The Making and Unmaking of Technological Society 2: The trouble with liberalism

In Part I of his The Making and Unmaking of Technological Society (see previous post), Murray Jardine traces the trajectory of modern liberalism from its beginnings with Locke and Hobbes to the present. His argument is that liberalism embodies the contradictions of the technological society in that it recognizes humanity’s capacity to alter its physical and social environment but lacks a moral framework for limiting and directing that capacity. This is intimately related to liberalism’s quest for a “neutral” public sphere that prescinds from making judgments about the relative worth and value of different types of human life.

Early modern liberalism, or “classical” liberalism, Jardine argues, combined a new sense of individual freedom to be secured by limited government and the free market with the remnants of a natural law ethic. This ethic encouraged thrift, rationality, and productivity – the classic Protestant work ethic. It was believed that a society of productive rational individuals trained in the habits of this ethic were necessary to build up wealth and create a peaceful and harmonious society. Far from being “neutral” about the good life, this early modern version of liberalism reflected in many ways the outlook of the rising merchant and manufacturing class. This version of liberalism was dominant up through the 19th century.

The next stage of liberalism is “reform” liberalism, or what we would identifiy as New Deal/Great Society liberalism. Liberals in this era no longer saw overweening government as the only, or chief, threat to individual freedom, but saw concentrations of corporate power along with economic deprivation and inequality as social ills that could only be remedied by using government to check the workings of the market. While giving rise to needed reforms, this version of liberalism expressed the outlook of a managerial or technocratic elite which saw social problems as tasks to be tackled by accredited experts working in the massive institutional beauracracies that dominated the middle part of the 20th century (big business, big government, big labor, etc.).

Finally, with the economic stagnation that appeared to face western nations at the end of the 1970s we see the rise of what Jardine calls “neoclassical” liberalism, or what I would call “libertarianism lite.” This differs from reform liberalism in wanting to set the market free as an engine of wealth creation, but also differs from classical liberalism in rejecting the old bourgeois ethic in favor of a more thoroughgoing subjectivism about values. Milton Friedman and F.A. Hayek were both subjectivists about value and denied that government could legitimately judge between the prefrences expressed by individuals or that the distribution of rewards in the market was a matter of justice. Essentially this is the “fiscally conservative, socially liberal” consensus that is more or less shared in varying degrees by the elites in both our parties.

In Jardine’s view, neoclassical liberalism shows the ultimate failure of liberalism in providing any kind of check on or direction for human creative capacities. As an objective moral order has receded, the market has taken over more areas of life to the point where the model of freely contracting individuals becomes normative for practically everything, including marriage, family, and community. The removal of restraints on the market has resulted in a culture of work and competitiveness that leaves little time or energy for pursuits outside the sphere of commerce.

The result is a consumer economy and a consumer culture characterized by the ethos of expressive or aesthetic individualism. The purpose of life becomes one of self-expression through consumption, cultivating a particular “lifestyle.” This is true for “high” culture as for “low.” Jardine points out that critiques of American “consumerism” often contrast it with the supposedly superior lifestyle enjoyed in Europe, but he points out that what we have there is just a different form of consumerism:

North American and western European socieities are in fact both consumer cultures; the patterns of consumption just differ slightly. North Americans tend to consume things: their homes are cluttered with electronic gadgets, and their garages are filled with gas-guzzling SUVs. Western Europeans, on the other hand, tend to consume experiences: they spend their money on expensive food and elaborate vacations. European consumerism may be, in some sense, slightly more sophisticated, but it is nevertheless consumerism. (p. 124)

The deepest problem with the consumer culture of late liberalism and the “postindustrial” economy is that it is unsustainable. The ruthless competitiveness of the market and the exhausting demands of the culture of work, combined with self-expressive individualism create social anomie and atomism. This in turn is a breeding ground for tyranny because atomized individuals are more easily controlled by governments (see, e.g. Robert Nisbet’s The Quest for Community) and a threat to the sheer physical perpetuation of society, since having children makes less sense in a consumerist society. Children threaten to become, at best, another consumer product. Add to this the possible ecological consequences of an ever-expanding consumer economy, and you have something that can’t, in Jardine’s view, go on.

The deep paradox of liberalism, then, is that, while it recognizes human creative potential, it both underestimates and and doesn’t know how to direct it. It underestimates in that it can’t see an alternative to the ever-expanding consumer economy as a way of meeting human needs. And its moral subjectivism disallows any judgment of value about the ends to which that creative capacity is put. The result is an ultimately unsustainable consumer culture.

In the next part Jardine goes on to articulate how Christianity can provide an alternative moral framework that holds out the hope of a better approach to human creativity.

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