Frontpaged at My Left Wing.

Part 2B in a series based on the entry for Liberalism in the Dicionary of the History of Ideas.

Our inquiry continues. In the introductory diary, I made a series of big points. In this two-part entry, there is really just one big point: that liberalism developed as a pragmatic response to the context of the modern state.  Yup! Much to the consternation of our libertarian friends, centuries before FDR, even before John Locke, the state played a key role in the development of individual rights. This is the second installment in the entry. (Part One here.)

The fun begins below the fold.

Previously, in Part One:

Though the authority of the state can be the more oppressive for being “impersonal,” this “impersonality” is also, as we shall see, a condition of freedom as the liberal understands it, a necessary but by no means sufficient condition. The individual is treated as someone to whom a certain description applies; he is “categorized.” Therefore, all he need do to make good his claims is to show that a certain description does indeed apply to him. The quality of intercourse between the possessor of authority and whoever is subject to it is not what it is in intimate and custom-bound communities; it allows both of new kinds of freedom and new kinds of oppression.

Again with the duality. “New kinds of freedom and new kinds of oppression.”

And now…

Next, a little Venn diagram action, of the subset persuasion:

It used to be claimed for the modern state–whether it was liberal (as in Britain in Gladstone’s time) or authoritarian (as in Bismarck’s Germany)–that it is essentially a Rechtstaat; a political community in which the powers of everyone having public authority are carefully defined and the citizen has a legal remedy against abuses of power. This claim is no longer made since the emergence of communist and fascist states, whose “modernity” can hardly be denied. Nazi Germany was not, Communist Russia is not, a Rechtstaat.

And yet in the modern state, if we compare it with older systems, there are always elaborate rules defining the rights and obligations, not merely of private persons, but of holders of public authority. Though the private citizen often lacks a remedy against official abuses of power, lesser officials are more strictly responsible to greater ones. There is also a sharper distinction made between rights and duties attached to particular occupations or social roles and more general ones. The citizen is at least encouraged to look upon himself as a citizen. Even though he has little remedy against abuses of public authority, this is not officially admitted. The official claim is that his rights are well defined and adequately protected. The modern state claims to be constitutional; to be so organized that public authority is exercised according to definite rules, and the citizen has effective remedies against abuses of authority. It is part of the myth of the modern state that it is “constitutional,” just as it is part of its myth that it is “democratic.”

Of course it’s up to us to make sure the official claims and promises are delivered.  That’s what citizenship is all about. Sure, it would be nice if it weren’t so. It would also be nice if you could get all your nutritional needs met–without gaining weight–by eating ice cream or imbibing your alcoholic beverage of choice.  Not gonna happen.  We’re grown ups. We deal.

Next follows a prolonged aside on how even states that lack the liberal spirit feel both pragmatic and normative pressures to approximate liberal norms–or at least some of their pre-conditions:

No doubt, respect for constitutional rules and for “the rule of law” is dismissed in some modern states as a “bourgeois” prejudice. But this dismissal is always equivocal; for these states also claim to be constitutional. Their rulers are revolutionaries who got power illegally and who keep it by methods different from those of the their predecessors, methods that involve denying to their subjects rights previously enjoyed or widely aspired to, or even proclaimed by their own revolutionary creed. To give the appearance of legitimacy to their power and to achieve their other aims, they always set up a constitution and proclaim rights that they often cannot afford to respect. Within their own circles they take this constitution and these rights for what they are-for pretences serving to cover up the realities of power. Outside these circles, they speak of them differently and more respectfully, denying that they are mere pretences. The respect is usually to some extent genuine; for they would like things to be as they say they are, and even deceive themselves into believing that the reality is nearer the appearance than in fact it is.

(This was written in the 1960s. It was written, one supposes, primarily with “People’s Republics” in mind. But it seems like an eerily appropriate description of the Bush Administration’s approach to democracy as well, whether in Florida, Ohio, Haiti or Iraq.)

Yet behind the appearance, there emerges a structure of power which-precisely because it is centralized, extensive, and pervasive, and has to be adapted to changing needs and purposes-cannot rest on custom but must operate in accordance with definite and deliberately-made rules. Unless it were so, it would not be effective; it would not serve to control millions of people in the many different ways that their rulers want them controlled in order to achieve their diverse and changing purposes. Nor could these people be effectively controlled for these purposes unless many of their rights and obligations were fairly well defined.

If the activities of millions of persons are to be directed to the achievement of large and new aims, if society is to be transformed, there must be an elaborate system of rules for the guidance of both those who govern and those who are governed, and there must be procedures established for changing the rules. There must be some kind of effective political and legal order, even though there is alongside it an order that is not effective and exists largely for show–whether it expresses genuine aspirations or serves to keep up appearances which those who profit by them do not take seriously.

No doubt, revolutionaries who get control of a state sometimes fail of their purposes; they do not transform society the way they want to, and the reality behind the façade is not an effective political and legal order. Nevertheless, if they are really concerned to transform society, they cannot achieve their aims unless they establish such an order.

Then, the account turns back to considerations affecting all modern states, and how these tend to produce a wide range of new individual rights, unprecedented in traditional societies. These include quite personal, civil and social rights, granting unprecedented autonomy to women and adult children.  Here is where it becomes especially obvious how deeply most conservatives embrace and take for granted the the most elemental aspects of liberalism, the everyday expressions of personal autonomy:

The idea of the modern state is the idea of an extensive and elaborate structure of authority carefully defined and organized, and deliberately changed to meet changing needs; and there arises along with it the need to define more precisely the rights and obligations of the individual, distinguishing those that are his in some particular capacity from those that are not. These ways of thinking about public authority and private rights are common to all societies in which the modern state arises whether they are liberal or authoritarian. In all of them the individual acquires precious rights he did not have before, or had to a smaller extent, rights not attached to any particular occupation, status, or role: as, for example, the right to choose his occupation, or to choose whom he shall marry, or to decide where he shall live. Women acquire rights hitherto confined to men; and the adult of either sex enjoys a greater independence, taking for himself or herself decisions that used to be taken by parents or by seniors in the family or clan or local community. This severing of old ties, this acquisition of new rights, is inevitable in an economy calling for greater social mobility. Wherever these rights are acquired, whether in a liberal or an authoritarian society, the acquisition is apt to be seen as a liberation.

[Note: The gaining of these rights is a de facto spread of liberalism–of the framework of individual autonomy secured by the state.  The state itself does not need to be liberal to grant such rights–that is the distinction between a liberal social order and a liberal political order.  Even an modernizing authoritarian political order has need of a liberal social order.  Or, perhaps we should say “had.”  The sort of retrograde vision shared by Bush and Bin Laden is almost certainly unworkable, since it envisions keeping a modern state and economy going, while stripping people of social rights. This is almost certainly an impossibility in the long run. But they can do a whole lot of damage in the process of failing.]

Democracy, too, emerged from this mix, with the pressures for it running far in advance of the reality (sound familiar?):

The modern state also claims to be democratic. It did not do so in the beginning, if we take that beginning as far back as the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The modern state was, in its early days, a monarchy or oligarchy. But in those days it was much less centralized than it became later, and its authority much less pervasive. As that authority increased, as local autonomies lessened or survived only within limits defined by the central power, as the individual found himself more and more controlled by that power, his desire to control it grew stronger. This desire arose first among the wealthy but spread in time to other classes.

Trickle-down democracy.  No wonder it needs re-engineering!

In Britain the powers of the king and of parliament increased together, long before parliament became democratic. In France, when the French equivalent of the British parliament was revived and reformed at the revolution, the popularly elected legislature was reduced to impotence by a group of extreme radicals. And for generations afterwards, the only legislatures that were not quickly rendered powerless were elected on a narrow franchise. France had no democracy that lasted more than two or three years before the Third Republic. Yet democracy seemed inevitable long before it came; and even to those who despaired of its coming, or who argued that it could not be genuine, the desire for it and belief in it seemed rooted in social conditions that arise with the modern state. Modern society is by nature democratic; it needs the illusion of democracy even where it cannot have the reality.

This could be a GOP slogan, couldn’t it? “Modern society is by nature democratic; it needs the illusion of democracy even where it cannot have the reality.”  Still, this admits that they are perennially playing defense at the most fundamental level.  Remember that. Even when it seems that we’re the ones playing defense–and politically we often are–at the most basic level, they are the ones playing defense:

Political theory in the West has had a “bias” towards democracy from the time that the modern state arose and long before it became democratic. It has held that the legitimacy of government derives from the consent of the governed, and has spoken of this consent as if it consisted, not in mere acquiescence or acceptance of custom, but in a specific act, a social contract. No doubt, it began by relegating this contract to a mythical past; and yet contract implies deliberate agreement.

I would argue that the transfer of “democracy” from the realm of the mythic to the actual is the great struggle of our time.  This is great frame we should construct around struggles for electoral reform, and around questions such as “what does it mean to make a democratic decision when a majority of the electoral majority believes in fundamental lies?”  Such strategies would be perfectly in keeping with long-term direction of pressures toward democratization stretching out across periods of centuries.

This is already clear in Locke’s political philosophy, when he says that every man must consent for himself, since the consent of his ancestors cannot bind him. Locke, of course, was no democrat, and qualified his initial assertions so as to draw no democratic conclusions from them. But he spoke of rights that all men have, merely because they are men, and he argued that governments are obliged to protect these rights, and that subjects have the right to resist or remove governments when they fail in this duty. His argument has democratic implications, though neither he nor his contemporaries drew them.

The vast gap between Locke and ourselves today is worth underscoring, particularly since it is routinely ignored. Libertarians routinely smoosh together all the thinkers they cite as authorities, obliterating the historical contexts, and sharp limitations of their pronouncements.  This reflects the fact that they are, at heart, authoritarian doctrinaires and rigid ideologues, who rely on venerated authorities and simplified credos, much the same as religious true believers.

Liberals should and (among their more learned ranks, at least, routinely) do take the opposite approach, studying and respecting the advance of liberal thought in a manner similar to the advance of science, respecting those who made important breakthroughs, without limiting themselves to old ideas that have since been improved upon or even supplanted.

At the time Locke wrote, there was a vast gap between his universalist appeal and the actual narrow scope of those who could and would effectively claim universalist rights.  This is a chronic condition, as the many differences between the lives of average blacks and averages whites even today attest.

This section concludes with two alternative explanations for this situation. The author prefers the second argument, but I think that both are equally valid, equally true.

Marxists and others, to explain how such a thinker as Locke came to speak as he did, have said that a rising class, though themselves a minority, when they challenge the supremacy of another class, try to gain popularity by using arguments that appeal to the people generally. They try to make the interest of their class look as if it were the interest of all. This is what happened in the seventeenth century, when the rising bourgeoisie challenged the supremacy of the old nobility, especially in England. Rights that could in fact, given social conditions at that time, be exercised effectively only by the wealthy and the educated were claimed for the whole people, or for some part of them supposed to be acting as their representatives.

This Marxist argument is akin to another, which has perhaps more to be said for it. According to this second argument, a new kind of economy and social order required the assertion of rights to be shared by all, or by all adult males, regardless of status, occupation, or wealth. Though this economy and social order allow of great inequalities of status, wealth, and education, there are rights that all men must have if the economy and social order are to function properly. These rights are asserted in all societies where commerce and industry are growing fast, and there is increasing social mobility; where the least educated are required to be literate, and where the maintenance of social discipline takes the form of the modern state.


In short, what this section shows is that there are powerful, systematic, historical forces promoting the spread of individual rights, personal autonomy, and democratic self-government. These forces come from the unfolding of history itself. But they also give rise to normative demands that come increasingly from individuals. The liberal tradition thus arises out of history, but then becomes a conscious force, an actor on the stage of history, moving forward demands that are also being pressed by the nature of the changing social world.  


At the same time, as this last section indicates, there are critics who note that liberalism is not quite as universalist as it would like to claim. While some elements of the radical tradition are anti-liberal, as other parts of this section allude to, other elements are ultra-liberal, criticizing the liberal tradition for producing significantly less in the way of defacto rights than it theoretically promises.

It is this second, ultra-liberal radical tradition, even more empirically grounded than the liberal mainstream itself, to which I belong.  The progressive expansion of the liberal vision over time is part of our legacy, though by no means entirely our doing.  

The dialogue between liberals and radicals in my tradition is one of the chief engines of progress in social and political thought. Stiffling that dialogue and substituting a dialogue between liberals and conservatives  is one of the perennial goals of the right. Once this is achieved–during the McCarthy Era, then again, post Watergate, after the Iranian hostage crisis and the election of Ronald Reagan–the push is on to shift from dialogue to diatribe to monologue and demonization.  

Revitalizing the liberal/radical dialogue is one of the most important long-term projects for us to work on, if we want to begin generating profoundly new approaches to the problems we now face.  In turn, this investigation of liberalism’s history provides a fertile framework for that dialogue, as well as various other discussions.

p.s.–Extra Credit

Spot the two very oblique linguistic referents to “Buffy, The Vampire Slayer”–one in Part 2A, one in Part 2B–and win an all-expense-paid trip to Smuggsville.

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