Liberalism and the Millennials

Last night, Hillary Clinton and her online supporters went after Bernie Sanders over his support in the 1980s for Fidel Castro and the Sandinistas. Glenn Greenwald shows why Clinton is in no position to be lecturing Sanders about tyranny in other countries. Clinton has not only walked the walk, but also talked the talk, on behalf of serial violators of human rights across the globe: Saudi Arabia, Syria, Israel, Honduras, the Gulf states, not to mention “Kissinger is a friend, and I relied on his counsel when I served as secretary of state.” As I said in a tweet last night, “Sanders stood with the Sandinistas, Clinton stands with Kissinger. Is this really a tough one?”

But Glenn raises another point worth mentioning.

Vehement opposition to Reagan’s covert wars in Central America, as well as to the sadistic and senseless embargo of Cuba, were once standard liberal positions. As my colleague Jeremy Scahill, observing the reaction of Clinton supporters during the debate, put it in a series of tweets: “The US sponsored deaths squads that massacred countless central and Latin Americans, murdered nuns and priests, assassinated an Archbishop. I bet commie Sanders was even against Reagan’s humanitarian mining of Nicaraguan waters & supported subsequent war crimes judgement vs. US. Have any of these Hillarybots heard of the Contra death squads? Or is it just that whatever Hillary says must be defended at all costs? The Hillarybots attacking Sanders over Nicaragua should be ashamed of themselves.”

In high school, I would say I was a moderate to liberal Democrat. It was an article of faith among my set that US intervention in Central America was not only strategically unwise but also morally unsound. Still reeling from Vietnam, nauseated over the barbarity of the Contras and the Salvadoran death squads, it didn’t take much in the way of liberal sympathy or imagination to think that anything the US did in Nicaragua, Guatemala, or El Salvador—short of getting the hell out of there—would be a disaster for the peoples of those nations.

Again, this was a position that was widely shared among mainstream liberals and Democrats. I just looked up the 1982 House vote on the Boland Amendment, which prohibited all military aid to the Contras, and it was 243 in favor, 171 against. Which means that some portion of moderates also adopted this anti-interventionist position.

The only reason Clinton and her supporters on Twitter can so reflexively attack Sanders over this issue—not his support for the Sandinistas or Castro, but his opposition to US intervention—is that, thanks to two decades of liberal support for regime change and humanitarian intervention, the whole discourse of liberal anti-interventionism has practically disappeared from the scene. Today, the only solid and reliable anti-interventionists you can find are either left-wing anti-imperialists, paleo- or other brands of conservative at outlets like The American Conservative, or an ever narrowing circle of IR realists like Steve Walt.

Which brings me to the millennials. I know a number of young leftists, in their 20s or early 30s, who have no experience or memory of this liberal anti-interventionism that I’ve been describing here. When they think liberal, they think of the Clintons and their allies, who are not only terrible on the issue of US power around the world, but also terrible on the question of economic justice and equality at home. They have no memory of a generation of left liberals who fought firmly for labor unions, who pushed hard for universal health care, public housing, and the like. They have no memory of a young Arthur Schlesinger rejecting Communism but nevertheless affirming that “class conflict is essential if freedom is to be preserved, because it is the only barrier against class domination.”

For liberals or leftists of my generation, or for even older liberals and leftists, the discourse of anti-liberalism on the left has a resonance. It calls to mind some of the most bruising battles of the 20th century—Communists against parliamentary socialists, Popular Fronters and Henry Wallace Progressives against the Americans for Democratic Action, Irving Howe-style socialists against the New Left, and so on. For someone like myself, who identifies with the left but who nevertheless has a great deal of respect for the tradition of liberalism, it is imperative that there be a good and productive tension between liberalism and the left.

So I can imagine when liberals and leftists of my generation, or those who are even older, hear the flat refusal of millennials on the left to even entertain the possibility of a dialogue with liberalism, it can seem scary, like a return to some of the worst moments of intra-liberal/left fratricide. But this is where history can get in the way. For the millennials, the bankruptcy of liberalism is not Walter Reuther or Hubert Humphrey or A. Phillip Randolph or Bayard Rustin; it’s Clinton, Clinton, and Clinton.

The gulf today between liberalism and the left is not of the millennials’ or even of the left’s making; it’s the product of a liberalism that has been moving right for decades and that, whatever feints to the left it has been making more recently, still has some way to go before there can be a useful and productive dialogue of difference.


  1. John March 10, 2016 at 12:51 pm | #

    Liberalism was always a doomed idea — reform a system based upon extraction and the promotion of wealth stratification. The New Left are at least more honest in embracing their inner conformists and allegiance to a better flavor of fascism which implicitly admits that extraction and stratification should continue as long as the serfs are fed.

  2. Rachael Sotos March 10, 2016 at 1:03 pm | #

    Your reminder of the recent history of left-liberal relations brings to mind Arendt’s account of the murder of Rosa Luxemberg by the Freikorps, but “under the eyes and probably with the connivance of the Socialist regime then in power.” Arendt suggests the murder of Luxemberg as a watershed moment that helps us to reframe the failure of twentieth century revolution…a failure of the center-left and revolutionaries to stick it together. This is perhaps an overly dramatic way to frame the neoliberal temptation, but perhaps not. Historically speaking, Bernie carries on the Luxemberg’s Yiddish Socialism.

    • N. March 10, 2016 at 4:16 pm | #

      The Social Democratic regime killed Rosa not the Socialists.

  3. troy grant March 10, 2016 at 1:07 pm | #

    When liberals move to the right, they become neo-liberals, former liberals that got rich.

  4. Roquentin March 10, 2016 at 1:41 pm | #

    Ironically, while I was a straight-up reactionary in high school it was of the anti-interventionist, vaguely libertarian sort. The idea that state power was bad (and I was young and naive enough to take that part of the platform seriously) extended to constant foreign intervention alongside the notion that the US military should exist strictly and exclusively for defensive purposes. Sure, I’d never heard much of anyone talk about the malfeasance in Latin America and probably wouldn’t have been very receptive if I had, but even back that the foreign adventurism of the US military sounded bad.

    Also, while Clinton certainly represents a certain strain of politically bankrupt liberalism (mild identity politics mixed with neoliberal captialism) the rot certainly can’t be placed solely at her feet or only at that of the Dems. Libertarian politics have taken over the term liberty so completely that when ever I see a group, organization, or media outlet with the word “liberty” in the title it’s the canary in the coal mine for it being run by reactionaries. Hell, even that school Jerry Falwell set up is called “Liberty University.” After being told that kind of reactionary trash is some kind of liberalism for most of your childhood, liberalism itself starts sounding corrupt. And maybe it is, honestly. I don’t think all of them got it wrong. The ideology of political liberalism allows for this sort of thing, it can’t all be blamed on poor interpretation.

    This is yet another reason why Sanders “democratic socialism (aka social democracy” is so important. It represents a break with liberalism as what passes as “left” in the US.

    However, this is by far the part that’s most important to me. Clinton’s attitude perfectly sums up the attitudes within the US during the Cold War and after. It goes as follows: It’s only human rights abuses when someone else does it. I watched The Look of Silence on Netflix last weekend, which documents the experience of a man whose brother was butchered during the mass killings under Suharto in Indonesia as he tries to confront those who were responsible, many of which are still in power. It was almost too much to take. Gone was the bizarre humor of The Act of Killing, with the buffoonery of the killers trying to make their own movie where they were heroes. This time it was just rampant cruelty and a refusal to acknowledge anything even was wrong. Once again, it’s only human rights abuses when someone they don’t like does it. Like most of the high ideals of liberalism, human rights have been perverted and exploited to ridiculous levels. Under the guise of phony neutrality, it has been a cover for US power for a long, long time.

    Finally, to be vaguely Hegelian we always see reprises of past dialectical oppositions in concepts. These same battles the left went through in the past will be continue to be fought again in different forms indefinitely. This is why old texts and ideas continue to be relevant and not necessarily a bad thing.

  5. xenon2 March 10, 2016 at 2:31 pm | #

    The School of the Americas is still open, right next to the Stewart Center for deportees, run by ICE.That’s why I belong to,, ,etc.

    Look at El Salvador, Guatemala or Honduras.These countries are worse off than in 1980, when Archbishop Romero was shot while saying mass. I’m now listening to a book that explains who started it.Believe me, it’s spell-binding.The Cold War, Iran, Latin America, The World, all this to 2 men? If you have a country in need of a coup…

    And Haiti.When Aristide raised the price of workers in ‘Clinton-Bush’ sweatshops by 10 cents, Aristide was kidnapped to Africa.

  6. Raven Onthill March 10, 2016 at 2:32 pm | #

    I have never though of the Clintons as liberal; it is only because the Republicans have fallen off the cliffs on the right side of politics that they are not simply identified as conservatives.

    As to human rights abuses, I think Kissinger is a subtle well-spoken racist: he doesn’t seem to see non-white Europeans as human and therefore regards them as pieces which can be placed on a Go board, and sacrificed as necessary to achieve a victory in the game. Giving Clinton the benefit of the doubt, she may genuinely believe those sacrifices are necessary, but is still willing to sacrifice people to achieve her goals. She is short-term in her thinking: if a tactic will win a particular battle she will undertake it, without counting the costs to the war or the law.

    • Benjamin David Steele March 10, 2016 at 8:54 pm | #

      I agree. I’ve been thinking a lot about that lately. I have no idea why anyone would think the Clintons are liberal in the normal sense of the word. They are clear examples of conservatism in mainstream politics, so it seems to me.

  7. Jeff March 10, 2016 at 3:12 pm | #

    Arthur Schlesinger came to oppose the Vietnam war but was vocal in his early support so one should be careful extolling him on interventionism. Also, in “The Vital Center” he made sure to portray the left (communist and non-communist) in ways that were reminiscent of Orwell’s hint of femininity or homosexuality. This book (which you cite) also overlaps with literature like “The True Believer” by the right winger Eric Hoffer. Not everyone is as impressed with Schlesinger’s liberalism as others are.

  8. March 10, 2016 at 3:41 pm | #

    Just another paean to co-option. Right, left, center, wherever, leftists exist to be the enemy of liberals. It does not matter if the ends appear to be the same, if the left makes common cause with liberals to achieve those “progressive” (vomit) ends, then those ends will have liberal meaning. So — a glaring example — sexual liberation becomes normalizing (making hetero-whole) bourgeois hetero-handicapped identity cults (LGBT). Here’s the dialog with liberals: your way of being in the world cannot co-exist with ours. You are the enemy. You have to go. Any other dialog is just a variation on “please co-opt me.”

    I would make common cause with the devil, even in the form of Trump, to defeat liberalism. Call me a scary millennial if you like.

    • Roqeuntin March 10, 2016 at 7:32 pm | #

      In spite of my disdain for liberalism, I don’t object to finding common cause with it. Liberal capitalism, warts and all, is still better than fascist capitalism of the sort Trump and the GOP (as if Cruz were the slightest bit better) want to institute. It’s really easy to sit here and speak of doing anything to defeat liberalism, but the failure to prevent Trump, even if he follows through on 1/10th of his platform, will have very real consequences. First and foremost, population transfer in the form of mass deportation of immigrants from Latin America. This would ruin countless lives if attempted and must be prevented at all costs.

      Also, to be so dismissive of the progress made in gay rights in this country in the past couple of decades is absurd. Those gains were real, and real people benefited, co-option or not. It’s easy to forget how rank homophobia was the law of the land until, very, very recently.

    • aab March 10, 2016 at 7:34 pm | #

      I’m a lifelong leftist Old (defining Old as over 50, under SS/gov benefits age), and I’m with you. If it is Clinton vs. Trump in the election, I will vote for Trump — with no illusion that he’s a good guy or that his nominally populist/progressive policy positions are real. I’m hoping he’d at least not institute TPP, but who knows with him? My greatest hope if he won is that he’d be bad at governing, but unwilling to obey the R establishment, so as with Obama, R policies wouldn’t pass. A Trump win has the potential to break both the D and the R factions of the ruling party, which is a necessary but not sufficient condition for positive change. (A Sanders win would be even better, of course.)

      I presume under Clinton, plenty of R policies WOULD pass. And I believe her and her husband’s hold on the Democratic Party is deeply toxic and must be broken, before they go all Augustus Caesar on us and install Chelsea. But it’s deeper that that; neoliberalism must be broken, which means liberalism must be broken, because its fundamental theoretical framework builds on the idea that it is right and proper to have an entrenched ruling class; they just need to be nice to those beneath them, who are presumed to be not merely beneath them in wealth and power, but in value and merit. And what global neoliberalism has revealed is that with the “meritocratic” rationale, they no longer even feel the need to be nice to those under them; they need only be polite.

      • Raven Onthill March 10, 2016 at 8:01 pm | #

        That’s right, the Godwinzied one won’t last…

        Talk about your zombie left-wing ideas!

        Look, this experiment has been run multiple times in history: supporting the crazy right-winger always does more harm, sometimes much more harm, than anyone on the left predicts. We just don’t have sufficiently sick imaginations.


        • aab March 10, 2016 at 10:24 pm | #

          I presume you’re addressing me?

          Just because I’ve already been through this a bunch of times, and convention-bound thinkers struggle to grasp my point: I am not “supporting” Trump. I am resisting the ruling class herding towards Clinton. I consider both Clinton and Trump quite evil, and bad for the country and the globe. Faced with two terrible options, I would vote for the one that was less likely to deliver terrible outcomes in office, and more likely to damage both factions of the corrupt elite. Trump’s racism and incitement to violence is horrible. However, he is indicating he’s less enthusiastic about waging pointless, extremely violent wars overseas. He seems to be affirmatively locking himself into getting rid of NAFTA and the TPP — that would be good for America and good for the planet. Mrs. Clinton is more polite. But she has supported and advocated the starvation, unjust imprisonment, and death of millions of Americans in the past, and is even more actively complicit in the violent overthrow of governments and the creation of failed states that have led to millions and millions of deaths and even more suffering and dislocation. She will unquestionably launch more wars and pack “trade” agreements to the hilt, which, again, would destoy the lives of the majority of American citizens, everybody else on earth, and the climate, ergo most species currently in existence.

          They’re both right wing. She has hugged Kissinger virtually and literally, and is now siding with Ronald Reagan’s Contra war. Trump is in many ways already running to her left. So in Clinton vs. Trump, we would have a polite, efficient killer vs. a mouthy, less committed one. Obviously, the best option here is neither, if enough people can feel the Bern.

      • Bill Michtom March 11, 2016 at 1:12 am | #

        As vile as HRC is, that anyone would vote for Trump instead is appalling. Any Republican would be worse for the most vulnerable, as we can see at Trump rallies. Clinton would likely be as bad as a militarist, but not as bad for things such as SCOTUS and minorities.

        Have you not been hearing what the Rs are saying about Muslims, the Constitution, non-white immigrants, the destruction of separation of church and state, etc.?

        • aab March 11, 2016 at 4:27 am | #

          I’m hearing. It’s repulsive. Are you not aware of what Clinton has actually helped DO, and what kinds of policies and people she is affirmatively aligning herself with?

          Did you read my argument? Because you’re not disputing it in any way. And let’s talk about SCOTUS. First, if she is elected, she will probably have no coattails. The Senate will be Republican. So any nominee has to meet with McConnell’s approval — if he doesn’t just announce that since she’s in the process of being impeached, she can’t nominate a justice until that’s over. (Do you really think they won’t immediately start impeachment proceedings against her?) If she DOES get to nominate a justice and get that person through, they’ll be a corporatist. Maybe okay with “diversity,” but they won’t deal with our monopoly problems, media control, environmental destruction, corporation ownership of government, etc. AND, if she’s elected, TPP becomes the law of the land, which means the law of the globe, which means the ISDS (Investor-State Dispute Settlement) becomes the overriding legal authority for the United States. Even IF through some miracle she chose to nominate, and was allowed to seat a modestly liberal justice, just about any SCOTUS ruling could be overruled by ISDS. Yes, I suppose SSM might be safe. But what else might be done? Can’t fix the VRA problems with a Republican Congress. I guess cases might come before the court that could claw back some of the VRA. But Clinton wouldn’t even want that. Now that she knows the young reject neoliberalism, she is suppressing turnout with the same vigor as the Republicans. Outside groups can push cases through the system, obviously, but we’re starting to look at very minimal gains that could be made with the SCOTUS under Clinton. Could we get some improvements in abortion law? God, I certainly hope so. But the reality is that Mrs. Clinton isn’t even very pro-choice. You’re asking me to hope and pray that she can get a reliable pro-choice justice past Mitch McConnell. Does that seem likely? And other than very limited social policy law, the SCOTUS will no longer have the final say, because of TPP.

          That’s not a lot of benefit.

          And she certainly will launch wars and kill millions. I guess you’re trying to get me to say that’s okay as long as they’re not US citizens. But she’s itching to send Americans into those wars. So it’s not just “others” she’ll kill. She robustly advocated for the very racist and harmful polices of her husband’s administration. Given that she’s hugging Kissinger and Reagan now, and started out loving Goldwater (a love she reaffirmed while First Lady), I think it’s reasonable to assume she has always been racist, and continues to be racist. She’s just polite racist. So yeah, she says the right things in big public gatherings. And Trump giving ugly people permission to be ugly and violent at his events — not just permission, but goading them on — is AWFUL. But do you really think he’s going to actually hurt more people than she is, in the office of President? If he protects Social Security (she has already made noise about raising the age for full benefits), he’ll save lives. If he backs out of TPP, he’ll save lives. He seems less excited about launching wars, which is why the neocons are running to her. That too, would save lives.

          We are being herded to Clinton by the elite and the courtier media. Reporting is coming out that much of what Trump actually talks about at events is populist economic stuff. It’s probably not coherent enough to be called policy, but it’s at least acknowledging that the people have been had, that free trade isn’t free, and globalization isn’t some inescapable force of nature. That’s why there are Obama voters now backing Trump. Yet the media is only covering the ugly racism, and doing its best to block people from hearing about Bernie, while covering up the hideous implications of what is actually coming out of Clinton’s own mouth. Trump isn’t actually significantly more racist than Bush or Romney. He also probably isn’t significantly more racist that Clinton — who after all ALSO wanted to build a wall on the border, send children back to be killed by death squads she helped create, etc. He’s just saying the quiet part out loud — REALLY loud. Yes, he’s bad. But if the elites are working this hard to give us zero choice and force us to consent to Mrs. Clinton’s ascendance, forgive me, but I’ll pass. It’s a dumb show, and I’m not dumb.

          As I said initially: he’s terrible. So is she. I may have to decide — and you, too — which one will do more to stop (either intentionally or not) the monstrous behavior of the elite and weaken their hold on power. I certainly don’t want to vote for him. I want change. Positive change. Positive change that robust majorities of American citizens want. I would like our democratic system to prove it actually can be democratic. Because if we can’t find a way to correct the system at the ballot box, the remaining alternatives are all worse. If I am confronted with two terrible options, between two terrible people, both of whom have unfavorability ratings higher than any person ever elected President, so high it would be the kind election seen in countries the U.S. has traditionally pointed and laughed at, I will do my best to cast my vote in the best long-term interests of the country and the planet. But it won’t be an easy vote.

          Meanwhile, it looks like I get to cast the easiest, most enjoyable vote of my life in the primary. Yay!

          • jennifer jackson March 11, 2016 at 11:15 am | #

            Thank you for a lucid, convincing argument. The kids are alright.

          • Gavolt March 11, 2016 at 6:15 pm | #

            Were a loaded gun pointed at my head, I still would not vote for Trump. However, I believe Trump exists for certain reasons, and that Clinton will do nothing to address those reasons (because, simply, she does not care). Therefore, I believe a vote for Clinton to be tantamount to a vote for Trump in the future. Or, if not Trump, then someone like him (very possibly worse).

          • Bill Michtom March 11, 2016 at 6:53 pm | #

            “it would be the kind [of] election seen in countries the U.S. has traditionally pointed and laughed at”

            You left off that it is the kind of election that the US supports (Honduras after the coup).

            “Trump isn’t actually significantly more racist than Bush or Romney.” This is not, btw, a recommendation,

            As to the rest of your argument, it ignores how extreme ALL the Republicans are, HRC will prevent another Scalia from being on SCOTUS and will defend reproductive rights. These are not small items.

            If Bernie doesn’t win the nomination (or has it stolen by the DNC), basic self-defense should tell you that HRC WILL be somewhat less horrific and in significant ways.

            Again, this is not a recommendation for Clinton, or ignoring how horrible and murderous her policies and positions have been, it is a reminder that the Rs are–stunningly enough–MUCH WORSE than she is.

  9. stephen laudig March 10, 2016 at 5:53 pm | #

    what follows isn’t the clearest explication of the point but here goes. So…. does this [Contras good; Kissinger my pal] mean that Clinton II is retracting/modifying/waffling on her statements or faux apologies or explanation or con about what she wants us to believe was her “acknowledgement” of a semi/hemi/demi sorta mistake about voting to war on the Iraqi people? She either was or was not fooled by Bush II into voting for war and “making a maybe mistake”. Odd timing now, just after successfully closing on the con of Super Tuesday she outs herself as a “chicken hawk”. cheers.

  10. troy grant March 10, 2016 at 8:02 pm | #

    Jesus was a liberal.

    • Frank March 10, 2016 at 9:02 pm | #

      Jesus was a communist, dumbass.

      • troy grant March 10, 2016 at 9:40 pm | #

        Stalin, Pol Pot and Mao were communists shithead. Jesus was a liberal.

        • aab March 10, 2016 at 10:09 pm | #

          Wait, you’re serious? No, Jesus was not a liberal. To be liberal, you must be aligned with the ruling class. Jesus (if he existed) was a radical. That’s why he was killed.

          • troy grant March 10, 2016 at 11:04 pm | #

            Jesus was a liberal humanist and a pacifist. So was MLK. Che was a radical. Malcolm X may have been too. Liberals usually turn the other cheek. Radicals usually fight back.

          • troy grant March 10, 2016 at 11:06 pm | #

            BTW, liberals are not aligned with the ruling class. Neoliberals and conservatives are.

  11. aab March 11, 2016 at 3:43 am | #

    Troy, you don’t seem to understand what many of the words you are using mean, particularly the word “liberal.”

    • troy grant March 11, 2016 at 1:51 pm | #

      Oligarchy paleo-conservatives have seen to that. They could not stay in power unless they confuse, condemn and conflate the words liberals, socialists, communists, humanists, atheists and other deemed threats to their power. The oligarchy has long had salaried wordsmiths like Luntz working 24/7 to preempt any sort of danger to their wealth and power.

      Today the oligarchy’s six major media companies comprising of thousands of “news” outlets are busily demonizing liberals and other threats while glorifying and funding conservative authoritarian dictators like Cruz.

      Their liberal demonizing has been so successful that liberals will not use that name any more. Instead they call themselves “progressives”. What will they call themselves when that word is also demonized?

  12. The Furtive Exile March 11, 2016 at 3:34 pm | #

    Liberalism, as a political ideology, was founded upon the idea of colonialist interventionism.

    The weak protests it made against central american interventions during the 80s were a brief aberration; the history of liberals throughout the 19th and 20th centuries amply demonstrates that to be true.

    • troy grant March 11, 2016 at 4:56 pm | #

      Liberalism is not a political ideology. It only seems that way when liberals defend against conservative ideology. All political ideologies stem from conservatism or more accurately, from authoritarianism, the opposite of liberalism.

    • Benjamin David Steele March 11, 2016 at 7:49 pm | #

      Liberalism had many sources.

      It was inspired by the Classical thinkers from the Axial Age. It was shaped by the Protestant Reformation and Anabaptism, along with English Civil War (Puritanism and Quakerism, Levellers and Diggers, etc). And it was influenced by new ideas of individualism and psychology that arose during the Renaissance. But of course colonialism also brought new views and understandings of the world. Back in Europe what was said to be impossible was shown to be a reality in some non-European societies, such as Native American governing systems.

      Radical liberals like Thomas Paine were born into this milieu. There were many liberals in the revolutionary era and thereafter who were even more radical. Those radical liberals weren’t colonial interventionists. Paine, for example, supported the rights of Native Americans—not to mention abolitionism and women’s suffrage. Before him, the likes of Roger Williams also supported the rights of Native Americans.

      There were many separate traditions that fed into liberalism. A major force in the British colonies and the early US was Quakerism. Paine was raised by a Quaker father. John Dickinson was raised fully in American Quakerism and he helped bring the Quaker tradition of constitutionalism into his writings of the Articles of Confederation.

      There was a lot going on back then.

      • LFC March 11, 2016 at 9:36 pm | #

        Thank God, a reasonably coherent, historically informed comment, for a change (at least they seem scarce on this thread, having glanced at it).

        • Benjamin David Steele March 11, 2016 at 10:01 pm | #

          There are often good discussions in the comments section of Corey Robin’s blog. I sometimes add some thoughts, when I feel inspired. Liberalism in a historical context just happens to be something I’ve read about quite a bit.

          I’m glad it was reasonably coherent. I was trying to get to the point without making it into an essay. There is obviously a lot that could be added about early liberalism and what led to it. It’s hard to make a simple coherent point about such a complex topic.

          Over the years, I’ve written about it at length in my own blog. If you want a relevant example about liberalism and colonialism, you could check out the following post. In it, I discuss the different regional influences on the multiple American liberal traditions:

          In the above comment, I mentioned one piece of info that I recently came across. Here it is, about one of the pre-Enlightenment origins of modern psychological thought:

          The Culture Wars of the Late Renaissance: Skeptics, Libertines, and Opera
          by Edward Muir
          Kindle Locations 80-95

          “One of the most disturbing sources of late-Renaissance anxiety was the collapse of the traditional hierarchic notion of the human self. Ancient and medieval thought depicted reason as governing the lower faculties of the will, the passions, and the body. Renaissance thought did not so much promote “individualism” as it cut away the intellectual props that presented humanity as the embodiment of a single divine vine idea, thereby forcing a desperate search for identity in many. John Martin has argued that during the Renaissance, individuals formed their sense of selfhood through a difficult negotiation between inner promptings and outer social roles. Individuals during the Renaissance looked both inward for emotional sustenance and outward for social assurance, and the friction between the inner and outer selves could sharpen anxieties 2 The fragmentation of the self seems to have been especially acute in Venice, where the collapse of aristocratic marriage structures led to the formation of what Virginia Cox has called the single self, most clearly manifest in the works of several women writers who argued for the moral and intellectual equality of women with men.’ As a consequence of the fragmented understanding of the self, such thinkers as Montaigne became obsessed with what was then the new concept of human psychology, a term in fact coined in this period.4 A crucial problem in the new psychology was to define the relation between the body and the soul, in particular to determine whether the soul died with the body or was immortal. With its tradition of Averroist readings of Aristotle, some members of the philosophy faculty at the University of Padua recurrently questioned the Christian doctrine of the immortality of the soul as unsound philosophically. Other hierarchies of the human self came into question. Once reason was dethroned, the passions were given a higher value, so that the heart could be understood as a greater force than the mind in determining human conduct. duct. When the body itself slipped out of its long-despised position, the sexual drives of the lower body were liberated and thinkers were allowed to consider sex, independent of its role in reproduction, a worthy manifestation of nature. The Paduan philosopher Cesare Cremonini’s personal motto, “Intus ut libet, foris ut moris est,” does not quite translate to “If it feels good, do it;” but it comes very close. The collapse of the hierarchies of human psychology even altered the understanding of the human senses. The sense of sight lost its primacy as the superior faculty, the source of “enlightenment”; the Venetian theorists of opera gave that place in the hierarchy to the sense of hearing, the faculty that most directly channeled sensory impressions to the heart and passions.”

      • The Furtive Exile March 17, 2016 at 5:18 am | #

        Sure – there was a lot going on, back then. But “liberalism” as we understand it today owes its origins to the Liberal party of the UK, and that party coalesced primarily around the core idea that Britain had the right – the moral duty, even – to force other countries to engage in “free trade” with British merchants and corporations.

        That core idea has carried down today, and we see it in ideas like neo-liberalism, neo-conservatism (which, oddly, is just a more radical and shameless version of neoliberalism), and R2P.

        Just as the Liberal Party in the UK began to coalesce, we start seeing things like the Opium Wars and the full-blown takeover of India, with many, many wars fought to force countries to “open trade” to Britain’s exploitative corporations.

        There were some, in the Liberal Party, who objected to these interventions, but they were the minority. The party’s moneyed backers and strongest cabinet members – rather like the anti-war Democrats.

        It’s no coincidence that it’s the “liberal” wing of the Democrats who kept getting the US into wars, and certainly Dixiecrats were never understood as “liberal” in the sense we currently use the word – but they were certainly “liberal” on the core issues of “free trade”, “capitalism,” and war to force those values on other peoples.

        And i respectfully disagree with your characterization of Paine as a “radical liberal” – Paine was a flat-out radical, and his writings strongly suggest he would have been an enthusiastic follower of Marx, or the anarchist movement. Gladstone was, i think, more of what would be called a “radical liberal”, for the time. The truth is that “liberal” as we currently use the term really didn’t exist until Buckley introduced the “liberal vs. conservative” dichotomy. The term “liberal” has been used to identify a certain strain of political thought for a couple of centuries, now, and our use of the term today simply doesn’t match what it was originally coined to describe.

        • Benjamin David Steele March 17, 2016 at 8:05 pm | #

          @The Furtive Exile – “But “liberalism” as we understand it today owes its origins to the Liberal party of the UK, and that party coalesced primarily around the core idea that Britain had the right – the moral duty, even – to force other countries to engage in “free trade” with British merchants and corporations”

          No, it doesn’t. The UK Liberal party didn’t form until the 1850s. That was generations after the term ‘liberal’ had been used in a political sense. It preceded the American Revolution, 40 years before Paine’s death. And it already had the basic meaning it has today.

          Paine would probably have been familiar with the word, as it was used by widely read thinkers of the time. One example is Adam Smith, an individual with which Paine agreed on at least some issues such as economic inequality and progressive taxation. Both Smith and Paine were highly critical of what today we’d call plutocracy and how vast wealth accrued at the top undermines moral sentiments and the social fabric.

          American founders such as Washington and John Adams (in talking about government and politics, along with society, economics, and religion) would describe various things as ‘liberal’. Paine had a close relationship with Washington. They spent time together on the battlefield. And Paine as a welcome guest at Washington’s home, once staying their for an entire week as I recall. The idea of liberalism was explicitly discussed.

          I don’t know if Paine ever used the word ‘liberal’. He did regularly use the word ‘liberty’, as of course did many others at the time. They both have the same etymological root and referred to the same basic constellation of ideas and principles. Paine went so far as to openly advocate for democracy, not just republicanism. That was radical for his day, but now that is simply considered liberalism.

          “And i respectfully disagree with your characterization of Paine as a “radical liberal” – Paine was a flat-out radical, and his writings strongly suggest he would have been an enthusiastic follower of Marx, or the anarchist movement.”

          Paine was a supporter of free markets and property rights, although with great circumspection involving his understanding of the theft of the commons and the need for public compensation. He was libertarian in many ways, specifically in terms of civil libertarianism but also in terms of economic libertarianism, albeit more of a left-libertarian or liberaltarian variety. Yet he also was for a strong democratic government to ensure greater equality or at least fairness in opportunity, although no demand of equality in results.

          Paine saw the primary role of government was in punishing wickedness. He was for limited government otherwise, but the problem is he saw that there was great need for government to play this role. As for Smith, he could be scathing in his criticisms of the rich. He made clear that in advocating free markets he did not mean capitalist ruling elite.

          A major form of wickedness that bothered Paine was plutocracy and all that went with it, in particular the combined concentration of wealth, power, and land. That is why he was also for progressive taxation and wealth redistribution, in line with what we today see as a welfare state. He didn’t want anarchy and didn’t want to suppress markets or take away property rights. He simply wanted to level the playing field and ensure no one fell into desperate poverty.

          “The term “liberal” has been used to identify a certain strain of political thought for a couple of centuries, now, and our use of the term today simply doesn’t match what it was originally coined to describe.”

          The meaning hasn’t fundamentally changed over the centuries. During the 19th century, reactionaries began using the word more. It came to be associated with supposed classical liberalism, which refers to liberalism prior to the 20th century. But as history shows progressive liberals were well known since early on.

          “Paine held to, I think it’s fair to say, the most radical form of a Lockean liberalism, which is not itself the most radical form of liberalism, by any means.”

          “My research with Will Fleming finds that the Scottish historian William Robertson appears to be the most significant innovator, repeatedly using “liberal” in a political way, notably in a book published in 1769. (I presented more details in a lecture at the Ratio Institute, viewable here.) Of the Hanseatic League, for example, Robertson spoke of “the spirit and zeal with which they contended for those liberties and rights,” and how a society of merchants, “attentive only to commercial objects, could not fail of diffusing over Europe new and more liberal ideas concerning justice and order.”

          “Robertson’s friend and fellow Scot Adam Smith used “liberal” in a similar sense in The Wealth of Nations, published in 1776. If all nations, Smith says, were to follow “the liberal system of free exportation and free importation,” then they would be like one great cosmopolitan empire, and famines would be prevented. Then he repeats the phrase: “But very few countries have entirely adopted this liberal system.”

          “Smith’s “liberal system” was not concerned solely with international trade. He used “liberal” to describe application of the same principles to domestic policy issues. […]

          “Shortly after The Wealth of Nations was published, Robertson wrote to Smith, saluting it as an antidote to “illiberal arrangements” and saying, “Your Book must necessarily become a Political or Commercial Code to all Europe, which must be often consulted by men both of Practice and Speculation.” Robertson’s expectation, widely shared at the time, proved accurate. And as Smith’s system spread, so did his term for it. The term became familiar in British officialdom, popping up occasionally in Parliamentary debate and even in King George III’s address at the opening of Parliament in 1782.

          “After Smith’s death in 1790, his peers and students, such as Dugald Stewart and then Stewart’s flock of influential students, including those of the Edinburgh Review, reinforced “liberal” discourse and guaranteed that the term’s usage continued to spread. In the 1820s the suffix “-ism” was attached to create “liberalism.” and later in the century the Liberal Party rose in British politics.”

  13. brodix March 12, 2016 at 8:12 am | #

    When you are talking millions and billions of people, it is not so much politics, as physics. The basic root meanings of the words “liberalism” and “conservatism” are to expand and to consolidate. So in actual practice in society, they all tend to get twisted around. Thus libertarianism as economic expansionism, usually to the detriment of others. While political correctness would be a consolidation around socially liberal assumptions.

  14. LFC March 12, 2016 at 9:00 am | #

    Specifically re liberalism and ‘humanitarian intervention’: the relation is older and more tangled than one might think. Specifically, ‘humanitarian intervention’ is not a late 20th-cent. invention, by any means. See, e.g., M. Finnemore, The Purpose of Intervention or G. Bass’s recent history of hum. int.

    • LFC March 12, 2016 at 9:06 am | #

      correction: strike the second “specifically”

      The Bass book is Freedom’s Battle: The Origins of Humanitarian Intervention. (The title is taken from a Bryon poem.)

      • LFC March 12, 2016 at 9:07 am | #

        damnit, Byron (not Bryon)

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