The original founding fathers of the United States were not after a human rights utopia. They were merchant capitalists tired of the restrictions of the old order. The old world had a very clear hierarchy. This basic pattern is replicated in all the places that civilizations have arisen. There’s God (sometimes singular, sometimes plural) at the top, who directly chooses both the king and the religious leaders. These can be one and the same or those functions can be split. Underneath them are the nobles, the priests, and the military. Again, sometimes these groups are folded into one, and sometimes they’re discrete. Beneath them are the merchants, traders, and skilled craftsmen. The base of the pyramid contains the bulk of the population: people in slavery, serfdom, or various forms of indenture. And all of this is considered God’s will, which makes resistance that much more difficult psychologically. Standing up to an abuser—whether an individual or a vast system of power—is never easy. Standing up to capital “G” God requires an entirely different level of courage, which may explain why this arrangement appears universally across civilizations and why it is so intransigent.
In the West, one of the first blows against the Divine Right of Kings was in 1215, when some of the landed aristocracy forced King John to sign Magna Carta. It required the king to renounce some privileges and to respect legal procedures. It established habeas corpus and due process. Most important was the principle it claimed: the king and the church are bound by the law, not above it, and citizens have rights against their government. Magna Carta plunged England into a civil war, the First Baron’s War. Pope Innocent got involved as well, absolving the king from having to enforce Magna Carta—not because he’d been forced to sign it, but because it was blasphemous. Understand, it was a crime against God to suggest that people could question or make demands on the king.
The American Revolution can be seen as another Baron’s revolt. This time it was the merchant-barons, the rising capitalist class, waging a rebellion against the king and the landed gentry of England. They wanted to take the king and the aristocrats out of the equation, so that the flow of power went God → property owners. When they said “All men are created equal,” they meant very specifically white men who owned property. That property included black people, white women, and more generally, the huge pool of laborers who were needed to turn this continent from a living landbase into private wealth. Less than 5 percent of the population could vote under the constitution as it was originally written. Under the rising Protestant ethic, amassing wealth was a sign of God’s favor and God’s grace. God was still operable, he’d just switched allegiance from the old inherited powers to the rising mercantile class.
This new class had a new set of priorities in the service of their God-given right to accumulate wealth. The West has had market economies for thousands of years; they are essential to feeding civilization. Goods have to be traded, first from the countryside, then from the colonies (and there are always colonies), to fill the ever-growing needs of the bloated power base. (The Sahara Desert once fed the Roman Empire, which should tell you everything you need to know about civilization’s hunger and its supporting ecosystem’s ultimate fate.)
Those original market economies in the West, and, indeed, around the world, were nestled inside a moral economy informed by community networks of care, concern, and responsibilities. Property owners and moneylenders were restricted by community norms and the influence of extralegal leaders like elders, healers, and religious officers. This social world was held together by personal bonds of affection and mutual obligation. These were precisely the bonds that the rising capitalist class needed to destroy. Their concept of freedom meant freedom from those obligations and responsibilities. In their schema, individuals were free from traditional moral and community values, as well as from the king and landed gentry, to pursue their own financial interests. What held this social world together wasn’t bonds of affection and obligation, but impersonal contracts—and impersonal contracts favored the rich, the employers, the landlords, the owners, and the creditors while dispossessing the poor, the employees, the tenants, the slaves, and the debtors.
In 1776, half the immigrants to America were indentured servants. Three out of four people in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia were or had been indentured, 20 percent of the population were slaves, and 10 percent of the population owned half the wealth. George Washington was the wealthiest man in America.
Groups of people don’t endure oppression without some of them fighting back. This is true everywhere, no matter what. There were huge and fertile populist movements in America at that time, with visions for a true democracy that have yet to be equaled. For instance, the commoners seized control of the Pennsylvania statehouse and wrote the following into their constitution: “An enormous portion of property vested in a few individuals is dangerous to the rights and destructive of the common happiness of mankind; and therefore every free state hath a right by its laws to discourage the possession of such property.”
And here are a few other facts you probably didn’t learn in public school. Between 1675 and 1700, militant confrontations brought down governments in Massachusetts, New York, Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina. By 1760 there had been eighteen rebellions aimed at overthrowing colonial governments, six black rebellions, and forty major riots. “Freedom from all foreign or domestic oligarchy!” was a slogan of the common people. “Domestic” referred to George Washington and his friends, the merchant-barons. People knew who their enemies were—most of them had been literally owned by the rich. Contrast their slogan to the following quote from John Jay, the president of the First Continental Congress and the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court: “The people who own the country ought to govern it.” In fact, common soldiers mounted multiple attacks against the headquarters of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. Nobody was taken in by the government that the merchant-barons were proposing.
What the merchant-barons wanted was a centralized national government with the ability to coercively suppress internal dissent movements, regulate trade, protect private property, and subsidize infrastructure that would drive the economy. What they ultimately wanted was to gut a vast, living continent and turn it into wealth, and they didn’t want anyone to get in their way. That’s the trajectory this culture has been on for 10,000 years, since the beginning of agriculture. The only thing that has changed is who gets to benefit from that gutting.
We need to understand the contradictory legacy of liberalism to understand the left today. Any political idea that can bring down theocracy, monarchy, and religious fundamentalism is worth considering, but any ideology that impedes a radical transformation of other equally violent systems of power needs to be rigorously examined and ultimately rejected.
Classical liberalism values the sovereignty of the individual, and asserts that economic freedom and property rights are essential to that sovereignty. John Locke, called the Father of Liberalism, made the argument that the individual instead of the community was the foundation of society. He believed that government existed by the consent of the governed, not by divine right. But the reason government is necessary is to defend private property, to keep people from stealing from each other. This idea appealed to the wealthy for an obvious reason: they wanted to keep their wealth. From the perspective of the poor, things look decidedly different. The rich are able to accumulate wealth by taking the labor of the poor and by turning the commons into privately owned commodities; therefore, defending the accumulation of wealth in a system that has no other moral constraints is in effect defending theft, not protecting against it.
Classical liberalism from Locke forward has a contradiction at its center. It believes in human sovereignty as a natural or inalienable right, but only against the power of a monarchy or other civic tyranny. By loosening the ethical constraints that had existed on the wealthy, classical liberalism turned the powerless over to the economically powerful, simply swapping the monarchs for the merchant-barons. Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, published in 1776, provided the ethical justification for unbridled capitalism. As previously discussed, the pursuit of wealth for its own sake had been considered a sin and such pursuit had been constrained by a whole series of societal institutions. But Smith argued that the “Invisible Hand” of the market would provide what society needed; any government interference would be detrimental.
According to classical liberalism, government needs to refrain from any participation in the economic realm, beyond the enforcement of contracts. Classical liberalism’s commitment to civil rights was based on a similar idea of what are termed “negative freedoms.” The government must not interfere in arenas like speech and religion in order to guarantee liberty to individual citizens. The Bill of Rights is essentially a list of negative freedoms. In the real world, what negative freedoms mean is: if you have the power, you get to keep it. If you own the press or have the money to access it, you’re free to “say” whatever you like. If you can’t access it, well, the government can’t interfere. The vast majority of citizens thus have no right to be heard in any way that is socially meaningful. This is how classical liberalism increased the rights of the powerful against the rights of the dispossessed.
In 1880, the growing monopolies of the big trusts (corporations) showed the inevitable end point of laissez-faire economics. Reformers saw that the government was the only institution that could break the economic stranglehold of the big trusts. Liberal thinkers started to abandon the classical commitment to laissez-faire economics, while they remained committed to individualism and the liberal concept of civil rights.
The big split between liberals and the true left came in the 1940s: as liberals took up an anti-Communist position, the actual leftists were purged from liberalism, especially from labor unions and the New Deal coalition. From the beginnings of classical liberalism, liberals have embraced capitalism. Indeed, classical liberalism was foundational to a capitalist economy. Hence, unlike in Europe, there is no real left in the US, as a true left starts with the rejection of capitalism. There is no political party in the US that represents a critique of capitalism. Congress is essentially filled with two wings of the Capitalist Party.
After the disaster of the Great Depression, liberalism shifted to the idea of government intervention to regulate business in order to assure competition and to enforce safety and labor standards. This was an attempt to make capitalism work, not to dismantle it. This approach is very different from state socialism, in which the state owns (not regulates) the means of production (and which has produced its own environmental and human rights disasters).
This modern version of liberalism is called social liberalism. It maintained its commitment to civil rights, especially as negative freedoms, and a capitalist system guided by government supports and regulations.
At this moment, the liberal basis of most progressive movements is impeding our ability, individually and collectively, to take action. The individualism of liberalism, and of American society generally, renders too many of us unable to think clearly about our dire situation. Individual action is not an effective response to power because human society is political; by definition it is built from groups, not from individuals. That is not to say that individual acts of physical and intellectual courage can’t spearhead movements. But Rosa Parks didn’t end segregation on the Montgomery, Alabama, bus system. Rosa Parks plus the stalwart determination and strategic savvy of the entire black community did.
Liberalism also diverges from a radical analysis on the question of the nature of social reality. Liberalism is idealist. This is the belief that reality is a mental activity. Oppression, therefore, consists of attitudes and ideas, and social change happens through rational argument and education. Materialism, in contrast, is the understanding that society is organized by concrete systems of power, not by thoughts and ideas, and that the solution to oppression is to take those systems apart brick by brick. This in no way implies that individuals are exempt from examining their privilege and behaving honorably. It does mean that antiracism workshops will never end racism: only political struggle to rearrange the fundamentals of power will.