The Many Lives of Liberalism

Musée du Louvre, Paris
Eugène Delacroix: Liberty Leading the People, 1830

While the collapse of communism did not bring history to an end, it did, briefly, seem to establish a worldwide consensus of sorts. Had one particular social and political system, by dint of hard experience, proven superior to all its rivals? Apparently yes. That system was what could be called the liberal ideal, constructed around representative democracy, human rights, and free-market capitalism complemented by a strong social safety net. If this system did not turn out to be the inevitable, placid, posthistorical future of all mankind, as predicted in Francis Fukuyama’s notorious 1989 essay, it nonetheless stood as a goal toward which all humanity was now going to strive.

That consensus seemed to hold even after the bloody disintegration of Yugoslavia and the September 11 attacks. Now, however, it is fracturing. Around the world, populist politicians on the right are winning elections by warning demagogically that representative democracy and human rights policies are too weak to protect hardworking, native-born families against threats from beyond their national borders—especially terrorists and migrant hordes. At the same time, a resurgent socialist left is gaining support by warning that liberal social democracy is too fragile to protect ordinary people from the ever more disruptive forces of global capitalism. While today’s ideological cleavages are not as wide as those of the 1930s, they are nonetheless more pronounced than at any time since the cold war.

As always, when the ideological landscape changes, so does our sense of the history behind it. Take, for instance, the subject of human rights. Back in the distant past of 2007—before the financial crisis, before President Trump—the historian Lynn Hunt published a pioneering study that presented the ascent of universal human rights as inexorable.1 She recognized that it took time for the concept to achieve its full, mature shape. But once it did so in the eighteenth century, the “bulldozer force of the revolutionary logic of rights” propelled it irresistibly forward.

Three eventful years later, Samuel Moyn directly challenged Hunt’s account. In The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History, he argued that modern human rights politics, far from following this inexorable path, had coalesced into their contemporary form and taken on their contemporary salience only in the 1970s thanks to disillusionment with socialism, nationalism, anti-colonialist struggles, and the internationalism represented by the United Nations.2 Last year, Moyn’s new book, Not Enough, extended the case, suggesting that contemporary human rights activism serves the purposes of “neoliberal” free-market fundamentalism all too well. This activism may try to make free-market policies more humane, but it does little to challenge the enormous inequalities they produce, and in fact diverts political energies from such challenges.

Each of the three books under review makes a renewed case for elements of the liberal ideal, but with a powerfully heightened sense of its…

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