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Geuss--Liberalism and Its Discontents

Geuss--Liberalism and Its Discontents

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Liberalism and Its DiscontentsAuthor(s): Raymond GeussSource:
Political Theory,
Vol. 30, No. 3 (Jun., 2002), pp. 320-338Published by: Sage Publications, Inc.Stable URL:
Accessed: 23/02/2010 12:04
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LIBERALISM ANDITSDISCONTENTS
RAYMONDGEUSSUniversityof Cambridge
AgentsincontemporaryWestern ocieties find themselvesinan odd situ-ation. On theonehand,weseem tohavenorealisticalternativeoliberalism;thats,weknowof nootherapproacho humansocietyandpoliticsthat s atthesametime astheoreticallyrich andcomprehensiveas liberalismandalsoevenremotelyasmorallyacceptableto wide sections of thepopulationnWesternocieties,astheyarenowinfact constituted.'Liberal deaspermeateour social worldandoureverydayexpectationsabouthowpeopleandnstitu-tionswill andoughttoact;theyconstitute he finalframeworkwithin whichourpoliticalthinkingmoves. Prima acie nonliberal orms of habitualbelief,such as those associatedwith certainreligions,formsofnationalism,esidualclassenmities,and soon,still,ofcourse, exist,buttheyseem tobe,atbest,isolated andlocalisedforeignbodiesin auniverse,the overall structureofwhichisessentiallyliberal;nsocieties thatareorareaspiringo be 'West-ern',even these nonliberaldeologicalfragmentsometimesadoptprotectivecolouration n the form of the best veneer ofcompatibilitywithliberalismtheycanmuster.Onthe otherhand,therearesignsof asignificantheoretical,moral,andpoliticaldisaffection with someaspectsof liberalism.Liberalismhas foralongtimeseemed to lack muchnspirationalotential;t isgoodatdissolving
AUTHORSNOTE:This extsa revisedversionofanarticleIwrote n GermanandpublishednDecember2001intheDeutscheZeitschrift irPhilosophieunderthe title 'DasUnbehagenamLiberalismus'.TheoriginalGermanarticle inturnwasthe contentofa seriesofthree talksIgaveat theUniversityofSaarbriicken n December2000.MythankstoProfessor WilfriedHinschof Saarbriickenforhekind nvitation ospeakthere,and alsoto thecolleaguesinCam-bridgewithwhomIhave discussed thistopicmostrequently,JohnDunn,ZeevEmmerich,ndQuentinSkinnerI alsooweagreatdebtofgratitudeoHilaryGaskinand to thetwoanonymousreadersorthisournalwhohelpedme tocorrectseveral mistakesandsignificantlymproveheoriginalGermanversionoftheessav.
POLITICALTHEORY,Vol. 30 No.3,June2002 320-338?2002SagePublications320
 
Geuss / LIBERALISMAND ITS DISCONTENTS321
traditionalmodesof lifeandtheirassociatedvalues,but lessobviously goodatreplacingthemwithanythingparticularlydistinctiveoradmirable.2 tfitsall toocomfortablywithsome ofthe moreignobleaspectsof commercialsociety.What contributioncouldliberalismconceivablymake tothinkingabout thegeneral degradationoftheplanetaryenvironment?Liberal dealslikeindividualism, oleration,orlimitationof statepower,seemeithershort-sightedlyconfused or mere covers forhegemonic designs.AstheHarvardpoliticalscientist SamuelHuntingdonnotoriouslywrote,'Whatsuniversal-ism tothe Westsimperialismo therest'
3
Oldercriticismsofliberalismhavealso lost none of theirpowerandplausibility:hat thasno clearremedyforpoverty,orreprehensibleormsofinequalityofpower,of conditionsoflife,and so on. To the extent to which liberalism s committed o theprinciplesofindividual nitiativeandthe defence ofprivateproperty,t is hard o avoid thesuspicionthat t is ratherpartof theproblemhanpartof the solution. Politi-caltheories,however, which,likeliberalism,aredeeplyanchored in thesocialinstitutions,thementality,and the form oflifeoflargeandwealthypopulationscannoteasilybe shiftedbyeven the mostvigorousforms ofintentionalhumanaction.Thisinertiaeven in the face ofmassive andtellingcriticism snotmerelythedisreputableesult of the brutepowerof thepast;rather,n anuncertain,dangerous,andunpredictableworld there aregoodgeneralreasons not to embarkon radicalchangesinone's social formationunlessoneisforced toitbydemonstrableoverwhelmingnecessity.The title of thisessayismodelledonthat of alateessay byFreud.4ForFreudwe modems are condemned to suffer fromculturalmperativesandregulationshatdonot allow us to lead abiologicallyfulfillinglife,butthatwearealso not ablesimplyto throw off. 'Discontent'withcivilisationisanunavoidableate,giventheincompatibilitybetween ourbiologyandthe nec-essarydemandsofanyform ofspecificallyhumansociety,andFreudhinksthattisstrictly mpossibletodoawaywith italtogether;he bestwecan do istrytomitigatesomeof itsworst effects.Incontrast othis,thediscontentwefeel with liberalism s of a differentype,ifonlybecausewecanbesure thatchangesinthe world aroundus,inourpolitics,our socialarrangements,ureconomiccircumstances,orperhapssimplyanimprovementn ourpowersoftheoreticalmagination,willsooneror laterdissolve liberalismandrenderit asirrelevantous as feudalismortheoriesofmoralitybased onhonour.nthemeantime,though,we are stuck with apoliticaland socialregimeand aset ofassociated doctrineswhosedeficiencies arepalpable.Historically,iberalism s an inventionofthe nineteenthentury.5Liberal'wasoriginallya wordused todesignateapoliticalparty;t seems tohave beenused forthefirst timeinabout1810-11to refertoagroupinSpainwhosemembersadvocateda limitationof theprivilegesofthekingandheintroduc-

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