The Greatness and Misery of Liberalism - Intercollegiate Studies Institute

The Greatness and Misery of Liberalism

Contrary to what is often said, liberalism is not foreign to France. Some of the most profound, incisive, or influential authors of the liberal tradition are French. It is true that the tone of French liberalism in general is more serious, even somber, than upbeat and victorious. France is the country of “sad liberalism” or “liberal melancholy.” I do not claim to belong to the great French liberal tradition, but you will get the impression, I fear, during the course of these remarks that I share at least its sadness or melancholy. I would have liked to have brought better news, but I could not.

Perhaps the best way to enter directly into the question that concerns us is to see that, in its fullest meaning, liberalism is the revolution of the rights of man (or of human rights, as one says in English).

By “revolution” I do not mean a sudden upheaval like the French Revolution, nor a gradual, very long-term development like “the democratic revolution” that Tocqueville both contemplated and analyzed. I understand revolution as the crystallization of new principles of collective order, with the various effects of reworking and reordering the world that these principles will soon have on human life in all its aspects.


The Revolution of the Rights of Man: An Effort at a Definition

How can we most appropriately approach this crystallization of new principles, this “moment of the rights of man”? It seems to me that the history of philosophy provides the most relevant point of reference: the revolution was really inaugurated when the notion of the rights of man was philosophically articulated, that is, during the second half of the seventeenth century.

Where did this notion come from? To what did it respond? It responded to the following problem: What, it was asked, is the best possible government for Christian peoples? By “Christian peoples” I mean the peoples who have heard and accepted the Christian message of a new City, of a true universal community.

This Christian affirmation introduced an unprecedented political problem: How can each political body govern itself, while also recognizing the superior authority of the universal religious community? What place should be given to the spiritual power when, because of it men, “seeing double” as Hobbes so vividly phrased it, no longer know whom to obey? Rousseau’s diagnosis and judgment were harsh: “From this double authority there results a perpetual conflict of jurisdiction that has made any good government impossible in Christian states.”

It then became a question of finding a new principle of government that would reunite men who were internally divided by the separation of the two powers, the temporal and the spiritual. One therefore was obliged to reconsider the very foundations and meaning of collective life. Until then, to live humanly meant taking part in the human association, whether political or religious, and therefore obeying the law that was the rule of that association. This principle had obtained for all the associations known until then: for the Greek cities as well as Rome, for the Church as well as the Jewish people, for the new kingdoms of Europe, etc. Henceforth—this is the new principle—it will no longer be a matter of obeying the law, but of asserting one’s rights. The new meaning of the political order is to protect the rights of individuals. Until now what was common had held the highest authority. Now, legitimate order springs from the individual and returns to him. Listen to the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, Article 2: “The goal of every political association is the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man. These rights are liberty, property, personal security, and resistance to oppression.”

“To preserve natural rights”: that expression, which perfectly sums up the new principle, is nonetheless somewhat deceptive because of its “conservative” connotation. It really isn’t a matter of conserving anything! “To preserve natural rights” meant to unleash the greatest movement of human affairs that has ever been seen.

Natural rights come into view in what the philosophers called the state of nature or the natural condition of mankind, when human beings, living without law, are free and equal individuals. The philosophers, to be sure, had different ideas about this individual, about his passions and motives. For Hobbes, the individual is moved by a desire for power that ends only in death. For Locke, it is uneasiness, the discomfort or restlessness of a life assailed by needs that move him. In any case, the movement that moves men—in truth, that bears them away—has neither end nor term: it is unceasing.

Thus the individual comes into the world as a quantum of movement. “To preserve his rights” means not to inhibit his movement or even to remove the obstacles to his movement. The revolution of the rights of man, that is, liberalism, liberates the movement of human affairs. The free circulation of men, of goods, of ideas, of capital, of sentiments, and so forth: liberalism is first and foremost the party of movement.

The liberal revolution therefore will have two sorts of enemies—or at least adversaries. On one hand, there are those who want to apply the brakes to the movement (the conservatives) or even to return to the pre-liberal past (the reactionaries; the word “reaction” belongs first of all to the language of physics). On the other hand, there are those who want to accelerate the movement, “to emancipate the productive forces” shackled by the capitalist relations of production. If communism wanted to suppress capitalism, it was in order to surpass it, to accelerate its movement. As for the non-revolutionary Left, it wanted at a minimum to speed up “social mobility.”

Thus we have—in the simplest, most synthetic terms I could find—the principle of the liberal revolution: the rights of man. We now have to consider the arrangements by which people attempted to put this principle into action.


The Liberal Arrangements

The liberal arrangement is one of polarities. A liberal political order is constituted by two poles coexisting in tension, which serve for each other both as an instrument and an obstacle. I obviously have in mind the state and civil society.

The sovereign state—that is, the “absolute” state—is the condition of possibility for the liberal order. If its members wish to protect their equal rights, they must generate “the greatest power that can be imagined,” which is capable of moving an otherwise quite unequal society to fundamental equality. They must construct “an abstract place” (Hobbes’s phrase), an Archimedean point that is qualitatively distinct from the society, so that it can govern impartially. Only a state that is thus elevated above society can govern us while also leaving us free.

The other pole is society. If the state is the invention or the artifact of liberal politics, society is its discovery: society as a “commercial” or “market” society. At the same time the “vertical” state was constructed, it was noticed that men tended to produce spontaneously a “horizontal” order. It wasn’t necessary—at least it was no longer necessary—to command them from “on high.” It was enough to establish the rules that allowed them to seek their interests freely by exercising their rights. It was enough to leave them free, not only in the economic order but in all the orders of life. In Benjamin Constant’s classic formulation: let the state content itself with being just, while we (members of civil society) will take upon ourselves the task of being happy.

The state and the market, or the “market society,” are therefore the two poles of the liberal order. They need one another; they mutually condition one another. The market society needs the state to establish and enforce rules, first of all the fundamental rule, that of the equality of rights. On its side, the state needs the market in order to have at its disposal the greatest amount of power. It is by leaving men free to follow their interests, freely exercising their independence and their talents, that the greatest amount of wealth and, hence, power are produced. The enemies of liberal regimes discovered this to their great cost during the previous century.

All this is quite fine, you might be tempted to say, but we are in the middle of a crisis, at once economic and financial, that is shaking the very foundations of the liberal order. Isn’t liberalism itself called into question today in its fundamental arrangements, perhaps even in its very principle?


The Current Crisis

Does the current crisis radically call into question this “order of movement” that I sketched above? It is obviously impossible to answer this question with complete assurance at this point. The crisis has not fully revealed all its economic effects, and we can only conjecture about its near- or long-term political ones. This uncertainty being admitted, I will say that the crisis we are experiencing does not seem to me in and of itself to call into question the liberal revolution.

What is often designated as “the return of the state” in today’s circumstances does not contradict the original liberal formula. I myself just underscored the importance of the state’s role in the production of the conditions of what we might call “liberal life” based upon human equality and freedom. Perhaps this is a good time to observe that what passed for “liberal” in the historical period that has just ended was in fact a considerable modification of liberalism.

I would explain the point this way. We had moved—without particularly noticing—from “liberal government” to what I might call “the neo-liberalism of rules.” The latter rested upon the principles that Hayek articulated with great care and amplitude, which go under the famous phrase “spontaneous order.” The “problem” with Hayek, to put it a little disrespectfully, is not that he was “too liberal” (which is often heard), or “ultra-liberal”; it is rather something that Raymond Aron pointed out: he had a false idea of liberal regimes, of what I would call “real liberalism.” He saw liberalism’s superiority in the progressive elaboration of a set of rules that no one in particular designed or willed but which are accepted because of their great effectiveness, not only for the economic order but more generally for civilization itself. This is the “spontaneous order” of which he made himself the theoretician.

What this view neglects is the extent to which liberalism—far from being the confident, even “quietist” abandonment to a spontaneous order—initially was, and always remains, the search for and the construction of better government. To be sure, as I indicated above, this better government realizes itself by leaving men as free as possible, by granting them a heretofore unprecedented latitude for action. But the government, as I also said, harvests the fruits of this freedom in increased prosperity (and, hence, growing revenues), by a more and more accurate grasp of society’s needs, and finally, by greater means and capacity for action. It would only be partially true, but illuminating in this context, to say that liberal regimes have carried the day because they govern better than their rivals.

On the other hand, it is true that the liberal order necessarily, even “structurally,” contains oscillations—sometimes great oscillations—between its two poles. Sometimes it is the state, sometimes the market that inspires confidence to the detriment of its competitor (which is also its complement). Periods of equilibrium are indeed rare.

The recent period that ended with the crisis was characterized by a strong, even vehement movement in the direction of the market; people imagined not only that one could do without all state regulation but even that the way had been opened to an unprecedented mode of human association: globalized humanity. This “liberal utopia” extended its influence well beyond the economic domain. All of social life appeared ripe for the “governance of rules.” Instead of government’s being responsible to a body of citizens forming a people, we would have rules elaborated by an indefinite number of bodies and agencies responsible to no one. These agencies would be legitimated, it was said, by the manifest goodness of these rules. The financial and economic crisis has struck a sharp blow to this idea of governance. The regulatory bodies that plumed themselves on their expertise and “competence” divorced from all political “contamination” are today rightly discredited. Thus the necessary responsibility of all (including experts) to the body of citizens has returned to the fore. The illusions of “governance” gone, government returns to its place. This does not mean, to be sure, that every government will be up to its tasks, but this does open the way for a “repoliticization” of the common life of our societies.

However, it is difficult to imagine what form this repoliticization might take. Also, the distinctive “contents” of the major political parties, whose alternation in government makes up the life of modern democracy, largely evaporated during the previous period. Both the Right and the Left have abandoned those who originally gave them their legitimacy. In France in any case, the Right abandoned the nation, the Left, the workers, and both have sought their new identity in the “European project” that aims at producing a “democracy without a definite people”—one governed by rules. It is hard to see how the Left and the Right today could make politically plausible again the commitments they so eagerly jettisoned not so long ago. As I say this, I am not particularly blaming anyone. In a certain way the weakening of these great collectivities of the nation and class was inscribed in the principle of liberalism, the rights of man. The principle, in any event, contained this possibility. Marx only saw half of the liberal revolution, but he saw it quite clearly: the rights of man are the rights of “man separated from man.”

In the present situation we do not know whether we should deplore the weakening of these civic and social bonds or rejoice. If we cast a glance at history, we see that the crisis of the 1930s reactivated the great collectivities of the nation and of class but with consequences that we certainly do not want to see repeated! But one still has to ask: on what principles of cohesion could the repoliticization that appears to be occurring take place?

At present it is striking to note that what one can call the crisis of capitalism, or the crisis of liberalism, is not generating forces, or even ideas, on the part of the decidedly anti-capitalist or anti-liberal portions of opinion. They, too, call upon the state as the insurer of last resort, not upon the class or the nation (or any other collectivity for that matter) as the principle of a new order that should succeed liberalism. We fear for our savings, but that does not make us socialists or nationalists. For the moment at least, the liberal order remains in the saddle, at least by default. None of those who criticize liberal capitalism has the least desire to take upon himself the responsibility of coming up with an alternative to it. It is for this reason that in France Nicolas Sarkozy is not content to enact, or try to enact, reforms of a liberal nature, but he also takes upon himself the task both of criticizing and “refounding” capitalism. In a depoliticized political society the government takes upon itself in succession (or simultaneously) all the available positions on the political spectrum.

Perhaps we have to say that the revolution of the rights of man has succeeded beyond its founders’ expectations. We have ended up really becoming individuals constituted by our relationship to our selves, as was true of the individuals of the state of nature, and we no longer know how to attach ourselves to anything common. It certainly is not the financial or economic crisis by itself, the crisis of individual accounts and losses, that will produce a renewed sense of what is common. In this view, what one can reproach liberalism for, at least in the form it assumed in the recent past, would not be the crisis to which it led: this crisis belongs rather to human nature, to the human condition. Rather, we should reproach it for having devalued and “devitalized” collective bonds, whether natural or inherited attachments, to such a point that we no longer know where to turn when the promise of a governance of rules in a globalized humanity fails. The economic crisis is the most spectacular aspect of the present situation, but it is not necessarily the most interesting or important. In fact it risks hiding from us the deep weakness of the liberal revolution, which resides in the order of the soul rather than in the external organization of our common life. This will be my last topic for reflection.


The Human Being of the Rights of Man

The liberal order is therefore carried along by the faith in movement, by confidence in liberty. Liberty in the liberal sense of the term is not what the pre-moderns called “free will,” the capacity proper to man to move himself in accordance with motives he has adopted rather than from external causes. “Liberal liberty,” if I can put it that way, is indifferent to the question of the freedom of human acts, so indifferent that most of the philosophical founders of liberalism described human action in ways that made it something “necessary.” To repeat: according to liberalism, to be free is not to be inhibited by obstacles outside the individual or subject.

The difficulty then becomes: if being free is not being shackled by external obstacles, what is one to do when external obstacles are removed? What does it mean to be free when liberty, or, more expansively, liberties are already guaranteed? As long as there are obstacles to liberty, the principle of liberalism is to overcome them and to remove the shackles. But when this revolutionary and emancipatory task is accomplished, what is the principle of movement when there is clear sailing?

Take freedom of opinion. Everyone understands what the struggle for freedom of opinion means when there is censorship. As long as there is a censor, everyone knows that “free opinion” is an opinion that has escaped from censorship. But what does “free opinion” mean when censorship no longer exists?

Or take “the right to the pursuit of happiness.” Everyone understands what this right means in a situation where a religion or government claims to impose a certain conception of “the good life.” But when churches as well as governments have renounced this claim, what does the exercise of this right mean?

To defend freedom of opinion is certainly noble and necessary, but it does not tell us what a judicious opinion is or how to form one. To defend the right to the pursuit of happiness is certainly noble and necessary, but it does not tell us how to pursue happiness. Liberalism is a doctrine so powerful that it has defeated all other political, philosophical, and religious doctrines. And yet, among them all, it is the only one that does not provide a positive rule for the conduct of life. Those who oppose some religiously inspired rule or law to liberalism are rarely the friends of human liberty, but they point out a real weakness in the liberal order. Not that we have any desire to receive orders, but how can we orient ourselves in the world when the only thing we hear is, “You’re free!”? It is this inherent and troubling indetermination of liberal liberty that feeds much of the protest against liberal “corruption,” which we unfortunately, if understandably, have a tendency to dismiss too quickly.

How can liberalism overcome this difficulty? We cannot be content to say, “You’re free; do what you will and don’t ask questions!” To this real difficulty liberalism responds with faith (either implicit or explicit) in the future convergence and coincidence of external liberty and internal dispositions. Freedom of opinion will lead necessarily to an increasingly true opinion. That, at least, is the hope. In the same way, the right to pursue happiness will lead necessarily to a growing happiness for individuals. At least, that is the hope. If one didn’t believe this, the desire for liberty would be in vain. The same Benjamin Constant who declared, “Let the government content itself with being just, we will assume the task of being happy,” was led to recognize that the goal of humanity was not so much free happiness as “improving [itself ],” indicating that it was impossible to consider human life seriously without desiring for it a goal beyond that of liberty. Liberty is perhaps the best condition for human action, but it cannot by itself give any finality or purpose to it. It was not a coincidence that faith in progress accompanied the development of liberal civilization: the intrinsic difficulty of liberal doctrine, its anthropological indeterminism, can only be overcome by faith in the future.

What happens, then, when faith in the future disappears or is seriously weakened—when one no longer believes that freedom of opinion will always lead to significantly truer opinions, when one no longer believes that the free pursuit of happiness will produce significantly happier individuals? It seems to me that even before the crisis occurred this faith had already become considerably weakened. One could already see signs of our loss of confidence in the capacity of human nature to attain the natural objects of its desire, even to get within hailing distance of such an end. We are subject to a deep internal weakness that merits at least as much attention as the more visible economic crises.

To be sure, one could say: we must find our way out of liberal indetermination and find the truth or true happiness. But how can we avoid falling back into the political and religious dogmatism and despotism from which liberalism has happily delivered us? Are we therefore condemned to vacillate between an increasingly empty freedom and “truths” arbitrarily decreed?

If I had found a way of escaping from this unsatisfactory (even depressing) set of alternatives, you would certainly have already heard about it! If anyone had convincingly, or even plausibly, proposed a way of reuniting freedom and truth, we would all know of it! I believe that we have to accept—up to a certain point, in a spirit of manly resignation—the indeterminate character of our liberal liberty, and hence, to use a Tocquevillian trope: we are condemned for the foreseeable future to sail in open waters. At the same time, it seems to me good for liberal liberty itself to enter into dialogue with something other than itself. The candidates one can point to for such a dialogue are numerous, they can be found both within and without the West. Here is what I suggest.

If we return to the point of departure that I briefly sketched at the outset, we recall that liberalism is a response or a purported “solution” to the theologicalpolitical problem of the Christian world. One could say: liberalism embarked upon a recomposition or reworking of the Christian world by putting in parentheses the question of the truth and instituting radically new conditions of human action. The question that is thus posed to us—one I do not claim to resolve, but which we ought to consider—is the following: is the new liberal order—the one that Europeans began to establish in the sixteenth or the seventeenth century—self-sufficient, or does it merely represent a modification or reworking of the Christian condition? Historians and contemporary observers often ask if liberalism—or democracy—has solid roots or a promising future in cultural areas outside of those where Christianity existed. They ask, for example, if Japan is truly a liberal democracy, even though it was governed for the past fifty years by the same Liberal Party. I have neither the time nor the expertise to take up this aspect of the question. I will simply expand a remark that I already made.

It seems to me that the first hypothesis—liberal self-sufficiency—can be entertained if the liberal world effectively tends toward an end or condition where liberty encounters, I will not say the truth, nor will I say happiness, but a configuration of human affairs such that one can say that we have arrived at a human order that, if not perfect, is at least satisfying. One would be able to say that the liberal order was selfsufficient if the hopes of liberal progressivism were met, or at least the feeling of progress toward greater truth and happiness firmed up and became widespread. One could say that the liberal order is self-sufficient if it indicates with adequate clarity a term or goal proper to it and it alone. If this is not the case, as a vague but powerful sentiment seems to confirm; if faith in the future has deserted the liberal world; if liberalism has largely abandoned the hope in progress that it bore for such a long time; if therefore liberalism no longer has a goal or end to its efforts in mind, then it finds itself before the necessity of a heart-wrenching revision. Instead of understanding itself in view of the future, it must turn about and reflect again on its previous development, starting with its origin in Christian Europe.

How one ought to conduct this inquiry into the relations between the Christian matrix and the liberal project is a question I have to reserve for another time. My aim is merely to pose a question that many Europeans believe is already resolved because we have “gotten beyond religion.”[1] It is true that liberalism has pushed Christianity to the edges of collective life. I have argued, however, that despite its triumph it cannot wholly substitute for Christianity because it only defines the conditions of action and not action’s goals or aims, as Christianity does. It remains true, even if not widely recognized, that it is liberalism’s relationship to Christianity, much more than the current question of its economic organization, that is both fundamental and formative for liberalism.[2] We must turn our gaze there if we want to attain any clarity on the destiny of liberal societies.


PIERRE MANENT teaches political philosophy in the Centre d’études sociologiques et politiques Raymond Aron (CESPRA) in Paris. His many books include Democracy Without Nations? (ISI Books, 2007) and, most recently, Les métamorphoses de la cité: Essai sur la dynamique de l’occident (Flammarion, 2010).

This essay was originally delivered at the Institut français in Prague on March 6, 2009, and will appear as the preface to a new Italian edition of Pierre Manent’s Histoire intellectuelle du libéralisme. It is published in Modern Age with the permission of the author.

Translated by Daniel J. Mahoney and Paul Seaton.



[1] This is a reference to the French political theorist Marcel Gauchet’s contention that Christianity is the religion that prepares the way for secularism, for the human order that definitively leaves religion behind. (Translators’ note)

[2] The centrality of Europe’s “theological-political problem” to the genesis and doctrinal foundations of liberalism is a central theme of Manent’s An Intellectual History of Liberalism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994). (Translators’ note)

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