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Political theory and the "original sin" of liberalism
Why even contemporary progressive thought can't get us beyond Hobbes, Locke, and the "war of all against all" in the state of nature
Why has liberalism en bloc – and liberal democracy in particular - reached a state of terminal crisis?
In a recent essay I reviewed political theorist Patrick Deneen’s much discussed new book Regime Change: Toward a Postliberal Future in pushing the argument that while his analysis is right on, his prescriptions seem rather factitious as well as fanciful. In my next offering I intend indeed to show the new terrain we must enter (one in which Deneen perhaps feared to tread).
But first we must ask a profound and even primordial kind of question: did the tradition of liberalism itself emerge with a fatal kind of “birth defect” - an “original sin” - that now in the late modern era is hastening its senescence and leading up to a catastrophic climax?
Such a question is neither impertinent nor merely speculative. From Marx forward both conservative and progressive figures have in various formats entertained such a proposition, even while liberalism, broadly conceived, has won skirmish after skirmish in the ongoing war of political ideas and ideologies.
Evaluating both the heritage and the indwelling flaws of liberalism have been compounded by many factors. But the basic problem is what we mean by “liberalism” itself. The second is the past and present confusion of liberalism with even more diffuse notions such as “democracy” and with the equally fraught economic binary of “capitalism” versus “socialism”. The third, of course, is the relatively recent association of the word “liberalism” in the popular mind with left-wing politics in general, which in response has garnered the familiar moniker “progressivism”.
The last two questions do not require our consideration here. But the first one quite recently has drawn unprecedented attention, and it is by going back to beginnings that we may shed some serious light on why liberalism after all these centuries is so patently floundering.
Deneen’s anatomy of early liberalism depends in many respects on the brilliant study of French political thinker Pierre Manent, who in An Intellectual History of Liberalism traces the theory back to the political turmoil in England during the seventeenth century and the controversy between Hobbes and Locke over the relationship between “civil society” and the “state of nature”.
The controversy is, of course, quite familiar to political philosophers as well as political scientists. Hobbes envisaged the state of nature as a “war of all against all” and posited the need for an all-powerful “sovereign” in the person of a Stuart monarch to establish “artificially” a regime of law and order. Locke, who in contrast advocated for curbing the powers of the Stuart monarchs in the overthrow of James II during the Glorious Revolution of 1689, developed a theory that literally turned Hobbes upside down.
Ironically, both Hobbes the absolutist and Locke the “republican” can both be considered “liberals”. Liberalism, therefore, in Manent’s eyes has little to do with the axiom of limited government so much as it consists in a durable hypothesis concerning those configurations of power within the natural order of things from which political arrangements spring.
Both Hobbes and Locke lay down as the bedrock precept of modern governance what C.B. Macpherson termed the “political theory of possessive individualism”. Such a theory rests on the supposition that human beings are first and foremost self-seeking as well as self-preserving creatures. The original state in which one individual “naturally” wars against another entails that there are only three features of human existence that genuinely matter in the conduct of our daily affairs. They are, as Locke put it, “life, liberty, and property”, which also should be construed as fundamental “rights”.
In such a schema the right to “life” is self-confirming. All sentient beings naturally aims to preserve and protect itself from the predations of other creatures. But if such a “right” is to have purchase, such beings must be allowed the “liberty” to do whatever is necessary to defend themselves. Finally, says Locke, the right of self-defense guarantees the right to “property”, which is vested in one’s own body and whatever else one can extract from nature through labor.
Governments, according to Locke, exist primarily for the protection of property. As Manent notes, ”the purpose of the political institution is to preserve property endangered by the inevitable disorders of the state of nature”.
So far as the conventional academic wisdom is concerned, Locke’s preoccupation with the right to own and use property in a productive manner gives rise to what is often considered the most extreme type of liberalism, which nowadays we know as “libertarianism”. But all the many varieties of liberalism, Manent insists, hold in common the baseline assumption that the human animal is neither a political nor even a “rational” animal a la Aristotle, as the whole of classical and Medieval political thought took for granted.
The human animal, on the contrary, is an avaricious and acquisitive creature that only admits of political society so long as it serves his or her own “selfish” purposes. Manent attributes this discovery to the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century in tandem with the chaotic mess that sophisticated thinkers such as Hobbes and Locke believed to have been wrought during the same period by the aggressive pursuit of statecraft in the name of revealed religion. Think the English Revolution of the 1640s and the Thirty Years War that devastated Continental Europe.
Modern Europe in the seventeenth century gave up on any effort at anchoring politics in theological, or metaphysical, principles. It resorted instead, as Mark Lilla pointed out in his best-selling book from the 2000s, to grounding the idea of political order in “anthropology” rather than theology – in a doctrine of human nature in place of divine design.
Implicit in this intellectual gambit was the naïve notion that human beings could establish their own binding set of moral laws – derived from what the Scottish Enlightenement referred to as their natural “sympathies” – that would serve as a communitarian counterweight to their unsocial predilections wired into them at birth. In other words, homo avarus (“greedy” or “grasping” humanity) in the state of nature could be transmuted into homo politicus through the “enlightened” policies of intellectual elites who wielded the reigns of political power.
These elites shared a tacit belief, according to Lilla, in a new kind of all-powerful immanent deity – a Promethean one – that replaced the divine judge and lawgiver that monarchs and theocrats previously had cited as their warrant to govern.
But refractory human nature – the kind of “original” orneriness endemic to the Hobbesean state of nature – proved to be no match for this wavering and indecisive “stillborn” secular God (in Lilla’s terminology). The reign of homo avarus has persisted, Manent intimates, into even the most “generous” or “progressive” forms of liberal political economy.
One of the most blatant ironies of the modern epoch, as various “critical” theories have harped upon, is that some of the most savage and inhumane collective human practices in the whole of human history (e.g., black chattel slavery and the eradication of indigenous peoples) have coincided with the ascendancy of “liberal” political philosophy. In his provocative work Liberalism: A Counter-History the Italian historian Domenico Losurdo maintains that this glaring fact cannot simply be explained by the inherent “hypocrisy” of liberal elites.
Losurdo makes the case that the logic of liberalism with its subtle identification of liberty with the proprium (or “property”) that is one’s own right of self-defense and control over their own body underwrites a prolonged legacy that makes the well-being of other human beings inconsequential for our destiny.
Adam Seagrave has emphasized that prior to the emergence of the liberal version of “natural rights” theory in the 1600s the notion of “right” (ius) itself did not distinguish itself from the view that certain “duties” were simultaneously imposed upon the human condition. In short, human rights could not be disentangled from natural law.
The abysmal gap between Catholic and liberal Protestant, or secular, ethics concerning abortion is a case in point. The former adheres to a late Medieval position that the fetus as a potential “ensouled” human being must be situated within the same web of reciprocal rights and duties as that of the mother. The latter insists that the fetus, insofar as it is confined to the womb, remains mere bodily “property” of which the mother has the “inalienable” right to dispose as she sees fit
Another example is the late twentieth and twenty-first century preoccupation with sexual identity and sexual behavior as a “right”. Sexuality has everything to do with how we view and manifest our own bodily autonomy and has minimal bearing on our relations with others other than the “responsibility” to perpetuate the species , or our own genomes.
Thus modern liberalism comes down to the triumph of privatism over politics, even though previously it implied, as Helena Rosenblatt puts it, “being a giving and a civic-minded citizen” as well as “understanding one’s connectedness to other citizens and acting in ways conducive to the common good”.
It is the replacement of this more “generous” ontology of liberalism (as hinted in the very etymon of the word) with the “avaricious” counterpart pioneered by Hobbes and Locke that buttresses the ubiquitous hauteur of our present day governing global elites, even those among the “woke” who clamor for justice so long as it does not infringe upon their sense of entitlement.