By engendendering the kind of illiberalism that it ascribes to all non-liberal positions, liberalism is fostering its own demise.

The 2008 financial crash and inner-city riots across the West since the early 2000s revealed the limitations of the two liberalisms that have dominated Western politics for the past half-century: the social-cultural liberalism of the left since the 1960s and the economic-political liberalism of the right since the 1980s. Both may have provided greater personal freedoms and individual opportunities, but both can now also be seen as arrogant, atomising and authoritarian. For, together they have served the interests of the administrative state and the unfettered market that have collusively brought about an unprecedented centralisation of power and concentration of wealth in the hands of a few. In consequence, a new, rootless oligarchy now combines impersonal technocracy with a manipulative populism, while holding in contempt the genuine priorities of most people.

Historically, each ‘face’ of liberalism seemed to be the opposite of the other. The liberal left appealed to the state in order to protect the people from the forces of market fundamentalism that the liberal right championed, while the liberal right defended conservative values of family and the nation against the multiculturalism and emancipation that the liberal left celebrated. But far from representing genuine alternatives to one another, the two liberalisms are mutually reinforcing in that they fuse economic-political individualism with bureaucratic-managerial collectivism and social-cultural atomisation – as Max Weber realised better than Karl Marx.

The liberal preference for negative freedom

In reality, we have witnessed two revolutions that are but one: the left has advanced a social-cultural liberalism that promotes individual rights and equality of opportunity for self-expression, while the right has advocated an economic-political liberalism that champions the free market liberated from the constricting shackles of the bureaucratic state. We have a ‘liberal right’ celebrating economic and political negative liberty, and a ‘liberal left’ celebrating cultural and sexual negative liberty. The two liberalisms were always in tacit, secret alliance. They have now more explicitly fused to proffer the shared creed of the left that recently embraced economic neo-liberalism together with an impersonal statism, and the right that has openly espoused cultural liberalism in scorn of its own natural constituency.

It would be foolish to deny that decades of liberalisation have provided greater opportunities for many and afforded some protection against the worst transgressions upon the liberty of some by the liberty of others, especially given the growing disagreement about substantive notions of justice and the good life. However, economic liberalism has also eroded the social bonds and civic ties on which vibrant democracies and market economies ultimately depend for trust and cooperation. Meanwhile, cultural liberalism, including some modes of middle-class feminism, has carelessly underwritten the new cult of market choice in default of its supposedly radical commitments. And, paradoxically, the two liberalisms have engendered a society that is not just more atomised but also more interdependent in the wrong way – too tied to global financial processes that leave far less scope for individual initiative and the ability to shape one’s own life.

The liberal preference for negative freedom is the direct consequence of ruling questions of truth or goodness out of the court of public discussion, because liberals claim that in diverse societies with rival values the pursuit of such and similar shared ends is necessarily intolerant and oppressive. Yet, liberalism’s substitution of individual rights and the social contract for the common good ends up creating the very effects that liberals wrongly equate with positive liberty – ideological tyranny, the closing-down of argument, and the ironing-out of plurality. Thus, liberal politics engenders the kind of illiberalism that it ascribes to all non-liberal positions. Without shared ends, individuals are encouraged to maximise their own subjective choice in conditions of growing market anarchy policed by an authoritarian state, as Karl Polanyi diagnosed in his seminal 1944 book “The Great Transformation”. Connected with this is the progressive loss of a ‘moral economy’ of mutual obligations and the atomisation of society that had hitherto embedded the political and the economic.

Here we can go further than Polanyi to suggest that the triumph of liberalism more and more brings about the ‘war of all against all’ (Hobbes) and the idea of man as self-proprietary animal (Locke) that were its presuppositions. But this does not thereby prove those presuppositions, because it is only really existing liberalism that has produced in practice the circumstances which it originally assumed in theory. Just as liberal thought redefined human nature as isolated individuals who enter into formal contractual ties with other individuals (instead of the ancient and Christian idea of social, political animals), so too liberal practice has replaced the quest for reciprocal recognition and mutual flourishing with the pursuit of wealth, power, and pleasure.

And since in theory and practice liberalism goes against the grain of humanity and the universe we inhabit, we are facing not merely a cyclical crisis (linked, for example, to economic boom and bust or the decline of representative government), nor even just a systemic crisis of capitalism and democracy, but rather a meta-crisis. The meta-crisis of liberalism is the tendency at once to abstract from reality and to reduce everything to its bare materiality, leaving an irreducible aporia between human will and artifice, on the one hand, and unalterable laws of nature and history, on the other.

Liberalism undoes itself

This can be seen most of all in contemporary capitalism, which operates a simultaneous process of abstraction and materialisation. It subjects the real economy of productive activities to relentless commodification and speculation, while at the same time separating symbolic significance, equated with pure exchange value, from material space which is seen increasingly as just an object for arbitrary division, consumption and destruction. As a result, it renders ecological damage constitutive of our fundamental economic processes. This double conception of wealth as aggregated calculable number and as private consumption cuts out all the relational goods and the ‘commons’ on which shared prosperity depends. In the long run, the tendency towards abstraction and materialisation leads to destruction that is not creative – as growing economic financialisation exacerbates social dislocation and ecological devastation.

Thus, liberalism undoes itself and, in so doing, it erodes the polity it claims to save from extremes on both the left and the right. After all, the liberal focus on abstract, general standards (such as subjective rights, commercial contracts or formal, procedural justice) is parasitic upon a culture of universal principles and particular practices of virtue that this obsessive and rigid focus undermines, cutting off the branch on which it sits.

This article was co-authored by Adrian Pabst