What we call “liberalism” may appear to us as more a set of “priorities or predispositions” than a coherent ideology or philosophy because the ideology and its political-philosophical commitments are preceptual and effectively consensual – for us: Liberalism may not appear “ideological” because we treat its elements as simply true or as unquestionable for “all intents and purposes,” in other words under the continuation of the social-cultural whole as well as the political-juridical-administrative “state.” We can (always idly) question the philosophical validity of our foundational concepts, but we are precluded from taking any negative conclusions truly meaningfully into the public square.1 The unquestioned premises tend to come forward and become identifiable as ideology, and therefore more questionable potentially (prior to self-defensive suppression or ideological hygiene), under conditions of stress or crisis, typically in response to an external or seemingly external impetus, as during war with ideologically defined adversaries, another way of saying that the actual (as opposed to merely intellectual or ideal or idle) bringing forward of these premises will be definitional for a crisis of the whole state. Under “normal” conditions, however, they operate as ingrained presumptions and occasional subject of politically meaningless speculation.
In this sense, what demonstrates that contemporary “liberalism” (as modern American center-left social liberalism-progressivism) is in fact very highly ideological is that so many people can subscribe to it without perceiving it as ideological at all, or without thinking at all. This preceptual character of the ideology also contributes to common confusion about the relationship of post-war or contemporary American liberalism to conservatism, libertarianism, progressivism, leftism, etc.: All exist within the same framing presumptions or horizon of modern liberalist political philosophy. They are siblings. The relationship is somewhat akin, and I think not merely serendipitously, to the relationship of the Abrahamic faiths to each other2: The libertarians are the Jews of liberalism (liberalism here broadly understood as post-Enlightenment political philosophy). Furthermore, since liberalist presumptions, as “first principles” or “fundamental norms,” have what amounts to a religious or creedal character for the believer-citizen, and since, virtually the same thing, acceptance defines anyone as a participation-capable citizen-believer (or ordinary gentleperson), it is impossible to criticize them as a matter of conventional political activity, or usefully at all, except at the limits, in a discussion that becomes relevant only to the extent a possible crisis of the whole state can be taken as “on the agenda” (via war, revolution, economic catastrophe, political paralysis…).3
Our liberals and conservatives are already libertarians from their own point of view, if not necessarily or if rarely from each other’s point of view: They all can be taken as honestly believing themselves to be interested in liberty, to be pursuing policies supportive of true liberty as they understand it. The self-identified guardians of the true faith disagree.4 Libertarianism as self-contained belief system or as political ideology, though a liberalism, is, as the purest and most original liberalism, the liberalism furthest from real-existing liberalism, or, to say almost the same thing, the liberalism closest both to the origins and (as above) to the dissolution of the liberal-democratic state as a real-existing state. Likewise, the location of libertarianism at the margins of mainstream politics, even as underlying impetus of liberal or liberal-democratic political discourse, corresponds to its marginal political profile, including its tendency to attract “marginal” and easily “cartoonified” character types, as well as the relative ease with which people who happen to hold some libertarian beliefs or positions will be co-opted into the mainstream or centrist parties or coalitions.
The typical difficulties of libertarianism all run along this same axis: It is not exactly or merely an “outsider” ideology at all. It is the ultimate insider ideology of a broader ideological superstructure that requires and idealizes the suppression and externalization of ultimacies including especially its own.5 So, from a certain perspective libertarianism is and remains the or a core ideology of the real existing mass liberal democratic state, but the notion of ideological “space” is only metaphorical: Ideology is not a three-dimensional physical space. In ideological pseudo-space an element can be simultaneously at the core and at the extremes. This observation is especially true for the liberal-democratic polity, whose normalcy is, as already indicated, a suppression of the extremes. In this sense what applies to libertarianism as pure liberalism also of course applies to pure democratism: We could therefore also try another metaphor of the political center of the liberal-democratic state as a kind of LaGrange point of suspension between the Black Hole of pure libertarianism and the gravities of alternative relatively collectivist ideological bodies.6
The relative purity of libertarianism also corresponds to the difficulty and marginality of libertarian praxis as a political praxis, and the more fundamental question of the existence of any true libertarian praxis at all. A socialist commune is or can be the socialist society in nuce; a libertarian political group is almost a contradiction in terms: The individualist ceding elements of his or her pure liberty for the sake of practical, always implicitly coerced, augmentation of collective power. The fact that the existence of this contradiction is, because it has to be, overcome in practice, the fact that any libertarian can choose to be exactly as reasonable about collective action as he or she wants to be, points to the eventual indistinction of the state of pure liberty and the total state, since the total state is never anything more or less than the manifold result of countless reasonable calculations of desirable degree of concessions of pure autonomy or of unlimited negative freedom. If libertarianism is still libertarianism under reasonable calculation of concessions, and everyone agrees out of calculation of self-interest to the totalitarian state, then the totalitarian state is also the libertarian state. The communist utopia expresses the same logic or self-contradictory counter-logic, or describes the same conceptual limits: True Communism arrives when the totalitarian state insists on the freedom of all. The two utopias are the same utopia.
Libertarianism was or is also the virtual location where the modern distinguishes itself from the pre-modern. As such, it suggests infant liberal-democracy, the arrested development of the polity fixated at the level of the pre-socialized or socialization-resistant individual – the pre-dialogical, self-sufficient, natural “I-atheist.”7 It will tend to remain for us in practice what the libertarian moment was historically, a kind of ideological anteroom or hinge-point or membrane or halfway-house, whichever metaphor you prefer. Its precepts underlie the liberal-democratic polity, but the liberal-democratic polity has traveled very far from or expanded well beyond its inception point.
- In regard to libertarianism specifically, the meaningful taking into an always already pre-defined (always relatively collective-communitarian-authoritarian-totalized etc.) public square already points toward or commences a violation of its Ripperian purity of essence of purity…. [↩]
- We are all libertarians in the same way that all Christians, Muslims, and Jews are monotheists. If we define Judaism conceptually as “original and rigorous monotheism,” all Christians and Muslims are Judaic, or embody the essential truth of Judaic prophecy, in their own view, a fact upon which their respective foundational statements sooner or later insist: Each sees itself as a fuller realization of an essential truth revealed initially in Judaism. If we take “Jew” as substantially an ethnic designation, then we are entering a different realm, and may also have to speak of Christianate, Islamicate, and even Judiacate culture-states rather than respective associated religious concepts. In much the same way – and possibly the very same way – conservatives are right libertarians and liberals are left libertarians, though, of course, as far as the libertarians are concerned, only the libertarians are truly libertarians, and, on closer analysis, as we often see, very few of them are either. Sooner or later it will turn out that there are no true libertarians except me, on probation for compulsive delinquency. [↩]
- Since a true crisis of the whole state would affect every one of us, impartiality will be difficult or impossible, and ideology from the perspective of the crisis of the whole state becomes difficult to separate from self-interest. At the same time, a true crisis of the whole state is something that upholders of the whole state will by definition seek to avoid until and unless they come to view it as the only potential salvation of the state, but everyone also understands intuitively that a true crisis of the whole state is a “throwing of the dice,” an opening to hazard or revelation. Even if the state is restored, it may afterward be a changed state, and quite possibly a more vulnerable or weakened state. [↩]
- …just as the Jew disagrees with the Christian who claims that Christianity is a or the valid realization of Judaic prophecy, or with the Muslim who makes a similar claim in regard both to Christianity and Judaism. [↩]
- …”suppression of ultimacies” also being, of course, another name for public policy in general or perhaps for constitutionalism, thus also the non-establishment of all religions other than the civic religion. [↩]
- Why a LaGrangian “stasis” cannot be maintained, and why the effort to maintain it can convert into the opposite (“crisis”) is a higher developmental or phenomenal form of the same problem we encounter attempting to define “conservatism” under the conditions of an inherently progressivist state, and is visible in the irony, widely enough remarked to be taken as a cliche, of the interest in stability and orthodoxy being such an unstable as well as de-stabilizing, incoherent as well as de-cohering concept. [↩]
- See Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity. [↩]