Internal Contradiction of Liberalism

Karl Marx wrote of the “internal contradiction of capitalism.” By that, he meant that the accumulation of surplus value (profit) for the capitalist requires continuous suppression of wages for workers (exploitation). This, in turn, causes a spiraling decline in the market, unless new markets can be found. That demand for continuous market growth ultimately depresses all markets. Hence, capitalism contains the seeds of its own destruction.

John Locke, however, wrote some 150 years before Marx. He maintained that all men deserved equal opportunity for life, liberty, and – most important – PROPERTY! Marx acknowledged that he, too, believed in Locke’s principals, which have come to be known as “liberalism” in our modern world. Liberalism is conceived, as it has been ever since those 17th century writings of Locke, as government of laws, equality before the law, a democratically constructed polity, and, yes, free markets.

Liberalism does NOT require equality of outcomes, especially regarding accumulation of property. Only equal opportunity before the law is prescribed by the doctrine. What Locke failed to see, and subsequent critics of liberalism have emphasized, is the absence of any natural checks in the “liberal order” to ever greater accumulation of property (wealth). We have had 300+ years of history since Locke to demonstrate that greater wealth equals greater political power. The liberal ideal may survive, but the dynamics of the real-world social order favors continuous encroachment on those liberal “Rights of Man” by the most powerful members of society. Realist philosophers, like Germany’s Carl Schmitt in the early 20th century, tended to paint a much darker picture of the nature of politics. Schmitt became the philosophical icon for Nazism — and these days he’s getting increased visibility, thanks to Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump, and other world leaders. To Schmitt, politics is, by its very nature and purpose, a conflict between groups, not a compromise for optimizing good for all groups. Compromise in politics is forced by inequalities of power, never freely chosen.

Free markets became the main instrument in liberal regimes for amassing power – to the benefit of one group (or class) and detriment of others. This is the internal contradiction of liberalism. Liberals in the 20th century spent much time and intellectual capital advocating for the related social order called “meritocracy.” The original purpose of the Meritocracy was to implement the egalitarian ideals of Locke’s liberalism:  no longer would aristocratic, inherited status and wealth be the determinant of future success. All strivers would be judged by their character and hard work. Racial and ethnic differences, as well as gender and language usage, would be worth less than some other qualities deemed more “meritorious.”

As the Meritocracy became widespread, however, behavioral changes occurred in those who had “succeeded.” Higher status people began to see themselves as ENTITLED! After all, they earned their position in society, right? Lower status people typically denied meritocracy really existed – but, since their political power was limited, nobody with high status listened to them. John Locke collided with both Karl Marx and Carl Schmitt!

The Left critique of liberalism, following a Marxian analysis, asserts that meritocracy has only become a system whereby a certain class of elites can always dominate, and growing inequality demonstrates that these elites are not becoming a larger cohort in the population, contrary to classical liberals’ prediction. Indeed, if society is zero-sum, the massive accumulation of resources (economic, political, social) by the most favored group is pushing an ever-larger cohort further down the social ladder via competition — the opposite of the liberal ideal.

Meanwhile, there is a Right critique of liberalism as well. Conservative critics tend to focus on liberalism’s built-in drive toward equality as something destructive to “social norms” – to civilization itself. They usually construe these norms as local geographic, religious, or ethnic traditions. They are not material conditions. The conservative view of a harmonious society is one where all groups “know their place.” They all “get along.” Liberalism, according to critics on the Right, wants to rip those community traditions away from its members. It sounds much like a defense of Carl Schmitt’s view of politics — Blood and Soil, or possibly a theocratic state.

So, liberalism is now, in the 21st century, under assault from both the Left and the Right. While we may still see value in Locke’s moral construction, we can’t help but notice what humanity has produced since Locke’s writing, following the 1688 Glorious Revolution in England. It isn’t pretty. Yet, all the wars, all the suffering in the name of profit, all the misery imposed on colonial peoples – including genocide – they’ve all been condoned by political leaders, and populations supporting them, who embrace the same basic liberal creed.

Was Carl Schmitt correct? Are we locked in an eternal struggle for power, where only might makes right? If one group can always justify its oppressed condition, and the need to overthrow elites by force if necessary, perhaps the Divine Right of Kings was not so bad after all? Isn’t the definition of aristocracy government by the best? Were the Glorious Revolution and Locke wrong from the very outset?

We may need to move beyond liberalism. But for this writer at least, listening to other perspectives seems far more rewarding than fighting them – you might even learn something from them!

— William Sundwick

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