The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

December 17, 2017

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The Greatness and Misery of Liberalism
Pierre Manent (from MA 52 03) - 02/02/11

On the other hand, it is true that the liberal order necessarily, even “structurally,” contains oscillations—sometimes great oscillations—between its two poles. Sometimes it is the state, sometimes the market that inspires confidence to the detriment of its competitor (which is also its complement). Periods of equilibrium are indeed rare.

The recent period that ended with the crisis was characterized by a strong, even vehement movement in the direction of the market; people imagined not only that one could do without all state regulation but even that the way had been opened to an unprecedented mode of human association: globalized humanity. This “liberal utopia” extended its influence well beyond the economic domain. All of social life appeared ripe for the “governance of rules.” Instead of government’s being responsible to a body of citizens forming a people, we would have rules elaborated by an indefinite number of bodies and agencies responsible to no one. These agencies would be legitimated, it was said, by the manifest goodness of these rules. The financial and economic crisis has struck a sharp blow to this idea of governance. The regulatory bodies that plumed themselves on their expertise and “competence” divorced from all political “contamination” are today rightly discredited. Thus the necessary responsibility of all (including experts) to the body of citizens has returned to the fore. The illusions of “governance” gone, government returns to its place. This does not mean, to be sure, that every government will be up to its tasks, but this does open the way for a “repoliticization” of the common life of our societies.

However, it is difficult to imagine what form this repoliticization might take. Also, the distinctive “contents” of the major political parties, whose alternation in government makes up the life of modern democracy, largely evaporated during theprevious period. Both the Right and the Left have abandoned those who originally gave them their legitimacy. In France in any case, the Right abandoned the nation, the Left, the workers, and both have sought their new identity in the “European project” that aims at producing a “democracy without a definite people”— one governed by rules. It is hard to see how the Left and the Right today could make politically plausible again the commitments they so eagerly jettisoned not so long ago. As I say this, I am not particularly blaming anyone. In a certain way the weakening of these great collectivities of the nation and class was inscribed in the principle of liberalism, the rights of man. The principle, in any event, contained this possibility. Marx only saw half of the liberal revolution, but he saw it quite clearly: the rights of man are the rights of “man separated from man.”

In the present situation we do not know whether we should deplore the weakening of these civic and social bonds or rejoice. If we cast a glance at history, we see that the crisis of the 1930s reactivated the great collectivities of the nation and of class but with consequences that we certainly do not want to see repeated! But one still has to ask: on what principles of cohesion could the repoliticization that appears to be occurring take place?

At present it is striking to note that what one can call the crisis of capitalism, or the crisis of liberalism, is not generating forces, or even ideas, on the part of the decidedly anti-capitalist or anti-liberal portions of opinion. They, too, call upon the state as the insurer of last resort, not upon the class or the nation (or any other collectivity for that matter) as the principle of a new order that should succeed liberalism. We fear for our savings, but that does not make us socialists or nationalists. For the moment at least, the liberal order remains in the saddle, at least by default. None of those who criticize liberal capitalism has the least desire to take upon himself the responsibility of coming up with an alternative to it. It is for this reason that in France Nicolas Sarkozy is not content to enact, or try to enact, reforms of a liberal nature, but he also takes upon himself the task both of criticizing and “refounding” capitalism. In a depoliticized political society the government takes upon itself in succession (or simultaneously) all the available positions on the political spectrum.

Perhaps we have to say that the revolution of the rights of man has succeeded beyond its founders’ expectations. We have ended up really becoming individuals constituted by our relationship to our selves, as was true of the individuals of the state of nature, and we no longer know how to attach ourselves to anything common. It certainly is not the financial or economic crisis by itself, the crisis of individual accounts and losses, that will produce a renewed sense of what is common. In this view, what one can reproach liberalism for, at least in the form it assumed in the recent past, would not be the crisis to which it led: this crisis belongs rather to human nature, to the human condition. Rather, we should reproach it for having devalued and “devitalized” collective bonds, whether natural or inherited attachments, to such a point that we no longer know where to turn when the promise of a governance of rules in a globalized humanity fails. The economic crisis is the most spectacular aspect of the present situation, but it is not necessarily the most interesting or important. In fact it risks hiding from us the deep weakness of the liberal revolution, which resides in the order of the soul rather than in the external organization of our common life. This will be my last topic for reflection.

The Human Being of the Rights of Man

The liberal order is therefore carried along by the faith in movement, by confidence in liberty. Liberty in the liberal sense of the term is not what the pre-moderns called “free will,” the capacity proper to man to move himself in accordance with motives he has adopted rather than from external causes. “Liberal liberty,” if I can put it that way, is indifferent to the question of the freedom of human acts, so indifferent that most of the philosophical founders of liberalism described human action in ways that made it something “necessary.” To repeat: according to liberalism, to be free is not to be inhibited by obstacles outside the individual or subject. The difficulty then becomes: if being free is not being shackled by external obstacles, what is one to do when external obstacles are removed? What does it mean to be free when liberty, or, more expansively, liberties are already guaranteed? As long as there are obstacles to liberty, the principle of liberalism is to overcome them and to remove the shackles. But when this revolutionary and emancipatory task is accomplished, what is the principle of movement when there is clear sailing?

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