Since some of the articles in this number offer a critical discussion of liberalism, it might be helpful to consider what exactly that term means. Keeping in mind that the meaning has been changing since the end of the 18th century, I’ll start by listing four definitions, only the last of which seems to me to work.
First, we should reference what the media and chattering class label as “liberal,” which signifies whatever the user wants it to mean. For Ezra Klein at The New York Times, liberalism is perfectly compatible with abolishing gender distinctions or with Sarah Jeong’s tweet calling for the disappearance of white men, an apparent indiscretion that Klein passionately defended. This arbitrary use of “liberal” is comparable to the looseness with which the GOP media wield their god term “conservative,” which has been extended to such signs of the age as gay marriage and transgendered Republicans. In neither case do we learn what the terms under consideration mean historically, as opposed to what politicians and political journalists would like them to mean.
A second definition brings us to the common understanding of “liberal” among advocates of the welfare state and government-enforced social policy. It was the rise of what the socialist philosopher John Dewey called “the new liberalism” that inspired me to write After Liberalism, a book that focuses on the differences between the 19th-century concept of liberalism and 20th– century social democracy. The semantic extension of “liberal” was already going on in earlier attempts by the modern administrative state to alter the income curve and to colonize the family. Despite the effort to treat this massive interventionism in civil society as an affirmation of “freedom” based on self-government, it was exactly the opposite of what it claimed to be. Self-described libertarians like Albert J. Nock, H. L. Mencken, Friedrich Hayek, and Murray Rothbard were right to notice this obvious contradiction.
Still, our third definition, the libertarian alternative—particularly when yoked to a defense of radical lifestyles—hardly represents a return to the liberal ideals of an earlier time and society. Terms like “classical liberalism” and “19th-century liberalism” are now routinely linked to expressive individualism and the right of each person to do his own thing. This linkage has arisen from the selective citing of certain 19th-century sources, whether in defense of anarcho-capitalism or of a right to pursue certain peculiar moral practices. Some of the personalities who are associated with this idea of liberalism, like James Mill, his son John Stuart, Richard Cobden, and the German anarcho-individualist Max Stirner were not really “classical liberals.” In the age in which they lived, they were viewed as being on the political fringe. Unlike most liberals of their time, James Mill and Richard Cobden were in favor of both universal suffrage and international free trade. John Stuart Mill, who offered an extravagant defense of listening to all points of view in On Liberty, was an early feminist and advocate of the welfare state.
But outside of England, most self-described liberals in an earlier time were protectionists and defenders of the nation state. Like the English judge and philosopher Fitzjames Stephen and like Francois Guizot, the French premier in the 1830s and 1840s, these liberals resisted the plan to extend the suffrage to those without real property, who paid below a certain tax rate.
Which brings us to our fourth definition: liberalism, properly understood in those earlier times, was the lens through which the educated and propertied bourgeoisie (and note we are not just speaking here about an income group) understood the world and their place within it. Although evidence of this class could be found much earlier, the golden age for the bourgeoisie was the 19th and early 20th centuries. And contrary to what Marxists tell us, the bourgeoisie was not just running around amassing and investing capital. The bourgeoisie built a civilization centered on glittering cities, palatial homes, and the fostering of the arts and education.
Although there were Catholic liberals, perhaps most famously Lord Acton, liberals in general fitted more easily into Protestant than Catholic societies. For centuries, liberals had battled “clerical” enforcement of “just prices” and laws against usury (with roots going back to Aristotelian economics), societal influences of the Catholic Church. The Church also backed guild control of crafts and commerce, which limited trade competition and access to certain vocations. Needless to say, the bourgeoisie opposed such checks on trade and finance from wherever they came, and the Catholic Church represented for liberals the most unified opposition to desired economic change.
Again, there were exceptions, and both Catholic Belgium and the mostly Catholic regions of the Rhineland were among the pacesetters in industrial development and the expansion of investment credit. But there, too, the rising economic sector faced resistance from ecclesiastical authorities. This was true even in England, where the Anglican Church, into the early 19th century, opposed what it considered high interest rates. (Not surprisingly, a disproportionately large number of the English entrepreneurial class came from nonconformist Protestant backgrounds.)
This anticlerical tendency, which prevailed among the bourgeoisie in Catholic countries, did not translate into anything even distantly foreshadowing modern wokeness. Victorian morality thrived among the bourgeoisie; and the practice of separating the sexes socially was far more typical of the bourgeois class than of the older aristocratic order, in which philandering and the keeping of mistresses were hardly frowned upon. Although the affluent bourgeoisie avidly supported opera and civic festivities, their poorer cousins were often engaged in what Leo Strauss, paraphrasing the teaching of John Locke, described as “the joyless pursuit of joy.” Hard work was viewed as godly work, even if it brought, at least initially, scant reward. The prospering capitalist economy did not favor every interest and group equally, and far more ventures foundered than prospered in those regions of the West that were modernizing. Not every ship benefited to the same degree or at the same time from the rising flood of economic growth.
Although the bourgeoisie spoke about expanding freedom, they also stressed its moral limits. Public order took precedence over individual expressiveness; and discussions that were suitable for debating societies and academic lecture halls were not always acceptable in other social settings. Liberal societies were not only tolerant of what are today called “family values.” Such values were basic to their existence, as was the emphasis on women as mothers and wives. The expectation of most girls with whom I went to school in the 1950s was that they would become “homemakers,” and this did not testify to low self-esteem. Rather, it showed to what extent my fellow students were imbued with the social values cherished by our traditional social elites. What Amy Wax has referred to as “our Anglo-Protestant values”—values that once shaped American life and marked all religious denominations—are what sustained the traditional liberal society that existed by the 19th century.
Condemning that liberal order for practicing discrimination or for not imposing our present egalitarian ideology is an example of foolish presentism. Probably no one on the planet a hundred years ago held the social views of our present woke ruling class. Even the suffragettes, whatever their rhetorical excesses, made far less extravagant demands than did later feminists. The suffragettes wanted the right to vote and access to certain professions, and they sought more control over their property. These women also didn’t want their husbands to come home drunk, and many of them were staunch prohibitionists. But these advocates of “women’s rights” did not insist on abortion rights and were generally well-disposed toward being homemakers. Although more sweeping demands may have been implicit in their movement, there is no reason to treat these harbingers of a later feminism as being more radical than they actually were.
Although the liberal bourgeoisie opposed the slave trade and called for “putting slavery on the road to extinction,” they would not have been racial egalitarians even if they thought about such matters. These burghers usually had little contact with blacks, unless they were living in the American South or near a black urban neighborhood. The homage they paid to diversity might have been limited to a recognition that, at least in the sight of our Maker, all humans are in some sense equal. Our liberal bourgeoisie most certainly would not have favored extending voting rights to poor, illiterate blacks, but they also would not have wanted to give those rights to white people of the same economic and educational background. If these civic leaders and captains of industry were glaringly insensitive to any demographic, it would have been toward the predominantly white working class, a group that we on the populist right now champion.
But there is a difference in terms of the historical situation between the present populist right and workers’ organizations circa 1900. The latter were generally on the socialist left and favored government control of the economy and major income distribution. Today the working class has become a source of relative social and cultural stability. Because of both a managerial revolution and the cultural radicalization of the corporate class, our circumstances now differ dramatically from those of earlier times. The working class has been transformed into an ally of the right, a mainstay of the historical nation state, while corporate capitalists are now usually found on the cultural left. The onetime liberal order has now mostly passed; and older confrontations—e.g., between the bourgeoisie and an alliance of church and altar or between the bourgeoisie and the working class—have given way to a new struggle. It is the confrontation between the populist right and a globalist managerial class allied to a woke intelligentsia. This struggle is taking place in a postliberal West; and while we may lament the erosion of our liberal past, it is not about to come back.
Lest there be any confusion on this point, let me state that I’m not calling for the right to ditch traditional constitutional morality or respect for public order. We should uphold such guiding principles to whatever extent that course remains open to us. Unless I’m mistaken, however, such vestiges of the liberal past may be less and less operational going forward. We should therefore not be surprised if the power grabs by the woke left become even more outrageous as our postliberal fate unfolds.
Image: La terrasse du café La Rotonde au Palais Royal en 1814, by George Emmanuel Opiz ou Opitz
(via Paris Museum / public domain)