Friday, 20 October 2006

Under the Watch of Liberalism

Ms Soumaya Ghannoushi of The Guardian asks:
Are liberal societies completely immune to totalitarianism and despotism? Could the boundaries between these systems not be blurred? Could the liberal system itself not slide into tyranny, whilst still preserving its veneer of freedom, tolerance and pluralism?
She then gives three supposed examples of liberal societies descending into tyranny: the United States of America during the McCarthy era of the nineteen-forties and -fifties; France during the student tantrums of the late nineteen-sixties; and Britain during the miners’ strike of the mid-nineteen-eighties. It should be clear, however, that these are examples of relatively liberal societies trying to defend themselves against far more illiberal movements, against whose advance illiberal means were necessary. After all, if liberal societies were to allow — by a consistent application of liberal principles — the spread of ideas and movements antithetical and hostile to them, then they would soon enough fall to their enemies.
.....Yet there is in the purest form of liberalism the seed of an insane optimism — a belief that everyone will act well and wisely, or at least not evilly, once he is set free from authority, superstition and adverse circumstance, such that society will progress to ever-greater perfection — an optimism which permits the growth of tyranny if it is not first made sane by the admission that freedom does not by itself teach goodness or halt evil. It is because liberal societies tolerate in the first place ideas, sentiments and movements which are antithetical to freedom that they become so illiberal in the end; for they allow the growth of those things against which they must eventually respond in kind, or be overthrown.
.....In the nineteenth century, Jacob Burckhardt wrote:
The word ‘freedom’ sounds fair and rich, but only he who has never experienced slavery under the baying masses, called ‘the people’, seen it with his own eyes, and suffered civil unrest, should talk about it. There is nothing more piteous under the sun, experto crede Ruperto, than a government from under whose nose any club of intriguers can steal the executive power, and which then must tremble before zealous ‘Liberalism’, churls, and village magnates. I know too much history to expect anything from this despotism of the masses other than a future tyranny, wherewith history will have its end.
Even when liberty is extinguished under the watch of liberalism, however, its slogans and principles may remain, in whose lip-service a thousand laws seek the security of everyone from everyone else, over which the State is the sole and all-embracing judge.
.....The trouble is that, as long as authority is disdained in the name of freedom, we shall fall victim time and again to power that sets itself no limits.
[1] Soumaya Ghannoushi, “Skin-deep Liberalism”, Comment is Free (Weblog of The Guardian), 19th October 2006.
[2] [“Das Wort Freiheit klingt schön und rund, aber nur der sollte darüber mitreden, der die Sklaverei unter der Brüllmasse, Volk genannt, mit Augen angesehen und in bürgerlichen Unruhen duldend und zuschauend mitgelebt hat. Es gibt nichts Kläglicheres unter der Sonne, experto crede Ruperto, al seine Regierung, welcher jeder Intrigantenklub die executive Gewalt unterm Hintern wegstehlen kann, und die dann vor dem “Liberalismus” der Schwünge, Knoten und Dorfmanaten zittern muß. Ich weiß zuviel Geschichte, um von diesem Massendespotismus etwas Andres zu erwarten al seine künftige Gewaltherrschaft, womit die Geschichte ein Ende haben wird.”] Jacob Burckhardt, Brief an Gottfried Kinkel, 19. April 1845, Briefe (Leipzig: Dieterich, 1929), pp.119-20


Muslihoon said...

Would the Reign of Terror of the French Revolution demonstrate how liberalism can become tyranny?

Very nice post, as usual. Quite thought-provoking. I love how you weave history, human nature, and thoughts into one strong cloth, as it were.

Anonymous said...

I agree with muslihoon.

I used to be a I am just manic depressed.
My last hope is that Nov 7th will make a difference. Although, I am afraid it may be too late to repair the damage wrought.

Gracchi said...

I agree with you as far as this goes- basically it seems to be a quite Hobbesian conclusion that stability and security are neccessary for liberty but I'm not sure how this applies to particular circumstances. Hobbes would also argue for the use of prudence by a ruler in the way that he uses the monopoly of force that he holds- it may be for instance that an unjustified arrest and internment ends up provoking more people than it secures.