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The failure of liberalism lies in its intricate connection to the affairs of the state: as the state goes, so goes liberalism.

Hobbes and Locke Revisited: The Foundations of the Modern Liberal State, Conclusion

To dub Hobbes a conservative thinker is, in a manner of speaking, a misnomer, a modern-day projection which makes sense only once we adopt modern-day political categories which were hardly appropriate or even in use in Hobbes’ own time. And when examined through the lenses of his own time, Hobbes comes across as a revolutionary thinker, revolutionary for having foreseen, amidst what was still by and large a feudal society, the operations of the market as setting the tone for all future relations among the members of the commonwealth. Unlike Adam Smith, however, for whom the formation or the existence of the commonwealth as a political entity were unproblematic, in the workings of the invisible hand and the unfolding laissez-faire mode of social relations, Hobbes saw a unique opportunity to anchor the state as the supreme political institution for all times. Through his ingenious concept of political obligation, Hobbes establishes the supremacy of the state in terms of the consenting subject: (a) market relations make everyone equally insecure and subject to power grab by any one individual or group of individuals; (b) it is therefore in everyone’s interest to relinquish their God-given sovereignty by vesting same, both individually and collectively, in the institution of the state; (c) this act of consent, also referred to as “social contract,” constitutes a political obligation on the part of the consenting subjects to abide by the dictates and the authority of the state.

In a sense, Hobbes was first in the long line of modern-day theorists to advocate what has come to be known as statism, the unchallenged authority of the state as the supreme political institution, irrespective of the personalities involved or the idiosyncrasies of the office holders, be they kings, the king’s men, or the elected officials. And his justification was, only the state offered each and everyone the requisite measure of protection not only from one another but, just as importantly, from themselves: it protected the individual from the vagaries of human nature.

How does one move, however, from Hobbes’s grand schema to what passes nowadays for the conservative and/or liberal viewpoint? One point of departure is Edmund Burke, his famous treatise against the excesses of the French Revolution being a case in point: a conservative viewpoint is always a form of reaction, and Burke’s pamphlet fits the bill to a T. Another one, if one reaches further back, are the ideas of the French Enlightenment thinkers, the ideas which paved the way to the French Revolution. And in this respect, Hayek may have been right to single out Rousseau as the object of his venom; where he was wrong, however, was in crediting the latter with socialist leanings and mindset. In an obvious attempt to discredit liberalism by arguing for such a linkage, Hayek only discredited himself.

If Burke was the presumptive father of modern-day conservatism, John Stuart Mill may be said to represent the alternative viewpoint. And if one disregards here Mill’s utilitarian streak, one can point to some of his polemical writings concerning the flagrant abuses in the early stages of the Industrial Revolution; in particular, to his uncompromising stand against child labor practices of the day and his steadfast support for worker unions and extending the original franchise. As a matter of fact, the entire liberal/socialist tradition of post-industrial England can be traced to these efforts.

In any case, in the last two examples we see liberalism on the march and in the vanguard, as it were, reacting in the first instance to the excesses of the Age of Faith and inaugurating in its stead the Age of Reason; and in the second, to intolerable conditions which accompanied the initial stages of industrialization, whereas conservatism appears content to react back. And perhaps this is the right dynamics in that it captures the correct sequence of historical events, modern or ancient, the unfolding of human progress throughout history, whereby liberal attitudes and mindset are always in the lead, clamoring for change, whereas conservatism tends to be associated with a voice of reaction.

Of course in the larger, more comprehensive sense, conservatism was always understood to stand for upholding the status quo, which usually meant the established order that favored the interests of the ruling class. And in that, extended sense of the term, John Locke was a conservative; and so were our founding fathers, for having set land ownership as one of the prerequisites for political franchise, let alone for having supported the institution of slavery. By the same token, Hobbes wasn’t a conservative even though property ownership was one of the cornerstones of his political schema: for Hobbes, property and possessions meant power; and human desire for amassing either wasn’t connoting any kind of value for him, merely a fact of life.

(Likewise with modern-day conservationists, whether with respect to energy or environment. It’s rather ironic that those who most proudly lay claim to the title are more bent on destroying the environment for the sake of profit than those who are keen on preserving it; yet it’s the latter who are the despised liberals. It’s all a matter of values.)

If John Stuart Mill or the Encyclopedists could be said to accurately represent the beginnings of the modern liberal tradition, then we wouldn’t be too far off to say that liberalism is an offshoot of an impulse, a most noble impulse at that. Defending the underdog, the downtrodden, the heavy-burdened and the heavy-laden – what could be nobler or finer than that? In fact, underneath the entire liberal tradition there runs the undercurrent of a theme, the theme of empathy, the latent leitmotif. If not always translatable to direct identification, at the very least it surely connotes the taking of a stand, espousing a cause, fighting for justice. Again, no human emotion could be finer or more satisfying. The question we must therefore ask, what became of this impulse? Why has a political philosophy that’s clearly an expression of it, both in terms of intent and the sought-after results, become bankrupt? What led to its eventual change of status from a vibrant political philosophy to mere ideology?

In the course of these essays, I alluded to a number of historical developments which were hardly foreseen by the chief architects of the modern state, both in the old world and the new, developments which have forever changed the contours and the general complexion of the institution which rose in the wake of the old and crumbling Western monarchies, constitutional as they may have been, the modern-day statehood.

I’m referring of course to developments which culminated in the establishment of universal franchise having become de rigueur, as it were, a virtual standard for any self-respecting modern state with any pretensions to being democratic, the most important developments of them all, that is, including the resulting fallout. And what spearheaded this push towards universal franchise and all it had come to entail was the concept of rights: the right to vote, the right to assemble, the right to be treated with dignity irrespective of race, ethnic origin or gender; in short, both civic and civil rights, the former, namely, citizen’s rights, paving the way for the latter. And while ‘tis true that none of these gains have been won without bitter struggle, it’s also true that none would have been possible or conceivable without rights spearheading the struggle and serving as the banner.

Rights emerge thus as the key concept of political philosophy known as liberalism, as the cornerstone of that philosophy, as its crowning achievement and its claim to glory. Without rights or any meaningful talk of rights, liberalism would be bereft of its core meaning, an empty shell with neither rhyme nor reason, which is why its enemies are so intent of late on replacing that language with talk of entitlements; it’s certainly not the same. So once again we must ask: How did liberalism manage to squander the superior position it once had and relinquish the high ground? What had become of its once noble impulse and follow-through, its moral tour de force? By all reasonable accounts, it should have continued unchallenged, a vibrant political philosophy bar none, a philosophy besides which had amassed an impressive record, unmatched by any other in history, in the ceaseless human struggle for dignity and freedom from oppression. How is it that this once ultra-revolutionary thought-belief-value system, the hope of humankind, has become bankrupt, no longer a political philosophy one could live by but an apology, not a system of knowledge or a means of understanding human events, political or otherwise, but ideology, no longer a living reality but a myth?

I’ve already alluded in the course of these essays to some of the reasons, but it bears repeating until it sinks in. With winning universal franchise along with other kinds of rights, it became incumbent upon the state, soon to become a liberal, full-fledged welfare state, to enforce those rights, at least de jure if not de facto. The state had become thus the ultimate guarantor of those rights, there being nothing else to take its place, no other institution or entity that could possibly discharge the duty of enforcement. Liberalism had come to depend thus upon the state as the ultimate instrumentality and the indispensable centerpiece, not only from the standpoint of preserving the gains that have already been won, but also in terms of being able to advance its progressive agenda. Ultimately, therefore, its fate, its state of affairs, its outreach, its general well- or ill-being, have all become intricately connected to, alas, inseparable from, the affairs and the general well-being of the state. The long and the short of it is, liberalism ended up advocating statism; it had in fact become synonymous with statism, because only in the state and actions by the state could liberalism see any kind of answer or the solution.

But therein lies the rub. Whereas it is conceivable that under the most ideal of circumstances, the state could be looked upon through such rose-colored glasses and deemed capable of discharging its most solemn duty, which is to act in the interest of justice for all, such circumstances are certainly not in effect today; and it’s very doubtful they ever were. Only a global kind of empire, such as Alexander the Great had once envisaged, would be capable of so acting, there being no conceivable threat to it from without or from within. But the truth of the matter is, no modern state, however powerful, even if it’s an acclaimed superpower, is that independent. In the interest of their own survival, they’re all forced to be jockeying for position and comparative advantage. Fact of life, you may say.

All of which makes it impossible for a state, any state, to act as it should, as it ought to, even as it might like to act. Its ability to act, let alone to act judiciously, is thereby severely impaired by it having to tend to its own interests. And in its own interest, the state will thus be forced to support the ruling class, capitalism, private property, whatever it takes and whatever else is entailed, while paying lip service to justice and playing both ends against the middle. Another fact of life.

Therein, I say, lies the failure of liberalism, the once vibrant political philosophy, along with its legacy, the gains already won and its promise, so much promise. And the failure is, its intricate connection to the affairs of the state: as the state goes, so does liberalism, which well nigh strips liberalism off its moral force, its forte, and disables it from voicing a moral critique of the system in place (if for no other reason that the state itself is immoral).

Macpherson says pretty much the same thing, albeit without the added benefit of the anarchistic thesis:

The dilemma of modern liberal-democratic theory is now apparent: it must continue to use the assumptions of possessive individualism, at a time when the structure of market society no longer provides the necessary conditions for deducing a valid theory of political obligation from those assumptions. Liberal theory must continue to use the assumptions of possessive individualism because they are factually accurate for our possessive market societies. Their factual accuracy has already been noticed, but the point will bear repetition. The individual in market society is human as proprietor of his own person. However much he may wish it to be otherwise, his humanity does depend on his freedom from any but self-interested contractual relations with others. His society does consist of a series of market relations. Because the assumptions are factually accurate, they cannot be dropped from a justificatory theory. But the maturing of market society has cancelled that cohesion, among all those with a political voice, which is a prerequisite for the deduction of obligation to a liberal state from possessive individualist assumptions. No way out of the dilemma is to be found by rejecting those assumptions while not rejecting market society, as so many theorists from John Stuart Mill to our own time have done on the ground that the assumptions are morally offensive. If they are now morally offensive they are none the less still factually accurate for our possessive market societies. The dilemma remains. Either we reject possessive individualist assumptions, in which case our theory is unrealistic, or we retain them, in which case we cannot get a valid theory of obligation. It follows that we cannot now expect a valid theory of obligation to a liberal-democratic [and I would add “immoral”] state in a possessive market society (275).

And what of “rights,” the once central concept and heart of the liberal-democratic theory? Must we abandon it also?

The first thing to say is that just like justice, alas, much more so than in the case of justice, the concept of rights is context-dependent. In other words, it wouldn’t make much sense to talk of rights in a truly egalitarian or classless society: it’s only a society which is lacking in the aforementioned respects that provides the proper occasion for any meaningful talk about rights. Only an imperfect society legitimizes such a talk.

Needless to say, these remarks apply to our conception of justice (as well?) insofar that any talk of justice, too, makes sense and is made legitimate only in an unjust society. Justice, however, is a general and ideational concept, our ever-shining city upon the hill, and I’m afraid it’ll never fall into disuse. “Rights,” on the other hand, are not only context-dependent; they’re also context-specific.

What I’m getting at, I suppose, is that “rights” is but a transitory and remedial kind of concept, somewhat akin to what we usually mean when we speak of bootstraps, of pulling ourselves by our own bootstraps: once done, we must discard them just like we’d discard a scaffold or a prop once we’re done with it. In short, we need to look beyond rights, to a concept that’s lasting, the subject of the next series of essays.

Meanwhile, it should be apparent by now that the usefulness of the liberal-conservative distinction, as it is being employed nowadays in modern political parlance, is highly exaggerated. Liberalism may have once served as a beacon of light, the promise of a brighter future and better tomorrow, but that time is no longer. Both, it seems, support the modern state, the system of private property, and all that it entails. And in light of the pivotal assumptions they share in common, the distinction verges on becoming obsolete.

About Roger Nowosielski

I'm a free lance writer. Areas of expertise: philosophy, sociology, liberal arts, and literature. An academic at a fringe, you might say, and I like it that way.

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