One of the questions that comes up about Liberalism is how it survived the nineteenth-century assaults on the Enlightenment. And the answer to that question – or, more accurately, the current condition of the answer to that question – bodes ill for our world.
If Lockean Liberalism were just the political expression of the Enlightenment, it would have died in the nineteenth century.
Especially after 1794, when the French Revolution had conclusively proven that the Enlightenment, like everything else devised by human beings, could be taken too far, you began to see a backlash against it. This backlash took many forms.
Sometimes it came from people using the structures of the Enlightenment – reason and natural laws – to question the progress that was the purpose of the Enlightenment. Thus you got thinkers such as Thomas Malthus and, to some extent, Charles Darwin. Both of these men used their reason to uncover natural laws that seemed to deny the very possibility of progress and thus undercut the whole rationale for the Enlightenment – and, by implication, anything that came from it, such as Liberalism – in the first place.
Sometimes it came from people who disagreed with the structures of Enlightenment thought themselves, who felt that the world was not predictable in the way that natural laws said it was and that reason was not the way to truth. They favored intuition, emotion, faith and other irrational or anti-rational ways of looking at the world. Thus you get Romantics, Transcendentalists, Revivalists, and the like.
Given this, it would make sense that Liberalism would decline, that it would wither under the assault on its Enlightenment foundations and fade away in the face of other ideologies.
But it didn’t.
And the reason for this was the Industrial Revolution.
The Industrial Revolution was more than just an economic development. It did more than create new products, new manufacturing methods, and new wealth. It was a social movement, and it created new kinds of people.
Specifically, it created winners and losers.
The losers were many and varied – the old elites of the pre-industrial ancien regime, the industrial working class (ironically enough) and so on – and each group has a separate tale to tell. This is not their story. Not until the end.
The winners were the industrial middle class.
The winners of the Industrial Revolution were the white collar workers who ran it – the managers, the executives and so on, who harnessed the power of workers and machinery, organized it into coherent enterprises, and were well paid in both money and time for doing so. They were the professionals that those managers required for their services – bankers and financiers, doctors, lawyers, accountants and so on, the people on whom the industrial middle class relied and who were also well paid in both money and time for their services. They were the shopkeepers and other buyers and traders who served as the middlemen between those managers and professionals and the goods and services they needed and wanted.
These are the people who had the disposable income to buy the mountains of consumer goods being produced in the factories and the nice housing in which to put them. If you ever look at an interior photograph of a middle-class Victorian home you will understand as if for the first time the true meaning of the terms “clutter” and “firetrap.”
These are the people who had the leisure time to go to the new amusement parks and spectator sports and dance halls that emerged out of the Industrial Revolution’s plenty.
These were the winners.
And good for them, I suppose.
This industrial middle class was new, though. Obviously it did not – could not – exist prior to the Industrial Revolution. This was an entirely new kind of person.
One of the charming features of human nature is that groups need ideologies to justify their world – to explain the world in terms of their own experience, to justify their position in that world, and to tell them that their experiences are good, just and right. And new groups, not having one, need to find one.
To this end the industrial middle class adopted Lockean Liberalism.
It spoke to them.
With its emphasis on individual rights, on private property, on liberal democracy, on progress, on freedom from restraints, it seemed to describe their world fairly well.
For the industrial middle class, things were getting better. They did have private property – lots of it. They were the individuals who were allowed to vote and be represented in the democracies of the west. Their restraints were being lifted. Their world was, in fact, a Liberal world. Of course they became Liberals. Liberalism spoke directly to them, explaining their experiences, justifying their positions and telling them that their experiences were in fact good, just and right.
It was because of this that Liberalism became the default ideology of the Western world. The winners of the most important and powerful movement in the history of modern Western Civilization adopted it as their own. It became what you believed if you were, or considered yourself to be, or had aspirations of being, middle class.
And as more and more people began to move into the middle class, they too adopted Lockean Liberalism as their ideology.
As the old elites merged into the industrial classes, they saw how this could speak to them as well. Over time they tended to abandon the Conservatism that they had codified in response to the Liberal threat and instead worked to make Liberalism work for them. Conservatism fades away as a coherent movement when the old elites join the middle class, in outlook if not in finances.
As industrial workers unionized and began to earn real wages, wages that could support their families and buy some of those consumer goods, they tended to abandon the Socialism that had spoken to them in the mid- to late-nineteenth century and see themselves – or at least their children – as part of that broad middle class that Liberalism justified and defended. Socialism never really gets anywhere in the United States because American workers get good at winning the Liberal game and adopt the outlook of the middle class.
We all think we’re middle class today in the United States. If you don’t believe me, go out into the streets and start asking. See if you can find ten people today in America who don’t think they’re middle class.
Go ahead, I’ll wait.
The guy working third shift at the gas station thinks he’s middle class. The local mechanic thinks he’s middle class. Your doctor thinks he’s middle class. You think you’re middle class. I’d be surprised if professional athletes, US Senators, corporate CEOs and other millionaires also claimed to be anything other than middle class.
In a world defined by the middle class, Liberalism wins. It really is that simple.
But the middle class has been under assault in this country for decades now.
At this point I could drown you in statistics. Real wages haven’t increased in the US since 1973. The gap between rich and poor is now worse than it has been since the late 1920s, and getting bigger. And so on. Finding such statistics is not hard. Following where they lead, that’s the trick.
Because the sad fact is that the United States is on track to become an ancien regime society of wealth and poverty, with little to buffer the one from the other. It is working toward becoming a society without a middle class.
This is one of the many reasons why Governor Teabagger’s frontal assault on Wisconsin’s unions is so worrying. The net result of this will be to shrink wages, lower working standards and remove large numbers of people from the economic world of the middle class that has made this country strong - and not just in Wisconsin, but, as other states follow this lead, across the US as well.
And eventually, after a while, even Americans will figure out that most of us are not middle class anymore. We will go back to the social world of the ancien regime, of nobles and peasants, with a thin band of others between them.
We will be separated into a society of elites and the poor.
Where the poor will go for their ideology, I do not know. In a post-industrial world, I’m not convinced that Socialism will reappear among them. It might. I can’t say.
But I can say from simple observation that we are seeing a resurgence of Conservative thought among American elites. That authoritarian, hierarchical, anti-Enlightenment thought that says, “Obey your betters and stop trying to reach above your station,” that group-oriented, anti-rational appeal to tradition and obligation that does not seek to free the individual but bind him in chains of responsibility – that’s what you get when the middle class succumbs to attack.
In a world where the middle class disappears, Liberalism goes with it.
And what happens next does not look promising.