Where does modern liberalism come from?
In my view, the hallmark of modern liberalism is cultural liberalism, which distinguishes the liberalism of Modern America from the liberalism of Victorian America. The former is primarily an aesthetic form of liberalism. The latter was primarily a political and economic form of liberalism. It was concerned with the extension of individual rights and laissez-faire economics.
In the 19th century, Americans were utilitarian individualists. In the 20th century, they became expressive individualists. In the 19th century, the state was minimal, the economy was relaxed and culture was cohesive. In the 20th century, the state grew in importance, the economy became more regulated and the culture became relaxed. Liberalism changed dramatically in the early 20th century. It became focused on self liberation, expression, realization and the transformation of consciousness.
In the 1910s, Modernism arrived in the United States from Europe. This led to a shift in sensibility from the Romanticism of 19th century America to the Modernism of 20th century America. The Victorian mainstream of 19th century America came under assault by the Young Intellectuals who embraced Modern values. The Lost Generation that came of age around World War I and which was young in the 1920s rebelled against their parents who had supported World War I and Prohibition. They read H.L. Mencken who heaped scorn on the Puritanism of the boobosie, Sherwood Anderson’s freaks in Winesburg, Ohio and Sinclair Lewis who skewered Middle America and its values in Main Street and Babbitt.
The key transitional figures between the values and beliefs of Victorian America and Modern America generally had one foot in radical politics and the other in Modern art, literature and philosophy. In Greenwich Village, they were heavily influenced by the Modernist avant-garde, the radical socialist and anarchist fringe and Friedrich Nietzsche, H.G. Wells, Henri Bergson and Sigmund Freud. Darwinism cast a shadow over them in the background. Generally speaking, these people saw Victorian America as a cultural desert that was crass and materialistic, racist, fundamentalist, puritanical and oppressive of minorities. They wanted to dynamite the old culture and replace it with a new one that was secular, cosmopolitan, modernist and antiracist and which valued individual self-expression and cultural liberation above all else.
From its inception in late 19th century France, Modernism had been about self exploration, elitism, hyper alienation, the autonomy of aesthetics from morality and society, rejecting the past and tradition in favor of the present, the pursuit of endless novelties, non-conformist experimentation in sex and drugs and shocking the bourgeois through transgression who had always been the great enemy of the avant-garde. When the spirit of Modernism crossed over into progressive liberalism, the result was cultural liberalism. Since the 1920s, modern liberalism has been driven by the old avant-garde impulse to tear down traditional moral and culture norms and shock the bourgeois in the name of self expression.
From Darwin’s Bulldog T.H. Huxley, the Young Intellectuals learned that Christianity had been debunked. From Friedrich Nietzsche, they learned that God was dead and traditional morality was bullshit too. The slave morality of the herd animals was holding back the self realization of the higher men – people like themselves – whose work was the bridge to the Übermensch. From Nietzsche, H.G. Wells and Henri Bergson, they took away mystical vitalism. From H.G. Wells, Emma Goldman and Sigmund Freud, they took away sexual liberation. From Friedrich Nietzsche, William James and John Dewey, they took away subjectivism and relativism. From Franz Boas, they took away antiracism. From the avant-garde, transgression against bourgeois norms, the religion of art and self expression. From Jews like Horace Kallen and the pragmatists, they took away cultural pluralism.
“Victorians” and “Moderns” differ in several key ways:
- The Victorians were religious. Moderns are secular. They differ in metaphysics. 19th century America was dominated by Protestantism. In 20th century America, Christianity became more of a subculture and a lifestyle. Protestant elites no longer set the tone of American culture.
- The Victorians believed in objective truth. Moderns believe truth is subjective, relativist, based on perspective. Postmodernism has taken this to an extreme. They differ in epistemology.
- The Victorians believed that morality was true, universal, obvious. Religion and traditional morality imposed sharp limits on individual self-expression particularly in sexuality. They differ in ethics.
- The Victorians believed in laissez-faire economics. Moderns believe the state should regulate the economy. They differ in economics.
- The Victorians believed that art should depict nature and have an uplifting moral purpose. Moderns believe in art for art’s sake. Art is solely about the self-expression of the artist. Art does not have any social purpose. It doesn’t have to depict nature or the divine or even reality. Victorians subordinated art to religion and morality. Moderns subordinate religion and morality to aesthetics.
- Victorians believed in hierarchy and sharply limited who could participate in politics. Moderns believe in equality and have leveled the hierarchy and now everyone can participate in politics.
There are countless differences.
In the 19th century, the upper middle class was liberal and nationalist. In the 20th century, the upper middle class became liberal, cosmopolitan and globalist. Victorians were racists who repressed sexuality. Moderns became antiracists who celebrate sexual liberation. The former was extremely confident and took great pride in Western civilization. The latter has lost confidence and has rejected Western civilization. Moderns repudiated the Victorians by inverting their values.
Among other things, Moderns threw out perspective and representation in painting, tonality in music, ornament in architecture, traditional prosodic rules in poetry, plots in literature. Darwin and Einstein inaugurated revolutions in biology and physics as sweeping as Copernicus and Galileo did in astronomy in the 16th and 17th centuries. There was a similar revolution in mathematics. The 20th century became obsessed with psychology in a way that wasn’t true of previous centuries.
Culturally speaking, the 19th century ended in World War I and our current age began. British dominance came to an end. American isolation from Europe came to an end. We discovered that the universe was expanding and that the Milky Way was only one of many galaxies in the universe. Film, automobiles, photography, flight, mass circulation magazines and electricity had developed before World War I, but became far more common afterwards. Radio was developed in the 1920s. There was a revolution against Victorian norms in manners, morals, taste, politics. Women acquired the right to vote. The “New Man” and “New Woman” and “New Negro” changed gender norms and race relations.
All of this is to say that “liberalism” was one thing before this epochal transition and became something else afterwards. Virtually everything including liberalism was radically unsettled and transformed when the 19th century became the 20th century in World War I. A century ago, the values which are now “mainstream” in our time like modernism, cosmopolitanism and antiracism were new, but have since put down deep roots in our culture thanks to the mass media and higher education.
Just as World War I was the culmination of the British-led 19th century which terminated when European nation-states went to war (the rise of ethnic nationalism in Europe was driven by Romanticism), could the American-led era of the 20th century be headed to a similar denouement? Romanticism created a strong sense of ethnic solidarity within nations. This sense of solidarity between Western elites and the masses led to the World Wars between nations. Modernists have reversed this relationship and destroyed this sense of solidarity within nations. Could the 20th century order come crashing down when this lack of cultural solidarity and legitimacy of institutions leads to war breaking out within Western nations?
The present reminds me of the time around World War I when Britain was overextended and fading as a world power. Germany and the United States were growing strong. No one but the most elderly people remembered what a real war was like. International tensions were rising. New technologies were changing culture. In my view, Modern values are unraveling the social fabric and ultimately will plunge America into a devastating crisis which will discredit them not unlike the Victorians.
Anyway, I have been studying this transition because I think we might be arriving at a similar moment. It feels like our times are coming to an end and building up to a looming crisis. The “mainstream” is obviously entering a crisis. It has been brought about not by us or “Russian interference,” but by its own most cherished values which are working themselves out to their logical conclusion.