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Fitzgerald Liberalism as a World Religion

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Fitzgerald Liberalism as a World Religion
   1 1 Liberalism as a ‘ World Religion ’, and Neoliberal ism as ‘ Religious Extremism ’ 1   Timothy Fitzgerald Introduction The 18 th  century Enlightenment was heavily influenced by, and productive of, the body of ideas that came to be called Liberalism in the 19 th  century. Modern theorizations of representative democracy, individual rights, and national sovereignty are all constitutive of Liberalism. Liberalism is also strongly associated - historically, and in contemporary discourse - with the secular science of economics and the doctrine of free markets. Typically today academics and media-politicians refer to modern representative democracy as Liberal democracy, and the free market capitalism of such societies as Liberal capitalism. Liberal democracy and liberal economics have been widely assumed to be a mark of western progress and superiority, of the modern over the traditional, of the secular over the religious, not least because Liberals respect the rights of Individuals, liberty and equality, the sovereignty of nation states, and free trade. Liberals have attributed this success story, in part at least, to the progressive marginalization of ‘religion’ and its dogmatic faith postulates from public life, and its replacement by the objective domains of secular reason. The problem with this narrative is that Liberalism is itself based on faith postulates that are not essentially different from what are typically classified as religious beliefs. The key doctrines of Liberalism are based on myths  –  about human nature, about ownership rights,   2 2 about self-regulating markets, about progress and development, about nations and national identity, about religion and religions - that have taken on the appearance of universal, common sense normality 2 . None of these Liberal abstractions have any empirically confirmable objectivity. They constitute imaginary goals and aspirations that appear in subjective consciousness as the limits of our ability to think. Furthermore, in Neoliberal doctrine these myths have become invested with an intensity of faith that is not unlike the extremism frequently attributed to ‘religious fanatics’, and which today drives much of the violent disorder evident in the world. If the categories and principles of classical Liberalism are ‘ religious ’  beliefs, then Neoliberalism is a fundamentalist revival movement characterised by dogmatism and missionary zeal. That Liberalism, especially in its purist Neoliberal form, is not itself essentially different from a dogmatic religious faith undermines the very idea of the ‘secular’ as the reasonable ground from which the ‘religious other’ can be identified . The Meanings and Deployments of Liberal The term ‘Liberal’ has become associated rhetorically with ‘equality’ and e ven more with ‘liberty’. The fundamental sense of ‘liberty’ in Liberal ideology is the freedom of the Individual to pursue his or her private interests against the encroachments of arbitrary and unelected government. It has become associated with liberation  from oppressive regimes; from the bigotry and irrational violence of religion; from the conservatism of traditional hierarchies; and from the oppressive and irrational past. The Liberal modern has been imaginatively constructed as secular tolerance, progress and development in opposition to the dark ages, the medieval and the exotic other. Liberalism is a soteriology of liberation of   3 3 individuals from bondage, of enlightenment and self-fulfilment, the realization of our true entrepreneurial self in a world of spontaneously-combusting markets. In order to avoid an infinite regress, I am assuming for argument’s sake that many of the foundational ideas of Liberalism were emerging in Christian Europe during the 17 th  century. John Locke has frequently been referred to as the Father of Liberalism, and there are good reasons for that. Though he rarely uses the term ‘liberal’ himself, a  number of basic Liberal concepts and principles can be found in his work, a point I return to later in this chapter. When the word ‘liberal’ appears in Locke, it typically has the meaning of tolerant, flexible and generous. There is good reason for this, for these are the older nuances of the word, and it continues to have this meaning today. However, such positive meanings have historically become combined and confused with a newer Enlightenment discourse on liberal political economy. Paradoxically, a central category of liberal political economy is the selfish Individual, who finds his (and more recently her) most rational activity in self-maximisation through free markets. The term ‘liberal’ took on an increasingly specific and theorised meaning in the works of Scottish Enlightenment authors such as William Robertson and Adam Smith. 3  I n and around 1769 such terms as “liberal policy,” “liberal plan,” “liberal system,” “liberal views,” “liberal ideas,” and “liberal principles” began to proliferate, and these liberal ideas - “the liberal system of free e xportation and free importation ”  - were already embedded in a discourse on self-regulating markets, the division of labour, the progress of nations, and the entrepreneurial Individual.   4 4 After Smith’s death in 1790,  fellow Scots such as Dugald Stewart and contributors to the Edinburgh Review “reinforced ‘liberal’   discourse and guaranteed that the term’s us age continued to spread ” . Jeremy Bentham, who systematised the utilitarian calculus of Individual interests, approvingly adopted the term in these senses in his writing on political economy. In the 1820s the suffix “ - ism” was attached to create “liberalism.” In Britain the founding of the Liberal Party in 1859 4  at the height of British imperial power gave the term a prominence that suggests the increasing centrality and institutionalization of the term. William Gladstone (who was four times the Liberal Prime Minister of Britain) and fellow Liberals such as Richard Cobden and John Bright popularised the term “liberal” largely as Adam Smith and others had begun to use it. In Joseph Schumpeter ’s words   “Gladstonian finance was the finance of the system of 'natural liberty,' laissez- faire, and free trade.” 5  The Declaration of Independence (1776) and the US Constitution (1790), which is a prototype of modern written constitutions, are powerful proclamations of Liberal values, and figures such as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison are surely among the most powerful voices expressing Liberal values and concepts of government. The US Constitution proclaims and establishes the fundamentals of Liberal democracy based on the proclaimed natural rights of the Individual, of which arguably the most important is the right to freedom from government interference, the right to private accumulation of capital, and the right to representation. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution  –  written by a small, educated elite of property-owning men, many with slaves - are couched in the language of universal progress and enlightenment, of liberation from traditional forms of tyranny. These sacred texts proclaim Liberal modernity at the same
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