in .

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