Liberalism, the dominant ideology in modern politics

19 mai 2010

Essay on liberalism

Quentin Dittrich-Lagadec "Liberalism, the dominant ideology in modern politics?" (03/2009)

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        The elites of Western societies must be taken aback as the world goes. The current economic crisis is breaking down all their certitudes. Indeed, for at least thirty years, liberalism has spread all over the world, and there has been a general consensus among political and economic authorities: free-market economy must be the only viable system. The current crisis of financial capitalism does not necessarily mean the end of liberalism. Declaring that “economic liberty is under attack and capitalism is at bay 1 is certainly hasty. More than a simple set of principles shared by a political fringe, liberalism is deeply enrooted in modern Western societies. Its values, liberty, individualism, privacy and tolerance, are nowadays recognized and adopted by most people. Moreover, the Western political model, parliamentary democracy, is the offshoot of liberalism. Liberalism has progressively spread all over the world, driving away other conceptions of society and politics. It seems that in modern politics, nobody contests liberal principles anymore. To what extent is liberalism holding a monopole on cultural representations, liberals considering that there is no possible alternative to their own conception of society? This issue will be tackled in three parts: the decline of alternative ideologies; the conversion of the “Left” to liberalism; the faith in progress and the contempt of the people.

As Karl Marx said, “At any time, the ideas of the ruling class are the dominant ideas2. It is obviously the case for liberalism. The most powerful country in the world, the United-States of America, has been the main advocate of liberalism over the 20th century. This power has been able to defeat the adversaries of liberalism. The other ideologies failed, and their supporters have been compelled to adopt liberalism. Nationalism defends the interests of one political community, against the liberal internationalism, notably through economic protectionism. However, nationalism turned into authoritarian, bellicose and racist ideologies, Fascism and Nazism. These radical movements provoked the Second World War. Eventually, liberal democracies triumphed over the fascist Axe. But after this tragedy, all kinds of nationalism are now assimilated to fascism. Liberals impose a form of intellectual orthodoxy: a politician, who wants to protect the workers of his country against the effects of globalization, notably by protectionism, takes the risk of being condemned as a fascist. The main adversary of liberalism was certainly Communism. It promoted central planning and collective property, instead of free-market and individual property. Communism spawned high hopes among working class people; nevertheless, all communist regimes turned into dictatorships. Eventually, most of these regimes collapsed. Francis Fukuyama interpreted the fall of the Soviet Block as the victory of liberalism. Moreover, he declared that it was “the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government3. There is no alternative to liberalism, because it seems to be the highest form of civilization. Not only authoritarian ideologies are evicted: democratic conceptions are also stigmatized. Has liberalism become itself dogmatic, refusing pluralism? Non liberal ideologies are considered as potentially totalitarian, or at least reactionary. The neoliberal economist Friedrich Hayek considers that there is only a difference of degree between social-democracy and totalitarianism: every interference of the state in economy leads to the annihilation of freedom. Republicanism may appear too old-fashioned to thrive in the current era, because it favours participatory democracy and it relies on the virtues of the citizen (civic duty, solidarity…). Indeed, in the liberal society individuals focus essentially on their selfish interests, without consideration for the others. Liberalism has triumphed over the other sets of values politically, economically and also in minds of the people.

All contemporary ideologies appear as various sorts of liberalism. Multiculturalism is nothing more than an attempt to adapt cultural diversity in the liberal society. Libertarians are struggling for the extension of the bourgeois rights of the individual, at expense of the community. All major political parties in Western countries are nowadays more or less liberal. Right parties have always advocated liberal policies in economics. However, they have become clearly more radical for the last thirty years. Margaret Thatcher in Britain and Ronald Reagan in the USA embody this move to the right: through the deregulation of the market and privatizations, they reduced considerably the role of the welfare state. Financial capitalism became free from state interventions. The gap between the employees and the shareholders has been dramatically widened; that is, in Marxist terminology, the inequalities between the workers and the holders of the means of production have considerably increased. Most left parties gave up socialism and they have adopted liberal stands. They got rid of J.M. Keynes to adopt Milton Friedman. Tony Blair’s New Labour is certainly the best example of the shift to right of political parties supposed to defend the working class. “Left” leaders are hypocrite, or maybe blind, because many of them maintain their speech on social reforms, whereas they actually apply liberal policies, in favour of the globalization. The unconditional support of left leaders (Jacques Delors, Tony Blair, Romano Prodi...) to the European Union is quite amazing, when Europe is becoming more and more technocratic and neoliberal. It is also interesting to note that the two main international institutions which frame and foster the liberal globalization, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization, are both ruled by “Socialists”, Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Pascal Lamy. Because left parties have failed to propose an alternative economic system to liberal capitalism, they focus on post-materialistic struggles, the extension of the rights of the individuals. Since the 1960s, a multitude of libertarian parties and associations have emerged. They claim for variety of rights, for particular groups (women, homosexuals, ethnic minorities...). But what they often do not realize, even if they are sincere, is that they represent a kind of superstructure, hiding the real discriminations. Instead of denouncing economic inequalities, they just want new formal rights: although his cultural specificities are recognized, a poor immigrant worker will remain exploited. Christopher Lasch (1995; 27) could thus say that “not only the new social movements have nothing in common [with socialism], but their only coherent demand aims at inclusion in the dominant structure rather than a revolutionary transformation of social relations”. Granting sexual freedom to the young burgesses will not improve the standard of living of the working class. The new social movements divide people into small communities, and thus they prevent any kind of unified struggle against inequalities. Actually, they play on the hands of the capitalists, and as Lenin said, they are the “useful idiots” of capitalism. Left liberals and right liberals are obviously complementary. While the “Right” applies liberal policies in economy, the “Left” serves as an ideological superstructure. The appearance of democracy is maintained through alternance. People believe that they can still control the elites with their votes; they think that they can modify the policies by changing the party in government. But actually, all the governing parties are liberal.

Liberalism is truly the ideology of modernity. Liberals got rid of the references to the past and the old traditions. They are confident in the progress, because they rely on rational and scientific mechanisms, such as the so-called efficient and rational free-market. But this confidence has turned to a kind of irrational faith. Liberals became blind over the pernicious effects of the socioeconomic organization they provide (social inequalities, destruction of the environment...). Indeed, Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” appears as a modern secularized Divine Providence: the free-market will provide a better life for everyone; if we let the economy free from external intervention, the wealth of nations is ensured. Liberalism distrusts every reference to the past; as Nietzsche said: “men of "modern ideas" believe almost instinctively in "progress" and the "future," and are more and more lacking in respect for old age4. Liberals forgot that modern times are reliable to the Ancients. After all, democracy had been founded in Athens in the 5th century B.C.; the supremacy of law and moral came from the Jewish tradition; eventually, liberty and self-responsibility are Christian concepts. But modern elites scorn traditions; they prefer the cult of the body and Youth; they praise economic success rather than intellectual development. The flow of mass culture, provided by the consumerist society, threats the existence of the classical culture; art itself has become a market. Liberal elites live in self-contentment, without any self-responsibility5, and also with a growing contempt towards all kinds of critics, immediately denounced as “reactionaries”. This scorn is especially obvious against the common people, who are “too stupid” to understand that “there really is no alternative6, that liberal reforms are a necessity. Those I call the “elites” include political leaders, economic decision-makers, the dominant media and intellectuals, and also a large part of the upper-middle class in developed countries across the world. They feel comfortable in the globalized world: they share the same values, the same way of life. Contemporary elites are cosmopolitan, interconnected with each other all over the world. However, they cut themselves from their own peoples. Thus, American elites “have more in common with their counterparts in Brussels or Hong Kong than with the masses of Americans not yet plugged into the network of global communication” (Lasch, 1995; 35). They constitute an isolated sphere, completely blind over the standard of living of most of the population. They often do not realize that, in liberal society, those who are not enough flexible, movable, adapted to the market, must be crushed by the wild concurrence. Despite of their principles on democracy, many liberal elites consider that the proper functioning of the economy often require to be imposed, without the consent of the people. The distrust towards “the mob” is clearly expressed the way elites prefer the world to be ruled. Instead of the government of the people, elected to defend the general will, the liberal elites praise “governance”, that is the technocratic administration of society: the rational management of public policies must be better for the perennially of the economic order than effective democracy.  The growing discontent of the people, their claim for a more equalitarian system, with more controls of the State on economy, are comprehensible, overall in the context of a huge economic crisis, essentially caused by the errors of the liberal elites.

Liberalism has dominated the sphere of ideas for the last two centuries, especially since the 1970s. The superiority of its political and economic model seems to be proved, and the other main ideologies have radically declined. Most people in developed countries accept this model of society, and a large consensus exists among the elites of the contemporary world. However, Liberalism has become more and more radical. The liberal demand of limiting the powers of the State has turned to a claim of suppressing all kinds of rules, especially in the economy, at the expense of the weaker members of societies. Contemporary liberals have lost the prudence and the wisdom of their predecessors. Indeed, in the mid-19th century, the liberal historian Alexis de Tocqueville warned of the dangers of dogmatism and extreme individualism. The passion for liberty must not lead to increasing inequalities.


  • Arendt, Hannah; the Human Condition (1958), Between past and future: eight exercises of  political thought (1961, 1968)

  • Fukuyama, Francis; “the End of History?” in The National Interest (1989)

  • Hayek, Friedrich August von; the road to serfdom (1944)

  • Lasch, Christopher; the revolt of the elites and the betrayal of Democracy (1995)

  • Marx, Karl; On the Jewish question (1843), the German Ideology (1845), Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848)

  • Michéa, Jean-Claude; l’empire du moindre mal (2006)


1 The Economist, volume 389 number 8602, October 18th 2008


2 Karl Marx, the German Ideology (1848), in Karl Marx, Philosophy p.338


3 Francis Fukuyama, « the End of History? » in National Interest (1989)


4 Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil (1885) §260


5 Whereas the old Liberals (Constant, Mill…) advocated the extension of self-responsibility, as the main expression of Liberty and individualism, nowadays total freedom means a total absence of consideration for the others. Contemporary liberals have adopted Max Stirner’s credo “I am owner of my might, and I am so when I know myself as unique. (…) All things are nothing to me” (the Ego and its Own, 1844). The multiplication of financial frauds, caused by individual traders, is clearly a symptom of the modern egotism and selfishness.


6 Margaret Thatcher, Press Conference for American correspondents in London (25/06/1980)

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