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Despite its recent turn, liberalism has an articulated history testifying of its key role in modern Western society. The two great revolutions, in America in 1776 and France in 1789 refined some of the key ideas behind liberalism: democracy, equal rights, human rights, the separation between State and religion, and the focus on the individual’s well-being.
Nineteenth century was a period of intense refinement of the values of liberalism, which had to face the novel economic and social conditions posed by incipient industrial revolution. Thinkers such as John Stuart Mill made fundamental contributions to liberalism, bringing to philosophical attention topics such as freedom of speech, the rights of women and slaves. Socialist and communist doctrines emerging around the same time, under the influence of Karl Marx and the French utopists, forced liberalists to refine their views and bond into more cohesive political groups.
In the twentieth century, liberalism was restated to adjust to the changing economic situation by authors such as Ludwig von Mises and John Maynard Keynes. The politics and lifestyle diffused by the Unites States throughout the world, then, gave a key impulse to the success of liberal lifestyle, in practice, if not in principle. In recent decades, liberalism has been used to address pressing issues such as the crisis of capitalism and the globalization of society. As the twenty-first century enters into its central phase, liberalism is still a driving doctrine that inspires political leaders and individual citizens.
No matter where we live, all societies carry baggage and a considerable amount of it. But, in a nutshell, what distinguishes successful societies from those that are not as dynamic, is that successful societies know what to abandon, and when. China, for example, follows an essentially Confucian culture. Confucianism is an ideological system that places education at a very high level of priority. But it is also a system which strongly discriminates against women.
Contemporary Chinese societies have held on to Confucian values on education. But they have wisely discarded the baggage within traditional ideology that encourages discrimination against women. Rest assured, as Jean-Pierre Lehmann, an emeritus professor of international political economy in Switzerland argued, if China were still binding its women’s feet, there would be no spectacular economic growth in China, Hong Kong or Taiwan. According to him, the fact that China no longer binds women’s feet may make the Chinese feel less “Chinese”. But it lets China move ahead economically, politically and socially.
China’s progress leads us to question: What has allowed the Chinese to make these choices? What allows similar changes to occur in other regions and cultures?
Ultimately, what has transformed cultural legacies into dynamic engines of growth, welfare and prosperity in both the material and spiritual domains has been the liberating force of liberalism.
Jean-Pierre Lehmann stated that Confucianist scholars such as Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao, the Hindu scholar Ram Mohun Roy and the numerous Christian liberals and humanists are all from different cultures. But all share a common belief in sorting out their respective ideological baggage to see what works and what doesn’t.
Jean-Pierre Lehmann further noted that the potential for change is evident even in cultures currently seen as a lost cause. Consider the Arab/Muslim world. Perhaps surprising to outsiders, a liberal tradition, a tradition of sorting through cultural baggage, does exist in Arabic and Islamic thought. The Tunisian scholar, the late Albert Hourani, demonstrated this vividly in his magnificent book, “Arabic Thought” in the Liberal Age of 1968.
Albert Hourani described how, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, thinkers and writers such as Jamal al-Din al-Afghani developed a powerful stream of Muslim thought along lines comparable to the evolution of secular and liberal thought in Europe. And, surprising as that may sound, Al-Afghani’s agenda of reform and liberalism did not prevent him from being a fervent nationalist and anti-imperialist.
Ultimately, however, as Hourani’s book shows, liberalism came to be aborted in most of the Middle East. How so? Well, opponents of liberalism in the Islamic world opted for an easy, but effective, move. They equated liberalism with “Westernism”. And that allowed them to dictate that all that traditional baggage be retained, effective or not. Had the equivalent happened in China, the Chinese would still be binding women’s feet.
We must not forget that the West’s ideological origins are not at all liberal, though it is correct that liberalism has emanated primarily from the West. After all, dogmatic literal interpretations of the Bible are what allowed the Florentine government to place Galileo under house arrest just for saying that the earth rotated around the sun. Even today, fundamentalist Christians in the United States continue to fight against scientific thought, and seek to ban the teaching of Darwinism in schools, for example.
Intellectual curiosity and cultural openness are not permanent features of any society, as we see in the world around us. Japan in the 1960s was a hothouse of cultural curiosity, openness, import and experimentation. For reasons not easy to explain, the 1980s saw Japan switch to become far more inward-looking. In fact it has turned into a somewhat masochistically narcissistic society, in social and economic decline.
Liberalism is a universal doctrine, the most basic premise of which is to oppose dogmatism in any form. Hence, its advocacy of tolerance, openness and pluralism attracts many across cultural boundaries. As Jean-Pierre Lehmann kindly advised, the next time we hear criticisms of “neo-liberalism,” we should keep in mind the value of the underlying premise of liberalism, and view the concept on a broader scale.
However bothersome “neo-liberalism” may be to some, liberalism as such appears to be nothing less than the key to allowing a society to operate successfully in a modern, globalized world.