Wednesday, September 9, 2009

What Does "Liberalism" Mean?

I have been attacked vociferously and crudely on this blog by people who fancy themselves followers of Yoder and who view me as apostate because I fail to endorse their particular view of left-wing politics. I could never understood why they would call me a "liberal" until I realized that they were coming from the other side of the great divide between liberalism, on the one hand, and socialism, on the other hand. They apparently use the word "liberal" to refer to anyone who is not socialist. If that is all the nuance we can muster, then I guess I'll have to be a "liberal."

But I'm not really a liberal in either of the two main ways that this word has been used in the past century.

The word liberal has evolved in its meaning over the past 100 years. It used to refer to those who held to free enterprise, free trade, individual liberty, democracy, limited government, the rule of law and gradual social reform. But in the 20th century, as socialism became more and more powerful and as a renewed conservatism arose in the United States in the post-World War II period, liberalism was squeezed almost out of existence. In the US, in the great post-World War II struggle between Conservatism (which preserved many of the worthwhile ideals of 19th century liberalism, at least the ones that were rooted in earlier periods of Western history such as private property and the rule of law) and Socialism (which took various forms ranging from democratic socialism to Communism), liberalism was the center that often failed to hold.

During the 1960's, socialism in the form of the "New Left" often went under the name of liberalism. Because of its inherently unstable nature, which is rooted in its infection by the Enlightenment's scorn of tradition, liberalism evolved during the 20th century further and further from its 19th century roots toward collectivism, statism and authoritarianism. Thus FDR was the great "liberal." The line became blurred between where liberalism ended and socialism began as the welfare state expanded more and more. In this context, many who wanted to be classical, 19th century liberals abandoned the label "liberal" and adopted the label "neoconservative." They allied themselves with the other strands of conservatism (including the traditional conservatism of Russell Kirk and Richard Weaver, the anti-Communism of William Buckley, populist conservativism and later social conservatism).

Neoconservatives are in continuity with 19th century liberalism, but those who are called liberal today by conservatives are really some form of socialist. When Hauerwas attacks liberalism, he is aiming at the Enlightenment liberalism of the 19th century and neoconservatism, but not necessarily at all forms of conservatism. How could he? After all, the Mennonite lifestyle Yoder came out of and represents is one of the older types of conservatism that predates the Enlightenment. Thus, Yoder speaks for one form of conservatism - a very admirable one in my view. To co-opt him for either Enlightenment liberalism or Enlightenment socialism seems to me to be manipulative and dishonest.

But my critics on this blog do not see liberalism as crypto-socialism as conservatives tend to do; it appears to me that they see it as that which stands in opposition to socialism. No wonder we have a communication problem. I reject both liberalism and socialism as having Enlightenment rationalism and the modern understanding of the self in common, whereas they are heavily invested in defending socialism against liberalism. For some reason, they just write off conservatism as not a real option and regard the real debate as being between the liberals and the socialists - as if all our choices were limited by the rules laid down by the Great, Eternal and Unchallengeable Enlightenment. This is humourous to the true conservative, who regards them as engaged in an in-house dispute between two forms of Enlightenment progressivism, neither of which is radical enough to form a serious alternative to the modern culture of death.

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