The paper will have five parts. Here's the penultimate part.
IV. The End of Liberalism
Liberalism is a philosophy of limited government and political rights. As such, as a theory, it would seem that Peak Oil would have little necessary impact upon its viability. However, liberalism has also been deeply premised upon economic growth and the expansion of human dominion over nature, a prospect that is placed in considerable doubt by the arrival of Peak Oil. A fundamental question arises: whether liberalism has been necessarily dependent upon the presumption of growth and mastery, or whether those prospects are detachable from the theory of limited government and political rights.
Before turning to this harder question, first it should be stated that liberalism in its modern incarnation seems unlikely to survive. In its modern form – “progressive” or “radical” liberalism, premised especially upon a goal of radical human autonomy and liberty – liberalism is based far more explicitly upon the expansion of the modern project of mastery of nature and economic growth in extensive ways it rarely acknowledges. The liberal goal of individual autonomy – the liberation from oppressive limitations in the form of locality, custom, “given” circumstance, etc., are likely to be increasingly revealed as resting profoundly upon the oil platform – as much, if not more, than the success of the modern economy. While tending not to think of autonomy in these terms, nevertheless its basis upon open opportunity, liberation from circumstance, and extensive mobility, all can be seen in this light as deriving from the unparalleled wealth and liberty provided by our one-time use of the world’s fossil fuel reserves. Various iterations of this form of autonomy, including lifestyle choice, “self-creation” or Emersonian “self-reliance,” expressionist individualism, widespread irony indicating a studied distance from society’s norms, technologically-based personal expression (e.g., in the form of internet identities), and – perhaps most alarmingly to some – feminism in the form of liberation from the drudgery of the household and localities and easy entry into the mainstream economy, are potentially all in danger of extinction as the age of oil comes to a close. A future in which communal demands and local identification becomes far more prevalent suggest a fundamental redefinition of human identity away from a “liberationist” ethic and toward one of communal solidarity (in, perhaps, the most positive-sounding form of the likely change) or (to take the negative case) loss of individual liberty and the oppressive inescapability of folkways and circumstance. A form of Stoicism – that philosophy overturned by modernity, as initiated by Machiavelli – is likely to stage a comeback in the post-oil age, albeit not without first witnessing the expression of frustration, consternation, and rage against the loss of liberty once enjoyed by modern peoples.
What of a more minimal liberalism, that philosophy formed before the age of coal or oil, the pre-Millian philosophy that did not forefront material progress and did not even imagine moral progress, but instead identified inexpugnable self-interest as the basis for legitimation of the modern state? What of the liberalism of Locke and the Founding Fathers of the United States?
Theoretically, there may be little reason to suppose that Peak Oil would implicate minimalist theories of liberalism. However, concomitant with liberalism’s theory of limited government was a confidence in the human capacity to expand physically, geographically and materially. Liberalism, while a theory that appears to stress limited government, has practically resulted in greater centralization and the accrual of power to strong national governments. Liberalism justified not only the watchfulness of citizens who warily watched for encroachments upon rights, but the rise of strong executive power that necessarily created conditions to “secure these rights.” In addition to a theory of rights, including the right to revolution, John Locke wrote of the central importance of “prerogative,” that is, largely unfettered actions by the executive to secure the “public good.” By the “public good” one understands not only the existence of rights to life, liberty, and property, but more broadly the expansion of property by means of creative and expansive economic activity. The executive branch has necessarily grown in power and prominence as the growth in economy has demanded both its protection and protection from its abuses. It can be argued that this growth is as central to the core philosophy of liberalism as its theory of “limited” government and political rights. Growth has been a precondition – or at least an accompanying condition – of the success of the modern liberal project.
Commerce is especially important to liberalism because it drains the populace of the forms of political faction and enthusiasm that marked pre-liberal society, and instead induced a kind of pacific orientation toward personal comfort and success. As Leo Strauss has suggested, the moderns built on the “low but solid ground” of self-interest, seeking above all the realizability of the modern conception of politics, against the fortune-bound aspirations of ancient political thought. The success of commerce, in particular, has been posited as a necessary condition of modern liberty. Montesquieu and Constant both stress the extent to which “modern liberty” is the beneficiary of successful economic life, and further, a necessary accompaniment to moving beyond the dominant forms of “ancient” liberty. As Constant wrote, “commerce does not, like war, leave in men’s lives intervals of inactivity. The constant exercise of political rights, the daily discussion of the affairs of state, disagreements, confabulations, the whole entourage and movement of factions, necessary agitations, the compulsory filling, if I may use the term, of the people of antiquity, who, without this resource would have languished under the weight of painful inaction, would only cause trouble and fatigue to modern nations, where each individual, occupied with his own speculations, his enterprises, the pleasure she obtains or hopes for, does not wish to be distracted from them other than momentarily, and as little as possible.” Similarly, the Founders of the American republic saw commerce as the main source of activity of most citizens, an activity that at once drew attention away from participation in political “faction” even as its growth fostered the greater wealth and power of the nation.
Emphasis upon our economic lives, while encouraging a propensity toward greed and avarice, nevertheless had the beneficial result of providing liberation from authority in most forms, and particularly the authority in the form of religious or civic forms of education and cultivation. Following Adam Smith’s theory of the “invisible hand” or Mandeville’s belief in “private vices, pubic virtue,” the pursuit of individual interest would result – economically and politically – in a form of order and stability in which individuals acted freely and the power of the State nevertheless grew substantially. Institutional mechanisms were designed to thwart the worst effects of such unbridled interest, and a dim view was taken on the historical failures of “moral [and] religious motives.” In short, a vibrant and growing economic sphere, which garnered the attention of citizens and the devotion of most of their exertions, was a basic foundation in the success of the theory of liberalism. Absent this growth, a fundamental pillar of liberal theory would collapse, and with it, the viability of a theory that also commended limited government and individual rights. Indeed, it might be contended that a citizenry inadequately formed with “moral and religious motives” – ones fostered rather by the mechanisms of liberal institutions which do not require, and arguably actively discourage, such antique virtues – would be ill-prepared to confront a society that could no longer deliver the promise of future improvement and material amelioration. A recalcitrant citizenry would likely give rise to a mobilization of a not-so-limited government, or themselves demand a rise in its powers to deliver the growth that it had come to expect. A citizenry effectively taught that life consists in the ceaseless pursuit of “power after power” would be ill-prepared to confront a society in which power – and the energy that provided it – was in steep and permanent decline.
Thus, liberalism, most obviously in its “progressive” form, and even in its “minimalist” form, is likely to come under severe duress in the foreseeable future, and its survival is in question. Liberalism’s success was premised upon the fruition of its philosophy of growth, and so long as the philosophy gave rise to results that powered that growth, liberalism thrived, flourished, and ruled. Liberalism began as a serious political program at the outset of modern capitalism and the industrial revolution: it at once gave rise to those phenomena, even as it benefited from them. Liberalism has flourished in an age of growth, as it was intended. As we confront the limits of a natural world – limits which modernity itself had argued could be overcome by human mastery – the prospects of liberalism are dubious. Faced with the limits of nature, progressive liberalism is definitionally incompatible: “progress” itself will become a worldview of the past. Dreams of human autonomy, born of the human mastery of nature – including lifestyle liberty, self-creation and even many forms of feminism – would cease to exist. “Minimal” liberalism – the liberalism of Locke and the Founders – will also be put under severe stress, and to the extent that this philosophic tradition rests most deeply upon a foundation of growth and human mastery, it will be shown to be a system that worked exceedingly well so long as it could be powered by an immense source of energy. Having burned through its most potent form in only 150 years, liberalism may be entering, much like the age of oil itself, a future of permanent decline.