Liberalism and Its Discontents

Slavoj Zizek:

The inner tension of this project is discernible in two aspects of liberalism: market liberalism and political liberalism. As Jean-Claude Michea has brilliantly argued, these two aspects of liberalism are linked to two political meanings of “Right”: the political Right insists on market economy, the politically-correct Left insists on the defence of human rights – often its sole remaining raison d’etre.

Although the tension between these two aspects of liberalism is irreducible, they are nonetheless inextricably linked, like the two sides of the same coin. And so, today, the meaning of “liberalism” swings between the two poles of economic liberalism (free market individualism, opposition to strong state regulation, and so on) and political liberalism or libertarianism (with the accent on equality, social solidarity, permissiveness, and so on).

The point is that, while one cannot decide through some close analysis which is the “true” liberalism, one also cannot resolve the deadlock by way of trying to propose a kind of “higher” synthesis of the two, much less through some clear distinction between the two senses of the term. The tension between the two meanings is inherent to the very content that “liberalism” endeavours to designate: this ambiguity, far from signalling the limits of our understanding, points to the innermost “truth” of the notion of liberalism itself.

Traditionally, each “face” of liberalism necessarily appears as the opposite of the other face: liberal advocates of multiculturalist tolerance, as a rule, fight against economic liberalism and try to protect the vulnerable from the ravages of unencumbered market forces, while free-market liberals, as a rule, advocate conservative family values.

We thus get a kind of double paradox: the traditionalist Right supports the market economy while ferociously fighting the culture and mores it engenders; while its counterpoint, the multiculturalist Left, fights against the market (though less and less these days, as Michea notes) while enthusiastically enforcing the ideology it engenders. (Today, it should be said, we seem to be entering a new era in which both aspects can be combined: figures like Bill Gates pose as market radicals and as multiculturalist humanitarians.)