Liberal Naïveté

Shadia B. Drury

In the history of the West, the success of liberalism has been spectacular; its achievements have been stellar. It has replaced absolute monarchy with constitutional monarchy and the rule of law. It has replaced aristocratic privilege with a meritocracy in which careers are open to talents. It has replaced priestly tyranny with freedom of religion, thought, and speech. It has replaced the social demands of conformity with tolerance, if not total acceptance, of eccentric individuals with unusual lifestyles. It has allied itself with democratic politics to create successful liberal democracies in the West that are still the envy of the world for their freedom, stability, and prosperity. It continues to be the rallying cry of those who are reeling under oppressive tyrants and intolerant societies. But despite all its successes, liberalism suffers from debilitating flaws that incline it to self-destruction. I will focus on the most naïve of its founding assumptions and the amnesia about its historical origins that its remarkable success has induced.

In “Perpetual Peace,” Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) was confident that a coalition of free republics in the West would lead the world toward freedom, reason, enlightenment, and perpetual peace. In his Philosophy of History, G. W. F. Hegel (1770–1831) assumed that the fate of humanity depends on the triumph of Western freedom over Oriental despotism. In On Liberty, J. S. Mill (1806–1873) preached his doctrine of liberty only for advanced Western societies, not the backward nations of Asia and Africa, who need an Akbar, or great man, to rule them with an iron fist. For all these thinkers, it was the white man’s burden to bring the fruits of civilization to the rest of humanity. Without the march of freedom in history, the human race would remain in a state of puerility that is hardly distinguishable from that of brutes.

This confidence in its triumph as the goal of history explains the imperialistic proclivities of Western liberalism. It is no wonder that Hillary Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama denounce their enemies for being on the “wrong side of history.” Their language reveals the naïveté of assuming a progressive view of history as if the latter had an inevitable trajectory. It also betrays the imperialistic arrogance of assuming that our way is the only right way—the only way out of brutishness and into civilization. This naïveté darkens the appeal of liberalism, induces amnesia about its revolutionary origins, and limits its capacity to play an emancipatory role in world politics.

Another naïve liberal assumption is that freedom of thought and speech will necessarily yield truth. In On Liberty, Mill defended unlimited freedom of thought and speech. It did not occur to him that those who excel in the arts of rhetorical persuasion could make the weaker argument appear to be the stronger. It did not occur to him that when a lie is repeated again and again, it is likely to be believed. It did not occur to him that unfettered freedom of speech might allow those who excel in the arts of deception to hoodwink the majority. Even if Mill were right in thinking that the truth eventually comes out, it might take too long for that to happen; in the meantime, a great deal of harm can be accomplished, as the lies that formed the basis for America’s invasion of Iraq illustrate. The same naïveté is echoed in the Supreme Court decision Citizens United—as if freedom of speech, regardless of the circumstances, cannot have any deleterious effects on the polity; as if no amount of money can pervert the truth or silence the opponents of the rich and powerful.

Another naïve liberal assumption is that representative democracy will never pose a threat to liberty. Mill assumed that elected representatives would constitute a refined moral and intellectual elite that would be liberal, progressive, open-minded, open-hearted, and sensitive to the plight of the underprivileged. It never occurred to him that elected representatives might include the likes of Mayor Rob Ford of Toronto, Senator Todd Akin of Missouri, or all those politicians beholden to the Koch brothers.


So, what is to be done? Is liberalism spent as a historical force? Is it doomed to death and dissolution? Of course it is. No ideal can last forever. Most ideals are eventually sullied by the fanatical efforts of their adherents to make them a reality. But the demise of liberalism need not be imminent. There are things that it can do to postpone the inevitable extinction of all things human.

First, liberalism must transcend its naïveté if it hopes to survive. It must understand itself as one political regime among others and not the penultimate destination of history. It must acknowledge that there are other legitimate values, such as order, stability, virtue, and justice—any one of which may be more appropriate for societies to choose as their supreme goals.

Second, liberalism must prevent its naïveté about freedom of speech from making it an ally of wealth. Accordingly, it must reconsider its alliance with capitalism. The latter’s unprecedented rapacity has tarnished the emancipatory character of liberalism. Capitalism pretends to be a system that rewards individual talent, creativity, initiative, diligence, and sobriety. Its appeal rests on the seductive rhetoric of liberal individualism. By rewarding the unfettered labor of the most creative and industrious, it claims to enrich all of society. These claims may have been somewhat true in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but they are mythical in our time. Corporate capitalism is no boon to individual liberty; it demands hierarchy, authority, and conformity. Nor is it a recipe for global prosperity. In the poor countries in which it has been imposed by the International Monetary Fund, it has left the poor as poor if not poorer than before while enriching a small elite of rapacious oligarchs who join the ranks the global oligarchy created by global capitalism—now dubbed “neo-liberalism” to capitalize on the liberating aura of liberalism. Liberalism must sever its ties with this rapacious economic system if it is not to be totally besmirched by it.

Liberalism must also overcome its amnesia about its revolutionary beginnings. It did not magically replace absolute monarchy with liberal democracy. The English Civil War of the 1640s ended in the military dictatorship of Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan excesses. Even the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688 ended in a constitutional monarchy. The French Revolution of 1789 devoured its own, until Napoleon saved the day by imposing an autocratic rule of law that represented the hopes and dreams of the revolution. The gains of liberal revolutions must be solidified before democracy can be viable. It is impossible to have a liberal democratic society if the majority is not liberal-minded.

The liberal-minded youth who led the “Arab Spring” were seriously misled by the West into thinking that democracy would bring them the desired results. But it is no surprise that a populace that values Islamic virtue over liberty would elect the Muslim Brotherhood, who succeeded in stealing the Egyptian revolution. Appalled by the ensuing religious oppressions, the rebels opted to return to the secular military dictatorship that preceded the revolution. This dictatorship is doing its best to wipe out its enemies, especially the Muslim Brotherhood. Meanwhile, the West is sympathetic to the latter as the legitimately elected party. Of course, there can be no greater enemy of liberty than a theocratic regime. What could explain such a perplexing Western posture?

The answer lies in the perversity of the current Western understanding
of democracy among politicians and self-proclaimed experts in “nation building.” The current assumption is that democracy means allowing your political enemies to win. There is some truth in thinking that democracy requires a certain generosity of spirit, but it is not a suicide pact. For the revolutionaries to embrace democracy would be suicidal. What was the point of the revolutionary struggle, death, and suffering if the Muslim Brotherhood should be allowed to win?

Does that mean that a successful liberal revolution must wipe out all its enemies before it can turn to democracy? Not exactly. What is true for any successful or stable regime is true for liberalism. It must wipe out or imprison all the enemies that refuse to accept defeat and insist on violent struggle. But it is neither possible nor prudent to annihilate all of its enemies. This can only lead to an orgy of endless killing, which would inevitably tarnish the ideals being defended. Enemies should be left alone if they are reasonable enough to accept defeat and make no effort to overthrow the new order. Even better, their side should be given token recognition. In other words, the revolution must be gracious in victory and grant its enemies some symbolic role to play in the new order. For example, even though the Parliamentarians defeated the Monarchists in the English Civil War, the stable and peaceful regime that emerged after years of military and religious dictatorship had monarchical elements, but the principle of parliamentary supremacy was (and still is) unchallenged. Democracy took root much later, when the principles of the revolution were no longer threatened.

Democracy is feasible only when the principles of the revolution are solidified by autocratic means. Democracy is possible only when political “enemies” are no longer existential enemies or when the differences between the parties are largely cosmetic. Unhappily, cosmetic differences are giving way to more substantial ideological fissures in the West. The rise of religious fundamentalism in North America is threatening the liberal consensus, since religion has little use for liberty. The erosion of the liberal consensus explains why the political competition among elites is acquiring more of the trappings of an existential struggle. As democratic theorists such as Gaetano Mosca, Vilfredo Pareto, and Robert Michels have long recognized, democracy is not rule in accordance with the will of the people, because the people have no single will. More realistically, it is a regime in which elites compete for power. This competition is healthy when it is about competence and honesty, not deep ideological alternatives. So, to expect newly minted revolutions to embrace democracy is a cruel pipe dream. Democracies cannot thrive in the context of deep ideological fissures.

In short, what the West calls the “global democratic movement” is a nasty product of liberal naïveté coupled with amnesia about its own historical ascendancy.


Shadia B. Drury

Shadia B. Drury is professor emerita at the University of Regina in Canada. Her most recent book is The Bleak Political Implications of Socratic Religion (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).

“. . . Despite all its successes, liberalism suffers from debilitating flaws that incline it to self-destruction.”

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