Liberalism essentially finds its roots in the seventeenth century, when John Locke published his monumental Two Treatises. In the second essay, Locke established that consent from the governed is crucial to the existence of that respective government. From there, Locke argued for the separation of state and church and most importantly; for life, liberty and estate to be the right of every person. Before I shortly trace the roots of liberalism further up till contemporary liberalism, it’s interesting to note Europe’s political landscape before Locke, and many others with him, set out to shake its foundations.
The centuries before Locke’s were namely very interesting in that Europe’s feudal, hierarchical, decentralized social systems changed to a heavily centralized system of absolutist monarchy. This development was due largely to the intellectual invigoration of the Renaissance and increasing commercialization as a result of that. The monarchs each aimed to unify their countries in Roman Catholicism or their respective version of Protestantism, culminating in the Thirty Year War in 1618. The Spanish Inquisition is another example of such a frivolous attempt at religious uniformity. Regardless of comparable endeavors, toleration prevailed in Europe as larger monarchies thrived in individualism and commerce. This state of affairs was naturally a fruitful groundwork for thinkers such as Hobbes and Locke in their constituting of liberalism.
Thomas Hobbes and John Locke set out what is called the natural rights theory. Natural rights theorists developed a framework for their ideal of a society in which any citizen is given equal rights and the largest possible framework of individual liberty. Later, liberalism evolved into what we would now call utilitarianism; the believe that something is valuable in its utility and that the best possible action is the one that achieves maximum utility. Utility in this case being a hopelessly thick term and defined – in the true spirit of circular reasoning – as a quantification of the preference for one good over the other. Although there are many sides to utilitarianism, it’s important to note that the establishment of modern democracy still relies on the defense of individual rights by utilitarians such as John Stuart Mill.
Liberals set out to curb the monarchies just mentioned and installed constitutional governments to replace them, capitalism replaced the feudal system and provided justification for the industrial revolution. The Founding Fathers, Simon Bolivar, the British Liberal Party; what we would now call classical liberalism was an unstoppable force that changed the west for the good, and, evidently, the bad. Concluding this short history, we find ourselves in the twentieth century; liberals proposed to end dreadful living conditions among workers and the radical inequality that accompanied the industrial revolution, largely as a counter-reaction to radical, illiberal ideologies such as socialism and fascism. Besides the acceptance of government assistance in curbing poverty and disease, liberalism of the twentieth century has become synonymous with the post-war civil rights movements in the United States, rightly so. As important as Locke and Hobbes once were in the creation of the secular state, so were Martin Luther King Jr. and the liberals of the fifties and sixties in ending racial segregation.
There is of course much more to liberalism, and the full history is immensely interesting. For the scope of this blog post, however, it seems a tad redundant to cover more than these main themes, nonetheless, there are some links and books below that might be of interest were you to further dive into this political philosophy.
What has made liberalism so consequential and enduring is its simplicity. Over the past centuries, liberalism has continuously evolved and developed; incorporating thought from other movements and dabbling between personal freedom and the assistance of government. Problems of the day were overcome by the clarity in its message of personal freedom and development. During the industrial revolution, humanity encountered an entirely different set of difficulties then it did during the Thirty year war, for example. Still, the simple ideals of liberalism have endured and dealt with these issues one by one. Now, in the twenty-first century, we once again face totally different problems and, in my honest opinion, liberals have failed to tackle them. In an effort of moral excellency, liberals and progressives have lost their ability to govern efficiently and uniformly and that, frankly, is a shame.
As I noted in the first paragraph; the obsession that liberals have with identity politics and the insurmountable, equivocal and infamous phrase; “The personal is political” is bogging down the Democratic party to the extent that Republicans, regardless of their own uselessness, face no institutionalized opposition. One’s identity, albeit an odd and ambiguous concept, is the essence of one’s being, naturally. Henceforth, I’m not arguing that movements and revolutions that find their basis in a shared identity – such as the Civil Rights movement – were a waste of time or an impoverishment for liberalism. We would all agree that feminism, for example, and many more such movements and revolutions have had hugely beneficial impacts on the lives of many. Defenders of identity politics often project the practice of today onto the past, implying that since I despise identity politics I should also reject the importance of these aforementioned campaigns. Therefore, I note again: my critique of identity politics is different and subdivided into two arguments. I detest it, for one, based on its paradoxical nature and, second, because it results in a kind of narcissism and lack of tenor that perverts any political debate and overshadows the ideals of liberalism of which I just spoke.
Although the practice is a tad cliche, let’s first consider the definition of identity; The fact of being who or what a person is. In philosophy, that would be the personal identity, identity itself would be defined as the relationship each thing bears only to itself. This definition ultimately leads some – myself included – to wonder whether two people can be identical, thus implying that their identities are the same. This question conflicts the first definition but finds itself within the boundaries of the second. And although this might sound woolly, these questions matter since identity politics aims to unite people about one axis. Anthony Appiah, a philosopher who currently holds an appointment at the New York University, wrote that this aspect of identity politics “replaces one kind of tyranny with another”, in that identity politics will innately put pressure on those who don’t find that one aspect their defining feature. Furthermore, identity politics might result in the opposite, namely that one is not simply defined by that identity but dictated by it. The group identity starts to shape the member, while it should naturally be the other way around.
Furthermore, as Mark Lilla notes, if one mentions some groups, “one better mention all of them”. Nate Cohn, a New York Times data analyst, pointed out that “white working class voters” started seeing themselves as a minority. Who’s to blame? While the Democrats were fixated on speaking to a multitude of minority groups and contemplating their interests one by one, the Republicans saw the voters Democrats didn’t tend to; the white working class of which Nate Cohn speaks. Listen, Liberal, by Thomas Frank, gives a short history of Democratic voter bases and attempts to explain these developments. From his book, one can only conclude that an explanation of racism and bigotry does not suffice. After all, Trump promised (white) working class voters the world economically, the Democratic party simply overlooked those voters who were once solidly blue. Republicans, tailoring to the interest of a very small minority of business leaders, promised voters they once beat down economic prosperity. Now that they hold the executive they continue to stoically beat them down. Democrats, once tailoring to the interest to the working masses, promised these voters they once supported nothing. On a national level, calling out explicitly to any one identity is a strategic and moral mistake. As if the electorate could be simply categorized, as if you should be reached out to based on your participation in a certain bloc or group; is that not the opposite of a liberal society?
Although I have mainly considered a shared identity as a group up until now, one does not contemplate identity politics without considering the phrase The Political is Personal, first coined by Carol Hanisch in 1970 – she acclaims it to her editors, though. Although the personal may be political in the sense that the personal is influenced by the political, when focusing only on the personal one loses sight of the political. It creates a sort of narcissism where people get lost in how they feel rather than what they stand for or what they envision. It’s almost escapists in that sense; quality makes way for quantity as participating in any substantial political debate is simply a case of being able to talk about yourself and no longer required knowledge of the subject. What made the feminism- and Civil Rights movements so consequential is that they were personal only to a certain extent.
I’d like to end on that note; knowing the difference between the political and the personal makes all the difference.
There are countless more arguments opposing identity politics, there are also many who are pro. Articles from both sides, however, always take into account only the aspects that seem to suit them well; I set out to concisely criticize clinging to your identity as a basis for your identity, which I think is both a moral and strategic mistake, if you don’t agree or find that I missed some points: please comment!
On another note, I have been absent for the past week largely due to a busy period in my studies and the extra-curricular activities that surround it. I don’t often note anything personal on this website as it mainly serves to support my freelance work, nonetheless, I can’t hide my excitement in joining the Delft Formula Student team next year, where I’ll be a part-time engineer in the aerodynamics department, very exciting. You can find some links below!
Some links on identity politics:
Some links on liberalism:
- Thomas Frank – Listen, Liberal
- John Rawls – A Theory of Justice
- The most quintessential link of all: Wikipedia