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The normative notion of liberty can only be understood in relative terms. It is about the capacity of individuals to develop by interacting freely with their social and natural environment. It is, furthermore, an idea, as John Dewey wrote in Liberalism and Social Action, in search of a form of organisation.
If, according to Dewey, this had to do with the ‘development of the inherent capacities of individuals’ (Dewey 1999: 40), the description of such a liberal environment within which individuals can develop, must then be about creating the space for the unfolding of prior prefabricated contents of the mind.
In that case, however, it is not clear that the idea of the form of organisations that will satisfy the normative purposes of liberty are not, therefore, themselves prefabricated notions, and that liberty is a negative notion simply about creating space for those notions to unfold.
However, a casual glance at the variety of political systems that exist and have existed and at the complex landscape of human social history, suggests something else completely is going on.
Elsewhere, I explain that the human mind cannot yield any sensible notion of fixed human traits or of a ‘human nature’ that can readily apply across all human beings. The mind can only ever offer a set of higher order learning strategies that enable the human being to cope with a very wide range of potential environments. It is according to such interaction that appropriate forms of organisations arise that can logically satisfy the normative notion of liberty. It is as a result of the processes of their creation that we can judge the appropriateness of forms of political and social organisation, not from fixed end results.
Processes of creation of political and social systems thus supply the crucial legitimacy to the abstract theoretical forms, which are implicit in the end results. These abstractions cannot be compared with each other, only by articulating the reality that constitutes their legitimacy. For this reason, we agree with the Benthamite intuition that it cannot in any sense be meaningful that justice consists of unilateral natural rights derived from natural laws. What provides the meanings and definitions can only be the qualifications provided by countervailing notions of social obligation.
<< THE ENLIGHTENMENT >>
The Enlightenment is that European and American cultural and social experience which the liberal intelligentsia credits for the superiority of Western society over other societies. It is that historical experience in fact which is supposed to have brought about liberty and the end of traditionalism: of political and social forms which restrict progress and development. However, in fact, the Enlightenment, as understood by its chief exponents was about the application of reason, chiefly, scientific reason (as opposed to traditions or religious dogma) to the problems of humanity.
If, therefore, analysed from that aspect, in other words from the debate on the possibility of the application of reason to humanity’s problems, we cannot necessarily conclude optimistically that a real and fundamental change actually took place in the human condition, as a result of the Enlightenment. To comprehend this requires that we unravel what is a complex European thought process that unfolded over 250 years, from 1630 to 1880. This ultimately provide us with the revelations contained in Nietzsche’s ideas, which synthesised the core Enlightenment ideas of Kant, with those of the Counter-Enlightenment reaction of Johann Georg Hamann and Johann Gottfried Herder (colleague and pupil of Kant respectively).
At the beginning of the Liberal Age, Rousseau said that man is born free, but everywhere is in chains. The French Revolution was an iconic moment in human history, and Rousseau the Revolution’s perhaps imperfect philosopher, but nevertheless an indefatigable advocate of egalitarianism.
It is a pity then that Rousseau has been the constant object of criticism and ridicule, whilst Voltaire has been lionised as the Enlightenment’s principal advocate over the centuries by the French liberal establishment. True, Voltaire preceded Rousseau in addressing the citizenry over the heads of the rulers, thus creating the court of public opinion. But he was an élitist liar and a cheat, a sycophant, a war profiteer and an enemy of the poor, who ultimately fought traditional social liens, essentially, to make room for a new rapacious capitalism (Nisard 1853, Martin 2007, Garnot 2009). Rousseau was the humanist.
Ultimately, the French Revolution didn’t bring democracy to France. This didn’t come until the country’s abject defeat in 1871 in the Franco-Prussian War (which it had started), together with the events around the establishment of the Paris Commune. Still to this day, French society has, ever since 1871, rowed back on democratic ideals once again, and is now led by a liberal élite which divides the country. It also marginalises its citizens of North African descent, whose countries were colonised in order for France to recoup the losses it suffered in the Franco-Prussian War. But North Africa and its peoples have always been mere grist to the mill of French capitalism, the rise of which Voltaire, with his rejection of universal education of the masses better to exploit them, exposed as the real agenda of the ‘Enlightenment’ (Martin 2007).
Indeed we have, in Voltaire’s writings and perambulations from the 1750s onwards, the encapsulation of the betrayal of the Enlightenment – by the cultural phenomenon of liberalism that validated not freedom but slavery; not equality but élitism.
The complexity of the Enlightenment experience: The Enlightenment itself was a diverse series of cultural revolutions in France, the German states (particularly Prussia, Hesse and Hannover), Holland, and Scotland, variously punctuating the late seventeenth and eighteenth century European social landscape. Where in France the advocates of the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century stood against political and religious authority, in the German states, and especially in Prussia, it was royalty, intent on reform and centralization over the heads of an atavistic nobility and clergy, which became its advocate.
It was briefly in Holland, but mainly in the German states, that the ‘Enlightenment’ was ‘thought through’ systematically. This addressed the rational nature of man, and understanding its deliberations sets out the problematic of liberal society. The systematic aspect of Enlightenment thought determined how reason came to be understood, and was to be encapsulated in Leibniz’s Principle of Sufficient Reason: the thesis that everything must have a ‘rational’ explanation. Leibniz was Privy Counselor of Justice for the Duchy of Hannover from 1677 to his death in 1716.
The difficulties with Leibniz’s views, and those of his successors, would be resolved by Kant’s revolution in the theory of knowledge. However, Kant would cast an optimistic light on the human use of reason, which Nietzsche would eventually dispute. Kant was the ultimate systematic philosopher, and lived a simple life in the East Prussian capital of Königsberg, content to pursue relentlessly the necessary logical structures for any system of knowledge.
The ‘fate of reason’ would, nevertheless, ultimately lay with Nietzsche, par excellence the philosopher of the Liberal Age, who studied in Leipzig and taught in Basel. Nietzsche, despite appearances to the contrary, agreed with Kant on the nature of reason, although he disagreed with him about the human use of reason. He retired at 45 and died ten years later, as a result of the effects of a genetic stroke disorder called CADASIL (Hemelsoet et al 2008). His explosive and intuitive style would not only resolve the Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment ideational counter-currents, but would lay bare the true nature of liberalism and the Liberal Age.
Descartes and the new Age of Reason: The story of reason in the modern age starts with Descartes. The trial of Galileo in Rome led by the Jesuits in 1633, worried Descartes. The power of Jesuits in independent, but nevertheless Catholic, France, led him to opt for the relative freedom of Holland. As essentially a pure mathematician, Descartes envisioned our thinking as being divorced from the real world, and reason therefore as necessarily originating from a ‘higher’ source (such as God). These were actually medieval ideas in the Augustinian tradition, which were opposed to the orthodox Aristotelian ideas on rationality championed by the Jesuits, the ‘commandos of the Vatican’, and the spearhead of the Counter-Reformation; hence the concern Descartes had about them.
One could argue, therefore, that Descartes was a medieval philosopher, but his ideas were ‘modern’ in the rigor of their argumentation and presentation. He was the first to enquire directly into the problem of how human beings acquire knowledge. In the end, however, Descartes didn’t make it entirely clear whether our thoughts depended on the existence of God, or the other way round, and if so, how they could arise in the first place.
Also in Holland, and soon after Descartes’ death in 1650, Spinoza set himself the task of solving what he saw as Descartes’ inconsistencies. He felt that our thoughts must arise from our consideration of the real world, which in turn must be the same thing as God, if God is thought of as a concept which includes absolutely everything that is to be deduced. For Spinoza there is no escaping what he calls this ‘majestic reason’, which is thus all-encompassing. But his ‘pantheistic’ description of God as one and the same thing as nature, upset the establishment of the day. ‘Spinozism’ became a byword for heresy and subversion throughout Europe for at least 150 years.
Nature was thought of by traditionalists as mechanical, having a fixed unchangeable character, and the Spinozist heresy being thus a denial of God’s omnipotence, whose essential role was as creator of the world. The Cartesian separation of God from the world, and of mind from matter, in fact became the model that the traditionalists would appeal to against this heresy. So despite Descartes early misgivings about the Church, and the fact that the Church actually came to ban his books, Descartes’ philosophical inconsistencies actually came to serve the purposes of orthodox dogma, because Aristotelianism couldn’t counter Spinozist arguments.
Leibniz was riveted by Spinoza’s logic, and he carried on a long correspondence with the Dutchman. This he kept secret, however, because of Spinoza’s dreadful notoriety. Leibniz ended up visiting him in The Hague in November 1676 only a few months before Spinoza’s death, although he did this under the cover of attending a scientific conference (Stewart 2007: 14). Leibniz had been horrified at Spinoza’s depiction of a world with an impersonal God whose choices were determined by a prior character which was fixed in nature, and sought to resolve this. So he set out to show that God is not identical with the world but is its creator ex nihilo and, standing outside the nature, has the choice of creating different possible worlds.
The central principle of Enlightenment thought: In fact, the Principle of sufficient reason first appears in Leibniz’s work after his meeting with Spinoza, in the context of a demonstration he makes to prove the existence of God (Couturat 1901: 214 note 3). God is posited as being necessary for the world to come about in the first place. This comes about in the form of indivisible individuals called monads that include both mind and matter, which can therefore communicate and so overcome Descartes’ inability to explain how thoughts interact with the world. This explanation of the world, importantly, also avoids Spinoza’s conflation of God with nature. The monads don’t relate to each other: they all relate directly to God, who unites them. Thus nature doesn’t acquire a form independent of the will of God, and God chooses from the possible world configurations that particular configuration which is deemed ‘the best possible’ world. He does this because of his benevolence.
The subtext of God’s omnipotence and freedom to choose is played out in the actions of the monads, which are said to pursue their best self-interest. Whether this adds up to a world where free will depends on whether you agree with Leibniz that God doesn’t have to act according to his benevolence, but is simply inclined to do so. I have always thought of Leibniz’s world as pinball machine, with innumerable ways balls can go in a fixed system, where God is inclined for the system to maximise the score. The main problem with this metaphysical model of the world is that, while it may be perfectly logical on the terms of its assumptions, it really cannot describe the world around us. On the other hand, such explanation is absolutely necessary to obtain the validation the Enlightenment thesis of the Principle of Sufficient Reason – namely, that everything must have a ‘rational’ explanation.
Leibniz’s pupil and successor, Christian Wolff, tried to show how the sciences which do explain the world can derive from Leibnizian metaphysics. For this to happen, Monads had to gain depth and therefore divisibility at the microphysical level, as well as also be able to interact to form composites at the macro level (Beck 1996: 271). Wolff built on the fact that Leibniz’s monads combined (an active) mind and (passive) matter from the start, and that all knowledge of the world came from a ‘soul’ (representing mind) as the one and only cognitive faculty (Leibniz 1702: 574-585).
Leibniz hadn’t really considered the empirical world properly, being entirely bound-up with his logical explanations. For him, the sensations that form our empirical experience were somehow ‘representations’ just like rational concepts, only they were the poor cousins of these concepts: they were simply ‘confused forms’ of representations. Trying to build on this principle that the ’empirical’ is somehow merely ‘derivative’ of the ‘logical’, Wolff, in his Psychologia rationalis (1734), begins by positing Leibniz’s idea of the soul (or the mind) as something known by each of us through introspection. With the mind of a mathematician, he then sees our knowledge of the whole world as proceeding from basic definitions by deduction (§1, §66).
This was to become the rational centre-piece of Enlightenment thought – the generalised form of the Principle of Sufficient Reason.
The Kantian revolution in thought: In 1781 Kant attacked Leibnizian-Wolffianism in his Critique of Pure Reason. The work was in German instead of Latin, although Kant was very good at Latin. Despite his idea that he was communicating with the general public, the novelty of his ideas and the length of his German sentences meant that it took a long time for the book to be reviewed, and even then the reviewer didn’t properly understand it. Kant called the one and only cognitive faculty of Leibnizian-Wolffianism, the faculty of ‘intellectual intuition’, and he thought that this was a fiction invented by rationalists who thought they could envision absolute truth from their armchairs.
He saw that cannot really have fundamental knowledge of the world in that way. He wrote that while mathematical definitions can allow the construction of mathematical objects ‘in intuition’ on the basis of those initial definitions, philosophical speculation about what the world is like cannot do this, because empirical knowledge is ‘ampliative’. In order words, definitions do not contain enough information in themselves to lead to the kind of total knowledge Wolff envisaged. Thus ‘intellectual intuition’ is simply ‘dogmatic’ (Kant AA: A713/B747).
Kant thus saw that while human beings had a natural discursive capacity capable of reason or ‘concept-formation’, knowledge of the world was not possible unless a completely separate source of empirical knowledge rooted in the external world also contributed to forming this knowledge. This epiphany was what Kant called his ‘great light’ of 1769 (Kant AA: 18: 069, Reflexion 5037). Descartes’ original ‘rational’ conception of God as a source of such completely formed ideas, which subsequent ‘rationalists’ like Leibniz and Wolff followed, would thus be rejected as illogical.
For these two sources of knowledge – the rational and the empirical – logically to combine to produce knowledge, once again the problem of the separation of mind and matter arises. Both these elements would have to relate to one another – to be homogenous – and this wouldn’t be possible if each was allocated to a separate sphere of existence. Thus the empirical side of the equation – as it were – has to arise in the mind as human intuition of the external world and, together with a discursive capacity described in terms of a certain kind of logical mental functioning, this enables the generation of fully formed ideas – or completed knowledge (see discussion of the 1772 ‘letter to Herz’, as to how this idea came to Kant, in Longuenesse 1998: 17). A series of complex ‘syntheses’ between the two sources of knowledge are then described by Kant as taking place in our perception of the world. This is the central subject matter of the Critique of Pure Reason.
This created the problem for the German intellectual milieu (once they began tackling Kant’s long German sentences), that presumably human beings make up their own picture of the external world. In those circumstances, it would seem then, that the external world itself, as it were, was frustratingly still left ‘out there’, as an unknown. Many (like the lightweight philosopher Gottlob Schulze) felt that this was cheating, and that Kant hadn’t actually achieved anything. Kant struggled to dispel this notion. He tried to communicate his idea that, if indeed there was an external world out there which had any form of existence in of itself, this would be meaningless for us. It could only represent some kind of indeterminate raw material from which we generate a world that makes sense, and that was therefore real, to us. He described the slippery concept of this external world ‘in of itself’ (sich an ding) as a world of ‘stormy oceans’, ‘fog banks’, and ‘rapidly melting icebergs’ (Kant AA: A235-6/B294-5). He should have simply stuck with the idea that it was inconceivable to us and therefore meaningless.
The second problem the German intellectual milieu had with Kant’s ideas, lay in the fact that suddenly all knowledge was anthropogenic. God, in their minds, was therefore excluded from the equation. Leibniz and Wolff clearly hadn’t described reason properly, and Kant’s attack on their thought had destroyed the central Leibnizian-Wolffian pillar of the Enlightenment, the Principle of Sufficient Reason, showing up its inconsistency. Although Kant in the eyes of those who understood him had actual saved the Enlightenment, a reaction against reason in general set in amongst many others. Even if Kant had a new explanation for the functioning of reason, the original misgivings which the traditionalists had over the tenets of Spinozism returned with force. So we had a rise in a ‘fideism’, which no longer sought to reconcile with the Enlightenment, and sought rather to overturn it.
The Counter-Enlightenment: Accordingly, in 1785, Friedrich Jacobi ignited the ‘pantheism controversy’ which challenged all followers of the German Aufklärung (Enlightenment) to make a choice between a commitment to reason which required adherence to atheism, and a relinquishing of reason together with affirming a belief in God. Spinoza’s ‘pantheism’ had equated God the Creator with mechanical nature. Kant’s concept of knowledge was different to this. He tried to communicate in vain the importance of the idea that God could not be other than a moral and a logical concept. But for Counter-Enlightenment luminaries like Jacobi, Hamann, Herder and others, like Hegel, this was mere fakery. Instead of Kant’s liberating notion communicating to these atavistic figures a universalism God had never previously been granted in the history of Christianity, the fact that the notion came in the form of abstract reasoning repelled them. They had to bring God back as a real metaphysical being.
The Counter-Enlightenment couldn’t understand that by going down this road, God becomes derivative of the human imagination. The roots of this angst, namely that traditionally their God had always taken human form, was all-consuming, however. For Hegel, the grand master of the Counter-Enlightenment, a philosopher must be able to conceive of God’s will, as the Absolute, in terms of the unfolding patterns of history. For Kant, this is not at all possible. It can only be the case that teleological knowledge is possible if it is recognised, as he says in the Critique of the Power of Judgement, that any such attempt is purely perspectival, from the individual philosopher’s point of view – it cannot have absolute validity (Kant AA: 20:212). God can only be the ens realissimum, a logical concept expressing the world of infinite possibilities, a beyond the capacities of individual human beings to conceive in its entirety. It is thus a world of freedom which breaks the boundaries of slavish traditionalism and on Kant’s view must be the true basis of the Aufklärung.
It is based on this notion of the world freedom that Kant develops his ethics in the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, the Critique of Practical Reason and the Metaphysics of Morals. Although individuals cannot conceive of the world of infinite possibilities, a moral life is possible only if one existentially expends the effort to try to do so.
Those who backed the validity of philosophical speculation on the basis of ‘intellectual intuition’ (in the German idealist tradition of the Counter-Enlightenment) claimed objectivity for their speculations and were thus opting for a world of dogma over freedom. They couldn’t give up the idea that the external world ‘in of itself’ had absolute validity as a concept, thus charging (as in the case of Gottlob Schulze’s anonymous tract of 1792, which influenced Hegel) Kant’s philosophy to be subjective.
Kantian objectivity and moral knowledge: But for Kant, the sources of knowledge, and in particular the ‘rational’ source (the logical forms that our discursive abilities take), grants human individuals a species-wide level playing field which promises intersubjectivity. This intersubjectivity is the only type of objectivity possible, but it is sufficient to achieve knowledge. It also means that somehow human beings agree about what they know. While this is essentially an automatic (and internal) process in regards to the synthesis between the two Kantian sources of knowledge that provide us with our (physical) perception of the world, our moral decisions are qualitatively different in that they involve a social (and external) social discourse, which Kant called ‘dialectical’.
The process of moral knowledge is thus one of individual interaction. Kant was a fan of Rousseau. He essentially sees moral decisions as requiring that individuals seek to act according to principles which apply generally to everybody, so that no one can be called moral who consciously seeks special privileges. In moral terms, this comes back to the imperative of thinking in terms of God as the infinite world of possibilities. In political terms, it is Rousseau’s idea of the ‘general will’, where the individual gives himself to the whole.
As a recipe for achieving social justice the ‘general will’ as a political idea is lacking. It is difficult to see how the ‘general will’ is to prevail practically over special interests. Rousseau finds it difficult to reconcile the parts with the whole, and individuals with society. He seeks his solution in the imposition of the ‘general will’ on society through its interpretation by an outside authority in order to ‘transform each individual… into a part of the greater whole’ (Rousseau The Social Contract II: VII). He calls this authority the ‘Legislator’, and it seems to come to life in the person of Napoleon. But as quickly as Napoleon is hailed as the ‘liberator’ by the likes of Beethoven and Hegel, he is then also seen as the ‘destroyer’.
A similar ambivalence about Rousseau also afflicts Kant. Despite his positive feelings about the Frenchman, Kant finds in his work some ‘peculiar and contradictory opinions, opposed to what generally viable’ (Kuehn 2001: 132). As he develops he own ideas, he sticks with Rousseau’s notion that self-determination and acting on one’s true will is the basic idea of freedom, where this is realised in virtue of the search for the universal, and the commitment to the whole. However, the source of the determination to thus commit is recognised in Kant, not by positing an external ‘legislator’, but through the rational self. Kant’s vision is then of a rational being applying its capacity for rational judgement in an empirical environment, and in so doing, interacting dynamically with all other rational beings, in a world merely of possibilities, in order to seek the series of temporary accommodations which are those universals that shape our bodies politic.
The ‘general will’ cannot provide any positive moral content, which is not the outcome of a process. In fact, that the ‘general will’ must be the outcome of a process must become the fundamental character to political systems consisting of rational beings and the justification of democratic systems in general. There cannot on this basis be any principles that pre-empt the principle of democracy as a deliberative social activity, for according to Kant even the supreme moral law as an organising principle emerges from within such deliberations for “The very existence of reason depends upon this freedom, which has no dictatorial authority, but whose claim is never anything more than the agreement of free citizens...” (Kant AA: A738/B766).
Nietzsche at the end of the Counter-Enlightenment: The Counter-Enlightenment or the Sturm und Drang tradition, as launched by Hamann in his Socratic Memorabilia, was to take a stand against Kant’s rationality and its anthropogenic thesis. It was at once empirical and spiritual, such that individual subjective creativity, both linguistically and artistically, expressed the will of God through the senses. Where for Kant faith existed logically because God was not conceivable rationally, for Hamann faith was the complete opposite to this: an emotional experience in the Pietistic evangelical tradition which transcends reason because of the subjection of the individual will to divine providence. Needless to say, Kant had been brought up in the Pietistic tradition of Prussia but, despite his respect for his parents, its tenets had left him cold.
For Hamann, poetic language and art had metaphysical significance, and transcended reason in their interpretation of nature. Nietzsche as a student was to be strongly attached to this idea. However, after failing in his search (in the early 1870s when he wrote The Birth of Tragedy) for an original Ursprache and an Ur-eine (language of nature) in music, refuses thereafter to accept any idea of art or language as representing a fundamental truth in and of nature, in other words outside ourselves (Benes 2008: 262). Nietzsche’s explosive style is deceptive, and his criticisms of Kant and praises of Schopenhauer are totally misleading. He actually respects Kant’s epistemic constraints and, rejecting the basic tenets of Sturm und Drang, does not ultimately present us with any kind metaphysical theory He respects Kant’s epistemic constraints (Grimm 1947; Doyle 2001). In fact, he goes further. He takes the human weakness for metaphysics – for the belief in ‘laws of nature’ – as his problematic.
However, unlike Kant, Nietzsche does not see rationality as possessing any meaning which is not originally couched in language. This student of philology turned philosopher does not accept that human beings interact by thinking in a classically rational way. That would be too convenient. Rational deliberation is replaced by the process of human speech and dialogue, and the process of a Kantian ‘agreement between citizens’ is no longer a straightforward concept. For Nietzsche, it is not knowledge which is anthropogenic but language. It is language as a human construct that forms our individual consciousness, and in turn defines what is possible in terms of social outcomes. This foreshadows the literature emerging from the Wason selection test (Wason 1966, 1968; Wason and Johnson-Laird 1972), which shows that while normal intelligent subjects are quite happy ex post, to ascribe normative value to classical logical solutions to problems, in fact such subjects do not reason logically ex ante because their reasoning is depends on the semantic context.
The crucial point is that the linguistic medium of communication has to be understood as manufactured and therefore significant to our way of thinking. It cannot simply be taken as a given. All truth, he tells us, is a ‘movable host of metaphors, metonymies, and; anthropomorphisms: in short, a sum of human relations which have been poetically and rhetorically intensified, transferred, and embellished…” (Nietzsche, On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense, §1). In it is in this sense then that morality is ‘invented’ and the delusion arises of that ‘involuntary nature of the figures and similes [which] seems to present itself as the readiest, the truest, and simplest means of expression” (Nietzsche, Ecce Homo Ch. IX). What is delusory then is the Sturm und Drang idea of art and language as an expression of the will of a deity.
So this very fact – the fact that we as human beings create language, that it is not an artistic reflection of the Deity, and thus a prior metaphysical given, becomes the central problem for Nietzsche. The ‘death of God’ refrain which first appears in the Gay Science in 1882 is the end not just of traditionalism, but also of the ‘Romantic’ period of the Sturm und Drang. It is as if he were an Aufklärer in the eighteenth century German Enlightenment and a contemporary of Kant, that he tells us to stand on our own two feet. Unlike Kant, however, Nietzsche is pessimistic: he believes that not all men are equally educated or capable of participating in this process.
It is significant that at the beginning of the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant optimistically assumes a ‘ripened power of judgment’ in all his readers from the very start. And yet in one of his very last works – called Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View – Kant recognises the problem of education, when he says that ‘the problem of moral education for our species remains unsolved’ (Kant AA: 7:327).
So the prophet Zarathustra, whom Nietzsche closely identifies with, comes down from his mountain to try and educate the common man. He calls the common man the ‘Last Man’ (letzte Mensch), the straggler, as it were. He says of him: Behold I shall show you the Last Man! What is love? What is creation? What is longing? What is a star? Thus asks the Last Man and blinks” (Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Zarathustra’s prologue, §5). The common man in his opinion will not be able to answer all the big questions. Language as form and morality as content are created for him by the educators. The stuff of the individual consciousness is manufactured by the supermen or Übermenschen. Zarathustra departs back up the mountain after the lesson with a glint in his eye, asking his students whether they think he might have deceived them. The point is that they really should try to think for themselves.
Nietzsche thus brings us the whole world of ideology, of 19th century nationalisms, including Zionism and National Socialism, of 20th century ideologies including different Islamic currents such as Twelver Shiism and Wahhabism, and the persuasion culture of the élitist media and state intelligence services, which manipulate these ideologies. The manipulation it must be said comes in different forms. For instance, Islamic ideological currents are manipulated both by Islamic states and by Western crypto-ideologies such as neo-conservatism. Western so-called democracies are ‘managed’ by élites (Wolin 2008), and this takes place at a fundamental level where language itself is influenced at a fundamental level and ‘saturated with manipulated images and the idiom of mass culture’ (Hedges 2009).
Nietzsche’s warning: Nietzsche thus predicts a roiling world of inequality and of élitism far removed from the genteel and tranquil egalitarian environment of Kant’s rational morality. It is for this reason that Nietzsche is the philosopher par excellence of the Liberal Age.
It is only at this point that the unfolding of European thought through the Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment, as a self-conscious understanding of the human condition, catches up with the facts on the ground – as it were – in terms of the dark realities of Voltairian thought (and, as described further on, also the dark realities of the much earlier thought of John Locke).
The manner in which Nietzsche’s supermen turn into an exploitative ‘class’, mirrors Voltaire’s freeloading across the aristocratic houses of Europe and his education of their incumbents to realize their potential, in Nietzsche’s words, as ‘the future ‘masters of the earth’; a new, tremendous aristocracy, based on the severest self-legislation, in which the will of philosophical men of power and artist-tyrants will be made to endure for millennia — a higher kind of man who, thanks to their superiority in will, knowledge, riches, and influence, employ democratic Europe as their most pliant and supple instrument for getting hold of the destinies of the earth’ (Nietzsche, Will to Power IV, ¶ 960).
Nietzsche associates ‘democratic Europe’ with Bismarck’s Empire (Nietzsche, Human All-too Human I, ¶ 472; Lukács 1952: 324). But Nietzsche is impatient with Bismarck’s leadership and his plodding narrow-mindedness – like that of a ‘farmer or a private recruit’ – which failed to understand the German bourgeoisie’s growing aspirations and desire for imperialistic expansion. This explains Nietzsche’s later diatribes against Bismarck, and his precept of ‘a break with the English principle of popular representation: it is the big interests which, he thinks, need to be represented (Lukács 1952: 340).
On Nietzsche’s view, Bismarck failed to understand the coming of an era of great wars “… there will be wars such as there have never yet been on earth. Only since I came on the scene has there been great politics on earth” (Nietzsche, Ecce Homo XIV: Why I am a Destiny, ¶1). However, this is not about a ‘German’ destiny as such, but an international one – the destiny of the masters of the earth: ‘… Europe would have to make up its mind… TO ACQUIRE ONE WILL, by means of a new caste to rule over the Continent, a persistent, dreadful will of its own, that can set its aims thousands of years ahead’ (Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, VI, We Scholars ¶208).
Whilst the Hungarian philosopher Gyorgy Lukács sees Nietzsche as politically motivated, bellicose and élitist, this idea is developed by many other commentators (Abbey and Appel 1998, Appel 1999, Dombowsky 2004). It is, however, Nietzsche’s interpretation of the consequences of what he sees as the desperate nature of the human condition. Nietzsche, or rather Zarathustra the educator, is nevertheless still present in the midst of all this injustice. When the letzte Mensch – the common man – finally grasps the ideational fact that he must stand on his own two feet, that morality is invented, and that he must grasp the nettle, only then is justice possible.
As Nietzsche says in a revealing passage: “The entire past of old culture was erected upon force… but we, the heirs and inheritors of these past things cannot decree our own abolition. The disposition to injustice inhabits the souls of the non-possessors too, they are no better than the possessors and have no moral prerogative over them. What is needed is not a forcible redistribution but a gradual transformation of mind: the sense of justice must grow greater in everyone, the instinct for violence weaker” (Nietzsche, Human, All too Human, I, ¶ 452)
<<THE IMPERIAL SYSTEM>>
We can now go on to discuss how Nietzsche’s explanation about European liberal society having an essentially élitist and imperialist character resonates with the historical facts. Furthermore, an inquiry into these facts uncovers how Voltaire’s grandstanding against political and religious traditionalism as the self-proclaimed agenda of the Liberal Age is deceptive. The Liberal Age actually rolls into our historical sights on the back of an imperial system, which had begun with the ‘Restoration Settlement’ in Britain in 1688 between the government of the King and the English aristocratic families, and which was canonised by the English liberal philosopher, John Locke.
This political settlement formed the basis for the rise of Britain as an imperial power, until this ended in a major conflagration between the European powers in 1914 (WWI). Britain, France and (up until the Bolshevik revolution also) Russia, fought a Germany which was allied with Austria-Hungary, whose intellectual classes had increasingly supported German nationalism in the second half of the nineteenth century.
A second imperial epoch would begin thereafter, but this epoch belonged to America. That the devastating shock dealt to the British system by WWI led seamlessly to the transfer of imperial power to America, says much about the nature of the British Empire. Until recently, its nature had consistently been misrepresented by past historians.
The key to understanding how the British Empire functioned is to begin with the fact that, by the early nineteenth century, Britain was a divided society. Geoffrey Ingham called it a ‘capitalism divided’, where two economic sectors, represented on the one hand by industrial, and on the other, by commercial and financial capital, co-existed without any connections to each other whatsoever within a common imperial framework. Not only did commercial and financial capital in the City of London predate the emergence of industrial capital in the eighteenth century, but it would always remain the leading sector (Ingham 1984: 97).
The commercial power of Holland declined during the Napoleonic Wars, as the French exacted war reparations from the Dutch and then drove their financial sector to ruin through an unprecedented series of debt defaults. This meant that after the allied victory at Waterloo in 1815 led by the British, an urgent need arose for a clearinghouse with global scope to service multilateral trade transactions in the context of the sharply segmented political world which arose thereafter. This function transferred immediately from Amsterdam to the City of London, which had previously only really been a satellite of Holland’s commercial empire.
Financial power and the imperial system: This new financial centre in London expanded rapidly. Tony Hopkins and Peter Cain elaborated on evidence they found which suggested that what they called “Britain’s extraordinary and wide-ranging presence overseas” was driven by an entirely different class in society to the class of industrial capitalists in the Midlands and the North of England, who represented the ‘producing’ sector of the British economy (Cain and Hopkins 1987: 18).
They found that it was the export of capital by a money-creating élite in the South of England, and the ancillary commercial services they often, which produced most of the country’s surplus and who represented the ‘consuming’ sector of the British economy. They created the international trade opportunities that allowed manufactures to grow in the first place, and they did this in the symbiotic relationship with the British state, which had been founded on the political structures of ‘Restoration Settlement’. It was this that represented the foundations of British global power.
The misinterpretation of British imperial history, which was ultimately debunked by Hopkins and Cain, had primarily been a consequence of the overwhelming historiographical influence over decades of the writings of Marxist historians in the tradition of John Hobson and Vladimir Lenin. These historians tended to explain the nature of British Imperialism from the erroneous premise of Britain as an essentially industrial rather than financial power.
This blind spot originated in Marx’s idea of the “tearing away of the veils” in Das Kapital, the purpose of which had been to “demystify capitalism”, with its failure to focus on the crucial importance of the credit-creation process in the economy, and its undue emphasis on industrial relations. Whilst, in some posthumously published papers called Outline of the Critique of Political Economy, Marx had actually begun to address the deficiencies of his original theory, this was to have no impact on the mainstream Marxist doctrine subsequently promulgated by Friedrich Engels and his successors.
To understand the financial nature of British imperial power is then to be able to explain the ease with which America suddenly became the imperial centre after WWI. There was a seamless continuity to the shift in power despite the suddenness of the events, essentially because of the fungibility of financial assets and also because, it doesn’t take much to move a bank’s head office to any location that might have developed the basic clerical skills necessary to maintain ledgers. New York had always been an offshoot Britain’s financial empire, and because its financial institutions were led by the same élites as ran the City of London, the global imperial network merely shifted its centre of gravity, in a manner not dissimilar to what had occurred after the decline of Holland.
Furthermore, to understand the financial nature of the capitalism of the Liberal Age, as it was manifested in the British Empire and as it came to be manifested in American hegemony, is also to grasp the true nature of the social processes of exploitation, subjugation and alienation. These are the political and social outcomes of this narrow form of capitalism, where corporate accounting goals replace social objectives. It is a Marxist myth that social systems are subject to fixed categories, and that any ‘capitalist stage’ must always takes a specific industrial form. Theoretically, production processes do not have pre-determined phylogenetic structures independent of the will of society, and can be organised around broad social objectives if deemed appropriate and necessary. The production systems we have become used to are the product of the nature of financial capitalism.
What we see today in the structure of our production processes is the impact of financial capitalism on our production processes, something in fact inherited through the American experience. The technology and organization of business in America was largely determined by the conditions of late nineteenth-century economic retardation (Livingston 1987). The control of skilled workers over machine production had come about during a period in which a rapid rise in real wages occurred that had to be broken, in order for business owners to survive the recessionary circumstances (Livingston 1987: 79-81). It wouldn’t be the bargaining power of labour (on the supply side) that determined the aggressive stance of business towards it, however. It would in fact be the dramatic technological progress in the areas of transport and communication that changed the marketplace (on the demand side) and caused massive competitive pressures on regional oligopolies. This is what ultimately drove businesses to both pursue labour-saving technologies and to seek to cartelize markets (Cheffins 2002: 5-6).
The first attempts of business leaders at cartelization through the railroad companies and through the ‘trust’ system failed. The larger conglomerates eventually succeeded in achieving a hidden form of cartelization through the control of finance by way of the boardrooms of the national banks in America (White 2011: 51-2). While in Britain the expansion of the financial sector in the global trading arena had permitted the growth of manufacturing, it had not determined the structure of industrial corporations. Family control of company ownership continued in the British case. In the US, on the other hand, by turn of the twentieth century, merger mania would cause the separation of ownership and control, with control falling to management (Cheffins 2002: 1). This was the first condition for the control of production by finance.
But in turn management’s independence could only be exercised through access to finance. The parcelised equity environment that securitization and the development of the stock market produced during the merger mania years had broken the hold shareholders had over corporations. But also and to a far greater extent, there was the creation of debt in the banking system. This is was what gave bank boardrooms ultimate power in the American economy, especially after its consolidation with the creation of the Federal Reserve in 1913, when the power of money creation was fully invested in the national banks, which represented America’s most successful private sector conglomerates. This was the second condition for the control of production by finance.
This confluence of events in late 19th century/ early 20th century America, which defined the nature of the new American corporation, would be the first major revolution in the structure of the modern economy since the 18th century creation of the joint-stock company and the factory system. When we talk of ‘mass production’ here, it is important to recognise that the conditions of the period of retardation pushed technological change in the direction of labour-saving rather than labour-enhancing devices, because of the particular circumstances.
Corporate Liberalism and the modern political environment: In Britain, the sharp divide between the industrial and financial sectors reflected itself in the equally sharp ideological divide over the conception of the just society, leading to a polarization in the political field absent from the American experience.
However, the British élites –the ‘consuming’ sector in the south of the country, which consisted of an old aristocracy which had either moved or married into the banking sector – managed, with their firm hold over Church and State, to win over the rising middle classes away from any class coalition with the radical democrats among the workers. As Thomas Arnold, headmaster of Rugby public school, wrote: “In no country… do the professions so naturally and generally share the cast of ideas of the aristocracy as in England” (Wiener 2004: 16).
So this was an ideological mindset firmly rooted in the educational system (Becher 1986: 97), and programmed into all political reform (Mueller 1984: 233). To the extent that Utilitarian ideas had driven middle-class intellectuals, by the 1830s and for the rest of the century Coleridge’s anti-democratic ideas captured all the best minds at Oxford and Cambridge and in the Church (Gowan 1987: 69). However, the co-opting by the élites of the middle-classes would still leave a radical workers movement as politically active element within Britain; an element which the élites would appease from time to time, as for instance in post-war Churchillian governments.
The American experience was different – it was more monadic, less Manichean. It was this experience that would ultimately shape our modern political environment. The absence of historically entrenched state and church structures in America meant that a new business élite arose there for which the field was open for the takeover of power. The American legal system played a crucial role in this process. American judges, following the revolutionary period, promoted social welfare, not through ideas of general equity, but by fostering individual entrepreneurial activity (Horwitz 1977). Corporations, for instance, would eventually win cases such as Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad Company in 1886, which gave them the same rights as individuals under the 14th amendment (Korten 2000: 185-6).
By the turn of the 20th century, with cartelization occurring through the centralization of finance, and the surrender of the power of monetization to private interests, corporations ruled. Their reforms of American society, which were all-encompassing, came to be known ‘the corporate reconstruction of America’ (Sklar 1988), and the social and political system which was established was called ‘corporate liberalism’ (Kolko 1977, Weinstein 1968). In this regard, the title of Gabriel Kolko’s book The Triumph of Conservatism, A Reinterpretation of American History spoke of yet another historiographical revolution, where the American Left’s proprietary claims on the American social system as it emerged into the post-war world, were debunked. In fact, ‘corporate liberalism’ had completely marginalised the kind of socialist trends common in Europe through their participation in the very design of American social security and welfare provision.
The spreading influence of this American corporate culture over the world from WWII onwards, which gained momentum in the 1980s, would come to be called ‘neo-liberalism’. Since this culture dominated the state in America, it would be inevitable that it would ultimately spell the end of the traditional Westphalian State in Europe, and of the state in general in Asia, through multi-lateral trade deals. The European Union project being as it was driven by European corporations, which post-war were increasingly being modelled on the American model, became a crucial platform for the expansion of the American corporation itself. It must be evident by now to even the casual observer that EU structures are corporate rather than democratic.
<<THE FOUNDATIONS OF IMPERIALISM AND CAPITALISM IN SLAVERY>>
If it is financial capitalism which ultimately defines the Liberal Age, its roots lie in the slave trade, whose immense profitability it was that made the financial and commercial sector the dominant economic sector in Britain in the first place, preceding the emergence of industrial capital.
Slavery as a systematic commercial enterprise was successively developed by the three protestant cultures of Holland, Britain and America: the three cultures that successively developed the imperial system, between whose financial capitals the baton of world dominance was passed. Previously in the16th century Spain had been the world’s superpower, controlling both the Netherlands and much of Italy. Its occupying forces were based in those two geographical zones, and although some of its finances were channeled through Genoa to fund this occupation, most of it was channeled through Amsterdam. The subsequent independence of the Dutch Republic and the decline of Italy under tight Spanish control, resulted from the Thirty Years War. This ended in the Treaty of Westphalia (1648), which consolidated the ‘new European order’ of protestant/liberal and catholic/authoritarian sovereign states.
In regard to Holland, Britain and America, Domenico Losurdo reminds us that these “countries that were the protagonists of three major liberal revolutions were simultaneously the authors of two tragic chapters in modern (and contemporary) history” (Losurdo 2014: 27).
On the one hand, there was the marginalisation and demonisation of American Indians, initiated not by the lower and more ignorant orders amongst the populations of those three cultures, but by the very philosophers and statesmen that were shaping them. For example, Hugo Grotius, John Locke and George Washington would all call American Indians, ‘wild beasts’, in their various writings.
Then there was the matter of slavery. Slavery had been a common feature of human society since classical times. In Rome, Greece, China, and Russia, as well as in the Islamic world, records show that slavery was a general human condition. However, slaves were traditionally drawn from the societies in which they lived, barring the enslavement of war captives, and all quite frequently acquired their freedom, and often even high social status, with no enduring social stigma (Finley 1980, Dursteler 2006: 72). They often even provided society’s leaders (Segal 2001: 31).
The ‘chattel’ slavery developed by the British, was of an entirely different character to this. This was systematic commercial exploitation, which excluded slaves from society and allocated them exclusively to the industrial process, which started, not at the time of Spanish dominance of the American trade, but after this had been challenged and in the 17th century (Blackburn 1997: 9-10). Robin Blackburn calls ‘ancillary’ the kind of Spanish and Portuguese slavery which was aimed at repopulating empire to strengthen its society and ‘systemic’, the type of ‘chattel’ slavery organised by the British along entirely industrial lines (Blackburn 1988: 9-11). The English philosopher of liberalism, John Locke, was central to the development of the idea of ‘chattel’ slavery. He contributed directly to the writing of the laws that gave absolute authority over Negro slaves to white plantation owners in Virginia (Locke 1993, 230; Armitage 2004: 609).
Locke develops his arguments for slavery, as a righteous exercise of “despotical power” against which there can be “no right of resistance”. This appears in the text of the Two Treatises on Government, which is the foremost political statement of ‘classical’ liberalism and a major influence on Thomas Jefferson, and his drafting of the US Declaration of Independence (Nyquist 2013: 329-345, Becker 1922: 25). The place of chattel slavery at the very foundation of the political culture of the world’s ‘greatest democracy’, which continues to be reflected in the racism in modern American society (Finley 1980), has been of continuing embarrassment to ideologues of the neo-conservative movement.
In order for ideologues of that movement, such as Bernard Lewis, to ‘weaponise’ liberal ideology, and establish its moral superiority over Islamic society for their imperialist projects, it has been necessary from them to burnish the humanism and democracy of ‘liberal values’ (Lewis 1990). For this purpose, claims that American slavery was a ‘peculiar institution’ in the overall context of American political culture (see Stampp 1956) are resorted to. However, not only does the exceptional nature of the systematic commercialization of Anglo-American slavery make a mockery of this spin, but the very fact of the intellectual systemization of the idea by liberalism’s philosophers, such as Locke, demolishes these attempts at whitewashing the history of slavery.
The argument that if there were any ‘peculiarity’ about the institution of slavery in the context of American democracy, this quality must be attributed to the abolition rather than the creation of the institution (for this argument see Patterson 1982: vii). But a careful look at the history of abolitionism makes a mockery of any such attempts. According to Eric Williams in Capitalism and Slavery, ending slavery was a process actually driven by economic change, not by moral awareness. The infrastructure for industrialisation had been built by the slaver economy, but the slave trade became unattractive in itself, when domestic industrial production began to grow. New markets for industrial goods had to be found, especially after American independence, as the Caribbean islands left to Britain were small declining colonies, with frequent slave rebellions (Williams 1943: 39, 120). Much debate followed on this thesis, but Robin Blackburn’s analysis in The Making of New World Slavery showed Williams’ conclusions to be sound (Blackburn 1997).
Ending slavery was a slow process. At first there was the abolition of the slave trade by itself (in Britain in 1807), while the slavery in the plantations continued unchanged in the British West Indies until the late 1830s, and in the larger scale Southern US plantations, up until the civil war in 1865.
Slavery was immensely profitable and was the cornerstone of the imperial system of trade in the eighteen century, which took slaves from Africa to the Americas and brought back the commodities and raw materials from there, which British and European society needed. The industrial revolution was financed by the proceeds from slavery. When full emancipation of the slaves came after the abolition of the slave trade, an indication of the importance of slavery revenues for the pensions of the British upper classes, was that £20m, a sum equivalent in 1838 to 22% of GDP, was distributed as compensation for the lost revenues from slavery, by Parliamentary Act, over several hundred British families (British Parliamentary Papers: 1837–38). From this, we can see how it was the immense profitability of the slave trade that made the financial and commercial sector the dominant economic sector in Britain in the first place, preceding the emergence of industrial capital.
The liberal counter-culture and Liberalism’s ‘system’: What emerges from the experience of British-American chattel slavery is a social reaction which forms the basis of the big ‘Liberal Idea’. Radicals like William Garrison, egalitarian Christian sects such as the Quakers on both sides of the Atlantic, philosophical circles in France, campaigners in England like Granville Sharp and William Wilberforce, Scottish thinkers like Adam Smith and his disciple John Millar, and the English Utilitarians represented a highly diverse universe of thinkers, writers and activists that was united over the question of slavery. These are the principal figures and movements normally associated with liberalism, and their stance on the enslavement of human beings, as a specific social activity, gains traction as a generalised and reified notion of individual freedom.
However, this Liberal Idea ends up carrying a fatal contradiction, which is exposed in debates amongst the English Utilitarians. The 1789 Declaration of the rights of Man and of the Citizen, announced during the French Revolution, came to be a totemic document of liberalism. It outlines the unilateral rights ‘possessed’ by individuals. Jeremy Bentham, however, attacked this idea. He thought that the notion of giving every individual unilateral ‘rights’ without taking account of their social obligations was seriously flawed (Bentham 1796). John Stuart Mill nonetheless, in On Liberty – which, if any work has subsequently acquired the role of ‘liberal manifesto’, it is probably this one – doesn’t understand the importance of Bentham’s point (Mill 1859). Individuals, for J S Mill, are best left altogether untrammeled by the exigencies of society.
Actually, the French Revolution and the 1789 Declaration embodies that 18th century Voltairian anti-traditionalism and anti-clericalism which rides in on a wave of capitalist impatience with the old structures, and which expresses itself in that iconoclastic idiom that is now part and parcel of the Liberal brand. The central problem that ensues is then contained in liberalism’s Millian contradiction: namely that, on the one hand, there are no obligations on the new idol-bashers and that, in the revolutionary fray, the beneficiaries of the destruction of the old and the negative liberty that ensues, will be those individuals with the power and money to assert themselves, in other words all of Voltaire’s friends and acquaintances. In Nietzsche’s words, it is these people who will form ‘the master race’ and ‘create morality’.
What is only clear to us with the benefit our historical perspective, was that the fight against the evil of chattel slavery was not a fight against tradition, but against the innovations of the master race: a system promoted by the leaders of the liberal revolutionary cultures of Holland, Britain and America. If the thinkers, writers and activists united against slavery were not fighting tradition but innovation, therefore, these people of conscience can only really be described as constituting a ‘counter-culture’ to Liberalism’s mainstream. One might term this system of exploitation simply as Liberalism’s ‘system’. If Liberalism as an idea was about rebellion against religion, for instance, this was predicated as much on the need of its ‘system’ to dismantle the ethical-societal bonds that religion represented, as on a confrontation with the political power of the church. In America, where the church was not powerful, this fact would be plain for all to see. Religion became incompatible with liberalism’s ‘system’ because it imposed moral constraints on slave-owning capitalists, who objected to any interference in their pursuit of profit (Losurdo 2014: 38-39). In Virginia, cases were brought before the courts between 1650 and 1667 on behalf of various African slaves, where freedom was claimed on the grounds that the individuals concerned had been baptised into Christianity. This immediately led to new legislation by the State Assembly to close the loophole (Frederickson 1981: 78).
The benefit of hindsight that our historical perspective gives us, allows us to see how deceptive the process and impact of abolition really was in the society of its day. Williams’ point about the fact that ending slavery was a process actually driven by economic change, rather than by moral awareness, is an important. Liberalism deceived itself on the count that the ‘modern’ post-traditional age could exorcise its own demons, giving rise to a false sense of moral superiority. This was unfortunate, because it led to a continuation of the system of exploitation after abolition experience (Williams 1943). After Negro emancipation, British plantation owners imported East Indians to replace the Negroes, the English industrial workforce was brutally mistreated, and the Boer Wars were launched and systematic colonisation followed which brutalised Africa.
As Christopher Hill writes in Reformation to Industrial Revolution: “Inevitably those who looked upon black labourers in the West Indies as chattels would extend this attitude to white labour in England. The slave trade also had deep and lasting effects on relations between England and the extra-European world” (Hill 1967: 229-230). Not only were the end of the ‘putting-out’ system and the rise of factories influenced by the experience of the phenomenal profitability of slavery, but the aspirational culture at the very core of liberalism would arise out of the Georgian excesses that were only possible because of it. Hill quotes Richard Pares, the famous historian of the West Indies, on this count: “When I think of the colossal banquets of the Barbados planters, of the money which the West Indians at home poured out upon the Yorkshire electorate and Harriette Wilson, of the younger William Beckford’s private orchestra and escapades in Lisbon, of Fonthill Abbey or even of the Codringron Library, and remember that the money was got by working African slaves twelve hours a day on such a [starvation] diet, I can only feel anger and shame”.
The Myth of Liberalism: Liberalism has never really come to grips with its own nature as a counter-culture within the exploitative (capitalist) system which defines this ‘modern’ post-traditional age, this… ‘Liberal Age’. It has, therefore, on the whole developed as a culture which criticises society from the sidelines, but is rarely if ever actually reformative of the ‘system’ in any fundamental sense. If we look at the great reforms that have come down historically as turning points in the Liberal Age, we find that they never came out of a studied desire to bring justice to the people, but out of a need to rescue the capitalist system from crisis, as we see in the cases of the British liberal reforms of 1906-16 (Hay 1983: 62; Windschuttle 1999: 82), and the American New Deal reforms of the period 1933-9 (Brinkley 1989).
The emergence of liberalism is thus seeped in obfuscation and the deception over its origins ends up perpetuating a narrative of conscience and justice which is little more than empty talk, but which enables the politicians of the dominant liberal nations and the ideologues of imperialism, amongst both neo-conservatives and liberal internationalists to posture and to attack the traditionalism of non-Western, especially Islamic, societies. The latter have been ‘fair game’ for the liberal intelligentsia ever since the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire in WWI, and have provided rich pickings for the Liberal ‘system’.
The inability of the narrative of conscience central to Liberalism’s Idea to form an effective political force, despite the good intentions of some, is predicated on the nature of Liberal’s political system. The narrative itself represents, therefore, what can justifiably be called the ‘Myth of Liberalism’. It is not perchance that in the latest ‘neo-liberal’ phase of the ‘Liberal Age’, that there has been an appeal by ideologues to Lockean ‘classical liberalism’. The expression of ‘classical’ liberalism as an assertion of self-government by civil society, was originally hegemonised by slaveholders. It was a political system narrowly defined to prioritise the rights of élites. This ‘exclusionary’ notion for the political system was reflected, in Locke’s time, in its de facto monopolization by adult white male property owners. John Locke’s de juro notion of a ‘political system’ is developed in his Treatises on Government by differentiating it from a concurrent ‘state of nature’, to which are relegated such as are not formally part of the ‘social contract’ like aliens, children, and non-property holders (Locke 1690: 2.2.9, 15, 60). For Locke, legitimate government is peculiar to a set of particular relationships in society, and can thus to be said to be an exclusionary concept (Simmons 2014: 19-21).
Losurdo describes how, ever since Locke, political convulsions in the West have taken the form of ‘the struggle for recognition’ for the ‘excluded’ (Losurdo 2014: 184). The social contract has been expanded to include the previously marginalised in a series of accommodations, involving the breakdown of the political process into a series of single issues which can be statistically managed, and the perpetuation of power for the élites through voting systems that control candidate selection and allow governments to be elected by a minority of the electorate.
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