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Liberalism and Relativism (Part II)

(Image via The John Locke Foundation)

“The argument that people should value ideals beyond the pursuit of their self-interest and subjective opinion was an elitist way of looking at things, and De Tocqueville’s Americans would have none of it.”


Not just in commerce but in the world of ideas too our age is putting on a veritable clearance sale. Everything can be had so dirt cheap that one begins to wonder whether in the end anyone will want to make a bid.”Soren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling

In my last article in this series, I observed that Hobbes’s thinking about the nature of desire and the good laid the foundation for forms of relativism which would later emerge in liberal doctrine. In this brief essay, I am going to elaborate on how this position would later be radicalized or tempered by various authors within the liberal tradition, some of whom seemed to implicitly recognize the theoretical and ideological pitfalls of Hobbesian doctrine. Despite this, liberalism has never entirely resolved the difficulty of moving beyond relativism, and many argue that with the advent of neoliberal society, the problem has only gotten worse. Indeed, I see the advent of postmodern culture and postmodern conservatism as very much a product of this deeper quagmire within liberal doctrine. To get past it will require both substantial imagination and the will to conceive of and implement constructive alternatives.

The Subject in Liberal Capitalism

In the Leviathan, Hobbes makes the striking claim that the root of goodness lies in the desires of human subjectivity. What is good is what one wants because it brings pleasure, and what is bad is what one disdains because it brings no pleasure or even pain. With this striking maneuver, Hobbes established the subject as being central to political theory and praxis, breaking sharply with more ancient theories, which made the natural order or God more important than humans and their fickle passions. For many religious conservatives at the time, such as John Bramhall, this was a horrifying development. Hobbes’s materialistic world was one where objective value could have no place, coming not from God or nature—but only from transitory desire. But for many others, most notably Locke, Hobbes’s philosophy of the subject was extremely liberating. The latter was only to be criticized for refusing to spell out the radicalness of his principles. For Lockeans, Hobbes tried to temper the subjectivism of his philosophy by calling for an absolute state, which would have the power to control and temper competing interests. The author of the Second Treatise on Government would have none of that. For Locke, the foundation of government became the way in which it advanced the private interests of its members, primarily through protected their rights to property and to representation by sympathetic politicians.  

Lockeanism itself was beset by considerable contradictions and hypocrisies, particularly its willingness to tolerate the slave trade and accept the appropriation of indigenous land in North America. But it established the broad parameters of the liberal approach to political subjectivity which remains ideologically dominant to this day. Self-interested subjects were to be left free to pursue their desires without interference by the state or others, while representatives worked to maximize the material opportunities available to citizens. While more mature variants of liberalism, from Wolstonecraft to Kant and Mill, would attempt to temper and push against this subjectivist outlook, their efforts never had the same popular influence as Locke’s.

Indeed, Alexis de Tocqueville noted that in the most radically Lockean society—the United States—this kind of subjectivist relativism was very popular and becoming more so by the day. The institution of democracy in America made many believe that any talk about objective values which all should pursue, but only some would achieve, constituted uppity people getting out of their place. The argument that people should value ideals beyond the pursuit of their self-interest and subjective opinion was an elitist way of looking at things, and De Tocqueville’s Americans would have none of it. There was an immense push on individuals to look at themselves as self-interested subjects merely pursuing their private desires, no better or worse than anyone else.

This is in part because the political revolutions outlined by Locke emerged in tandem with equally profound changes in our social and economic relations. These became all the more pronounced as the pace of technological change advanced, fundamentally destabilizing old hierarchies, practices, and the identities affiliated with them.  The problems these developments posed did not go unnoticed. Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees and the earlier sections of Adam Smith’s epochal An Enquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations both observe how the old traditions that held society together were breaking down under the pressure of modernization. Lacking a firm set of universal and objective values that everyone might agree upon, we had to turn to the subject instead.  The efforts of classical political economists were centered around showing how subjective desire can be at the root of a stable and even prosperous economic and political system. After all, who cares which God the baker worships so long as he bakes decent bread for a low price?

Later, Marx would make similar observations about the flattening of previously complex value systems into system of commodities with a quantifiable exchange value. In Capital: Volume One, Marx argued that a system of market exchange involving very different commodities and values is in some senses a very strange thing. With some adaptations, his thinking can be helpful in thinking through the process of subjectification. In a capitalist society can one truly say what is more objectively valuable; a holy artifact blessed by your local Bishop or a laptop computer? An original Picasso or a glass of water in the desert? An ancient practice for producing traditional food, or fast food technologies which can feed thousands in a few minutes.

In some senses, the question is irresolvable without answering the philosophical society whether religion, technology, great art, or immediate survival is of greater objective value. But since everyone in consumer society will have different opinion on these questions, capitalist markets must simultaneously insist that all values are rooted in subjective preferences and that the preferences of all members of consumer society can be objectively quantified through prices.  These prices do not stipulate the objective value of the thing. A diamond may be very expensive, but it is not even especially useful outside of heavy industry. Rather it reflects the desires and efforts of the individuals who operate in tandem to produce and consume these commodities and values. The result of this process of quantification is that the previously objective value ascribed to religion, great art, tradition gives way to a process where the subjective modes of evaluation adopted by different members of consumer society can be given a quantifiable representation through prices.

Because this process of fixing all things with a quantifiable exchange value takes place so subtly, we can fail to recognize the impact it has on us. Indeed, Marx observed that one of the ultimate ironies of liberal capitalist society is that we can come to subjectively desire commodities which have little objective value, but which are expensive and attract a lot of social attention. In these cases our subjective desire is to possess an object of little use in itself, but which attracts envy from others who want more wealth to pursue their private self-interest.  Not coincidentally, Marx described this fetishistic attachment at comparable to earlier forms of religious idolatry. A new world was created where people no longer aspired to understand the objective value of objects or morals. Rather they came to think the point of life was to acquire objects which catered to their desires, and even those which attracted the envious desires of others.

Liberal Capitalism and Post-Modern Culture

So we now have a political system which is based on protecting the rights of individuals to pursue their entirely subjective vision of the good life, and an economic system which reduces previously objective values into prices which reflect the subjective evaluations of consumer society. The impact of these developments on our sense of identity and collective values was initially tempered by the slow pace of secularization in some parts of the world, and the uneven penetration of liberal values and capitalization in many regions. But neoliberalism brought with it the most radical and far reaching transformations yet, while furthering the tendency to reduce all values down to prices and all mores down to either what the customer wants or what needs firms can manufacture for them. This mode of thinking was so pervasive that even ordered liberty conservatives like Canada’s Stephen Harper were unable to recognize the relativistic irony in talking about liberal democracy as a society where citizens are the customers, and the customers are always right. Indeed, it became so prominent that many accepted Margaret Thatcher’s arrogant dictum that “there was no alternative to neoliberalism.”

It this atmosphere, it was perhaps inevitable that a kind of postmodern culture would form. Therein lies one of the stranger developments of contemporary politics. So called classical liberals often decry the relativism of postmodernity without recognizing that it does not emerge as a consequence of liberalism failing to embed itself deep into the cultural mindset. Postmodernity emerges when combination of liberal values and capitalist consumer society becomes so pervasive, that individuals cease to acknowledge themselves as bound by any objective limitations which should not be overcome if they run counter to our interests.

It is a culture where apparently devout conservatives at Prager U try to sell belief in God by stressing its benefits for health and individual psychology; where traditions and mythologies that millions once took to be true depictions of the world are not believed so much as performed due to the benefits they provide for mental health and social stability. In such a culture, dogmatism can no longer be contrasted with skepticism; since there are no objective values outside of our subjective desires and opinions, there is no space for anyone to convince us to abandon them. In many cases these cultural tendencies have been further calcified through technological innovations designed to enhance our social capital through flattening the rich dynamics of life into readily digestible and hyperreal images, often discouraging the formation of more meaningful but challenging forms of attachment.

Conclusion: The Reaction to Postmodern Culture

One of the reactions to postmodern culture has been the emergence of postmodern conservatism in many developed countries and even Latin America. I do not believe the solution to the problems mentioned can ever come from these movements. As largely unreflective products of this environment, they in every context duplicate or even deepen the tendencies described here—substituting hyperreal pastiches of tradition and identity marketed through digital technologies and other mediums.

I believe the solution to postmodernity can come by moving past the consumerist individuals of Lockean liberalism. Lockean individualism is the sublimated image of relativistic consumer society, of which postmodern culture is a product.  A deeper and more reflective individualism—what Roberto Unger might call superliberalism—would recognize the inherent dignity of all individuals and stress how contemporary society fails many of them.

Instead of empowering individuals so they can deliberate about which values are truly worth pursuing in life, the majority of people are compelled by economic necessity to spend most of their lives working in order to find scarce fulfillment in the pursuit of self-interested pleasure through consumption. In a more robust social democracy—perhaps established through the implementation of a universal basic income alongside other redistributive mechanisms such as subsidized healthcare and education—individuals would not be compelled to spend most of their lives laboring to spend the rest consuming.

Inequalities would persist, but only to the extent they benefited others, not because they were associated with personal glory.  Each person, regardless of their background, would have sufficient resources and capacity to make meaningful decisions about a broad diversity of possible futures they could realize for themselves, while engaging with others on which of these might best satisfy the deepest human needs. While the kind of competition one sees in a capitalist liberal society would continue, it wouldn’t be driven by the ravenous desire to reach the top of the pecking order and acquire fetishized commodities to demonstrate our almost sacred status.

Whether one finds this model attractive, I believe that with breakdown of neoliberal systems of governance, and reactions against the destabilized relativism of post-modern culture, it is now possible to pursue the changes needed to bring about needed reforms.  We should not succumb to reactionary temptations, and use this window of agitation to push instead for greater justice for all.

Matt McManus is currently Professor of Politics and International Relations at TEC De Monterrey. His book Making Human Dignity Central to International Human Rights Law is forthcoming with the University of Wales Press. His books, The Rise of Post-modern Conservatism and What is Post-Modern Conservatism, will be published with Palgrave MacMillan and Zero Books, respectively. Matt can be reached at or added on Twitter via Matt McManus@MattPolProf

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