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The term liberalism has been used throughout history in political, cultural, and economic contexts to describe widely juxtaposed positions. Its etymology (derived from the Latin word liber, meaning “free”) leaves it further open to ambiguity. After 1945 the term liberalism lost whatever coherence it had garnered over time, and toward the end of the twentieth century liberalism became virtually a term of opprobrium.
Liberalism is probably the most elusive concept in the modern world’s repertory of political philosophy. It has been used to describe a panoply of antithetical positions, ranging from left to center to right in the political spectrum, and referring primarily for some to the economic arena, for others to the political arena, and for still others to the cultural arena. There is consequently no single correct meaning for the term, but rather a series of meanings, each of which has to be situated historically in its location and evolution.
Liberalism is etymologically derived from the Latin word liber, which means “free.” But free from what and from whom? Or is it rather, free to do something, and then what and to whom? For the Romans liber was the opposite of servus, therefore free from a subordinate status. As an adjective with political connotations, the term liberal seems to have been first used in France during the years of the Directory (the five-man legislature in the late 1790s). The historian Cruz Seaone (1968, 157) attributes the term’s first use most likely to Benjamin Constant in 1796 speaking of “liberal ideas.” The French linguist Ferdinand Brunot (1937, 660–661) starts its career in Year VIII (1797–1798) as a term opposed to “sectarian” and “Jacobin.”
Linguists and historians alike seem to agree that the adjective became a noun in Cadiz in 1810–1811, when it was applied to a group of the Spanish Cortes. A member of the Cortes, the Conde de Toreno, writing some sixty years later, says that the public described the “friends of reform” as los liberales (cited by Marichal 1955). J. H. Billington (1980, 554, n. 33) says this led to the creation of a partido liberal in 1813 (see also Cruz Seaone 1968, 158). D. J. Manning (1976, 9) claims that “the original implications of the term liberal were for the most part derogatory.” But this is not at all clear from the description of the Cortes. It comes into French and British political usage in 1819 (see Bertier de Sauvigny 1970, 155; Halevy 1949, 81, n.3), but it will be another quarter century before the Whigs become the Liberal Party.
The next stage in the story was the construction of liberalism, which defined itself as the opposite of conservatism, on the basis of what might be called a “consciousness of being modern” (Minogue 1963, 3). Liberalism always situated itself in the center of the political arena, proclaiming itself to be universalist. Sure of themselves and of the truth of this new worldview of modernity, liberals sought to propagate their views and intrude its logic within all social institutions, thereby ridding the world of the “irrational” leftovers of the past. To do this, they had to fight conservative ideologues whom they saw as obsessed with fear of “free men,” men liberated from the false idols of tradition. In other words liberals believed that progress, even though it was inevitable, could not be achieved without some human effort, without a political program. Liberal ideology was thus the belief that, in order that history follow its natural course, it was necessary to engage in conscious, continual, intelligent reformism, in full awareness that “time was the universal friend, which would inevitably bring greater happiness to ever greater numbers” (Schapiro 1949, 13).
Liberalism as an ideology, as opposed to liberalism as a political philosophy—that is, liberalism as a metastrategy vis-a-vis the demands of popular sovereignty as opposed to liberalism as a metaphysics of the good society—was not born adult out of the head of Zeus. It was molded by multiple, often contrary, interests. To this day the term evokes quite varied resonances. There is the classic “confusion” between so-called economic and so-called political liberalism. There is also the liberalism of social behavior, sometimes called libertarianism. This melange, this “confusion,” has served liberal ideology well, enabling it to secure maximal support. Liberalism started ideological life on the left of the political spectrum, or at least on the center-left. It presented itself as the opponent of the conservative thrust after 1815, and as such it was considered by conservatives to be “Jacobinical” (Remond 1982, 16). But as liberalism gained momentum, support, and authority as an ideology, its left credentials weakened; in some respects it even gained right credentials. But its destiny was to assert that it was located in the center. It was thus conceived in the eighteenth century by Constant, who considered it “a ‘moderate’ and ‘central’ position between the two extremes of Jacobinism (or ‘anarchy’) and Monarchism (‘the fanatics’)” (Marichal 1956, 293). It was thus institutionalized in the liberal parties of the nineteenth century and celebrated by Schlesinger (1962) in the twentieth century as the “vital center.” At all these times, liberals claimed the position between the conservatives or the right, those who wanted to slow down the pace of normal change as much as possible, and those (variously called democrats, radicals, socialists, or revolutionaries) who wanted to speed it up as much as possible. In short liberals were those who wished to control the rate of change such that it occurred at what they considered to be an optimal pace.
The two emblematic figures in the development of this metastrategy were Francois Guizot and Jeremy Bentham. Guizot was a historian, a man of letters, and of course a politician. Bentham was a philosopher and an advocate of concrete legislative action. In the end the eyes of both were focused on the state. Guizot defined modernity as “the substitution in government of intellectual means for material means, of ruse for force, Italian politics for feudal politics” (1985, 243; see Rosanvallon 1985, 223–230). He sought a way to mute popular sovereignty without returning to the divine right of kings. He found it by claiming the existence of an “irresistible hand” of reason progressing through history. By arguing this more political version of the Smithian “invisible hand,” Guizot could establish as a prior condition for the exercise of the right to popular sovereignty the possession of “capacity,” defined as the “faculty of acting according to reason” (Rosenvallon 1985, 91, 95). Only if suffrage were limited to those having this capacity would it be possible to have a “scientific policy” and a “rational government.” And only such a government would eliminate the triple menace of “the return of arbitrary government, the unloosing of popular passions, and social dissolution” (Rosanvallon 1985, 255–256; see also 156–158).
Guizot’s reputation was to fade, but Bentham’s reputation as Great Britain’s quintessential liberal has never ceased to be asserted. The French historian and philosopher Elie Halevy pointed out that Bentham took a starting point not too different from that of Rousseau but had it end up not with revolution but with classic liberalism:
Each individual is the best judge of his own interests. Hence we ought to eliminate all artificial barriers which traditional institutions erected between individuals, all social constraints founded upon the presumed need to protect individuals against each other and against themselves. An emancipatory philosophy very different in its inspiration and in its principles but close in many of its practical applications to the sentimental philosophy of J.-J. Rousseau. The philosophy of the rights of man would culminate, on the Continent, in the Revolution of 1848; the philosophy of the identity of interests in England in the same period in the triumph of Manchesterian free trade concepts. (Halevy 1900, iii–iv)
On the one hand, for Bentham society was the “spontaneous product” of the wills of its individual members, and therefore “a free growth in which the state could have no part.” But at the very same time, and this is crucial for Bentham and for liberalism, society was “the creation of the legislator, the offspring of positive law.” State action was therefore perfectly legitimate, “provided the state was a democratic state and expressed the will of the greatest number” (Halevy 1950, 332).
We come here to the heart of the question. Was liberalism ever a metastrategy of antistatism, or even of the so-called night watchman state? One must distinguish between the text of laissez-faire and individual rights that constitute the public ideals of liberalism and the subtext of a metastrategy to regulate the pace of change in the modern world. Neither the Utilitarians nor subsequent versions of liberals found laissez-faire or individualism and state intervention in contradiction one to the other. In De Ruggiero’s words (1959, 99) projects of legislative reform were seen to be “a necessary complement” to the principles of individualism.
In the beginning of the twentieth century, the Home University Library commissioned three short volumes, one on each of the three great ideologies: conservatism, liberalism, and socialism. In the small book on liberalism, L. T. Hobhouse summed up what he called “the heart of liberalism” as follows:
[L]iberty is no mere formula of law, or the restriction of law. There may be a tyranny of custom, a tyranny of opinion, even a tyranny of circumstance, as real as any tyranny of government and more pervasive.
[F]reedom is only one side of social life. Mutual aid is no less important than mutual forebearance, the theory of collective action no less fundamental than the theory of personal freedom. (1994, 56, 59–60)
After 1945 the term liberalism lost whatever coherence it had had before then. In the United States it was used to emphasize the component of reformist action, and toward the end of the twentieth century became virtually a term of opprobrium. In Great Britain and some Commonwealth countries, it retained its quality of centrism. And in many countries of continental Europe, liberal parties emphasized economic conservatism (but were secularist).
In the 1980s a new term, neoliberalism, came into common vocabulary. Neoliberalism seemed to mean primarily an emphasis on laissez-faire, a distinct distancing of its advocates from any association with social reformism. It seemed indeed to be an ideology largely advocated by conservatives, albeit without the historical emphasis of conservatives on the importance of traditional authorities (and mores).
While liberalism could be considered to be the dominant ideology of the world-system in the second half of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth, by the beginning of the twenty-first century, liberalism seemed to have become very much a minority point of view besieged on all sides.
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