Liberalism is the ruling ideology of our age. It is the dominant political belief which is radically transforming our society. As Professor John Schwarzmantel puts it:
Contemporary liberal-democracy is an ideological society, where a particular version of liberalism prevails
There is a destructive side to liberalism. The key liberal belief is that we are made human through autonomy: through our ability to self-determine or to self-define. Professor John Kekes writes:
the true core of liberalism, the inner citadel for whose protection all the liberal battles are waged [is] autonomy
How are people made autonomous? They must be “liberated” from whatever is predetermined rather than self-determined. This includes their sex (being masculine or feminine), their ethny (inherited forms of communal identity), traditional forms of family life (since these are given to us rather than self-defined), and objective forms of morality (since under the logic of liberalism the good must also be self-defined).
What liberalism replaces these with is a vision of a society made up of blank slate, atomised individuals, in pursuit of their own subjective, self-generated good.
This is destructive because it means having to make things which matter a great deal not matter. Most people, for instance, do identify in important ways with a distinct, inherited national tradition; they do not look forward to its replacement by a more radically individualistic existence within an international system.
Similarly, most people identify positively with being a man or a woman and do not wish to suppress this identity within an androgynous society which is hostile to sex distinctions.
The effects of liberalism are felt by many people to be symptoms of social breakdown or decline. But this then raises the question of how liberalism has been able to maintain its dominance. How has liberalism been able to limit effective opposition to its grip on Western societies?
Second tier arguments
One part of the answer is that liberalism has been able to limit political debate to second tier arguments. The underlying assumptions of liberalism are rarely brought to the surface and argued about. Instead, debate is limited to a secondary question, namely how do you best regulate a liberal society made up of millions of atomised, individual wills?
How you answer this question determines where you are placed on the political spectrum. Those on the right tend to believe that society is best regulated by the free market. It is typical for right-liberals to believe that individuals can compete in the market for their own profit and that the hidden hand of the market will regulate the outcome for the overall prosperity and progress of society.
Right-liberals therefore tend to focus on Economic Man: man in his role as a rational economic agent. Originally, right-liberals tended to be anti-statist, as they saw state intervention as distorting the mechanism of the market. These days it is the more radical right-liberals, the libertarians, who maintain this anti-statist position.
Those on the left are more skeptical that a liberal society can be regulated by the market. They see the market as generating inequalities, which then makes it harder for some to pursue a self-defining lifestyle. They think it more egalitarian and more rational for society to be regulated by the neutral expertise of a state bureaucracy. The focus of the left is not so much on Economic Man but on Social Man.
The further left you go on the political spectrum, the more anti-capitalist you become (so that Marxism is correctly thought of as being far left).
The case of the UK
Let’s take the UK as an example. A newspaper columnist like Theo Hobson is not shy when it comes to declaring his support for the state ideology:
All we seek is a reassertion of liberalism as the nation's common ideology.
He can assert this confidently because both major parties in the UK are committed to liberalism. The so-called Conservative Party, for instance, is currently led by David Cameron. He looks on his party as a “champion of liberal values”:
today we have a Conservative Party … which wants Britain to be a positive participant in the EU, as a champion of liberal values.
So the Conservatives are liberals. More specifically they are right-liberals, as they prefer to have society regulated by a free market rather than by a centralised state. That’s why Cameron has declared that his party “supports open markets,” is “committed to decentralisation and localism," and aims to strengthen “our economy by freeing the creators of wealth, especially small businesses, to create the jobs and prosperity we need.”
And what of the left? Beatrice Webb defined the project of the left back in 1928. Rather than relying on the market to regulate society, the left was motivated by,
our common faith in a deliberately organised society – our belief in the application of science to human relations … the common people, served by an elite of unassuming experts
This is the technocratic solution to regulating liberal society. Ed Miliband is the current leader of the Labour Party in the UK. In setting out his political agenda he warned,
Our society is at risk of being reshaped in ways that will devastate the proud legacy of liberalism. We see a free market philosophy being applied to our schools …
Miliband is defining his politics exactly as you would expect a left-liberal to do: he commits himself to liberalism, but is not so keen on free market solutions.
Those who support the two main parties can be passionate in their allegiances. That can make it seem as if we have more choice than we really do. We really only get a choice as to how best to regulate liberalism, not whether we want to continue to run society along liberal lines. And yet it is the liberalism itself that is doing the damage.
We need to open up politics, so that the important first tier issues are more widely understood and discussed.