Inescapable liberalism? Rescuing liberty from individualism and the State
Patrick Deneen ABC Religion and Ethics 20 May 2013
The narrative that dominates our political landscape poses liberty - as defined by classical liberalism - over against "progressive" liberalism or Statism. Both claim to be in favour of liberty, yet, far from being opposites, they are mutually reinforcing reflections of the same ideology - liberalism. And while liberalism has in its very name the word "liberty," its internal logic leads inexorably to the extinction of true human liberty - namely, through the elimination of everything aside from what the two "sides" in today's debates support: the autonomous individual and the liberal State.
Modern liberalism begins not, as might be believed if we were to follow the contemporary narrative, with the opposition to Statism or Progressivism, but rather in explicit and intense rejection of ancient political thought and especially its basic anthropological assumptions. Hobbes, among others, is frequently explicit in his criticisms of both Aristotle and "the Scholastics" - that Catholic philosophy particularly influenced by Aquinas, who was of course particularly influenced by Aristotle.
According to Aristotle, and later further developed by Thomas Aquinas, man is by nature a social and political animal - which is to say, humans only become human in the context of polities and society. Shorn of such relations, the biological creature "human" was not actually a fully realized human - not able to achieve the telos of the human creature, a telos that required law and culture, cultivation and education, and hence, society and tradition. Thus, Aristotle was able to write (and Aquinas after him essentially repeated) that "the city is prior to the family and the individual" - not, of course, temporally, but in terms of the primacy of wholes to parts. To use a metaphor common to both the ancients and in the Biblical tradition, the body as a whole "precedes" in importance any of its constitutive parts: without the body, neither the hand, nor foot, nor any other part of the body is viable.
Liberal theory fiercely attacked this fundamental assumption about human nature. Hobbes and Locke alike, for all their differences, begin by conceiving humans by nature not as parts of wholes, but as wholes apart. We are by nature "free and independent," naturally ungoverned and even non-relational. There is no ontological reality accorded to groups of any kind - as Bertrand de Jouvenel quipped about social contractarianism, it was a philosophy conceived by "childless men who had forgotten their childhoods."
Liberty is a condition in which there is a complete absence of government and law, and "all is Right" - that is, everything that can be willed by an individual can be done. Even if this condition is posited to show its unbearableness or untenability, the definition of natural liberty posited in the "state of nature" becomes a regulative ideal - liberty is ideally the ability of the agent to do whatever he likes. In contrast to ancient theory, liberty is the greatest possible pursuit and satisfaction of the appetites, while government is a conventional and unnatural limitation upon our natural liberty.
For both Hobbes and Locke, we enter into a social contract not only in order to secure our survival, but to make the exercise of our liberty more secure. Both Hobbes and Locke understand that liberty in our pre-political condition is limited not only by the lawless competition with other individuals, but by the limitations that a recalcitrant and hostile nature imposes upon us. A fundamental goal of Locke's philosophy in particular is to expand the prospects for our liberty - defined as the capacity to satisfy our appetites - now under the auspices of the State. We come to accept the terms of the "social contract" because its ultimate effect will actually increase our personal liberty by expanding the capacity of human control over the natural world. Locke writes that the law works to increase liberty, by which he means our liberation from the constraints imposed by the natural world.
Thus, for liberal theory, while the individual "creates" the State through the social contract, in a practical sense, the liberal State "creates" the individual by providing the conditions for the expansion of liberty, now defined increasingly as the capacity of humans to expand their mastery over nature. Far from there being an inherent conflict between the individual and the State - as so much of modern political reporting would suggest - liberalism establishes a deep and profound connection between the liberal ideal of autonomy that can only be realized through the auspices of a powerful State.
The State does not merely serve as a referee between contesting individuals; in securing our capacity to engage in productive activities, especially capitalist, consumptive commerce, the State establishes a condition in reality that existed in theory only in the "state of nature" - namely, the ever-increasing achievement of the autonomous, freely-choosing individual. Far from than the State acting as an impediment to the realization of our individuality, the State becomes the main agent of our liberation from the limiting conditions in which humans have historically found themselves.
Thus, one of the main roles of the liberal State becomes the active liberation of individuals from any existing limiting conditions. At the forefront of liberal theory is the liberation from limitations imposed by nature upon the achievement of our desires - one of the central aims of life, according to Locke, being the "indolency of the body." A main agent in that liberation becomes capitalism, the expansion of opportunities and materials by which to realize not only existing desires, but even to create new ones that we did not yet know we had.
One of the earliest functions of the State is to support that basic role it assumes in extending the conquest of nature. It becomes charged with extending and expanding the sphere of commerce, particularly enlarging the range of trade and production and mobility. The expansion of markets and the attendant infrastructure necessary for that expansion is not, and cannot be, the result of "spontaneous order." Rather, an extensive and growing State structure is necessary to achieve that expansion, even at times to force recalcitrant or unwilling participants in that system into submission (just see, for instance, J.S. Mill's recommendation in Considerations on Representative Government that the enslavement of "backward" peoples can be justified if they are forced to lead productive economic lives).
One of the main goals of the expansion of commerce is the liberation of otherwise embedded individuals from their traditional ties and relationships. The liberal State serves not only the "negative" (or reactive) function of umpire and protector of individual liberty; simultaneously, it also takes on a "positive" (which is to say active) role of "liberating" individuals who, in the view of the liberal State, are prevented from making the wholly free choices of liberal agents. At the heart of liberalism is the supposition that the individual is the basic unit of human existence, the only natural form of the human person that exists.
If liberal theory posits the existence of such individuals in an imaginary "state of nature," liberal practice - beginning with, but not limited to, the rise of commerce - seeks to expand the conditions for the realization of the individual. The individual is to be liberated from all the partial and limiting affiliations that pre-existed the liberal state, if not by force (though that may at times be necessary) then by constantly lowering the costs and barriers to exit.
Thus the State lays claim to govern all groupings within the society - it is the final arbiter of legitimate and illegitimate groupings, and from its point of view, the only ontological realities are the individual and the State. Eventually the State lays claim to set up its own education system to ensure that children are not overly shaped by family, religion or any particular community; through its legal and police powers, it will occasionally force open "closed" communities as soon as one person claims some form of unjust assertion of authority or limits upon individual freedom; it even regulates what is regarded to be legitimate and illegitimate forms of religious worship. Likewise, marriage is a bond that must be subject to its definition.
A vast and intrusive centralized apparatus is established, not to oppress the population, but rather actively to ensure the liberation of individuals from any forms of constitutive groups or supra-individual identity. Thus any organizations or groups or communities that lay claim to more substantive allegiance will be subject to State sanctions and intervention (take the example of Belmont Abbey College), but this oppression will be done in the name of the liberation of the individual. Any allegiance to sub-national groups, associations or communities come to be redefined not as inheritances, but as memberships of choice with very low if any costs to exit.
Modern liberals are to be pro-choice in every respect; one can limits one's own autonomybut only if one has chosen to do so and generally only if one can revise one's choice at a later date - which means, in reality, that one hasn't really limited one's autonomy at all. All choices are fungible, alterable and reversible. The vow "til death do us part" is subtly but universally amended - and understood - to mean "or until we choose otherwise."
As Tocqueville anticipated, modern Statism would arise as a reaction against the atomization achieved by liberalism. Shorn of the deepest ties to family, place, community, region, religion and culture, and profoundly shaped to believe that these forms of association are limits upon our autonomy, we seek membership and belonging, and a form of extended self-definition, through the only legitimate form of organization available to liberal man: the State.
Robert Nisbet saw the modern rise of Fascism and Communism as the predictable consequence of the early-modern liberal attack upon smaller associations and communities - stripped of those memberships, modern liberal man became susceptible to the quest for belonging now to distant and abstract State entities. In turn, those political entities offered a new form of belonging by adopting the evocations and imagery of those memberships that they had displaced - above all, by offering a new form of quasi-religious membership, now in the Church of the State itself. Our "community" was now to be a membership of countless fellow humans who held in common an abstract allegiance to a political entity that would assuage all of our loneliness, alienation and isolation. It would provide for our wants and needs; all that was asked in return was sole allegiance to the State and partial and even the elimination of any allegiance to any other intermediary entity. To provide for a mass public, more power to the central authority was asked and granted. As Nisbet observed in his 1953 classic analysis, The Quest for Community:
"It is impossible to understand the massive concentrations of political power in the twentieth-century, appearing so paradoxically, or it has seemed, right after a century and a half of individualism in economics and morals, unless we see the close relationship that prevailed all through the nineteenth century between individualism and State power and between both of these together and the general weakening of the area of association that lies intermediate to man and the State."
It is only when the variety of institutions and organizations of humankind's social life have been eviscerated - when the individual experiences himself as an individual - that collectivism as a theory becomes plausible as a politics in fact. Liberalism's successful liberation of individuals from what had historically been "their own" and the increasing realization of the "individual" made it possible for the theory of cosmopolitanism, "globalism" and One State to arise as an actionable political program in the modern era. The idea that we could supercede all particular attachments and achieve a kind of "cosmic consciousness" or experience of our "species being" was a direct consequence of the lived experience of individualism.
To the extent that modern "conservatism" has embraced the arguments of classical liberalism, the actions and policies of its political actors have never failed to actively undermine those areas of life that "conservatives" claim to seek to defend. Partly this is due to drift; but more worryingly, it is due to the increasingly singular embrace by many contemporary Americans - whether liberal or "conservative" - of a modern definition of liberty that consists in doing as one likes through the conquest of nature, rather than the achievement of self-governance within the limits of our nature and the natural world. Unless we recover a different, older and better definition and language of liberty, our future is more likely than not to be one, not of final liberation of the individual, but our accustomed and deeply pernicious oscillation between the atomization of our Lockean individualism and the cry to be taken care of by the only remaining entity that is left standing in the liberal settlement - namely, the State.
Defenders of a true human liberty need at once to "get bigger" and "get smaller." Rather than embrace the false universalism of "globalism," a true universality - under God - shows us the infinite narrowness of "globalization" and points us to the true nature of transcendence. And the only appropriate way to live in and through this transcendent is in the loci of the particular, those places which do not aspire to dim the light of the eternal City.
We need rather to attend to our States and localities, our communities and neighbourhoods, our families and our Church, making them viable alternatives and counterpoints to the monopolization of individual and State in our time, and thus to relearn the ancient virtue of self-government, and true liberty itself.
Patrick Deneen is David A. Potenziani Memorial Associate Professor of Constitutional Studies in the Department of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame. He is the author of Democratic Faith and co-editor of The Democratic Soul: A Wilson Carey McWilliams Reader.