What Is Wrong with Politcs? (4): Liberalism: Premisses and Political System


The Dominant Thought Currents

There is no doubt about the fact that, at least since the second half of the twentieth century, the currents of thought that we can generically refer to as Liberalism and Marxism are the dominant ones. With the victory of the Allies and the defeat of German National Socialism (Nazism), Italian Fascism and the Japanese monarchist-authoritarian regime (militaristic ultra-nationalism) in World War II, Liberalism and Marxism came to dominate the scene of social-political ideas worldwide.

In Brazil, after the Second War, with the end of the authoritarian regime of the Estado Novo of Getúlio Vargas (which lasted from 1937 to 1945), a Liberal order was established that lasted until the 1964 coup, when a period of about twenty years began of an authoritarian military order. Even in this authoritarian period, however, the dominant discourse was that the militarist order aimed to guarantee the preservation of Western cultural values, such as freedom and Liberal democracy, which would be threatened by Marxist or Communist totalitarianism, as well as to build the preconditions for the functioning of a Liberal democracy. This current of thought that supported the period of military authoritarianism became known as the Doctrine of National Security.

From the mid-1980s onward, a Liberal democratic regime was reinstated, with the election of a Constituent Assembly in 86, whose work was concluded in 88. This process culminates in the direct election of a president in late 1989.

During this second half of the twentieth century there was a minority opposition of a socialist nature in Brazil, influenced to a greater or lesser extent by the current of Marxist thought, like the Socialist and Communist parties in Brazil. As we know, this current of thought is also very expressive within other parties, such as the Workers’ Party (PT), as well as in the cultural and academic environment. The current of Marxist thought, therefore, also deserves to be examined in this work (see Chapter 6).

At the present moment of the Brazilian political reality (2009, and in this 2020 edition), even with the changes that occurred in Eastern Europe and the dismemberment and liberalizing transformations of the former USSR, and with the consequent overwhelming hegemony of the Liberal political thought and models of political organization, we can observe that Marxist thought is still practically the only alternative to Liberal thought, although a weaker alternative today

Marxist thinking also to a certain extent influences social-democratic stances, which are included here within the Liberal dimension, since they do not question the central institutions of Liberal democracy, but only fight for less excludent economic and social policies, or more distributive, within the rules of the liberal-democratic game.

Mistaken Premisses

The central hypothesis of this work, as we said before, is that both Liberalism and Marxism are based on false central premisses regarding the main attributes of the human being, individually or collectively. It should be noted that this is also true in relation to the other currents of thought that were important in the last century (XX), such as Fascism and Nazi National Socialism, whose false premisses will not be criticized here for the simple fact that they are not dominant today.

These false conceptions about the human being, as already said, are projected in the form of mistaken ethical-moral principles, as well as in the form of the great social institutions, especially the models of political organization. And these models of social and political organization are the immediate cause of the great problems faced by humanity.

For this reason, we must make an effort to synthesize in order to understand the essence of the conceptions of the human being (individually and collectively considered) that are the nucleus of the dominant thought currents, as of the ethical-moral values ​​and the models of political organization derived from Liberalism and the Marxism. This is of decisive relevance because it is around these conceptions that the main social institutions of most countries are developed today, especially those that play a clear global hegemony.

Although synthetic, the examination of the premisses and central institutions of Liberalism will be a little broader than the examination of the premisses and institutions of Marxism, for the simple reason that, in our day, the institutions derived from Liberalism have become dominant worldwide.

The Beginnings of Liberalism

Liberalism, both as a broad current in the history of social-political ideas, and as a set of social institutions derived from these fundamental concepts, is a very complex phenomenon. Even in the Dictionary of Politics, a work written by great academics like Norberto Bobbio, the entry “Liberalism” begins with the observation: – “A Difficult Definition”.

Perhaps the main difficulty in understanding the bases of Liberalism lies in the fact that it is a current of thought that has been around for three centuries (John Locke, for example, publishes his book Two Treatises on Government in 1690). Liberalism, therefore, went through periods of marked transformations on the world stage, such as the Industrial Revolutions. Naturally, throughout this extended period, both Liberal thought and institutions underwent significant transformations, in different countries and at different time periods. These varied transformations, then, are what make a precise and synthetic definition difficult.

Nowadays, it is not difficult to see that the great political institutions derived from Liberalism concern the so-called Liberal democracy, which we will analyze later. However, at the beginning of Liberalism, its principles were applied under regimes where monarchical institutions were still dominant, and gave rise to regimes where only those who met certain requirements or franchises were entitled to access political representation mechanisms, such as having properties or a minimum income. In its early days, therefore, regimes influenced by Liberal ideas were not democratic in the sense that today is usually attributed to the word democracy, where, for example, the participation of the entire adult population is assumed.

Human Being: Rational, Egocentric and Similar Capabilities

A nucleus of theoretical premisses and main institutions – even under these great transformations – persisted throughout this long period, so that the political model that is now dominant in the world is still called Liberal “democracy” (when, in fact, it is a pluto-demagogicracy).

Then, we will try to synthetically expose this nucleus, which, as we said before, regarding its theoretical foundations, must necessarily be related to a certain conception of the fundamental characteristics of the human being. Repeating, then: – the ethical principles and the great institutions derived from them, must necessarily be based on a given vision of the being human.

Liberalism appears as a reaction to the Absolutist order, and one of the last great theorists of Absolutism was Thomas Hobbes, author of the famous work The Leviathan (1651), who conceived the human being as naturally selfish, if not violent, as we can read in quote that follows:

“In order to justify absolute government, Hobbes starts from the description of the state of nature which, as was commonly believed at that time, would have preceded the social state. Undoubtedly, one finds in the course of this description, traces of the first history book of Thucydides, in which this author tells that in a distant time the Greeks lived of prey and violence, and that the only law was that of the strongest.
Such were, according to Hobbes, the customs of all primitive men. Thus, among these peoples, neither men nor goods ever enjoyed security. Each had to defend himself against the violence of the others, and each man was a wolf to other men, homo homini lupus. Everywhere the fight against everyone broke out – bellum omnium against omnes.

In order to get out of this chaotic state, all individuals would have given up all their rights to the state. Each of them would have put their forces at the service of the state, so that it would have the possibility to end the violence of all and remedy this unbearable state of affairs.” (G. Mosca and G. Bouthoul, History of Political Doctrines, p. 189; emphasis added)

“Leviathan” is the name of a ferocious and very powerful animal, apparently the Nile crocodile, which is described in the Bible, in chapters. 40 and 41 of Job, and about which he writes: “There is no power over the earth to compare it to, because it was made so that he would not fear any.” (Job, 41:24). It is clear that Hobbes, using the figure of “Leviathan”, maintains that a benign role is played by such a power (that of the absolute monarch) which, by frightening everyone, makes it possible “to end the violence of all and remedy this unbearable state of affairs”.

In the beginnings of the current of Liberalism, like the one found in the writings of the Englishman John Locke – considered as one of the great formulators of the origins of Liberalism – it also starts from a conception of the state of nature, which, although significantly different from the Hobbes’ bellicose view saw the human being in the state of nature as a rational, egocentric being with similar capabilities. Let us see the synthesis that a very well known work offers in this respect:

“Locke does not, in effect, admit the terrible bellum omnium contra omnes. He maintains that, even in the state of nature, man possessed reason, and that he was restrained by feelings of natural equity. In this way, each individual could normally preserve his personal freedom and enjoy the fruit of his work. There was only one authority that could guarantee that right. As such, individuals consented to divest themselves of part of their rights, giving the State the power to judge and punish without speaking about the burden of external defense. This limitation of rights was established by contract. (…) Thus, if the government abuses that authority, it violates the social contract, and the people then resume their sovereignty. (…)

For Locke, private property finds its basis in natural law, which holds that each individual enjoys the fruits of his own work.” (G. Mosca and G. Bouthoul, History of Political Doctrines, p. 192; emphasis added)

Three Independent Powers: Order of Checks and Balances

Having accepted and based on a view of a state of nature different from that of Hobbes, Locke comes to almost opposite conclusions and, by the way, to some extent more logical than Hobbes’. Thus, for Locke, it is neither necessary nor due to have a Leviathan, because, of course, he will also be a wolf, concerned only with his interests and those that are dear to him, at the expense of the welfare of many others who would be by him exploited for the benefit of the group with central power. In fact, after so many years of dominance of Liberal ideas, only a minority associates Leviathan (the absolutist power) with a power that plays a socially beneficial role, but (on the contrary) with a terrifying monster of great malignancy.

And that is exactly what many of the first liberals denounced, and against what they rebelled, because what they could observe was precisely a very luxurious and privileged court (and elites), while the situation was one of extreme poverty and oppression among the less favored population.

The first liberals thus faced a dilemma analogous to that described by Hobbes, but to a lesser extent: – if there were no great central power, men would not have their natural rights assured, but if there was a power of the leviathanic type, that affront the hegemony of the social contract and, consequently, would threaten the natural rights of the human being.

The response of these thinkers to this dilemma has shaped foundational Liberal institutions, which, after many struggles, have finally been largely victorious. And although they have significantly changed, as we mentioned before, in their essential features these institutions have persisted to the present day. What answer was that? It was to conceive what in political science is called an “order of balances”. That is, some power would only make the laws, another would only be responsible for enforcing those laws, and a third party would only be responsible for judging whether these laws were being correctly enforced or not. An order, as we see, also based on a basic mistrust about man and humanity (“all power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”). That is, an order where the first and the second control the third; the second and the third control the first; and so on, forming a rational “mechanical” balance, as if of “counterweights”.

Minimum State

There we have the origin of the conception of the three separate fundamental powers; today called legislative, executive and judicial. There we also have the origin of the concept of a “minimum state”, which even today enchants liberals. Since there is a need for a larger central power, let it be as small as possible. And, even this one, always within a counterweight scheme. All of this is logically based on a fundamental mistrust, which aims to ensure that no one wields too much power, because “all power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”, which is one of the most popular maxims of the liberals to this day.

Let us look at another quote from the History of Political Doctrines, previously quoted, which corroborates the synthetic panorama just presented about the beginnings of Liberalism:

“John Locke, born in 1632, died in 1704, personified the Liberal tendencies opposed to Hobbes’s absolutist ideas. His Two Treatises on Government was published in 1690, less than two years after the second English revolution, which had taken place at the end of 1688. It is understood that, writing after an event of this importance, a political writer was in need to take a stand and make known their opinion on the issue. Locke justifies the revolution.
The Two Treaties on Government is divided into two parts. At first he takes the trouble to refute Filmer. In the second, starting from the same hypotheses as Hobbes, that is, admitting a state of nature followed by a social pact (an idea common to several writers of the 17th and 18th centuries), he comes to conclusions opposite to those supported by Hobbes. (…)

It is Locke who is due to the almost complete elaboration of the theory of the three fundamental powers, later developed by Montesquieu.” (idem above, p. 191-192)

One Man, One Vote

It is important to note that throughout its history, the main change that we can observe in the practice of Liberal inspired models was the gradual expansion of the franchises that were initially required to exercise the vote.

In this way, these franchises gradually expanded, until the so-called universal vote was reached, at the end of the 19th century, or even in the 20th century, which is today one of the central characteristics of Liberal democracies.

This gradual expansion was largely due to the transformations that national societies in Europe and North America were undergoing, which were increasingly industrialized, and which triggered suffragist movements (fighting for the right to vote) in the 19th century and in the first decades of the 20th century.

However, as for its other basic institutions, such as the three fundamental powers, the legal order generated by a social pact, the market economy (with ample freedom for economic agents), and the guarantee of individual rights and other consecrated freedoms by the Liberal tradition (freedom of speech, of association, from which a pluralist order arises, where there are several political parties, etc.), all these institutions are preserved until today without essential changes.

In the last century (XX), then, the universal vote was consecrated and added to these main Liberal institutions, no longer limited by pecuniary allowances, by sex, or any other restrictions. This has been, for many decades, another pillar of Liberal organization models, that is, the notion that everyone is equal in rights and duties and that, therefore, each individual must correspond to one vote (“one man, one vote”).

Changes with Permanency of the Foundational Premisses

C.B. Macpherson, author of the well-known work The Life and Times of Liberal Democracy, tries to synthetically capture this great transformation movement in Liberalism, as we see in the quote that follows:

“The seventeenth and eighteenth-century liberals, who were not at all Democrats (from, say, Locke to Burke), fully admitted capitalist market relations. The same can be said of the liberal democrats of the early 19th century, and we will see (in chapter II) the extent to which this applies to the cases of Bentham and James Mill. Then, from the middle of the 19th century, as we will see (in chapter III), liberal thinkers tried to combine the acceptance of capitalist market society with an ethical humanist position. This gave rise to a model of democracy considerably different from that of Bentham, but still implying acceptance by the market society.” (p. 27)

We see, therefore, that despite the great transformations throughout its history, Liberalism manages to preserve the core of its fundamental premisses, as well as of its main institutions, although they have been framed within the framework of significantly different theories.

It is important to note, above all, that all these transformations fall within the foundational conception of man as a rational, egocentric being, and with similar capabilities, which, in the final analysis, will always try to maximize his personal satisfactions.

This is the generic conception of human being that still prevails within Liberal thought. In fact, outside of this conceptual background the basic institution of an order of balances becomes inconsistent and illogical. In other words, outside this conceptual matrix, an order based on a universal distrust of state power does not make sense. It does not make sense to have the fundamental institution of independent powers, as well as the ideal of a minimum state, that is, a minimum central power (due to the notion that “all power corrupts”).

Now, if all power corrupts, it is because all human beings are corruptible. This is because, in all human beings, the defense of their private interests predominates inexorably over all other central characteristics of behavior. Human beings, therefore, however intelligent they may be, are essentially self-centered – thus remaining true for liberals, albeit to a lesser degree, the generalization of the maxim homo homini lupus.

In view of this state of affairs, which makes everyone incline, above all, to seek the satisfaction of their private interests, Liberal thinkers argued that a model of social organization composed of these main Liberal institutions means the guarantee that greater happiness for the greatest number of people (Utilitarianism), and hence the coherence of this vision of being human with the discourse of the unsurpassed excellence of the capitalist market, as well as the excellence of a Utilitarian ethic.

From these premisses of Liberal thought about the human being, logically derives the defense of an ethics, or values ​​of conduct, centered on the principle of the search for the greatest pleasure and individual satisfaction. It is worth remembering that Utilitarianism is a current of social philosophy, very important in the theoretical support of the liberal model, and which defines “as the foundation of human actions the egoistic search for individual pleasure, which should result in greater happiness for a greater number of people, admits the possibility of a rational balance between individual interests.” (from the entry on “Utilitarianism”, in the Dictionary by Aurélio Buarque de Holanda Ferreira, 1986, p. 1745; emphasis added).

The End of Ideologies

It should be noted that both the ethics and the model of political organization of Liberalism are consistent with its premisses and that, if these premisses about the human being were true, that ethics and model would, in fact, be the best that could be expected for the humanity.

In view of this, and the enormous predominance achieved by the current models of Liberal democracy, some Liberal theorists of our day come to defend the idea that we arrived at what they call the “end of ideologies”. In other words, since this is the most suitable model for humanity, the one that ensures the greatest possible happiness for the greatest number and, as if it were not enough, it is the one that is in application in the vast majority of countries and, certainly, in the most powerful – that in view of all that, we would have arrived at a definitive model. From that period onward, all of humanity’s future development would take place within this model, thus meaning an end to the struggles between philosophies and alternative political models, an “end to ideologies”.

It should certainly cause a great deal of discomfort to such optimistic thinkers that, despite having achieved a definitive (and thus true) vision of human beings and humanity, as well as having reached a permanent model of political-social organization (and, therefore, good and scientifically consistent), that in spite of all this, humanity finds itself in the terrible state in which it finds itself, where the problems of the so-called underdevelopment stand out, and, on the other side, growing threats of catastrophic environmental imbalances. But perhaps its saddest aspect is the fact that the humanity of today is without any concrete prospect of overcoming this situation in a predictable horizon. In reality, what we have very clearly predictable in front of us is an increasing worsening of colossal problems and challenges.

Bearing in mind this global panorama, although very synthetic, regarding the premisses and the model of social-political organization of Liberalism, let us now analyze the flaws of this model. We will begin this analysis by seeking to situate and emphasize the decisive importance of models of political organization in relation to the well-being of countries in general.
(Arnaldo Sisson Filho. What Is Wrong With Politics?; chapter 4)