Dec 15, 2003: Liberalism and the Social Dimension

In last week’s article we spoke of the inhumanity of liberalism and how this inhumanity deprived the movement of a genuine political critique.  This is equally true of liberalism’s social doctrine.

The typical liberal’s politics can often effectively be summed up in the phrase “leave me alone,” but the typical liberal is generally unwilling to demand the political power to reform the political system to therefore ensure that he is, indeed, left alone.  He instead apparently assumes that the majority will eventually stop interfering in his affairs, if he sits down and reasons with them.  Unfortunately, few of them ever sit down, and if they do, it is rare that they are able to reason at all.

Liberals have still not faced the bankruptcy of the American political system and its reliance on majoritarianism.  There can be no explanation for this blindness on the part of liberalism except for a lack of vision rooted in its own inhumanity, by which we do not mean “cruelty,” but rather a grossly distorted image of human nature.

The anti-globalization movement has attacked neo-liberalism on similar grounds and with some justification (we will ignore the ideological outrages of that camp for the moment).  This rather irrational movement has gathered radicals to its standard by both appealing to a certain vision and through an inchoate sense of danger emanating from world capitalism, as well as demagoguery and paranoia.

The reaction against globalization, or advocacy of an alternative (read: socialist) globalization, is rooted in the fear that individuals and nations are being reduced to means of production and that the division of labor means simply dividing these people and these nations from the fruit of their labor.  Moreover, this movement fears that economic interdependence, even if economically beneficial, would link the “underprivileged” to the global economy in such a way as to keep them in a perpetual state of physical labor and never allow them to acquire the means of production in any meaningful way.  Already weak and often corrupt governments would be unable to resist the power of massive multinational corporations that exercise similar power in rich-world governments.

Granting that this is a very generous reading of the anti-globalization movement’s position and that the movement is dangerously authoritarian and perhaps even totalitarian, nevertheless have pity on it, for it is the bastard child of capitalism and liberalism, and its existence, if not its positions, should be cause for thought.

The liberal and libertarian movements have reduced man to homo consumptivus and homo economicus.  In mass societies, whether majoritarian or authoritarian, the tendency is to maximize economic productivity, which generally requires an ever greater division and mobility of labor.  That free societies are infinitely more capable of allocating economic resources in mass economies is already well documented.

But, free marketers ignore the socialist critique of capitalism at their peril.  Mass economies are all prone to social dislocation.  In pushing for maximum economic productivity, the social fabric and environment are put under considerable strain.  Rapid economic changes require rapid and often drastic adjustments.  Cities are built, suburbs emerge, superstores sprout up, highways are built, industrial sectors are established.  It has an obvious impact on communities, regions, families, neighborhoods, and nations.  Most importantly, these changes are felt strongly by individuals.  Even setting aside the problems of economic dislocation, where a worker is made redundant, the social effects are enough to give us pause.

This is the reason for social democracy and the welfare state.  It was the only possible way of addressing the immediate effects of social and economic dislocation in a mass market economy.  These dislocations and the oft-discussed effects of social atomization and alienation contribute to liberalism in some degree (by creating a conscious of individuality) but more often damage liberalism by creating a sense of individual impotence that is apt to be utilized by mass movements and demagogues.

Just as liberalism has developed no real political answers, neither does it have any critique of the current mass social system that sees man as little more than producer and consumer.  Again, here we see the parallel of the right and left wings of the liberal movement.  The right would protect our personal means of production, our property, and the profit we acquire through it, and the left would protect our right to indulge ourselves in whatever fashion we may choose.  The libertarians insist on both.

As do we.  But, these things all hang on the absolute of self-determination in all spheres of life.  Liberalism cannot be merely about maximizing production and consumption or maximizing choice regarding production and consumption, for this does not reflect the fullness of human nature.

Man is both social and creative.  But, mass society does not permit the great mass of men to develop these qualities.  The mass economy forces excessive and inhuman specialization and social dislocation.  Mass democracy, or majoritarianism, deprives man, not only of personal self-determination, but of any effective political role.  We should, then, be unsurprised when the lower classes pine for mass social programs to insulate themselves from the rough-and-tumble of the mass society and when instigators succeed in whipping up masses against the creation of a world market.

We liberals must address the full array of human concerns in our philosophy and writings and begin to attack the primary threat against liberty, mass society.  If we do not meet these challenges, we will effectively become a part of that system itself and be delegated the role of a sort of liberalizing watchdog, helping to balance but not fundamentally alter society.  And, in such an instance, if the liberals are not advocating and struggling for absolute human liberty, who will?

December 15, 2003

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