“Liberalism” is one of the most important terms in Anglo-American and, more broadly, Euro-American political and philosophical discourse. It derives from the English term “liberal,” which initially referred to a class of “free men” as opposed to the unfree—that is, people embedded within or bound by one or another form of socially restrictive hierarchy (Raymond Williams [1976] 1983, 179–81). “Liberalism” has never shed the class meanings and elitist connotations at its root and origin, in large part because it indexes tensions and ambiguities at the heart of what are now referred to as liberal-democratic nation-states. At the same time, the term “liberal” has also retained long-standing associations with universality, open-mindedness, and tolerance linked to an advocacy of individual freedom and an antipathy to socially determined, collectively defined forms of ascription. As such, it has had special purchase for scholars of US politics and culture, from Louis Hartz’s seminal critique in the 1950s to the contemporary affirmations of Michael Ignatieff, as intellectual assertions about a consistent and thoroughgoing liberalism generally underpin a discourse of American exceptionalism (Singh 2004).

Colloquial uses of the term “liberal” complicate efforts to understand liberalism as one of the foundational intellectual discourses of political modernity. The conventional usage of the term in the United States illustrates this clearly, as “liberals” have been under sustained attack by “conservatives” for the past thirty years for what is alleged to be a reckless disregard for traditional values and moral virtue and for a sentimental adherence to overly inclusive notions of human rights, political participation, economic distribution, and international norms. While these arguments reflect broad antinomies internal to the political history of liberalism, they also manifest a particular historical conjuncture in a much longer struggle over the prior meanings and future directions of a liberalism that is broadly shared across a spectrum of particular political positions.

Liberalism, in this larger sense, has been characterized by deep continuities as well as periodic revisions to the political, economic, and normative dimensions underlying its defining orientations. The latter can be summed up rather easily with reference to the Oxford English Dictionary, which defines liberalism as “respectful of individual rights and freedoms, favoring free trade and gradual political and social reform that tends toward individual freedom and democracy.” This definition, replete with its characteristic repetition (“freedoms,” “free,” “freedom”) and allusion to vague temporalities of progress (“gradual,” “tends toward”), encapsulates some of the key attributes and ambiguities of liberalism. Central to every version of liberalism is an insistent, quasi-naturalistic link between human and market “freedom.” What remains ambiguous is the specific historical character of liberalism’s supposedly inherent “tendency” toward “democracy” and social “reform.”

The modern conflation “liberal democracy” quietly resolves this central and enduring problematic for liberalism and its adherents: how to combine an expansive, even utopian, defense of individual freedom with a stable and cohesive structure of social organization. Theorists of liberalism have looked toward two institutional mechanisms to manage this fundamental task: the self-regulating market and one or another form of political democracy or representative government, incarnated in the nation-state. At least provisionally, therefore, we might distinguish between two strains within liberalism: market liberalism as exemplified by the work of Adam Smith, in which the individual is imagined as homo economicus, a person whose conduct is naturally coordinated and regulated through competition and trade with others with minimal state interference, and political liberalism, exemplified by the work of John Stuart Mill, in which individuals are posited as citizen-subjects, formally equal within a civic order whose political institutions are designed to balance and preserve individual liberty and equality (Adam Smith [1776] 1937; Mill [1859] 1999; Wendy Brown 2003).

One of the strongest critics of both variants of liberalism, Karl Marx ([1867–94] 1976–81) argued that capitalist market relations could only emerge in societies where human equality had attained the status of a popular prejudice. Despite the fact that the two variants—freedom as the freedom of unregulated market activity and freedom as a “tendency” toward political equality—share a conception of the abstract and interchangeable human individual as the basis of all social organization, the coordination between them has been highly uneven and has required a range of innovative thought experiments and institutional arrangements to give a “commonsense” cast to what is in fact a contradictory and unstable cohabitation. A work that illuminates this tension (and an important touchstone for liberalism as an intellectual project) is John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government ([1690] 1980), which envisions individuals in the state of “natural liberty,” defined by an unlimited impulse to accumulate status and possessions, who consensually enter into a “social contract” with one another, arrogating their theoretically unlimited natural rights within civil society and in turn establishing a government whose legitimacy rests on its ability to secure the life, liberty, and property of its members.

Locke’s theory implants property rights and class inequality at the heart of the liberal order by restricting political participation and decision-making to men of property and status—namely, those whose preexistent social credentials and private accumulation (i.e., what they have supposedly “earned” in the “state of nature” before they voluntarily entered into civil society) are most in need of protection and legitimation (Macpherson 1962). Amplifying this critique, several thinkers suggest that Locke’s theory of natural rights rests on a broad range of social norms and conventions that the “individual, equipped with universal capacities, must negotiate before these capacities assume the form necessary for political inclusion” (Mehta 1999, 63). Those who do not have an adequate stake in the social order, including the propertyless; those who are temporarily or permanently unable to exercise reason (i.e., children and the insane); and those whose presumed conjugal or domestic status supersedes their claim to public individuality (i.e., women) can in this view be governed without their consent (Pateman 1988).

The problems of political domination, exclusion, and inequality within liberalism are deepened dramatically when we consider the historical record of liberal-democratic nation-states founded in racial slavery and colonial expansion. Lockean liberalism in this context encodes a split view of the “state of nature,” one that is idealized and viewed retrospectively from the standpoint of established civil society and another that is historical, composed of people who purportedly lack reason and who thus exist (in Locke’s words) like “wild Savage Beasts, with whom Men can have no Society or Security” (Locke [1690] 1988, 96). This liberalism contrasts an already “moralized” state of nature, defined by private property, with a wild, uncultivated nature. Indeed, this is the basis for Locke’s famous advancement of historically extant justifications for the dispossession of Native lands in British settler colonies—North America, in particular: Indians did not possess any property rights due to their failure to create value through commercial cultivation or the steady, patient admixture of their labor with the land. Although Locke opposed hereditary slavery, he himself was heavily invested in the transatlantic slave trade, revealing what was at best an inconsistency and at worst the divided normative vision that gradually codified “racial” difference as a principle technology naturalizing exclusion within liberal-democratic societies.

How an unlimited—indeed, a universal and universalizing—concept of human freedom could be so consistently combined with and underpinned by differentialist logics of exclusion and exploitation (of the propertyless, of women, of slaves and aboriginal peoples) became the most vexing theoretical and political problem of twentieth-century liberalism. One of the crucial, unresolved debates among critics and defenders of liberalism is whether political exclusion is inherent within liberalism or whether it is an artifact of historically contingent divergences between the theoretical universalism of liberalism and exclusionary social practices of liberal societies founded on race, class, and gender inequality. The latter view opens up the possibility of a politically productive dynamic in which demands for political and civic equality among excluded groups and categories of persons (women, racial and sexual minorities, colonized subjects, disabled people) have steadily advanced the convergence of the theoretical universalism of liberalism and the social and political boundaries of liberal-democratic nation-states across the world system (Myrdal 1944).

Even if one resists the strong teleological presumption behind this last claim, it is possible to suggest that the idealized schematics of liberal universalism yielded distinctive patterns of political struggle and transformation. As Karl Polanyi ([1944] 2001, 155) argued, nineteenth-century liberal doctrines of laissez-faire capitalism actually promoted “an enormous increase in the administrative functions of the state”—to enclose common lands, to create pools of wage labor, to police vagrants, to provide relief for the poor, to open colonial markets, to manipulate money and credit, and so on. At the same time, these powerfully destabilizing processes and events engendered countermovements for the reasonable “self-protection of society” in the form of trade unions, voluntary associations, public health initiatives, and rural and environmental conservation, as well as anticolonial movements for national sovereignty. What Polanyi called the “double movement” developed over time into a strong critique of the ideology of the self-regulating market, culminating in the social institutions and economic redistributions of the modern welfare state.

Against the backdrop of the crisis of the Great Depression, US philosopher John Dewey (1935, 56) denominated “renascent liberalism” as those efforts of “organized society” to develop and use political administration to produce the actual and not merely the theoretical liberty of the national citizenry. This meant first and foremost the emergence of state-directed policies toward equalizing the distribution of the national income. The key innovations here were in the economic domain and are generally ascribed to the British economist John Maynard Keynes, who argued for a more extensive regime of market regulation, economic planning, and public spending against the old “orthodoxies” of laissez-faire capitalism. Although Keynes was undoubtedly concerned to stave off revolutionary challenges from below, it is reasonable to ask whether the kind of social liberalism developed under the auspices of Keynesian economic policy is a fundamental deviation from what we still want to call liberalism. Polanyi ([1944] 2001, 242), for example, described “socialism” as “the tendency inherent in an industrial civilization to transcend the self-regulating market by consciously subordinating it to a democratic society,” and he viewed the US New Deal as a decisive step in that direction.

Other writers have been less sanguine about the inner tendencies of liberalism, particularly against the backdrop of mass democracy. In the face of the political crisis of post–World War I Germany, for example, political philosopher (and later Nazi jurist) Carl Schmitt ([1923] 1985, 15) presciently warned that “states of emergency” would force liberal democracy to “decide between its elements.” Schmitt identified democratic unanimity with the sovereign capacity to decide on exceptions to the law, and he argued that this conjunction revealed the political anemia of liberal proceduralism (i.e., parliamentary deliberation, separation of powers, and protection of individual rights). Advancing a sharp critique of the universalizing claims of liberalism, Schmitt defined democracy as “the equality of equals” and the production of a homogeneous form of life (16). In doing so, he once again envisioned a doubled space where the rule of law and right enjoyed by “civilized” peoples was predicated on the violent suppression and control of contiguous or adjacent “wild” spaces, as exemplified by European (and US) colonial history.

Writing at the height of the McCarthy period in the United States (but with a different political agenda and sympathies), Louis Hartz (1955, 9) decried what he called the “dogmatic liberalism of a liberal American way of life.” According to Hartz, this “liberal tradition,” despite its expansive individualism, was inherently conservative and “conformitarian,” possessing a “deep and unwritten tyrannical compulsion” at its core that led to periodic outbursts of nationalist hysteria, moral panics, “deportation deliriums,” and “red scares” (12). Hartz’s critique marks a seminal moment in the development of a critical American studies discourse as it emerged from wider streams of reflection on the meaning and import of culture in the moment of US global ascendancy. For despite his generally cynical and ironic standpoint, Hartz proposed an “unconscious” or “mass Lockeanism” as the key to the national character and as an answer to the old American exceptionalist saw “Why is there no socialism in the United States?” The puzzle for Hartz was that “Americanism” so consistently “combined McCarthy with [Woodrow] Wilson” (13). Thus US liberalism was marked both by a cosmopolitan, expansionist drive to “transform things alien” and by insular, parochial withdrawals into home and nation (286).

Hartz’s critique lent itself to a certain political quiescence; it also underplayed the ongoing racial and imperial crisis of modern liberalism. In this sense, thinkers from the political Left and those associated with new social movements of the 1960s and 1970s developed more powerful critiques of post–World War II liberalism (particularly as it had been leavened with anti-communism) as a regime of political compromise and coordination within the North Atlantic world that forestalled more radical potentials for working-class self-organization at home and decolonization abroad. Thus anticolonial theorist Frantz Fanon ([1963] 2004, 80, 103) denounced the “universal violence” of a Pax Americana that preserved what he called “luxury socialism” for Europe—while subjecting the rest of the world to a violent and capricious decolonization—under the shadow of global nuclear annihilation. From within modern welfare states, feminist and antiracist activists excoriated the racial and gender hierarchies and differential inclusions that continued to skew material distribution and symbolic recognition for those who had long been subordinated within the liberal order. A further line of criticism, associated with Michel Foucault ([1975] 1995), cast the long historical development of the administrative or governmental state as a deepening of disciplinary techniques and normalizing logics that enmeshed individual subjects in an extensive network of power relations and intensive systems of social control.

Even as liberalism was attacked from its left, however, it was, to paraphrase British cultural studies scholar Stuart Hall (1978), moving to the right. As Irving Kristol famously quipped in the late 1960s, a neoconservative was merely a liberal who had been “mugged by reality.” The image of a mugging invoked the specter of black street crime, the alleged soft tolerance of “liberal” inclusion, and rage at the perception that the United States had lost its moral claim to be the world’s exemplary liberal democracy in the wake of the Vietnam War. It is clear that since the 1970s, another renovation of liberalism—often arrayed under the moniker “neoliberalism”—has been underway and gaining momentum. A hybrid (like all forms of liberalism), neoliberalism resurrects “pre-Keynesian” assumptions that free markets automatically generate civic order and economic prosperity, even while it gradually eviscerates democratic norms of political participation by an informed citizenry, reimagining both individuals and groups as primarily “entrepreneurial actors” (Wendy Brown 2003, 5).

A significant challenge for critical intellectual work in the coming years will be to track the political contours and consequences of neoliberalism in a moment of resurgent US imperialism. As Locke ([1690] 1980, 29) famously wrote, “In the beginning, all the world was America.” Today it appears at times that we have come full circle, with the United States attempting to turn the world into itself. “A deep continuity connects U.S. global ambition from the eighteenth to the twenty-first century,” something that may have a lot to do with Hartz’s Lockean political unconscious (N. Smith 2004, 11). A danger is that the US face of neoliberal globalization, with its consumptive excesses, blunt force, casual racism, and crude market calculus, augurs the exhaustion of the politically productive, incipiently democratic “double movement” of liberal universalism and liberal exclusion and a turn to something far more ominous. As long as liberalism continues to dominate the political horizon, however, the ongoing and wholly consequential struggle to determine the character of its distinctive precipitates of economic liberty and political equality, individual freedom and normative exclusion, reformist perfectionism and counterrevolutionary animus, and cosmopolitan vision and provincial blindness is likely to continue.


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