The limitations of the New Liberal Ideology as a response to future
challenges related to moral anomie, demographic reproduction and an ecologically
responsible economy .
At the turn of this century a new liberalism became a dominant ideology in public debates regarding society. Like the old laissez faire liberalism, the new ideology emphasizes individual freedom as a supreme value for social development, and it defines the mutuality between society and the individual as "external relations". Unlike old liberalism this new ideology emphasizes positive human rights and the duties of a welfare state.
These kinds of policies might lead to positive effects on several areas
of life, but the new liberal ideology has its limitations which, on its
own premises, the ideology will obscure. From an analytical point of view,
however, it is possible to identify a shortcoming in the understanding
of the character of culture on these premises. This can easily lead to
inadequate measures for upholding moral motivation and cohesion as a counterbalance
to social anomie. It can also lead to fragile frames for family formation
and reproduction. At the same time, liberal concepts of individual rights
may prove inadequate for necessary means for limiting demographic growth
in some parts of the world and unlimited growth of consumption in other
parts of the world. The New Liberal Frame for understanding Human Rights
will inevitably lead to conflicts with those ecological conditions that
are necessary for a safe future.
Modernization and Ideology
At the turn of a millennium it is tempting to deliver some sweeping statements about our situation:
During the last three centuries the Western World has challenged mankind by introducing some new conditions for social life, known as modernization. During the 18th century England and France carried out two revolutions that changed the conditions for traditional social order and cultural authority. The industrial English revolution led, gradually, to societies characterized by an increased division of labor and social differentiation, which made traditional cultural transmission, through concrete social identification, more and more difficult. The political and cultural French revolution made inherited authority illegal, unless it had passed a test of rational acceptability. Tradition should be replaced by theory. Together these two revolutions led to a need for easily understandable models of society for dealing with order in a modern way.
The political thinking of the nineteenth century was characterized by the growth of ideologies, claiming to give adequate answers to the challenges of modernity. Liberalism came first, teaching that individual freedom would lead to progress, prosperity and peace. Conservatism, as an ideology, came as a reaction to the egotism and social atomization which seemed to follow liberalism. Socialism came as a class protest against the social injustice that seemed to follow the bourgeois ideologies. By the turn of last century a new ideology arose in several parts of Europe, as a protest against the national split which followed the class conflicts between bourgeois and proletarian interests. Fascism also proclaimed the rule of one leader instead of democratic procedures.
If the nineteenth century was the century of the birth of modern ideologies, the twentieth century became the century of the death of dominant ideologies. In his book Ideology and Utopia, from the end of the 1920, Karl Mannheim wrote about four major ideologies referring to Weltanschauungen in Germany by that time, in addition to a pragmatic bureaucratic conservatism. These were bourgeois democratic liberalism, historic conservatism, socialism/communism and fascism. Before the turn of the century they had all lost their credibility. Laissez faire liberalism lost its former political support after the economic crisis in 1929. Fascism and national socialism lost a war in 1945. Authoritarian conservatism lost its previous position around 1968. Marxist socialism lost its competition with capitalism in 1989.
So, we might ask, what is left for modern ideologies facing not only a new century, but even a new millennium? To claim that ideologies are dead and that modern men do not need ideologies any longer, is hardly a convincing answer. Even if the historian Francis Fukuyama and others have written something like that, I will argue that even the premises for Francis Fukuyama´s predictions do confirm that we use ideological references when we publicly speak about society. We do have a dominant ideology even today. It is possible to name it, characterize it and analyze its weaknesses. I will go one step further and predict that the New Liberal Ideology, dominating contemporary culture and political orientation, will be the next major victim among ideologies. I am not convinced by its strength because of its present support during the 1990s. If we go a hundred years back in time we will find a similar confidence in ideologies which later proved completely inadequate.
But before I say more about this prediction, I should clarify what I,
as a sociologist, mean when I am talking about ideologies. I should then
say why the New Liberalism should be regarded as an ideology, and why it
can hardly correct itself beyond certain limits. I will end up in mentioning
three fields of unavoidable challenges where we can expect to experience
serious conflicts between the solutions proposed by liberal spokesmen and
the character of the challenges. This, I will argue, will lead to some
sort of crisis and to a loss of credibility in the contemporary dominant
new liberalism. (I have in fact written a book about this, printed in Norwegian,
as a manuscript in English(1).)
What is meant by ideologies?
The concept of "ideology" is over 200 years old; and though, from a purely etymological point of view, it has always meant the study of ideas (from idea and logos), the political meaning of the word has undergone consederable changes. Destutt de Tracy, a theoretician of the French Revolution, used the term to denote a program for the scientific study of the spread of ideas. Napoleon used it as a term of derision for impractical and far-fetched ideas. For others, the term has been a badge of honor, meaning something along the lines of an idealistic unified view. Karl Marx regarded ideologies as social agents of rule.(2) More recent social scientists have looked upon ideologies as socially determined perceptions of reality, formed more by social interests than by epistemology.(3)
It is not easy to find recurring hallmarks of ideologies that do not fundamentally favor one political position over another. It is nevertheless possible to arrive at specific analytical criteria for an understanding of ideologies that can be used for more than justifying preconceived ideas; but then the criteria must be based on a certain level of abstraction. In Marxist and anti-Marxist literature alike, we find at least five formal criteria for ideologies: a system of thought, interest-dependency, reality distortion, an adversely affected party, and self-immunization.(4) We shall take a closer look at each of these five hallmarks:
1. System of thoughts. In order for thoughts or interpretations to be categorized as ideologies, they must comprise a continuous stream of perceptions in which one claim enhances the reliability of the other. This is not to say that the system of thought is incontrovertible; interest-governed thoughts seldom are. In order to characterize something as ideology, the interpretations involved should be found over a period of time and be employed by many. Situation-governed devices for justifying a standpoint do not qualify as ideological analyses.
Interest-dependency. The attempt to explain the appeal and spread of ideologies based on social interests rather than on the weight of their arguments could be due to weaknesses in the argumentation; for example, it could be self-contradictory, or not cover enough ground. Peoples' interests and social position could appear to be an obvious criteria of ideologies. On the other hand, we rarely ever encounter claims and interpretations that are completely thought-out or water-tight. Furthermore, most claims have some affinity or other for the intellectual bias and social interests of those who assert such claims.
Distortion of reality. Ideologies should be exposed and recognized as such because, in some way or other, they represent a distorted perception of reality, a kind of "false consciousness", rather than a completely conscious falsehood on the part of their advocates. To claim that something is false and not merely at odds with our own perceptions and interests, we must at least be able to show that a stated claim is clearly inconsistent with experience or with a logical way of thinking, or that the interpretations in question are clearly less functional than plausible alternative interpretations. Demonstrating that we are up against arguments with non-falsifiable metaphysical and axiomatic principles does not, in itself, qualify as ideological determination. No interpretations are without presuppositions, even though there may be a reluctance to discuss them. Nor can all kind of human assessment error and maladjustment be traced back to ideologies.
4. The adversely affected party. In the literature on ideologies, the notion that some people will be downtrodden or adversely affected if a reigning ideology remains predominant is a recurring theme. The adversely affected parties in a reality-distorted ideology are not necessarily social groups with a potentiality for power. It can just as well be nature itself, future generations, a specific civilization, or society on a grand scale, for that matter.
Self-immunization. Since, analytically speaking, ideologies enjoy a
different ontological status than the one they invoke, it is reasonable
to expect that people who benefit from a particular ideology will do their
best to deflect close scrutiny and criticism. However, the point here is
that it is not only individual defenders of an ideology who are capable
of concocting situation-governed means of deflecting criticism. The ideology
itself leads to arguments for not taking threatening critique seriously.
Political incorrect arguments are often dismissed by references to a supposed
facticity , a social or psychological background, of those holding such
A clarification according to this definition of ideology enjoys two advantages over a looser use of the word. In the first place, there is nothing in the foregoing five criteria that inherently favors one political position over another; in principle, the analysis can be kept distinct from personal political preferences. In the second place, these criteria are so exclusive that they cannot be used to dismiss common rational and scientific analyses.
The five criteria in question are not merely five independent hallmarks. They are mutually related: There is reason to believe that a distortion of reality will follow a systematic defense of particular interests and that such an orientation is bound to claim victims. The fact that a given ideology can have a reality-distorting effect is due to a number of factors. In the first place, a given ideology can become preeminent through the agency of a specific thought system. Distorted perceptions of social reality can result, more or less logically, from the categories and interrelationships which characterize that ideology as a system.
The upholding of the system character of an ideology is vital for its
appeal and creditability. Therefore its defenders will very seldom incorporate
interpretations and data threatening the ideology. This, in turns, becomes
a motive for not correcting an ideology in due time when facing challenges
that are threatening the ideology.
Why is New Liberalism an ideology?
What then justifies to regard contemporary New Liberalism as an ideology, with inherent limitations for acceptable thinking? According to spokesmen for liberalism it should represent openness for all kinds of arguments.
Let me first recall that by new liberalism I do not mean certain right-wing political groups, trying to reestablish a kind of libertarianism. The new liberalism is the dominant ideology also for parties calling themselves conservative or social democratic. It is the characteristics of thinking about and understanding society which determine the classification of an ideology, not what its spokesmen call themselves in order to emphasize small differences as a contrast to their political competitors.
Liberalism has always been characterized by valuing individual freedom, market freedom, democratic freedom. But so do others, even if maybe to a more moderate degree. What makes the liberal tradition unique, is the way freedom is understood within the greater context of relations between individual and society. For more than two hundred years liberal spokesmen have seen "society", or the state, as an opposing pole to the individual. No one has denied the existence of relations between individual and society, but within liberal philosophy these have been understood as "external" relations; empirical relations that could in principle have been different. Both the individual and society is seen as originally independent of the other. This is not just something said by certain philosophers, it is a necessary precondition for making the rest of liberal philosophy coherent.
Individual liberation is understood as liberation "from society". This has implications for a liberal understanding of individuality, which will essentially be seen as an entity determined by nature/the body or by will/individual decisions. This way of thinking gives little room for understanding collective culture as something forming both the individual and society. Culture can be understood as art, a way of life, as a mark of identity, or a series of entertainment options but not as something that defines society or its social fabric. This is a prerequisite for understanding the privatization of cultural issues as a neutral policy.
According to many non-liberal ideas, a maximization of individual liberty will lead to egotism, exploitation, and ultimately to the breakdown of vital social arrangements. Liberals feel exempt from this objection, based on their belief that the individual - potentially, at any rate - is good and reasonable. This philosophy assumes that when individuals are set free, social responsibility will eventually follow. Historical myths about how human beings were born free but subsequently enslaved, along with contemporary myths about how social development represents a liberation from all constraints, can enhance the credibility of this line of thought.
Society, in the sense of interpersonal community, can either be seen in a subjective context, as springing spontaneously from joint action, or as having been adopted as convention or accepted as a body of regulations. Society can also be interpreted objectively, without having to break with the system of thought - for example, as a technical-economic framework derived from historical developments. If crucial social development can be understood in technical and economic terms, then it is possible to argue that individuals' choices and attitudes are primarily their own business; thus any negative consequences of liberation would not have to be socially destructive.
Liberal thinking is based upon philosophical premises, as well as social interests. Therefore it can be analyzed, partly independently of the legitimization for liberalism given by its spokesmen. Not even references to Human Rights should necessarily be accepted at face value. Several arguments could have been given for seeing a close connection between liberal premises for political understanding and the Declaration of supposedly Universal Human Rights, passed as Resolution 217 by the United Nation´s General Assembly the 10th of December 1948.
Article 1 in the UDHR reads: «All people are born free and with the same human dignity and human rights. They are equipped with reason and conscience and should act toward one another in the spirit of brotherhood" In spite of its good intentions, for a sociologist it is hard to accept that human beings are "born free", even if we know that Rousseau said something like this more than two hundred years ago.
At best, human beings are born with a potentiality for developing these qualities. Whether this potentiality shall be realized or not, will depend upon the quality of the culture where people live, and upon the character of the social network that could lead the individual into such a culture. This means that a defense of culture and social institutions become a requisite for reason and conscience.
At this point we face a contradiction in the premises for the UDHR, as well as in classical liberal philosophy. The Declaration certainly speaks about duties of the individual, and thereby of limitations to absolute freedom. The full text of Article 29 reads: "1.Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible. 2. In the exercise of his rights and freedom, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedom of others and of meeting the just requirement of morality, public order and general welfare in a democratic society. 3. These rights and freedom may in no case be exercised contrary to the purpose and principles of the United Nations". This means that a limitation of individual freedom is only justified when it serves the purpose of securing the freedom of other individuals, and the public order and general welfare required for such a policy. Laws for defending the conditions for a particular culture are contrary to what the Declaration defines as permissible. An argument for Article 29 is only possible within a philosophy where the individual is the only subject for rights, where culture has merely a derived character and where relations between individuals and society are regarded as external relations, that is within a liberal philosophy.
By thinking of the relationship between the individual and society as an external one, we are required to think of the individual as being essentially governed by something other than a constitutional culture. The individual can be seen as being governed by its nature, its reason, its will or its needs, and by its right to make use of their inherent potential. By thinking in terms of individuality apart from specific cultures, it is possible to postulate that all people, in the deepest sense, are what they are, independent of religion, history or culture. There is a close connection between the liberal notion of individualism and modern interpretations of universal human rights. This same perspective predisposes us to regard culture as a set of benefits, benefits that people from all over the world are entitled to experience and enjoy.(5)
The liberal dilemma
Throughout history, the liberal philosophy has had many critics; some have pointed out dubious assumptions and dubious consequences of an individual-centered social philosophy. In more recent times, various "communitarians" have criticized the notion of individual choice as a fundamental ethical objective.(6) There is a thoroughgoing criticism of liberal thought in Hegel's rights philosophy - for example, regarding the regulation of the relationship between religion, the state and the individual. From a liberal viewpoint, a neutral understanding of this relationship should suggest that the state would leave the matter of religion to its citizens. This was thought to be a politically neutral program without substantial commands, and one that was supposed to promote rationality and freedom. But Hegel maintained that this program contained hidden premises. If the program was to cohere, religion had to be perceived as a private matter, no matter what its doctrinal content or what the believers themselves felt; or, for that matter, regardless of what social scientists might have to say about the collective functions of religion. The principle of privatization thus became a substantial command, not a topic of discussion or a private matter.
What Hegel wrote about religion, others wrote about cultural understanding in general. This criticism can be formulated as follows: Either a liberal, to be consistently free on behalf of he individual, must subscribe to the idea that only formal, non-substantive rules should be binding for everyone. Thus freedom could be negatively justified, as the absence of constraint. But the liberal would at the same time have to interpret society's authority within a special framework and define culture as a private matter. But this would be a forced order against those who feel justified in regarding culture as a collective matter. Furthermore, the result of any privatization could be a gradual substantial transformation of the entire society in a non-functional direction, and thus a subverting of the social circumstances that made liberal freedom possible in the first place. Or, the liberal has to subscribe to a specific substantive perception of freedom, a positively defined injunction of what free people ought to realize; but in doing so, he would no longer be a liberal in the original sense of the term.(7)
Later this was termed the liberal dilemma: No matter what the liberal
chooses, he comes in conflict with his own doctrine of a society based
on formal liberty alone. This system of thought rests on an inner contradiction,
one that cannot be resolved practically by means of social liberal emendations
or by espousing tolerance. If a thought model with a built-in contradiction
is to maintain its credibility as rational and universally adaptable, it
will have to obscure this dilemma in some way or other.
Previously domination ideologies have failed, partly because of a contradiction between the limits of acceptable corrections of the ideologies and the character of the challenges facing them. The liberal tradition is also a system of thinking, which cannot be corrected indefinitely without loosing credibility. But, some of the challenges we can foresee for this century would require responses that transcended these boundaries. I will briefly mention three such challenges: the conflicts between liberal concepts of morality and a growing cultural anomie; the conflict between liberal concepts of sex and family formations and cultural and biological reproduction; the conflict between a liberal order for economic activity and a nature depending upon ecological systems.
The first conflict has to do with the inadequate understanding of culture on liberal premises. If culture is seen primarily as a matter for entertainment and lifestyle-identities, its moral functions will be overlooked. In perspective this will lead to some sort of anomie, a state of affairs characterized by weak supraindividual morality. Whatever might be said about moral, its functions for civilized societies should at least include norms for hampering individual egotism, for promoting achievements and for upholding institutions necessary for a collective identity.
Anomie may appear as a latent dysfunction of exalting individual happiness as the only all-purpose, indisputable value(8). Indirectly, such a prioritization of values can encourage many people to make use of chemical and electronic means for living in a tragedy-free emotional state. Instead of stronger personalities, we get individuals with narcissist attitudes.(9) Those who are willing to acknowledge their shortcomings risk escaping into neurosis or depression, and can go so far as to take their own life.
Our kind of individual-centered guidelines for the Good Life will also have unforeseen consequences for society's macrostructure.(10) The decimation of familiar, local and national cultural community may be the most conspicuous factor. Rather than entities to which the individual was to adjust in order to obtain a social identity, these same social entities become something that the individual can choose to relate to as he or she sees fit. But in the process, these entities are changed into something that has no supraindividual authority.
Weak morality and strong egotism is also a characteristic of contemporary sexual attitudes and patterns of family formations, particularly in the most liberal societies. This has led to falling rates of marriages combined with increasing divorce rates, and also to birth rates below the replacement level, in the Darwinean tradition a commonly used measure for dysfunctional adjustment.
The most serious challenge facing us in the 21st century is what has been called the «ecological challenge».(11) The term «ecology» (from the Greek words oikos and logos) could be translated as the doctrine of our stewardship with nature. In real terms, it involves those problems that have arisen in the balance between human culture and natural systems, by the development of an anthropocentric ethic, an instrumentalist science, and a technological manufacturing system, all legitimated by a liberal ideology(12)
Modern human beings become a threat to nature by their overconsumption of resources that are non-renewable in the short term, and by their disruption of nature's various systems of renewal. Nature is being subjected to a double-barreled attack from the human race: a depletion of scarce natural resources, and an infringement of nature's capacity to renew its resources. In part, this can be ascribed to a rise in the number of people, and in part to the fact that increasing numbers of people wish to consume more products and thus more natural resources. A common feature of these attacks is that they are legitimated by ideologies based solely on human rights, and not on nature's requirements.(13) It is only a question of time before these policies boomerang on our way of life, including our ability to sustain a New Liberal society.
Liberalism has been useful as an incentive for correcting totalitarian ideologies. Today we should be aware that liberalism as an ideology is built upon several contradicitions and distorting consequences. If we are not able to recognize and transcend this ideology in due time, it may even have totalitarian potentialities built into it.
1. 1 Skirbekk, Sigurd (1999): Ideologi, myte og tro ved slutten av et århundre. Sosiologisk kulturteori og funkjsonsanalyse. Tano/Aschehoug, Oslo (English manus (2000): The New Liberal Ideology, I SS, UiO, Oslo)
2. 2 Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels (1965): The German Ideology. Foreign Publishing House, Moscow.
3. 3 Cf. Larrain, Jorge (1984): The Concept of Ideology. Hutchinson, London 1984. Lenk, Kurt (ed.) (1970): Ideology, Ideologiekritik und Wissensoziologie. Berlin. Thompson, John B. (1984): Studies in the Theory of Ideology. Polity Press, Cambridge.
4. 4 Cf. Skirbekk, Sigurd (1986): Ideologianalyse som ideologi. En argumentasjonsanalyse av norsk moraldebatt. (An Analysis of Ideological Definitions of Ideologies.) Universitetsforlaget,Oslo; p. 38 f.
5. 5 Cf. the last articles in the UN's Declaration of Human Rights, where culture is referred to as something everyone has a right to enjoy, not a set of organizational conditions for community and for the preservation and development of civilization.
6. 6 Mendus, Susan (1989): Toleration and the Limits of Liberalism. MacMillan, Houndsmill. - MacIntyr, Alistair, Peter Berger, Charles Taylor, Michael Walzer, Michael Oakshott (1984): Liberalism and Its Critics. Basil Blackwell, London.
7. 7 An example of substantial ideological command based on radical liberal principles, with a condemnation of "communitarian" objections, can be found in Veit Bader's (1995) article entitled "Citizenship and Exclusion. Radical Democracy, Community and Justice", Political Theory vol. 23, 2/1995, pp 211-246. - Hans Skjervheim has written an influential Norwegian article about these questions, entitled "Det liberale dilemma" (The Liberal Dilemma), first printed in 1967 in Deltakar og tilskodar, Oslo. Tanum.
8. 8In May 1995 the news agency Reuters issued the following bulletin: «Criminality, depression, suicide, eating disorders, and alcohol abuse have all risen sharply among young people in the industrialized countries during the past 45 years. British and American researchers are now convinced that the growth of the youth culture, which created a gap between teenagers and their parents, must bear much of the blame for this development. Researchers feel that increased individualism and unrealistically high expectations in life are some of the most important causes of this increased chaos.»
9. 9 Cf. Nelson, Marie Coleman (1977): The Narcissist Condition. A Face of Our Lives and Times: Human Science Press, NY and Tylor, Charles (1985): Sources of the Self. The Making of Modern Identity. Cambridge University Press.
10. 10 Cf. Coleman, James S. (1990): Foundations of Social Theory, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA and London, ch. 1.
11. 11 Cf. Weiner, Jonathan (1990): The Next Hundred Years, Cappelen, Oslo and Jervas, Gunnar et al (1997): 2000-talets stora utmaningar. SNS Förlag, Stockholm.
12. 12 Hardin, Garrett (1993): Living Within Limits: Ecology, Economy, and Population Taboos. Oxford University Press, NY.
13. 13 Cf. Bojanovsky, Jörg J. (1994): Oekologie und sozialkulturelle Evolution. Enke, Stuttgart.