Liberalism is a vital vehicle of democracy, economic development and social cohesion.
Every epoch has a guiding principle. Following on from illusions about the end of history and the triumph of market democracy, the beginning of the 21st century is based, on the one hand, on tension between the universal thrust of globalization and the technological revolution and, on the other hand, on the flare-up of violence related to identity, notably linked to the resurgence of religious fanaticism. Liberalism therefore finds itself in a paradoxical position: as the catalyst of changes in democracy and capitalism but also as the scapegoat taking the blame for injustice in the world. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, democracy has undoubtably made progress in Europe, Latin America and Asia. The world economy is going through a cycle of intensive growth (5.5% per year); which mainly benefits the emerging nations and fosters the end of poverty for hundreds of millions of people in the former Soviet empire, China, India and Brazil. However, a strange confusion has led to liberalism being put into question with regard to the progress it has enabled: the pacification of relationships between nations, public freedom, the guarantee of individual security and human rights, economic expansion and increased purchasing power, and the setting up of welfare systems.
The new wave of anti-liberalism
Thus is it that, with the emergence of market democracy, an anti-liberalist axis is coming into being in which highly heterogenous forces find common ground. On a global level, these forces are fundamentalist movements targeting the West, countries that have broken away from the USA (such as Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador) and also protectionist movements hostile to globalization that are extremely powerful in developed countries – headed by the USA and Europe. On a European level, these forces are populist parties that are prospering in the west of the continent where there is social disruption caused by globalization and xenophobic passions, and in n the east where there is nostalgia for communism, nationalist feelings, and disenchantment arising from transitional policies and the European Union. In France, anit-liberalism has become the final refuge and the ideological label of the left wing – which cannot manage to free itself from the shadow of Marxism – and of the right wing, focused on a distorted version of Gaullism and its meaningless rituals.
It must be noted that attacks on liberalism arise from uncertainties about its definition and which lead to its being assmiliated to the free market, to capitalism, to a supposedly Anglo-Saxon model, and to conservative political parties. This is a mistake on three levels. Far from being a sort of economism, liberalism is first and foremost a political doctrine which stands for autonomy and the primacy of politics; the opposite of Marxism and dialectic materialism which reduce politics to a simple superstructure of the economy and reduce history to a mechanical succession of production systems. There is no one better than the liberalists to measure the asymetrical nature of the relationship between democracy and capitalism, which means that the former cannot exist without a market-driven economy – as the history of the 20th century has proved – whilst the latter can develop outside a system of public freedom – as shown in the past in the authoritarian regimes of Franco’s Spain and Chile, and today in the total-capitalisme [combining totalitarianism and capitalism] of China.
Liberalism is not an Anglo-Saxon invention. It began in continental Europe in the 18th century alongside the rise of nation states, the blossoming of the industrial revolution, the crystallization of order on the Continent after the wars of religion, the incursion of critical reasoning into domains that had previously been the preserves of religion and monarchy that had its basis in Divine Right. It fully belongs to the political and intellectual history of France.
The first phase of the French Revolution was resolutely liberalist, with its Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, and its desire to establish freedom as a universal principle. Although government actions inspired purely by liberalism have been rare (e.g. Guizot during the July Monarchy, Émile Ollivier under the Second Empire, Paul Reynaud in the pre-war period, Raymond Barre), liberalists have played a crucial role in the phases of rapid modernization of the country. An example of this is Jacques Rueff who inspired structural reforms made by General de Galle in the early years of the 5th Republic.
French liberalist thinking is particularly rich – on a philosophical level with Montesquieu, Condorcet, Constant, Tocqueville, Halévy, Aron and Revel – and on an economic level with Say, Turgot, Bastiat and Rueff. Far from being conservative, liberalism has been opposed to annuities, to protection, to the status quo, to guilds… with a view to giving indivduals the right to compete on an equal basis. This is what gives it a revolutionary dimension and which means it can make use of and be claimed by the left wing – since its beginnings, the thrust of socialism has been divided between liberalist emancipation and potentially totalitarian organisation, as in Marxist theory and Soviet practice – as well as by the right wing.
The three traditions of liberalism
Liberalism cannot be considered as a unified block. It is completely different from any ideology that claims to be a revealed truth or a closed organisation. It is pluralist and is embodied in people rather than in a school of thought. Three great liberalist traditions can be distinguished. The first – the political tradition – starts with Montesquieu and Locke and goes through to Rawls and Aron who, in his Les Étapes de la pensée sociologique (Main Currents In Sociological Thought), stated that he was part of the line of sociologists who “are not very dogmatic, whose prime interest is in politics and who, without ignoring the social infrastructure, free autonomy from political order and think like liberalists.” The second – the utilitarian tradition – began with Bentham and Stuart Mill and went through to Hayek. It attempts to explain political, economic and social phenomena by the pursuit and confrontation of individual interests alone. The third – the libertarian tradition – illustrated by Robert Nozick in the USA and Pascal Salin in France, raises the principle of the inviolable and exclusive nature of the rights of the individual, and bases liberty on ownership, beginning with that of the body and mind. This gave rise to radical criticism of states that violate the fundamental rights of its citizens if it does not require positive acceptance as a precondition. The definition of the liberalist libertarian, according to Pascal Salin, former President of the Mont Pelerin Society, is “an anarchist who defends property”.
Beneath its pluralism, liberalism has a basis of common principles. First of all, it sees itself as a political and moral philosophy founded on respect for the rights and the autonomy of individuals on the one hand, and on the refusal of any determinism or sense of history on the other hand. It is inseparable from democracy because of its three components: the pluralism of opinions and parties, the moderation of institutions, and the vigorous rule of law. It also believes that the development of a free market and free competition is the driving force behind economic and social progress. In short, it aims to put people in a position to become citizens both capable and worthy of taking on the responsibility of liberty and, if necessary, of defending it. Liberalism gets its strength from its weaknesses. Its pluralist nature leads it not only to tolerate anti-liberalism but also to allow it to occupy a significant place, even when this is not limited to the criticism of liberty but extends to a mobilization of extreme passions, violence and hate.
The 21st century’s remedy
If liberalism denies any transcendental or providential justification, if it bases liberty solely on people’s critical reasoning and commitment as citizens, if it agrees to be seen as a historical movement at the heart of perpetually changing societies, it becomes an easy and prime target for ideologists, demagogues, and extremists of all persuasions. And yet, up to now, it has gambled on the visceral bond that unites humankind with liberty – a liberty that is the basis of our make-up – and the gamble has paid off. Democracies have shown an astonishing resistance enabling them to emerge victorious from the ideologies and the major wars of the 20th century. Liberty is never acquired or given, it is always conquered and built on. The transitional era that began with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 has multiplied the challenges facing liberty and liberalists.
How can we halt the momentum of the clash of civilisations and the head-on attack launched against democracy by religious fanaticism? What institutions are needed by an open society and a global economy? What sort of citizenship should be conceived in Europe and in the world in general beyond that of the nation state which up to now has been the main framework for the construction of political freedom, for the proper functioning of market forces and for solidarity to be exercised? In France, what strategy should be employed to reverse the country’s decline and enable it to reconnect with modernity? In response to these challenges, liberalists propose no unilateral explanation or wonder cure; they oppose the workings of reason to the unleashing of extremist passions and fanaticism, the use of moderation to the temptation of excess and fascination with violence, patient teaching to resignation and fatalism. In the 21st century, it is by liberalism – i.e. by returning to a faith in liberty – that citizens in democracies will be able to overcome the disruption of nations brought about by increased threats on a geopolitical level and by the new situation born of globalization, and that French people will be able to find a way out of the new major national crisis affecting their country.
(Column published in Le Point, 24th November 2016)