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Five Principles for a Twenty-First Century Liberalism

Twentieth-century liberalism lives on in forms of the social contract that are outmoded for the twenty-first century’s globalized, technological world. Liberalism today is entirely reactive, fending off attempts by conservatism to erode the social contract as it has been known to operate in the Western democracies since around the end of World War II. Neither conservatives nor liberals have a true vision for the future, although conservatives give the impression of being more visionary than liberals, since they at least have an active agenda they’re pursuing. In this vacuum of ideology, there’s great danger for neofascist movements to step in, as always happens when liberalism is on the run. Standing still is not a possibility, in a globalized world where individual economies are simply changing too rapidly and information is spreading too widely. 

Who are the parties to the existing liberal social contract, and does it make sense to have the same relationship in a future where there is greater potential for the individual to be empowered? Social policy in the Western democracies accepts corporations as powerful entities, and the ebbs and flows of the business cycle as inevitable; moreover, individuals are imagined to have finite working lives, from their early twenties to their mid-sixties, after which they ought to retire on some combination of personal savings, corporate pensions, and state social security. In essence, the state functions as the reluctant mediator of financial uncertainties and risks between the individual and private enterprise. This minimalist role is under severe attack in all the Western democracies, and particularly in the U.S., as demographics alone make the old social contract difficult to sustain. Populations are declining, trade imbalances are pervasive and growing, and the old manufacturing industries are having a difficult time competing with lower wage economies. 

The tripartite arrangement—the individual, the state, and private enterprise—is under unbearable strain, yet liberalism continues to hope that it can maintain its early Cold War-era modus vivendi, and that the illusion of perpetual growth (along with low inflation and high employment) will save the day for its social contract.   

The world of the future will not abide such paralysis. The future is one of fully interconnected economies, a plane of flattened information psychologies and technological diffusion, a world where it is no longer possible to speak of individual countries behind safe borders. Many in the U.S. and Western Europe want to deny the coming of this completely globalized world. They want to pretend that events and changes in one country will not necessarily spread to others. It is a quarantined vision of the world, where the liberal state seeks to preserve the privileges obtained by a prosperous middle class in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. But that prosperity was artificial and unsustainable; it was predicated on the relative subservience of the newly decolonized nations. The old liberalism cannot function when the independent nations have come into their own; clearly, they haven’t all yet, but the road ahead is clear. To seek to preserve the old liberalism is insidious in that it pushes the world in the direction of the past, when some countries had unfair technological advantages over others.

If indeed the old liberalism is no longer valid, what set of principles can take its place? How do we picture the citizen, what would be the foundations of the social contract, and what would be the function of the state?

The primary function of the state, everywhere in the world, ought to be to give up national autonomy, voluntarily and systematically, until the state is unable to exercise formalized tyranny over its citizens. The state today has too much power in some realms (a leftover from the outdated social contract) and too little in others; the balance needs to be corrected. It has too much power, for instance, in the tools of surveillance, which it can justify in the name of national security; but if the concept is replaced with international security, then the state would have less leeway to impose unilateral dictats restricting citizens’ mobility and choices. The state has too little power, on the other hand, in empowering citizens to realize their full growth potential. This happens because it is often busy pursuing power for its own sake, for reasons of grandiosity, for lack of alternatives to exercise accumulated power. 

Here are some fundamental principles around which the reordering of the social contract ought to take place:

1. Get Past Nationalism. Liberalism should make an absolute commitment to free movement of labor and capital. National borders should cease to exist for all practical purposes. Obviously, to make this possible, the poorer parts of the world will have to be elevated, and if states have one important function in the near future, it is to make heavy investments in infrastructure and productivity to bring Africa and the poorer parts of Latin America and Asia to the point where emigration becomes less of a necessity than a choice. Citizenship then can be of the world, and travel anywhere at any time, residence anywhere at any time, ought to be possible. Current regret in the U.S. about the loss of old industrial sectors to cheaper parts of the world suggests a possible resurrection of the old industries; this is utterly retrograde, and ought to be no part of the calculation.

Immigration needs to cease to exist as we know it; people should be able to move around from country to country, speak different languages, and experience different cultures, but the idea of expatriating one’s whole body and soul to a different (generally richer) culture and remaining committed to that new place’s nationalism, memorizing its mythology and shunning links with the old country, ought to become passé. When immigration as a conventional concept ceases to matter, so will its negative political ramifications. The entire world should be a single economic zone. The entire world should be a single human resource zone. Then only can human potential be maximized without friction. Labor will then at last have the chance to seek its highest value.

2. Lifelong Education. The concept of about a dozen years of preparatory schooling, followed by four years of college, and if desired a few more years of graduate school, ought to be abolished. This is a nineteenth-century notion of education, more suited to the training of industrial workers, the creation of the mass mind, the mobilization of the citizenry for nationalist purposes, including war and destructive economic competitiveness. Education ought to have no real beginning and end. This concept implies the destruction of the authoritarian structure of the traditional university. The university needs to be transformed so that the very idea of “professors” transmitting information to mostly passive “students” is eliminated in favor of learning that has multiple sources, bubbles from the bottom as often as it does from the top, and dissolves the distinctions between students and teachers. After a certain level of accomplishment, what’s to prevent a student from becoming a teacher?

Learning in this vision is admittedly a competition for the popularity of ideas; those ideas that are obfuscating or don’t meet the test of popular acceptance, will fall by the wayside. Will this be a dictatorship of the masses? Consider that what we have now is an undeclared dictatorship of the elite, and the idea is to remove the ideological compulsions that give rise to the unthinking mass. Education will saturate everything, everything will saturate education, and this will mean a fluid, organic, free-flowing democracy, rather than the morbid one all advanced nations currently experience. Education should not mold individuals to serve others, but should acquire a global sense of joy and pleasure, a movement of play and adventure it has lost.

3. Make Technology Work for People. Either corporations or the government take a hold of all new technologies and deploy them in the pursuit of profit-making or control of citizens. As soon as the liberating potential of a new technology begins to be perceived, it’s dissipated in either of the two well-known directions. The state and the corporation have come to symbiotic agreement about the uses to which new technologies will be deployed. How can technology become the crucial aid to freedom rather than lead to its restriction? If further advances in the sciences (particularly in biology) lead to new forms of conceptualizing the human and new methods of production, then will these promote liberation from drudgery? Or will they again be used to narrow what we think is possible for humanity?

If there is any area where liberalism needs to regain the impulse of its core meaning, it is here. Instead of liberalism always acting defensively toward new technologies—protecting turf that is going to be lost anyway—it ought to be ahead of the game in anticipating how technologies can breed forms of democracies. Technology has a way of becoming oppressive, it tends to become overbearing and dominating, always holding the promise of freedom but rarely delivering in reality. People ought to have the freedom to inhabit multiple levels of technology, not an oppressive singularity. If this becomes possible, then it is also possible to envision people inhabiting multiple levels of democracy (or human potential) despite inhabiting the same geographical or historical space.

4. Freedom to Opt Out. There ought to be the possibility of anonymity, privacy, disappearance, the chance for not only starting over (starting over implies rejoining the mainstream, only at a different position) but not to have to make a formalized effort at all. And this ought to come without retribution. Today liberalism envisions the citizen as a cradle-to-grave participant in a limited range of bounties, and shirking responsibility at any stage of the individual’s growth invites lifelong penalties. The idea that there is a right age to do a certain thing harkens to primordial times, the era of tribes and superstitions and rituals, rather than an individualism that we ought to stop being scared of at last. Advances in human health and reproduction make this ideal more possible than ever.

A lot of human unhappiness—once basic needs are met—results today from the clash between liberalism’s monochrome expectations of a virtuous citizen and the anarchic, chaotic, sub rosa desires of actual human beings to challenge predestined timelines. It’s a tall order to expect the state to allow the kind of anonymity I’m advancing here, but short of that, liberalism will continue to be confronted by movements (distorted versions of libertarianism) that try to steal the thunder without putting the substance of freedom at their center. The only thing for liberalism to fear is liberalism itself, which has become congealed into an elaborate matrix of rewards and punishments for behavior deeply tied to time-dependent success.

5. End Money. For the above prescriptions for diverse lifestyles to happen, the money economy must end. Liberalism must start thinking about an eventual transition to an economy whose measurements of progress and development are entirely different from those that exist now. The bane of quantification has overwhelmed not just the economics profession, but all social science and public policy as well. The root of quantification is money. Can we imagine a society that functions without money? Of course we can and we must, if advances in technology are ever to deliver more than rhetorical benefits. By severing human action from money, by removing the need to accumulate money as a function of physical survival, new forms of community, new forms of human relationship, will come into being that we can hardly anticipate yet. Art will at last become democratized and liberating, because its compromise with money will not be a factor.

Liberalism, in this manifestation, will start to resemble something like idealized Marxism, and why not, since Marxist thought is liberalism’s first cousin? All ideology since the end of the dark ages has foundered on the recapitulation of the individual in the form of gross quantification. Thus romanticism comes to be seen as a perverse greed for self-gratification, a dangerous idealistic indulgence. Liberalism has long stopped dreaming of the impossible, but if the world comes closer together and population stabilizes as is widely expected, then it will have to cut off links with its own monetary foundation.

Some might say that what I have proposed is not liberalism at all, it doesn’t fall within liberalism’s precincts to undertake this kind of self-reform. Indeed, the criticism would be correct to a point. Yet liberalism—as it gelled in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—still seems to me to hold the kernels of an ideology that makes sense for the material and technological conditions of the twenty-first century.

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Nowhere in the world is liberalism actually practiced, however, since we only have versions of the managerial state where freedom—or rather, its legalistic incarnation, “civil liberties”—is a concession, often only rhetorical, made to elicit individuals’ participation in a scheme of productivity that generally only aggrandizes impersonal forces the truly free individual would rather have nothing do with. It’s as though we’re living in a dream, shackled to occasionally pleasing thoughts, yet perpetually dissatisfied, a dream in which every road seems to lead to the same predetermined conclusion, in which our very ideas of happiness and fulfillment have become bound and gagged by commercial definitions.

Much of liberalism’s current negativity is because it’s become caught up in a needless argument over abundance versus scarcity, mostly coming down on the side of the latter; neo-Malthusian convictions have sapped the joy out of liberalism, and made it excessively skeptical of the liberating power of technology. Money, as accumulated power, exercised for domination over other human beings, is a problem; instead of a singular money-defined economy, it is possible to envision parallel economies (and parallel democracies) which coexist in the same space and time, and among which individual transitions are possible depending on free choice. If the social contract is exclusively between a state and its citizens, then empowered states make war on others to preserve privilege for their own citizens when they’re under threat of erosion; as with economies, the idea of unitary citizenship will have to be done away with, to prevent the inevitable slippage into aggression.

At the moment—and this will become increasingly clear in the first few decades of the twenty-first century—a certain minimal convergence in worldwide income (and opportunity for education and health) is shearing liberalism apart, so that it faces a mortal struggle. It pretends, in America and Europe, to still be basically what it was half a century or a century ago, able to deliver the same goods at the same costs. In fact, it has never been so lagging in response to changes in material conditions, so mired in its own fancy constructions of constitutions and policies, as to overlook the human dimension altogether. At times liberalism comes off as the benevolent master issuing handouts, at times it becomes the reluctant enforcer of politically correct norms to suppress the more extreme forms of social brutality. At no time does it appear as the embodiment of our highest aspirations as human beings, at no time does it appear willing to shed the hard encrustation that makes it a museum piece rather than a living reality.

We’re fighting still over the scraps of twentieth-century desserts. We ought to be planning for a whole new feast to which everyone will be welcome as an equal guest. That reality is almost upon us, and the various forms of retrogression in the West—prompted by fear of the new openness—are only going to hasten the event.

Anis Shivani is a fiction writer, poet, and literary critic in Houston, Texas. His books are My Tranquil War and Other Poems (Sept. 2012), The Fifth Lash and Other Stories (Nov. 2012), Against the Workshop: Provocations, Polemics, Controversies (2011), and Anatolia and Other Stories (2009). He has just finished a novel called Karachi Raj, and is writing a new one called Abruzzi, 1936

 Image courtesy of Falconia/


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