AFP/Getty Images
“The End of History?” at 25
Liberalism’s Beleaguered Victory

Could it be that liberalism spawns counter-ideologies because of its very own nature?

Appeared in: Volume 10, Number 1 | Published on: August 14, 2014
Abram N. Shulsky is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC.
show comments
  • ShadrachSmith

    I spent an enjoyable hour reading and thinking about this post. You are doing something right.

  • Andrew Allison

    Liberal democracy apparently carries within it the seeds of its own destruction. It may be the belief that the state knows best what’s good for its citizens. Or, perhaps de Tocqueville got it right when he wrote that government, “. . . can bribe the public with the public’s money.”

  • Anthony

    The question does liberalism beget counter-ideologies may on closer scrutiny be illusory in that once a community of thinkers are enveloped in coherent world view the ideas and philosophy will be contested by contrariness. In other words, the universe of ideas in which one idea entails others is itself an exogenous force and counter-ideologies are bound to develop once basis of classical liberalism sustained itself (countervailing thinkers by definition must enter that universe). In particular, it begins with skepticism – the history of human folly and fallacies provide fertile ground for counter-ideologies. Beyond that, perhaps Descartes gave as good an answer as any: our own consciousness and how we ought to run human affairs. Above all, the human mind is not a blank slate and Classical Liberalism must endure recursive counter-ideologies; but “rationality can never be refuted by some flow or error in the reasoning of the people in a given era.”

    To this end “however varied they are, these counter-ideologies generally share a sense that liberalism’s protection and privileging of individual self-interest as oppose to the common good (however defined) makes it ignoble; potentially or actually unjust; and chaotic or anarchic and hence ultimately weak….” illustrate the seemingly ineradicable longings of the human soul born of the Enlightenment (Liberalism).

  • If there is one thing that liberals should have, and didn’t, take from Hegel, it’s his notion of the state as the locus of legitimate violence. To operate, liberal societies require a measure of trust, and therefore of obligation. If you give me that item, I will pay you (if we don’t have that understanding, commerce and much of the Lockean natural order can’t operate). Obligation involves sacrifice: I will pay you even though I can run away with the item, because I’m committed (albeit only in a half-conscious way) to a view of society as involving distancing one’s interests at time. I can take both the goods and the money, but I choose to sacrifice one of them. The final sacrifice is of one’s life: beside it, all the rest look like a form of individualist calculation that lead to anarchy rather than to liberalism. Therefore the state, as the body exerting the monopoly on mobilization and legitimate violence, is the final guarantor of LIBERAL society. Not only because it protects it (mercenaries could do that), but because it stands for the ultimate mutual commitment that operates at the background of liberalism. So a state, an army, and a degree of Machiavellian virtu are necessary for liberalism.

    Modern liberals, especially in the American sense, have thrown all this out of the window. They seem to assume, first, that society is so essentially peaceful that it accommodates all interests without coercion, and more substantially, that even mention of coercion is liberal. Hence their pacifism, their pontifications about ‘global citizenship’, their villifications of ‘the military industrial complex’ et cetera. Pacifism, ecplicit but more often occult, is a worm that gnaws liberal societies from within, not because it leaves them defenceless, but because it habituates them to a way of thinking in which things just work without our having to give anything away. It promotes an illusion of politics without prices – which even Locke would not recognize; not to mention Tocqueville or Mill. Liberalism as we now know it is an enormous exercise in denying basic realities. Hence the addiction to models, theories, social science jargons, postmodernist nomenclatures and the like: their role is to create an alternate reality which protects the believers from meeting the desert of the real.

    Now of course people feel in their bones that this is the case: that liberalism sells them something which is not real and does not address their innermost anxieties. Which explains the crude charm of ideologies which stress exactly this: the harsh, violent character of social commitment. Why did the Nazis talk so harshly and wore black leather? Why do Islamists behead? Why does Putin have himself photographed in macho postures on horseback? Because they want to show that they are not phoney, that their stated beliefs are real and backed by real commitment and real sacrifice. We bring the sword and not peace. (That line actually worked, once).

    If liberalism is to save itself, it has to go concsiously muscular and military. This is not fascism, but the one thing that can tune down the all-too-real allure of facsism, including in its Islamist garb.

    • Peripatetic

      It’s not Hegel you’re looking for…it’s Hobbes. See Part Two, Chap 17 of *Leviathan*.

      • Thanks. I see the point. Men agree to submit to the Sovereign. Yes. But that’s not necessarily liberal and does not explicitly say there’s an emotional change needed – the willingness in some circumstances to make a sacrifice. (So far as I understand, the Hobbesian end is security, so there’s a little problem within his system with finding motivation for throwing security away; the ability to do so may come from a more generalized attitude to others which is not wholly contractual, and I’m not sure Hobbes actually allows that – see his description of mother/child relations).

  • FriendlyGoat

    Do forty paragraphs and twelve footnotes make this a scholarly piece? Or, maybe all the references to a large number of “isms”?

    Are those characteristics supposed to add up to permission for conservatives and libertarians to now blame radical Islam on mere liberals and our permissiveness or naive ideas about democracy?

    You guys can count yourselves among the “intellectuals (who) no longer believe in (liberal democracy)” if you want. Maybe, per your last sentence, you can even get the whole fellowship of conservatives to sit out the next elections in their new understanding about the limits of politics in the search for happiness. That would actually be helpful.

    • Gene

      Friendly, I pity you for your seething anger. I was going to add a simple comment on here to the effect that any social model that puts a high value on reason and tolerance is always going to be in tension with the fact that the creatures living within it (human beings) are hard-wired for tribalism. Thanks for making the point for me.

      • FriendlyGoat

        Why should we brag on an article which rambles all over the place to tell believers in liberal democracy that they (we) are hoping for too much? That they (we) are probably the cause of the nuttiness of Islam? That “intellectuals” (next-to-last paragraph) are now off to some other UNIDENTIFIED place in their thinking?

        You and I—–in this country or any country—– will enjoy our freedom from “tribalism” via liberal democracy or we won’t enjoy it at all——period. If American Interest, with this piece, is inviting ANYONE to collapse into a fog of hopelessness, I hope only the conservatives and libertarians will oblige.

  • Corlyss

    I’ve always avoided philosophy because it is so squishy and vague and artificial. So I’m probably all wet with this observation about the various philosophies discussed in this thought-provoking article. It seems to me that over time, liberal democracy has provided the most prosperity to the most people and thus the most contentment among individuals, and that’s nothing to be dismissed lightly. I think if most people were asked, what they want most out of life is contentment, and what’s wrong with that? Liberalism leaves them alone to define contentment however they will, and for the most part to go about attaining it however they see fit. And what’s wrong with that? If the individual wants to define contentment as a life that encompasses a form of spirituality and charitable good works, well, they are free to incorporate that into their lives. If the individual wants to eschew spirituality and aim for life built around a materialistic definition of contentment, well, they are free to do so. IMO the great sin of most counter-philosophies is that they seek hegemonic cookie cutter models for the Right Human Behavior, and that will always require tyranny and force of arms to realize. That doesn’t, by most peoples’ definition, lead to the most prosperity for the most people or to contentment, except for those on the operating side of the gun.

    As a philosophy, liberalism seems to me to have a better read on human nature than any of the others, esp. those that postulate humanity as a whole can return to a some ideal Garden of Eden if only x, y, and z propositions or behaviors can be imposed on everyone. The thing that Utopian movements seem to think is somehow illegitimate is human contentment.

    • Fred

      Corlyss, anyone who “avoids philosophy” simply has an unexamined one.

      • Corlyss

        “anyone who “avoids philosophy” simply has an unexamined one.”

        Could be. I’ve spent most of my life in public policy looking for approaches that are positively effective for the greatest good of the target audience. Nothing sends me into a rage faster than someone whose approach is “Yes, it works in practice, but does it work in theory?” with the implication that if it doesn’t work in theory, it can’t be implemented.

        “not better than Arisotelian-Thomism for example.”

        Does that have any practical significance for human affairs? I mean by that is there a social policy or pragmatic solution to a real problem that flows from that?

        “I would argue that the extreme individualism of liberalism makes that breakdown inevitable.”

        I hear ya, but honestly the demise of liberalism is like the repeated eruptions of predictions of humanity’s or the earth’s apocalyptic demise: it’s always gonna happen, but doesn’t. I’m not going to bet the farm on liberalism’s eventual collapse. The biggest threats to it have been counter-philosophies that produce crash-and-burn tyrannies and from which liberalism in some form emerges. So I’m not convinced.

        • Fred

          Does that have any practical significance for human affairs? I mean by that is there a social policy or pragmatic solution to a real problem that flows from that

          There is always practical significance to what one thinks human beings are and what they are for. Is there a specific policy that flows from Aristotelian-Thomist anthropology? I would argue that’s the wrong question. A philosophical anthropology is more a background against which policies and solutions are thought up and proposed, indeed against which a solution is a solution at all. A “problem” from the point of view of one anthropology may be natural or even a benefit from the point of view of another. Your “pragmatism,” for example, presupposes an anthropology, whether you are consciously aware of it or not. Based on other comments of yours I’ve seen and responses of yours to comments of mine, I believe that the anthropology it presupposes is rather thin and leaves entirely too much out, but it is there. All philosophy does is make those kinds of presuppositions visible and subject them to rigorous examination.

          • basenjibrian

            But it sounds like you are celebrating that, as liberalism does not provide the totalism you seem to think human society demands.
            I am not an educated philosopher by any means, so this is an amateur’s opinion, but: Unconscious, somewhat undefined philosophies (like those you accuse Corlys of holding) seem superior to finely worked out systems that claim to have everything defined. I am guessing from your examples that you are an Orthodox Catholic in your philosophical approach? I am not convinced that history confirms that Thomism 1. really explains humanity (because it relies on theology that is very questionable inho) 2. or has been demonstrated to work very well in real history and the real world.

          • Fred

            Wow. How did you even find this thread after all this time? Anyway, yes I am Catholic, but you are mistaken to believe I think human society demands “totalism” if by that you mean a communist- or fascist-style state control over every aspect of life. I do believe that human society demands society; that is, we are communal beings or as Aristotle put it zoon politicon. I also believe in the Catholic principal of subsidiarity, that there are levels of community from the family to the state and that social, political, and economic issues should be resolved at the most local level possible. You are also mistaken, I believe, to think that an examined philosophy, even the most rigorously examined, claims to “have everything defined.” As I said in my first response to Corlys, a great philosophy is a framework within which to define things (and we all have such frameworks whether we acknowledge them or not); it does not necessarily determine in advance what those definitions are. As to your two points about Thomism: First, the Angelic Doctor was a theologian, but he was also a philosopher. He maintained that some things can be known by human reason (and the human telos is one of them) and others only by revelation. As for how questionable the theology is, there is no way to scratch the surface of Aristotelian/Thomist metaphysics in a combox. If you are interested, I highly recommend Edward Feser’s Scholastic Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction. If you have no time or inclination for that, his blog has many very concise and accessible posts on the subject. Second, what, exactly, do you mean by “work” and how has history demonstrated that it doesn’t?

      • General_Chaos

        I believe your are making the error of totalism. Unlike Islamism, Fascism, etc. liberalism allows for a private space, a community space and a government space. Liberalism is not meant to be a total solution of human existence, rather a way to set the broad framework fo society. Within a liberal state “atomised” individuals are free to live in a religious commune, go back to nature, pack themselves into dense cities, or live a self-sufficient life. It is the allowance of communal space separate from the state that can allow individuals to chose their own way of filling what liberal governance does not provide.

        The closest (but flawed) analogy I can think of is marriage. If you expect your partner to be best friend, lover, golf partner, financial adviser, etc. you will often be unfulfilled. But if you can do your golfing and drinking with buddies, other activities with co-workers and other with your partner, then you have a better shot at a happy life.

        Liberalism does not demand hyper-individualism, just a large tolerance for different ways to live within a liberal government.

  • LarryD

    “Anything labeled science isn’t” Social Science, for all its statistics and models, is still philosophy. Library Science, for all that it includes useful skills, still comes down to caring for a collection of books, and being able to find a book someone is looking for. Political Science is philosophy with delusions and pretensions.

    American intellectuals poison goes at least back to 19th century, when some of our elites sent their kids to university in the German states. Where they acquired Germanic values, which as the article remarks, were opposed to liberalism. They were very well suited to an aristocracy, though, which is good for our modern elites, status-anxious as they are.

    I note that the list of assumptions just left out all non-democratic governments, though. As if all dictatorships disappeared when the Soviet Union fell.

    Liberalism does not satisfy everyone, it doesn’t satisfy those who demand a guarantee of status, power, or wealth. Hence Corlyss observation that a common feature of Liberalism’s counter-philosophies is that they are hegemonic.

    Too few intellectuals take into account the reality of evil, that people can, and some will, choose their own immediate benefit and to blazes with the consequences to anyone else (even their own long term).

  • Finally an article where the intelligent thinkers are the ones commenting, and not the right and left wing trolls and wingnuts.

    • basenjibrian

      You missed friendly goat. 🙂

  • Brett Champion

    One reason that challenges to liberalism continue to arise that isn’t addressed in this essay is something that is inherent in human beings as a species: the desire for social conformity. Evolution has made humanity to be a social animal. But in the rather small social groups that humans lived in for most of our species existence (large social groups really didn’t begin to occur until the development of agriculture) people necessarily had to be conformist and collectivist in order to survive, and we were always on the lookout for those who dared to be different or who appeared to be placing their own interests or those of a subset of the group above the interests of the group. Survival in nature was so precarious that deviations like this could not be tolerated as they were a threat to the group.

    The critique of liberalism as being too focused on the individual is largely where this arises from. In a liberal society, each person would do his own thing and everyone would be little concerned with what his neighbor is doing so long as it didn’t interfere with his own ability to do his thing. But a lack of conformity to the larger group culture is viewed by many members of that group as a threat to the group, not because it is now, but because such nonconformity was a threat in man’s earlier evolutionary period.

  • kctaz

    This is an interesting article. However, I continue to find the words of our Founder’s and great men of our history to be the most superior philosophy and explanation of government and man and the interaction between the two. I continue to be overwhelmed and awed by their understanding of human nature and of the pains they took to try to restrict its evil aspects and to preserve liberty. They certainly were most prescient in their concerns and for our future and in their knowledge about what would destroy us.

    For, I hope, your enjoyment and contemplation, I repeat but a few of their thought on man and government.

    “The jaws of power are always open to devour, and her arm is always stretched out, if possible, to destroy the freedom of thinking, speaking, and writing.”

    John Adams

    The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground.”

    — Thomas Jefferson, letter to E. Carrington, May 27, 1788

    Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself.

    John Adams

    “The majority, oppressing an individual, is guilty of a crime, abuses its strength, and by acting on the law of the strongest breaks up the foundations of society.”

    — Thomas Jefferson

    “A wise and frugal government … shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government.”

    — Thomas Jefferson, First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1801History, in general, only informs us what bad government is.

    “He that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.”

    — Thomas PaineThomas Jefferson (1807)

    Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant, to step over the ocean, and crush us at a blow? Never! — All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest; with a Bonaparte for a commander, could not by force, take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a Thousand years. At what point, then, is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.

    Abraham Lincoln

    “the true theory of our Constitution is surely the wisest and best . . . (for) when all government . . . shall be drawn to Washington as the centre of all power, it will render powerless the checks provided of one government on another, and will become as . . . oppressive as the government from which we separated.”

    –Thomas Jefferson

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2018 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service
We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to and affiliated sites.