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Liberalism is its own worst enemy

This op-ed by Parkland Institute Director Trevor Harrison appeared in the July 24, 2017 edition of the Winnipeg Free Press.

There is currently much handwringing about the crisis of liberal democracy. As evidence, these assorted Lady Macbeths point to the rise of right-leaning governments throughout the western world, including the United States; in turn, they call for a stiffer defence of liberal values.

The causes of the crisis lie neither in the stars nor in liberal messaging, however, but in the contradictions of liberalism itself. In one sense, nearly everyone today is a liberal, but of what type? Economic, political or social?

The noted Canadian political philosopher C. B. Macpherson argued that economic liberalism—the concept of individual, private property—emerged in the 18th century, its tenets codified by Adam Smith and, later, David Ricardo. Before this time, productive property was collectively owned and subjected to the common good, a concept remaining very much alive within Indigenous communities.

Political liberalism—the idea of suffrage—arose in the early 19th century, but gained traction only slowly. At first, only white, male property owners had a say in political matters. Gradually, however, working-class people gained the vote; then women and minorities. Mass warfare—the need of the state to mobilize its citizens—proved a major impetus for extending the franchise.

But progress was slow and always subject to restrictions. Democracy was often limited to the right to vote for a choice of parties running the full gamut from A to B; in short, minor irritants rather than threats to the dominant economic interests. When some citizens, after the 1960s, sought to expand the notion of democracy, conservatives such as Samuel Huntington expressed the view that western governments were suffering from "an excess of democracy." Efforts to restrain and deny the voting rights of the young, the poor and visible minorities continue today throughout many American states, and have also been tried in Canada.

Social liberalism—the idea of social and human rights—was the last form to emerge. Though hints of it can be found earlier, in the works of Harriet Martineau and J. S. Mill, for example, social liberalism did not gain real traction until the Great Depression and especially after the Second World War. The adoption and expansion of the postwar welfare state went hand in hand with the emergence of social liberalism.

The timing of the introduction of these three forms of liberalism is of central importance, however.

The primacy of economic liberalism set the conditions—the limits—under which the subsequent forms of liberalism took shape and could function. Whether knowingly or not, today’s liberals everywhere, from Barack Obama to Justin Trudeau to fellow travellers among social democrats, continue to bow to the primacy of economic liberalism—the demands of the disembodied market—at the expense of the other forms, with the consequences of anger and angst that now drive much of our politics.

When Obama nationalized private debt after the recent (so-called) Great Recession and failed to prosecute the financial industry—such as Goldman Sachs and its CEOs—he set the stage for Donald Trump. When European leaders insisted as a result of the same recession that workers, young people and old pensioners should pay for the suddenly accrued public debt through an endless cycle of austerity, they set the stage for the rise of the extreme right.

The crisis of liberal democracy today lies in the fact that, promises aside, its chief function is to give cover to capital accumulation. Everything else consists of symbolism wrapped in empty rhetoric. Case in point: the Canadian government is quite willing to rename a building in Ottawa as a gesture of reconciliation to Indigenous peoples, but will not adequately fund the wholesale economic restructuring required to make them full and equal citizens in Canada.

The contradictions of liberalism have not gone unnoticed, most especially among the conservative elite who see their chance to reaffirm and extend their power. With some justification, conservatives and their supporters in the media assail liberals as liars, hypocrites and phonies. Unfortunately, the Ayn Rand world heralded by many conservatives is one pointing to state repression, nihilism and perpetual war; a world in which only the strongest and most brutal survive; a Trumpian world.

Trevor Harrison

Trevor W. Harrison is a professor of sociology at the University of Lethbridge and director of Parkland Institute, an Alberta-wide research organization, of which he was a founding member and first research director. Dr. Harrison is best known for his studies in political sociology, political economy and public policy. He is the author, co-author or co-editor of nine books, numerous journal articles, chapters, and reports, and a frequent contributor to public media, including radio and television.

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