Monday, October 6, 2014

The ‘Bitter Truth': Empire and the Death of Liberalism

Daniel McCarthy, editor of The American Conservative, has started a bit of a controversy with his essay "Why Liberalism Means Empire," the thesis of which is that the "happy accident" of the liberal state was made possible only by the existence and beneficence of the British empire. Liberalism, says McCarthy, is dependent on the protective embrace of a global hegemon: this is the "bitter truth" libertarians and anti-interventionist conservatives must face.

One hardly knows how to approach an ostensibly conservative argument whose author unashamedly declares "By 1989 it was obvious that Hegel had been right." But then again one wonders if this is said somewhat tongue in cheek, because McCarthy is here arguing against the Hegelian determinism of Francis Fukuyama, asserting that it wasn’t History that produced liberalism in America and England but the British navy – or "power," as he puts it. Fukuyama famously argued that history had "ended," figuratively, at the Battle of Jena, when Napoleon’s triumph ensured the spread of "liberal" principles over the whole of Europe, but McCarthy begs to differ:

"What in fact has triumphed over the last 250 years – not since the Battle of Jena in 1806 but since the end of the Seven Years’ War in 1763 – is not an idea but an institution: empire. Successive British and American empires created and upheld the world order in which liberalism could flourish. Fukuyama’s ‘liberal democracy’ turns out to be a synonym for "the attitudes and institutions of a world in which Anglo-American power is dominant."

Counterposed to Fukuyama’s Germano-centric Hegelian vision of a "world homogenous state" evolving out of the "spirit of History," we have McCarthy’s Anglophilic version of reverse Fukyama-ism, in which liberty is a "happy accident," a rare and fragile flower that can only be sustained within the hegemon’s hothouse.

Two seemingly polar opposite views, and yet when one strips away the neoconservative view that dresses itself up in Hegelian "dialectical" drag, their differences – in terms of practical policy – turn out to be a matter of degree rather than a matter of principle.