New series: liberalism in neoliberal times – dimensions, contradictions, limits

Today we launch a new series, curated by Goldsmiths in partnership with OurKingdom, on liberalism in neoliberal times. Liberalism was undoubtedly conceived as an emancipatory project, one which duly recognized the value and dignity of the individual. However, from its very inception, this model of social interaction has been fraught by terrible contradictions. In our neoliberal times, its legacy should be critically assessed more than ever.


Raymond Williams once suggested that the term ‘liberal has, at first sight, so clear a political meaning that some of its further associations are puzzling”. This, as Williams demonstrated, is partly because the word itself has a long and fascinating history that dates back to the 14th century. The original uses of ‘liberal’ were mostly positive. Liberal was a mark of distinction, a free man in contradistinction with those who were not; liberal arts was a reference to skills appropriate for men who had means and status; Liberal also came to be defined as generous, open-minded and unorthodox. The distinction, from its very first usage, was all about class, privilege and status. However, ‘liberal’ also had, and still retains, negative meanings. For example, cultural and social conservatives still associate ‘liberal’ with unrestrained and undisciplined attitudes and behaviour. Taking liberties is pejorative, as is a ‘liberal’ reading/attitude to facts and figures.

In the realm of politics the term is just as complex and puzzling. On the one hand, being ‘liberal’ has been seen and regarded as being open-minded, progressive or even radical, while, on the other hand, liberals are attacked for either being insufficiently radical (from the left) or being too ‘progressive’ (such as in the US). The prevailing definition of liberalism (as an ideology, political philosophy and tradition) has traditionally revolved around tolerance, progress, humanitarianism, objectivity, respect for and promotion of reason, democracy, human rights, etc. To be considered a ‘liberal’ (in this sense) can still be seen as a positive thing. Yet despite receiving a very good press throughout its history, liberalism has also been subject to passionate and sustained critiques by the left and the illiberal. For the latter, liberalism has gone too far; for the former, it has never gone far enough. Williams, however, cautions that regarding ‘concerns with political freedom’ as the dividing line between socialists and liberals,

masks the most serious sense of the socialist use, which is the historically accurate observation that liberalism is a doctrine based on individualist theories of man and society and is thus in fundamental conflict not only with socialist but with most strictly social theories. The further observation, that liberalism is the highest form of thought developed within bourgeois society and in terms of capitalism is also relevant, for when liberal is not being used as a loose swear-word, it is to this mixture of liberating and limiting ideas that it is intended to refer. Liberalism is then a doctrine of certain necessary kinds of freedom but also, and essentially, a doctrine of possessive individualism.

The variety of uses and connotations certainly makes sweeping generalisation about liberals and liberalism impossible. Yet the seed of contradictions was visible from the very first moment of liberalism: the strength of liberalism is also its main weakness. Williams is right to suggest that liberalism is, therefore, a combination of liberating and limiting ideas.

That liberalism was an emancipatory project is beyond doubt. Yet there were at least three major exclusion clauses in this project. Not only love for liberty but also contempt for people of the colonies, the working class and women more generally were factors that united liberal thinkers. In his book on liberalism, Domenico Losurdo reminds us that liberal thinkers – Locke, Smith and Franklin included – shared an enthusiasm for ‘a process of systematic expropriation and practical genocide first of the Irish and then of the Indians’, as well as for ‘black enslavement and the black slave trade’. The contradiction at the heart of liberalism also shows itself in a contradictory approach to ‘liberty’. Losurdo stresses that slavery was not something that preceded liberalism but rather fostered its maximum development after the success of liberal revolutions. In that sense the limitation of absolute power by liberal revolutions led to new and ‘unprecedented absolute power’ as the total slave population in the Americas increased from 330,000 in 1700 to 3 million in 1800 and then to over 6 million in the 1850s. The tangle of emancipation and enslavement also shows itself in the slogan of the rebel colonists during the America war of independence: ‘We won’t be their Negroes’.

Even for the most radical of liberal thinkers, John Stuart Mill, democracy was fit only for a ‘civilised’ community. ‘Despotism’, Mill asserted, ‘is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement, and the means justified by actually effecting that end’. Indeed, the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man said nothing about the rights of slaves or the people of the colonies, or women.  And the power of capital in the land of ‘barbarians’ came not through ‘peaceful competition’ (as is usually claimed) but through the barrel of a gun. The scars are still deep and still fresh. Slavery continued by other means in both the colonies and in the metropolis. The ideology of superiority and difference which underpins this barbarism is liberal in its origin and in its make-up. Contemporary versions of this thinking about freedom and democracy continue to evince a sense of superiority in which the liberals enforce ‘democracy’ upon the ‘less enlightened’, and this continues to be inextricably linked to questions of race and class. The love of freedom and liberty is indeed one that has all too often been easily sacrificed at the altar of the interests of capital and (imperial) states.

Liberty, for Mill as well as other liberals, was exclusive to those with ‘developed’ faculties. As such it was not just the ‘barbarians’, but also the native working class, the illiterates (that is, the majority) that were considered ineligible for the right to vote. Nothing was considered worse than giving representation (and the right to vote) to the working class, for it would give them the chance to negotiate for better wages and working conditions. The lack of freedom in colonies, therefore, was extended to the metropolis and issues of race and class intertwined from the start.

In short, liberty is narrowly defined in relation to and from only (a particular form of) state. Linked to this is another contradiction: the equation of liberalism with democracy.  Bobbio, who was on a (peaceful) mission to bring liberalism and the left closer together, argues that a ‘liberal state is not necessarily democratic’. Indeed, while liberalism is about ‘a particular conception of the state’, democracy ‘denotes one of the many possible modes of government’. Bobbio further suggests that the relationship between liberalism and democracy resolves itself into a more problematic relation between liberty and equality. The question, contrary to rigid liberal thought, has not  been simply about liberty or freedom, but precisely  about the nature and the definition of liberty itself: freedom from what and to do what.

Much of the history of liberalism has been about separating these two historic demands for liberty and equality. Throughout the history of modern times, and even in the most ‘liberal’ of societies, what has been lacking is precisely the broader sense of ‘liberal’. The US is a significant example. The fiasco of the 2000 presidential ‘election’ turned the anti-absolutist idea of separation of powers into a fiasco. The decision to invade Iraq, revelations about extraordinary renditions, surveillance of key members of the UN and major US allies have also shown the rule of law to be selective, if not a myth. At the times in which even the liberalism of liberal America has been tested to its limits after the terrorist attack of 9/11, and in the period in which the much celebrated First Amendment has been hijacked variously by corporate America, the gun lobby, and the Ku Klux Klan, rarely has the United States been so desperately in need of a simple touch of liberalism.

The relationship between economic and legal liberalism and the market fundamentalism advocated by neo-liberals is another contradictory and contested arena today.  If neo-liberalism is a political project at least as much as it is an economic theory, ideologically it is associated with a classically minimal liberal state, with the efficiency of ‘free markets’ as against the ponderous and wasteful outcome of state planned economies and nationalised industries that characterised Keynesian welfare states. In practice, however, neo-liberalism has been linked with increasingly authoritarian uses of state power – at home and abroad – and with re-regulation of the economy to protect financial capital rather than the de-regulation championed by advocates of neo-liberalism.  We have only to consider here the ‘bail out’ of banks that were ‘too big to fail’ following the financial crisis of 2008, and the violent repression of protests against ‘austerity measures’ demanded ‘by the global markets’ (more or less personified in the ‘EU’ and the ‘IMF’) that we continue to see played out in Greece.

And here lies a further contradiction. What has been considered as a beautiful dimension of liberalism, both in its longevity and its attachment to a basic welfare provision, the social democratic experiment has been an exception rather than the norm in capitalism. Yet even here, the exception was the result of pressure from below. Similarly, the struggles for democracy in the colonies and the metropolis came from outside liberalism. India became free not because of liberalism but in fierce opposition to it. The struggle for liberation and modernization also came as part of broader struggle for independence. The right to vote, welfare reforms and public services were gained through organized working class movements in the metropolis. It was not liberals but emerging radical movements that made those gains after forcing the liberals to retreat from their positions that saw the law of the market as the ‘divine’ law.

Yet liberalism remains a live question for radical movements today. The status and regulation of  ‘the state’ together with the role of the law in limiting the force of the police and military that is deployed to prevent protest and to protect the interests of the propertied continue to be major issues. For example, in Latin America, movements calling for human rights understand the need both to restructure states along more democratic lines and to restrict the use of coercive force against the people in ways that certainly echo the principles of political liberalism – though with a far greater degree of reflexivity concerning exclusions of class, gender and race. Popular uprisings against authoritarian regimes in Tunisia and Egypt in 2011 were characterized partly by notions of an ‘Arab Spring’ that could be seen as expressing a desire for liberal democracy but also a firm rejection of the liberal democracies that had longbacked these regimes. These uprisings laid to rest the myth of a ‘clash of civilisations’ but, since the re-establishment of authoritarian rule, we have also seen how wersten governments have continued to provide financial and military support to the most illiberal of states.

Liberals and liberalism remain, therefore, very relevant in contemporary neoliberal circumstances as sources of ideas and action. This series aims to provoke critical engagement with the theories, histories, practices and contradictions of liberalism today, in particular by taking specific contemporary topics as a way of assessing the transformations in, as well as the transformative aspects of, liberalism. We invite contributions that reflect on how liberalism – in all its forms – continues to underpin specific institutions such as the university, the ‘free press’ and the digital sphere and how these ideas are mobilised in areas such as human rights, minority rights and liberal political cultures. We may not agree on much but we can certainly agree that liberalism is simply too important to be left to the liberals.

You can see all the articles in the series so far here.
This artcile was written by Gholam Khiabany and was 
originally posted on


Tags: , ,


Share this Post