Dimensions of Power: The Transformation of Liberalism and the Limits of 'Politics'

By Ryn, Claes G. | Humanitas, Fall 2000 | Go to article overview

Dimensions of Power: The Transformation of Liberalism and the Limits of 'Politics'


Ryn, Claes G., Humanitas


Every age has its dominant intellectual and imaginative mind-set and corresponding pattern of practical striving. Deeply rooted ideas, hopes and fears shape desire, and desire in turn influences thought and intuition. Human beings perceive existence and set priorities according to this interaction of will, imagination and reason. The political arrangements of a society are but one of the ways in which a certain dominant approach to life articulates itself and in which a particular sense of possibilities is acted out. Whether a people will prefer limited, constitutional government or a comprehensive welfare state depends on what kind of predispositions and expectations have formed in that society. Not even dictatorial rule can be sustained without the grudging acceptance of a populace whose anxieties and other propensities incline them to submit rather than to rebel.

Any more than superficial inquiry into the meaning and sources of political power must consider the prevalent fundamental outlook of the society and larger civilization in question. What is the sense of reality and what are the deeper aspirations that have made a particular people prefer certain political modalities to others? Narrowly political conceptions of power stand in the way of adequately understanding political arrangements. Conceptions of that kind distract attention from what most fundamentally shapes human conduct. They obscure the moral-intellectual-aesthetical dynamic behind social evolution. What follows is an argument for a more nuanced and subtle view of power.

The metamorphosis of liberalism

It has been the academic fashion in recent times to discuss central problems of society and human life as issues of "liberalism." It is assumed that liberalism lies at or near the end of humanity's search for enlightenment and well-being and that liberalism is the only possible context for discussing social and political problems. It only remains for intellectuals to identify the remaining weaknesses of liberalism and to indicate how to carry through on its promises. This way of thinking often reveals precisely the preoccupation with politics narrowly understood that was just alluded to, but it is never simply a political stance. Although a person may be only imperfectly aware of the assumptions that lie implicit in his political outlook, these constitute an entire view of human existence, however jerry-built or confused. Not least because the term "liberalism" is heavy with political connotations, it is important when exploring the meaning and influence of liberalism not to fall prey to the illusion that po litics is an autonomous, self-generating, self-subsisting force that shapes all other aspects of society. It is essential to understand that political beliefs and institutions are expressions of an underlying attitude toward human existence, that they are in a sense secondary phenomena, having antecedents and roots in the life of the mind and the imagination.

Liberalism's change reflects new attitude to life.

In the last century what is called liberalism underwent a profound change. To explain that change as merely or primarily a change in political beliefs and practices would be simplistic. It stemmed from a metamorphosis of the basic outlook of Western man, which included the broad retreat of Christianity and the abandonment of earlier notions of moral good. The transformation of liberalism was one of the manifestations of a new sensibility, a new way of approaching life; changes in the moral, intellectual and aesthetical climate of the West made new political arrangements seem desirable. The older kind of liberalism can be said to have had the initiative in the nineteenth century. The twentieth century saw the spread of a world-view that gave the initiative to socialism. Liberalism followed its lead, though sometimes reluctantly.

Liberalism split apart.

Thinkers familiar with the history of the West who are also not captive to current academic and journalistic prejudices have long known that what is typically called "liberalism" in the United States bears little resemblance to the body of ideas whose influence peeked in the nineteenth century. …

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Dimensions of Power: The Transformation of Liberalism and the Limits of 'Politics'
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