When I hear Maltese politicians dropping the word “liberal” in every conversation, I cringe. It’s not only because I find their use of the word bereft of any context, but because any effort to define what this all-encompassing word has come to signify is either ignored, frowned upon, or mostly distorted by the same politicians.
The claim that somehow Malta enjoys a crop of “liberal” politicians in the PN and PL would be hilarious if it were not tragic in how it alienates popular opinion. While there are many who would identify themselves as liberal, Malta remains fundamentally illiberal and unequal.
In its classic sense liberalism has subsequently taken two directly opposed routes, one which is broadly reformist and inclusive, while the other becoming increasingly exclusive and conservative. Historically, liberalism as a push for change and reform morphed in its opposite—what is now seen as a neoliberal assault on what, in the modern era, emerged from the Jacobin ideals of equality, liberty and fraternity.
Yet liberalism was not simply confined to the American and French republican ideals. In England, liberalism emerged from the Glorious Revolution of 1688. As John Dewey, one of the best theorists of liberalism, explains, this early kind of liberalism “was fundamentally a demand for freedom of the taxpayer from government arbitrary action in connection with a demand for confessional freedom in religion by the Protestant churches.”
Liberalism has taken two directly opposed routes, one which is broadly reformist and inclusive, while the other becoming increasingly exclusive and conservative.
Liberalism emerged already two hundred years before the Jacobin Revolution, particularly when the Protestant Reform—of which we will be celebrating the 500th anniversary this year—broke out from the clutches of Catholic oligarchies and began to represent new forms of government that reclaimed Roman Law, as we find in Milton’s case for the English Commonwealth.
The central tenet here was not only a freedom to think outside the confines of theocentric oligarchies, but the drive to articulate individual liberty as tied to Hobbes’s idea of a common weal and Spinoza’s power of the multitude.
With the freedom of the individual came the freedom to own one’s destiny, through free thought and the right to own property. Feudalism kept this privilege to the aristocracy and the Church. Yet liberal revolutions declared that the idea of being a free citizen also meant the right to own property and therefore the means of creating wealth.
These ideals were best catalysed in the young American Republic, where liberalism meant the right to gain one’s freedom through one’s endeavour. As it morphed from republicanism to democratism, America’s old parties exchanged roles and took opposite positions as they passed each other from right to left.
However, while liberalism became the byword for progressive politics, the same liberal appellation also served as a fig leaf to cover the systematic abuse of what Isaiah Berlin famously attributes to negative liberty. From an unshackled liberty, negative liberty came to mean a liberty that only a few could exercise, given that only they could afford to buy it.
A freedom reserved for the few ultimately killed the reformist sense of liberalism. From beacons of liberty, the right to property and citizenship became weapons of social exclusion. As in the case of communism, where some became more equal than others, in the case of liberalism—more so in neo-liberalism today—some argue that their freedom is worth more than that of others.
Back in 1935, in his famous essay The Future of Liberalism, Dewey was already warning that liberty has become a dogmatic absolute. “This absolutism,” he says, “this ignoring and denial of temporal relativity, is one great reason why the earlier liberalism degenerated so easily into pseudo-liberalism.”
By “temporal relativity” Dewey reveals his pragmatic view of a world where nothing is fixed. To rebut liberal absolutism, we need to understand history in its ever-changing nature. Fixed notions and foundationalism stultify liberty, and more so the equality of everyone’s democratic rights.
As we also find in late 20th century philosophers like Rorty and Rawls, for Dewey, liberalism is tied to the contextual historicity of what we mean by freedom. This is where real liberalism emerges in the understanding of what is there as the real context, and not simply as something which is either assumed to be enforced as “the only ‘liberal’ way” (which becomes oppressive) or “where anything goes” (which becomes nonsense).
Dewey’s lesson is found in two major premises for liberalism: (i) a creative form of doing politics through experimentation; and (ii) the need to understand democracy as a possibility that can only emerge from forms of associated living and behaviour.
As a world outlook that is creative and socially responsible, liberalism cannot survive current neoliberalism as it has widely spread across the global economy.
As Dewey put it “The commitment of liberalism to experimental procedure carries with it the idea of continuous reconstruction of the ideas of individuality and of liberty in intimate connection with changes in social relations.” If there is anything that neoliberalism disdains and oppresses, it is a free and fair social relation in constant change.
Here I invite readers to think of what is currently being touted by a political class like Malta’s, which on both sides claims to be liberal.
To me, liberty cannot be served through piecemeal reform. Neither could liberal reform function fully if the entire constitutional framework that is there to sustain it, remains conservative and therefore illiberal and unequal.
To put it more bluntly, just as I was never convinced by Eddie Fenech Adami’s and Lawrence Gonzi’s liberal approach to the economy when they held steadfast to a conservative legal structure as favoured by the Establishment; I am equally unconvinced that one could sustain radical reforms as we have recently seen in wider civil rights under Muscat’s premiership, if society remains socially unequal, and thus firmly neoliberal, as also favoured by the same illiberal Establishment.
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