Liberal Hypocrisies and the Alternatives to Them

by Benjamin Studebaker

All social orders are supported by “legitimation stories”. These are the reasons orders give us to support them, or at least to stay out of their way. Legitimation stories don’t have to be true, but they have to be persuasive. The social order has to create a set of conditions that are similar enough to the stories that we mistake what we have for what we were promised. Legitimation stories are chiefly about “good order”. Order is straightforward–social orders promise to protect us from violence, starvation, instability, and precarity. They promise to make us feel secure. “Good” is less obvious, because “good” tends to mean different things to different people in different contexts. Liberal legitimation stories understand “good” in three senses:

  1. A good order is one in which the subjects of the order are “free” or have “liberty” in some relevant sense.
  2. A good order is one in which the subjects of the order are treated as “equal” to one another in some relevant sense.
  3. A good order is one in which the order “represents” the subjects in some relevant way.
  4. A good order is “dynamic”, it is capable of delivering real change.

The trouble is that terms like “free”, “equal”, and “representative” don’t have stable social meanings. Our understandings of these terms can easily slide out of alignment with the understandings we need to have for legitimation stories to work. If we understand “equality” to mean “a fair distribution of resources” but the liberal order wants us to understand “equality” as “everyone gets to have their say”, the order has to convince us that we’ve misunderstood the meaning of equality. It has to get us to think about it in a whole different way. When gaps open up between the conditions the order produces and our expectations, it is often because the order has lost control over how we understand the words it uses to tell its stories. When this happens, the order appears “hypocritical”–it appears to say one thing and do another, to tell stories it has no intention of realising. That’s what today’s post is about–the liberal order’s hypocrisies.

One of the central problems faced by the liberal order is that it has lost control over the definitions of the terms it uses in its stories. Too many people think liberal orders don’t produce liberty and equality. Too many people don’t feel the liberal order represents them. In some ways, this is because of changes in conditions. Many people want the liberal order to produce the stable, shared prosperity of the post-war era, and the liberal order is no longer capable of delivering on that. In other ways, this is because of changes in what words mean. Increasingly, liberal subjects don’t feel they can be “represented” by third parties who come from different identity groups. They want to be represented in a thicker way, by people who are more similar to themselves in appearance or life experience. The liberal state has tried to accommodate this, pitching itself as home to a plurality of identities. It has also tried to address its problem with “equality” by attempting to convince its subjects that this new form of representation is itself what constitutes equality. We are “equal” insofar as our respective group identities are recognised by the state, and they are recognised insofar as our representatives come from our identity groups. In this way, equality becomes “equality of recognition” rather than shared prosperity.

But this new version of the liberal legitimation story is struggling to sell. The hypocrisy of it is still visible to large numbers of people. But different people react to this hypocrisy in different ways. Here are a few different positions that occur to me:

  1. The Marxists want people to see the hypocrisy and reject liberalism, so they can replace the liberal order with a socialist order based on a very different set of legitimation stories.
  2. The Neoreactionaries want people to see the hypocrisy and reject liberalism, so the state can be more honest and consequently more straightforwardly coercive.
  3. The Realists see liberal hypocrisy, but they don’t want other people to see it, because they believe there is no credible alternative to the liberal order at this time.
  4. The Liberals don’t see liberal hypocrisy and are satisfied by liberalism’s extant legitimation story.
  5. The Libertarians and anarchists see liberal hypocrisy, but they want the liberal state to live up to unrealistic, exaggerated versions of the liberal legitimation story. No order can live up to these exaggerated values, and therefore the libertarians and anarchists tend to reject order outright.

I’ll offer a few more thoughts about these responses and how they relate to one another before we close.

Marxists vs Libertarians & Anarchists

Socialism is associated with both the Marxists and with the libertarians and anarchists. The libertarians and anarchists stem from the utopian socialism of the 19th century and from the transcendental values pursued by the French revolutionaries in the 18th. They are always looking to pursue maximalist versions of liberty, equality, representation, and dynamism, even at the risk of breaking the order and unleashing horrific levels of violence. Because these maximalist principles are not realisable in the physical world, the damage they do to the order does not succeed in delivering the values they seek–instead, large numbers of people are hurt to no purpose.

Karl Marx sought to break with the utopian socialists. Instead of grounding his socialism on transcendental values, he grounded it on an ever-evolving account of political economy. As our economy changed, our social roles would change, and that would lead to new ways of thinking and feeling about politics. Marx recognised that he himself could not anticipate precisely what worldviews capitalism would generate as it developed, that these perspectives would be grounded in the context and would grow up out of it organically. For this reason, he refused to give “blueprints” for future societies and refused to give a comprehensive account of his own values.

Because Marx didn’t give an account of his values, the values of the utopian socialists are often attributed to him, and he gets associated with liberal values–especially equality. But the concept is not one which Marx himself liked to use.

The contemporary left draws more on the utopian socialist tradition than it does on Marxism, and because of this it tends to moralise, seeking to oppose liberalism by taking its values way too seriously. Liberalism did not create liberal values to realise them in their fullness–it created them to legitimate the liberal order, the very thing libertarian socialists and anarchists oppose.

The Realist Tightrope

Unlike the libertarians, the realists see straight through most of the liberal mirage. But they remain unconvinced that alternatives to the liberal order exist. For realists, a departure from the liberal order constitutes either totalitarianism or chaos. Marxism looks totalitarian to them, and libertarianism looks chaotic. They continue myth-making for the liberals, not because they believe in liberalism, but because they don’t believe in anything else. Because their myth-making is self-aware, it is tougher and earthier than standard liberal stories.

There is, I think, one last bit of the liberal mirage that remains convincing for realists–dynamism. In 1943, Joseph Schumpeter made the argument that democracy was valuable, not because of its ability to deliver on liberal values like liberty, equality, or representation, but because of its sheer ability to generate change. This “minimalist” conception of democracy stripped the liberal legitimation story of its least believable components, leaving a story that was rawer and more honest. But dynamism alone is not enough for most people, and the liberal order has become considerably less dynamic over the years. The realists recognise that dynamism is not enough to legitimate the liberal order, but they still believe it exists and has value. They protect that value by lying about liberalism, helping the full liberals sell their stories.

This puts them in an awkward position between the liberals and the neoreactionaries. On the one hand, they align with the neoreactionaries by casting doubt on the bulk of the liberal values, often desiring a more honest and straightforward account of the liberal order. On the other hand, they value the dynamism and the variety and plurality it brings. They also find value in the masking itself. When the liberal state pretends to live up to its values, this forces it to act in ways that approach them, if only a little. The realists see value in those approaches, but never mistake them for sincere commitment. The neoreactionaries don’t value liberal values in the first instance, nor do they value Marxist efforts to build something more emancipatory. Like the libertarians and anarchists, they often aim to return to forms of living they consider more ancestral and natural. But unlike the libertarians and anarchists, the neoreactionaries never convince themselves that our ancestors enjoyed liberty and equality. For them, dynamism is found in vicious struggle rather than liberal plurality. That, ultimately, is the main difference between neoreactionaries and realists–the neoreactionaries like their dynamism hot and violent, while the realists like it cold and institutional.