America just attempted suicide. Now what?
On Tuesday, November 8, 2016, the United States of America attempted suicide: 126 million citizens marched into the polling booth and, yearning for an America that never was, just over half called for an end to their cute little constitutional republic and opted instead for a tyranny. They used the liberal democratic process to systematically unravel liberalism itself. Ignored for centuries, the contradictory liberal logic of the modern world was bound to unravel itself eventually. This essay is both a post-mortem and battle cry; in it, I will explore the history of political liberalism and argue for several ways in which it is inherently contradictory; but I will also suggest that despite liberalism’s contradictions, a new politics – one that responds to liberalism’s deepest flaws — is possible, and, perhaps, inevitable.
To understand the fall of liberalism, it’s critical to understand exactly what liberalism is through a historical lens. While liberalism has roots in Aristotle, most scholars will pinpoint the birth of political liberalism to Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan. Originally published in 1651, Leviathan began a discussion over, as John Stuart Mill eloquently espoused: “what… is the rightful limit to the sovereignty of the individual over himself… where does the authority of society begin [and] how much of human life should be assigned to individuality, and how much to society” (Mill 1869).
For Hobbes, humans are born in a “state of nature": “a warre of all against all” (Hobbes 1994). Since Hobbes contends that “god hath made men… equal in the faculties of body and mind,” (Hobbes 1994) and there is no inherent goodness of humankind in this state of nature — humans here are nothing more than brute beasts, and their inherently selfish instincts will naturally lead them to attempting to seek power over others. In the state of nature, it’s kill or be killed. Therefore, suggests Hobbes, it is in humanity’s best interest to create a societal framework that limits their inherent freedom and allows them to enjoy a life that is not “nasty, brutish, and short” (Hobbes 1994). Hence, humans contract their rights to an independent sovereign, who has ultimate control over morality and justice.
Already there are some fundamental issues posed by Hobbes: it’s not clear all humans are born equal and it’s not even clear that there is an independent “self” separate from the “self among others.” The primacy of the metaphysical individual is, for Hobbes – as it is for other liberal foundational liberal theorists – taken completely for-granted.
However, the biggest issue for Hobbes – at least for now – is that his theory suggests a complete forfeiture and subjugation of all rights to an independent third party. The only way to live in a civil society is by contracting all inherent natural freedoms to the all-powerful sovereign — not the least of which includes unlimited use of force. This, of course, assumes much out of the sovereign — ideally, for instance, the sovereign is a benevolent one, but there’s nothing that necessitates this. For Hobbes, the sovereign (and hence, the state) is the granter of moral rights – and, most shockingly, Hobbes presupposes that whatever the state does is just by definition; there is no concept of justice outside the state. For Hobbes, terrified of civil war, this is necessary, because before this occurs, humans exist in a state of “no society… continual fear, and danger of violent death,” (Hobbes 1994) which is much worse than any sovereign. It’s through the faculty of reason that humans discover that this is no way to live, and are therefore more than willing to socially contract away their freedoms to the sovereign.
John Locke, on the other hand, is much more optimistic about humanity. Unlike Hobbes, Locke suggests that humans are, by nature, social creatures, and, even in a state of nature, will naturally tend towards peace and stability. The role of the government, then, is as merely an arbiter of disputes. “The state of nature has a law of nature that govern it” – reason, which “teaches all mankind… that… no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions” (Locke 1994). Humans, suggests Locke, “may not, unless it do justice on an offender, take away, or impair the life, or what tends to the preservation of the life, liberty, health, limb, or good of another” (Locke 1994). This claim holds true even in a “state of nature.”
It’s only because humans can’t be an arbiter in their own affairs — and accordingly can’t adjudicate transgressions to this fundamental moral claim personally — that a state is even necessary. This has some fundamental implications: civil society under this framework precedes the state, and humans don’t cede all rights of force to the state. Locke, unlike Hobbes, suggests that the state itself can be in violation of its duty to its citizens. For instance, by acting as both a judge and a participant in disputes, the state puts itself in a state of war with their citizens. For Locke, this opens room for rebellion. Peace, however, is the norm.
For Kant, peace isn’t just a norm, it’s a telos – peace is an a priori plan of nature. This doesn’t mean that the plan for peace is somehow fundamentally baked into “what it means to be human," however. In “Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View,” (Kant 1784) Kant explains in detail how “it might be possible to have a history with a definitive natural plan for creatures who have no plan of their own;” and argues for a proto-dialectical relationship between peace and conflict, which progresses towards “the achievement of a universal civic society which administers law among men” (Kant 1784). This is not a progressive straight line: it is a zigzag; whereby human antagonism is “the means employed by Nature to bring about the development of all the capacities of men” (Kant 1784). Without “incompatibility… heartless competitive vanity… the insatiable desire to possess and to rule… all the excellent natural capacities of humanity would forever sleep, undeveloped” (Kant 1784). In other words, through reacting to humanity’s flaws, humans learn to construct a political system which is founded on peace and ever-expanding notions of liberty.
This detailed study of Hobbes, Locke, and Kant is critical, because it is under the philosophical advisement of these Enlightenment thinkers that America structured her government and most of the rest of the European world eventually followed. Unfortunately, these forms of liberalism make several dubious claims: primarily, they begin by taking the singularity of the individual — as a metaphysically and ethically distinct, rights-first, independent, pre-social creature, for granted. The American founders enshrined this myth into the ethos of their nation. Individualism was the rallying call of the founders: “all men are created equal,” and with that equality firmly grounded must embark unabated on a project of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Even they, however, didn’t attempt to fully abide by this principle; angsty preteens begin pointing out the slaveholdings of the founders as early as middle school. The liberal myth of self-determination has never truly ever been at the service of the people; it has always functionally served the elite.
This is partially because prior to the myth of self-determination lies the myth of the individual, and, on top of that, individual rights. Almost every foundational text on political liberalism takes the myth of the individual for-granted; the primacy of the individual has always been self-evident. There are many reasons one might strive to object to the individual, purely liberal, metaphysical self. The first is biological: what, precisely, makes me me? Countless bodily functions need to occur to ensure a human body’s survival, many of which seem exterior to the essence of the body — for instance, while a matter of debate, recent studies show that less than half of the cells in a “human body” are identifiably human; the rest are bacteria and other microbes (Sender, Fuchs, Milo 2016).
But beyond the biological argument, which is admittedly rather weak, comes a more nuanced claim: it is impossible to truly ground this pre-social creature. Even the most ardent liberal will agree that humans are born into a specific social, temporal, and familial conditions which structure their relationships with their world and each other.
Here, liberals may want to suggest these are somehow secondary or distinct from their essence as a human being, but it’s not clear how to ground that distinction. According to Charles Taylor, “atomism” — the view that rights are perched on top of a liberal self — “affirms the self-sufficiency of man alone, or, if you prefer, the individual” (Taylor 1985, 189). “What, then,” asks Taylor, “does it mean to say that men are self-sufficient alone… that they would survive outside of society?” “Clearly,” he notes, “lots of men would not… and the best and luckiest would survive only in the most austere sense that they would not succumb” (Taylor 1985, 190). But the issue is not merely that most people would “fail a survival course and not live for a week if dropped north of Great Slave Lake with only a hatchet and a box of (waterproof) matches” (Taylor 1985, 190). It is not even merely that society is necessary to “develop [peoplekind’s] characteristically human capacities” (Taylor 1985, 190). Taylor’s argument “is that living in society is a necessary condition of the development of rationality… or of becoming a fully responsible, autonomous being” (Taylor 1985, 191). Ergo, “the doctrine of the primacy of rights is not as independent as its proponents want to claim from considerations about human nature and the human social condition” (Taylor 1985, 197).
Trumpism itself is a rejection of the American dream of individuality. “Your economic struggles are not your fault – it’s them,” suggests Trump; “build the wall,” scream his enthusiastic supporters. The suggestion is that Americans would be free to make whatever they’d like out of themselves but to do that, they must first violently distance themselves from the terrifying Others. It is Trump — only Trump — who will save Americans from the Others; affording them the freedom to “Make America Great Again.” The great irony of Trumpism — which is simply American fascism — is that it affirms the individualistic hallucination of independent liberty through relocating all economic and societal concerns on a constructed Other.
Even if one could definitively establish the atomistic self, the ethos of individualism also carries with it fundamental yet contradictory ethical implications: “that the good life is necessarily a freely chosen one in which a person develops his unique capacities as part of a plan of life is probably the most dominant liberal ethic of the past century” (Gaus, Courtland, Schmidtz 2015). This statement is in direct contradiction to itself: imposing a concept of the good life as that which is freely chosen doesn’t allow space for one to freely reject this concept of the good life.
Under fascism, liberalism also fails to sustain
itself, as inherent within the structure of liberalism — insofar as it has been politically applied throughout world in the form of constitutional republics — contains within it the possibility of self-destruction. There is nothing fundamentally within the structures of governance built under the guise of liberalism that prevent the free election of a single-party totalitarian government. There is no political override switch – to be a liberal state is to have the capacity to deny this freedom; this choice being an anti-state, a completely nihilation of what it meant to be a liberal state in the first place. Liberalism eats itself from within.
The traditional liberal argument would qualify this move as a move from a state of peace into a state of war. But it is not merely specific political conditions that give rise to liberalism’s contradictions. This possibility is ever-present and continuously operating in the structure of liberalism itself. To say a constitutional republic is a “liberal state” is simply to make a fallacious claim, for two reasons: because states necessarily give rise to the totalization of the political individual, denying the very freedom political liberalism perched itself on top of; and because a constitutional state mediates political action from its citizens, thus denying the very conditions political liberalism depends on.
To understand why republican representative states give rise to totalization of individual political decisions, it is critical to explore here the role of the individual within the state. Exteriorly, liberal states are nothing more than conglomerations of individuals acting with a totalized praxis – that is to say, a state simply is the actions and decisions made by the state as a unified whole; as Jean-Paul Sartre notes, “France as a totality realizes itself outside itself through its government, as the free totalization of the collective” (Sartre 1991, 352). What’s more, the government serves to “relieve individuals of determining their… sociality in a grouping,” (Sartre 1991, 352) or, in other words, the state encourages an individual to define themselves entirely by their nationality, rejecting any formal exterior political considerations regarding their role or responsibilities within that grouping. This isn’t to suggest individuals do not act — they can, and often do, strive to influence the decisions of the state, and, one could argue, the mere act of appointing representation is a political act. However, ultimately, they are divested of their praxes through the mechanism of the state’s necessity to unify praxes into an exterior totality — and, because of this, the politics presented here rejects the claim that appointing representation should be the de facto definition of a political act.
This kind of state form what Sartre might call a “fused group,” a group which, though it may many internal praxes, has exteriorly totalized all of its singular praxis into a congealed praxis and a congealed state. Constitutional republics attempt to solve the obvious problem here — that is, “how to justly reconcile the individually conflicting praxes within the structures of a collective” — through appointing representation as the primary arbiter of political action. For Sartre,
representation… [is] a projection of the inert gathering of the inaccessible milieu of praxis…. Each elector, of course, decides to vote as Other and through Others; but instead of deciding in common and as a unified praxis with the Others, he allows it to be defined inertly and in seriality by opinion. (Sartre 1991, 351)
This seems fine at first, as “an elected assembly represents the gathering as long as it has not met, as long as its members are the inert product of an inert alterity and as long as crude multiplicity… expresses the relations of impotence amongst collectives and power relations in so far as these forces are forces of inertia” (Sartre 1991, 352). However,
as soon as an assembly gets organized… and defines itself as a definite group… this real praxis (in which the passing of laws… now have only the formal aspect of the original election… but express… symbolically the agreements, disagreements, alliances, etc. amongst the groups in the majority) presents itself both as the faithful of the gathering – which being organized, it cannot in any way be – and as its dialectical efficacity… but the very fact of penetrating the gathering with a false totalized unity relegates the gathering to its statute of impotence. (Sartre 1991, 352)
In other words, the act of representation necessarily is a process of alienating away direct political action to a third party which in no formal way retains its ties to the original electors. The freedom by which the electors nominated and selected their representative is fundamentally destroyed in the mere act of the gathering of the elected assembly and positing it as the state.
Consequently, representation necessarily alienates the individual from their political actions. This has another, more fundamental side-effect: it is not possible, under a Sartrian framework, to separate the individual ego from the gaze of the Other; for Sartre, it is the gaze of the Other which gives rise to individual consciousness. Since Sartre asserts that human freedom is action and “action is on principle intentional,” “one must be conscious in order to choose, and one must choose in order to be conscious.” Consequently, “the will, far from being the unique or at least privileged manifestation of freedom, actually… must presuppose the foundation of an original freedom in order to be able to constitute itself as will” (Sartre 2001, under “Freedom: The First Condition for Action”). In other words, ontological freedom is built on top of a framework that recognizes action as willful, conscious and intentional. This means, of course, that a political system focused on mediating political action from its constitutive parts simply cannot be one that allows for Sartre’s notion of ontological freedom — at least on the political level — because it denies the conditions of consciousness and intentionality so necessary to give rise to that freedom.
Even more troubling, it is not possible for the individual so necessary in a liberal politics to form its own self without the gaze of the Other. In Sartrian terms, individuality “must refer to a primary relation between my consciousness and the Others” (Sartre 2001, under “The Look.”) Sartre famously uses the example of a voyeur to illustrate this: the peeping Tom looking through a keyhole, fully immersed in his activity, exists entirely on a pre-reflective level; it is not until they are met with footsteps that the for-itself fully recognizes itself as a consciousness. If rationality is predicated on this self-consciousness, then without the gaze of the Other, there is simply no way that the fundamental liberal assertion of rights as fundamental and descending from reason can get off the ground prior to a social condition.
In these ways, it is impossible to do a “liberal” politics, because a liberal politics will necessarily nihilate itself into merely the concerns of individual or a totalized group; yet politics is built upon considerations of that which is public. There is no such thing as a private politics. Even if the focus shifts from doing a politics of individuals and instead on a politics of parties, groups, or classes — as required by a politics that is built upon representation, since representation is the totalization of many individual praxes — this kind of politics presents the exact same problem: to understand myself in the structure of a group, it is necessary that a Third group is constructed; the “us-object… is directly dependent on a Third” (Sartre 2001, under “Being-With and The ‘We'”). A politics of this sort will always descend into fascism, because it is necessary that a politics of us construct a notion of a them. Moreover, the us simply cannot comprehend that they are constructing an oppressed other, as they do not consider themselves an “us:”
the member of the oppressing class see the totality of the oppressed class confronting him as an objective ensemble of ‘they-subjects’ without his correlatively realizing his community of being with the other members of the oppressing class… it is therefore useless for human-reality to get out of this dilemma: one must either transcend the Other or allow oneself to be transcended by them. (Sartre 2001, under “Being-With and The ‘We'”)
Fascism is the personification of these contradictions. It arises out of the inability for a politics which claims to be both liberal and inclusive (“we, the people”) to successfully get there; it needs a constructed Other to justify itself. Without the Other, liberalism cannot successfully operate within its own contradictions. Fascism is this artificial construction of this Other by force; the powerful aphrodisiac through which liberalism hides its many sores.
Of course, the great irony of liberalism is the same forces which led to the rise of Trumpism are also the same forces which can give rise to the construction of a new politics. As history has shown numerous times, liberalism can and does dismantle itself. The question becomes: how to respond to this dismantling? What is to replace it?
Thankfully, some forms of liberalism are predicated on top of a notion of civic responsibility that suggest a revolution when liberalism inevitably gives way to fascism. Perhaps this is liberalism’s saving grace. While Hobbes suggested that revolution was unthinkable – revolution is the return to the state of war which caused people to cede their political powers to the sovereign in the first place — John Locke’s theory of revolution was much more nuanced; even empowering. According to Locke, when a leader sets up “his own arbitrary will,” and “this is demonstratively to reduce all to anarchy, and so effectively to dissolve the government… the government visibly ceases, and the people become a confused multitude without order or connection” (Locke 1994). For Locke, this means that “when the government is dissolved, the people are at liberty to provide for themselves by erecting a new legislative differing from the other by the change of persons, or form, or both, as they shall find it most for their safety and good… for the society can never, by the fault of another, lose the native and original right it has to preserve itself” (Locke 1994).
It’s not terribly clear in Lockean terms what to do when it is society itself which sanctions the destruction of their government, but a broader reading of Locke might suggest it might still be rightful to revolt and reconstruct a new politics. This reading of Locke affords much space to experiment with the “form” of this new politics. Even though he was a fervent advocate of liberalism, it is entirely possible to read Locke and suggest that the contradictions explored above are exactly why liberalism needs to accommodate challenges or modifications to the very foundational precepts of liberalism itself. If it cannot successfully do this, it will inevitably continuously give rise to its own destruction, with nothing to show for it. Though Kant isn’t a terribly big fan of revolution — revolution, for Kant, can never be justified because it is a dissolution of government, the very rejection of “what it means to be in governed society” — he might even suggest that this self-destruction is part of a “natural plan” of history; giving space to construct an even more liberal politics which rejects some of classical liberalism’s most troublesome assumptions.
What might this new politics look like? An in-depth exploration of this new politics is outside the scope of this paper. In short, however, this politics needs to operate in such a way that individuals exit a state of totalized, alienated political control and into a state whereby human freedom can be understood and arbitrated on a local political level. Furthermore, this new politics needs to relocate human rights not as pre-social and fundamental, but only relevant through interactions with the Other; liberal rights simply don’t make sense without rising from within a social framework. This is not to make a move toward moral relativism or a move towards denying all universal or fundamental moral claims. It is very possible for this politics to assert fundamental moral claims that arise within the framework of social ties. For Sartre, what it means to be human, for instance, is built upon a notion of ontological freedom that only becomes relevant through the gaze of the Other.
However, Sartre’s later political and economic writings also make it clear that ontological freedom simply isn’t enough; to fully exercise the liberal capacities of humanity, it is necessary that this politics ensure that material freedom is also asserted. Access to education, for instance, would deny human freedom vis a vis denying the faculties of the human mind. Without access to shelter, food, and water, society denies the individual human body property over itself. It is not enough to merely survive; a “liberal” politics — especially if it is to succeed in the face of fascism — take these alternative prerequisites for of human freedom into account.
This piece began with an alarmist claim, but it should end in hope. I have argued several audacious things: first, I explored the history of political liberalism, and then began to challenge the fundamental assertion of the liberal individual whose rights exist as a function of his rationality and are thus bound unconditionally. I proceeded to explore the ways in which traditional liberalism contradicts itself: it suggests that the good life should be the one built on freedom, an obvious contradiction. Representative government mediates political action from the very individual it seeks to ascribe freedom to in the first place, and the denial of this action is the very denial of the necessary conditions of freedom. It predicates itself on a fundamental free self-consciousness that can only arise within a community, while also denying the validity of that social condition as essential in any way; this, inevitably, leads to the fascist construction and oppression of an Other.
But the forces which dismantle liberalism also provide a space by which to construct a new politics that can avoid many of liberalism’s obvious contradictions. There are many practical and theoretical considerations this new politics must contend with, but the essential thrust of this argument is that to avoid the self-destruction of liberalism that is fascism, liberalism must learn to relocate the foundation precepts of rights away from the individual and towards the individual within community; while also reimagining political action not as something that happens in the voting booth but that happens through direct action and interaction between selves in community. This new politics may be the only way to heal a very damaged America.
- Gaus, Gerald, Courtland, Shane D. and Schmidtz, David. 2015. “Liberalism” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2015 Edition). Edited by Edward N. Zalta. http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2015/entries/liberalism/;
- Hobbes, Thomas. 1994. Leviathan. Edited by Edwin Curley. Indianapolis: Hackett.
- Kant, Immanuel. 1784. “Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View.” Translated by Lewis White Black. <https://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/ethics/kant/universal-history.htm>
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- Mill, J. S. 1869. On Liberty. <https://www.gutenberg.org/files/34901/34901-h/34901-h.htm>
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- Sartre, Jean Paul. 2001. Critique of Dialectical Reason: Volume 1. Translated by Quintin Hoare. London: Verso.
- Sender, Ron; Fuchs, Shai; Milo, Ron. 2016. “Revised estimates for the number of human and bacteria cells in the body.” < http://biorxiv.org/content/early/2016/01/06/036103>
- Taylor, Charles. 1985. Philosophy and the Human Sciences: Philosophical Papers 2, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.