The foundational contradictions of liberalism

First published in May 2020.

Liberalism is an ideology—a system of thought. It has a centrepiece: the individual, defined by liberalism as a free-floating unit, separate from other units. It has two basic contradictions:

  1. The politico-moral contradiction; and
  2. The public-private contradiction.
Meet Immanuel Kant: A founding liberal.

These contradictions arise from two factors. Liberalism:

  1. Accepts the early-modern separation between politics and morality (first drawn by thinkers like Machiavelli and taken up by liberals like Kant and Bentham); and
  2. Encourages the eighteenth- and nineteenth-centuries’ separation between the public and private spheres—between the collective and the individual.

Liberalism separates politics from morality, and collectivity from individuality. Its foundational contradictions lie in its politico-moral disunity and public-private separation—the divisions it draws between the political and the moral, and the individual and the collective.

All this creates a bifurcation between official liberalism (a love of the individual) and unofficial liberalism (a love of the group—or individuated collective). Unofficial liberal stories include nationalism, fascism, and other forms of Schmittian cultural reductionism. These replace collective entities like the state and class with exclusive cultural groups built around friend/enemy divisions. I call these cultural reductionisms ‘Schmittian’ after the Nazi-supporting jurist Carl Schmitt, who defined politics as the art of drawing friend/enemy divisions.

These stories—nationalist, fascist, or otherwise Schmittian—are still liberal. They just replace the individual with the group, treating every group as a ‘self-determining’ singular people with a primordial essence—just as liberals like Immanuel Kant treat the autonomous individual. Nietzsche took Kant’s harmonious individuals and made them ruthlessly competitive—but he kept the individualism. Similarly, these unofficial liberal stories take imagined ‘nations’, ‘cultures’, or ‘races’ and make them unequal—but always separate, subjective, and therefore individualist (in the broad sense of the term). That’s what makes these stories liberal, in the broad ideological sense. Nationalism and fascism are unofficial liberalisms.

The ancients (like the philosophers of Greco-Roman antiquity) don’t think in this way. The ancients think that the individual is part of the collective, and that politics is about fulfilling the moral potential of individual and collective alike to pursue a common endeavour through the cultivation of virtue. The ancients think that everything is part of the whole. The ancients, in this way, are deep collectivists, who see the individual and the collective, and politics and morality, as one. The ancients arrive at no politico-moral contradiction, or public-private contradiction—since they accept politico-moral unity, and public-private unity. The moderns, whether communitarian or individualist on the surface, are deep individualists, who separate politics and morality, the individual and the collective, and individuals and collectives from each other.

The ancients commit to both utopian realism (politico-moral unity) and deep collectivism (public-private, or collective-individual, unity). Liberal moderns, by contrast, are deep individualists, committed to either unrealistic utopianism or amoral realism. The ancients try to satisfy individual and collective alike, through moral politics. The moderns try to satisfy either the individual or the group, through either moral or political means. When the moderns try to pull the ancient trick, they run into a contradiction: having separated politics from morality, and individuality from collectivity, they can’t combine them again. Harmony depends on unity—which liberalism abandoned long ago.

The ancients have problems, too. Aristotle naturalises slavery and patriarchy by framing slaves and women as somehow less capable than freemen at reasoning, discussing, and ruling. Even Plato’s utopian city has a class system—albeit without a gender bias. But here’s the catch. The ancients know what slavery is. A slave is someone who:

  1. Is dominated by institutions which do not attend to their interests; and
  2. Is deprived of the time and education needed to pursue virtue.

The second form of slavery is like the first: if you’re prevented from pursuing virtue, you can’t fulfil a fundamental human interest. Domination isn’t necessarily an active thing, where a tyrant exploits their subjects straightforwardly. It might be that the institutions simply lack the capacity to give you virtue. The ancients know this, and want to restrict domination and deprivation. They try to create ‘mixed constitutions’ that treat their subjects well while maintaining public order. They try to give rich people the education needed to use their time for the pursuit of virtue. If you are not an aristocrat in Greco-Roman antiquity, you cannot really pursue virtue. But if you are, you can.

The main thing, perhaps, that prevents the ancients from perfecting their republican opposition to domination and deprivation by abolishing slavery and patriarchy (which Rome starts to address by giving wealthy women, like their wealthy male counterparts, citizenship—but sadly not the right to vote or hold public office) is the inadequacy of their technological development. In antiquity, there isn’t enough technological development to give everyone the freedom to pursue virtue. Ancient states adopt slavery because, if they don’t, other slave states conquer and enslave them. That’s why every ancient state, except the really geographically isolated ones, practises slavery. Slavery in antiquity is a tragic, but all too real, necessity.

But the moderns may soon have the technology to end slavery—including the kind of slavery that forces many women to slave away at both housework and wage labour, while men tend to just have wage slavery to worry about. Wage slavery, housework slavery, and ancient chattel slavery have two things in common, by virtue of which they are all ‘slavery’: domination, and deprivation. Wage slaves seem to be dominated by their employers or owners and deprived of the time and education to pursue virtue. Housework slaves sometimes seem to be dominated by their exclusively wage-slave counterparts, who seem in turn to be ultimately dominated by financial slaves, or oligarchs. But all, in reality, are dominated by the system, which deprives them of the time and education to pursue virtue. Even the rich can’t have virtue under capitalism, because they spend their time pursuing money and luxury—not virtue-involving leisure. Ancient subjects can be either free citizens, unfree citizens, or slaves. Capitalist subjects are all slaves.

The moderns don’t end slavery, however, for two main reasons. Firstly, though economic growth for over two decades after World War II was quite high, economic growth rates have stagnated since the 1970s, as ‘post-war liberal’ institutions of capital controls, the gold standard, organised labour, and downward redistribution of income (from rich to poor) have been replaced by ‘neoliberal’ institutions of capital mobility, floating exchange rates, deunionised ‘flexible’ labour, and upward redistribution of income (from poor to rich). Therefore, technological development is still not quite optimal—it is nearly optimal, but we need more automation to abolish housework, wage, and financial slavery for good, giving people the time to pursue virtue without domination. That would require either a global democratic assembly to steer global production towards automation, or an end to global production altogether, and a return to territorial economies managed by territorial states. That way, without labour mobility to undercut wages in the core, the most powerful states could switch from labour-intensive to more capital-intensive investments: automation. While the response to coronavirus has slowed down global trade in goods and labour, it has not undermined capital mobility. Global trade in goods and labour may soon return, too—preventing any quick pivot to automation.

Secondly, we’ve lost the ability to call capitalist slavery ‘slavery’, for one big reason. Just as the legitimation story for a virtuous society makes the society more virtuous, a legitimation story for a vulgar society makes the society even more vicious. Capitalism has a legitimation story: liberalism. Capitalist slaves are told by liberalism that they are free. The fact that they have no time for virtue or deep collectivity isn’t a problem, because virtue and collectivity don’t seem to matter anymore. Only money, life, and luxury seem to matter. ‘Long live slavery,’ liberalism whispers.

Liberalism has to make a lot of effort to deal with the divides it creates. After all, politics and morality, and individuality and collectivity, are inseparable at heart—they require one another on some level. By separating them in thought, liberalism creates chaos in reality by pitting the spheres against each other. We alternate between individualist states and groupist states—ones which promote inclusion to exploitation, and ones which promote exclusion, which can be worse than inclusion (often far worse—as exploitation of majorities is sometimes accompanied by hyper-exploitation of minorities, with the side-effect of tearing the working class asunder along imagined majority/minority lines). In an attempt to prevent such contradictions from surfacing, liberalism actively purges politics and morality alike in the name of ‘inclusion’, by making two moves. Liberalism:

  1. Associates politics with the public sphere and morality with the private sphere; and
  2. Frames commercial liberty as the essence of private liberty—thus eradicating genuine morality from the private sphere, due to the time exhausted by commercial activity, and corrupting the public sphere with the influence of money.

We now live in states torn between their public and private duties—but without a sense of either collectivity or virtue. We mostly live in vulgar private states—states which attend primarily to the vulgar appetites of oligarchs. But liberalism has an answer for this, preserving the bare shells of collectivity and virtue by other means and names. Liberalism:

  1. Substitutes the collective with the group; and
  2. Substitutes virtue with luxury and self-care.

Politics in late modernity has become about the group and luxury/self-care. It loses its moral purpose and its political form. It becomes an empty shell of marketisation and the largely pointless counter-movements to such marketisation. It doesn’t produce a revolutionary subject because such a subject would require a sense of collectivity. The working class never becomes a class-for-itself, because collective concepts like class have been substituted with exclusive “groups”. Almost nothing is left of collective alternatives to liberalism, like some kind of working class-led, civic-republican socialism. Subjects’ only option seems to be to switch between charismatic worshipers of luxury like Macron and charismatic worshipers of the group like Le Pen. The collective appears lost. Virtue appears lost–though vice is all too often dressed up as virtue, preserving the carcass of ancient virtue through modern hypocrisy. The dystopia isn’t on its way. The dystopia is already here. We live in it. And it has a name.



2 thoughts on “The foundational contradictions of liberalism

    1. I discuss the theorists as I go — not everything has to resemble a journal paper! And journal papers have way too many references these days … Did Plato reference everyone?


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