Liberalism begins with a view of society as being made up of millions of individual wills, each competing to enact their own desires. Therefore, a key question for liberals is how you best regulate society so that these competing wills can be harmonised.
The answer given by right liberals is that the market can do the job. The idea is that individuals can act selfishly for their own profit and the market will ensure a beneficial result overall, one which creates freedom, progress and prosperity. It's no surprise, then, that right liberals focus on a certain vision of Economic Man - of man viewed in terms of his economic role within a market.
Left liberalism emerged in protest at this market-oriented politics. Left liberals decried the unequal outcomes created by the market, and they criticised the irrational, inefficient outcomes created by the free market. They preferred society to be regulated by a benevolent, neutral, reforming class of government bureaucrats. They asserted a vision of Social Man against the right liberal view of Economic Man.
But there is a contradiction in the left liberal position, one which tends to split left liberals into different camps today. If, as liberals believe, the good in life is to be autonomous, so that we are free to enact our own individual wants, then we will naturally seek the power, status and money required to achieve this.
How do we get power, status and financial independence? Through careers. In fact, it is a common feminist complaint that women have been oppressed because they have not had access to power, status and independence through careers to the same extent as men.
So you might think, then, that left liberals would strongly promote access to careers as a path to liberation - and many do. In the Scandinavian countries, for instance, left liberals have succeeded in making this an explicit government policy.
But there's a catch. Left liberals define themselves against a vision of Economic Man; how then can they promote participation in the market as the path to individual liberation and human equality?
So left-liberals are caught between a work and an anti-work position. If they take the "work" position, they are giving credit to the market, which runs against their leftism. If they take an "anti-work" position, they have to accept inequalities in what they see as the key public good, namely individual autonomy - in particular, they have to leave intact the "power structures" by which they believe some groups in society oppress others.
It's not easy for left liberals to bridge the two positions. I've recently read Catherine Deveny try to do this. Here she is putting the "anti-work" view:
I watch office workers, jolted out of their slumber by the alarm clock, who have shovelled in their breakfast, thrown on their clothes and rush to catch the train to a job they hate.
This is not a view of careers as liberation. But she still keeps to the idea that women are oppressed by a lack of autonomy provided by careers. So her solution is to suggest that women who don't choose careers should nonetheless be paid and given career titles to increase their status:
Considering there is no status in being a parent or carer, let's at least give these skilled and dedicated individuals wads of cash and a fancy name, such as 'domestic engineer' or 'early childhood development specialist'. Seriously. And let's stop discussing maternity leave and go in swinging for paid parenting, paid grandparenting and paid caring.
There is still a logical inconsistency here. She wants women to have career status and financial independence without having to participate in the market. Her solution, though, involves "commodifying" motherhood - redefining motherhood as a market type activity, rather than valuing it in non-market terms. So she is advancing a view of "Economic Woman" - of women valued in terms of market activity - which contradicts her left liberalism.
I expect that left liberalism will continue to generate two different positions. There will be the downshifting, anti-materialist, hippy type rejection of careerism and market values. Alongside this will be a more dominant and public view of careers as integral to personal liberation, social success and human equality. There won't be a stable view bridging the two positions.