It is important to begin by situating liberalism in historical context. The ‘birth’ of the ideology unfolded during a period of effervescence on all fronts in Europe – an epoch running from the 16th to the 18th centuries when Europe transitioned from Medieval or feudal society to a condition known as modernity. Speaking very schematically, feudal society was marked by closed economies based on subsistence agriculture, as well as by religious orthodoxy, and complex layers of inherited social rank. Most people living as peasants, or serfs, in a relationship of fealty to the local lord, who in turn owed loyalty to a king. People were seen as members of the social groups to which they belonged: their family, village, local community or social class. Their lives and identities were largely determined by the character of these groups in a process that changed little from one generation to the next. There was relatively little social mobility: ‘a man is his rank’ as the saying went, and that rank was usually inherited. Those roles came with distinctive and complex sets of expectations, norms, and legal privileges and responsibilities. Thus, people tended not to see themselves primarily as individuals with a unique identity and a destiny to be discovered in the way that today’s university students, for example, might be trying to ‘find’ themselves, working out what they value in life and what their career choices might be. Rather, one’s identity was defined by the small community and social role one was born into.
Nor was there much physical mobility. People did travel (e.g., on religious pilgrimages), but tended to live out their lives in the same village or valley of their birth; and such local communities tended to be quite homogenous (see: Bloch, 2014).
Modernity, on the other hand, is the world we know today. It is marked by dynamic, competitive market economies – a system eventually labeled capitalism. Kicked into high gear by the Industrial Revolution that began in the 18th century, the modern condition is marked by ever-changing technology and driven by a combination of the scientific method and competitive market economics; high levels of urbanization; and extremely mobile populations moving over vast distances abetted by transportation technologies such as trains, planes or motorized ships. People also move up and down the social ladder much more swiftly than in societies based on subsistence agriculture, sometimes within a generation, and certainly across generations; a father might be poor, his son middle-class, and his grandson rich. The reverse also holds true.
The modern world is one of large, centralized, bureaucratic states – countries – comprised of national populations living together under shared laws and (usually) shared language. These huge modern states have tended to subsume and destroy many of the local varieties of pre-modern life. For example, according to Eugen Weber, almost half the people in France did not speak French until the latter half of the 1800s; instead, they spoke a polyglot array of dialects and tongues (1976). Paradoxically, modern life is also extraordinarily diverse, as massive mobility and urbanization result in people from all sorts of cultural backgrounds, religions and philosophical outlooks living together in the same space. The decline of religious orthodoxies and fixed, inherited systems of rank contributed to heightened individualism: the sense that each individual is unique, with a path in life that is not predetermined at birth but rather explored and chosen by the individual themselves. People were thus confronted by a broader range of choices and social possibilities, encouraged to think for themselves, and to think of themselves in personal terms (e.g., Taylor, 1989; Giddens, 1990).
Hence, as the certainties of feudal life broke down, a new intellectual climate emerged. The Protestant Reformation of the mid-16th century shattered the Roman-Catholic unity of Europe, and the individualism associated with Protestantism – emphasizing salvation through faith alone with the Bible as the ultimate source of authority – encouraged people to value individual conscience more than church orthodoxy. This in turn influenced capitalism, since the individual had a direct relationship with God, which, Protestants argued, made followers more self-directed and disciplined. Over time, material success became viewed as ‘a sign of God’s favour.’
Meanwhile, scientific explanations gradually came to displace traditional religious theories themselves, as the 18th-century Enlightenment emphasized the power of human reason to shape and improve the world, and society was increasingly understood from the viewpoint of the human individual (Robertson, 2015). Individuals were thought to possess personal and distinctive qualities: each was of special value. Emphasizing the importance of the individual, however, has important consequences. It draws attention to the uniqueness of each human being; individuals are defined primarily by the inner qualities and attributes specific to themselves.
Modernity is often contrasted, not just with Medieval Europe, but with ‘traditional’ societies around the world, which tend to be agrarian, defined by somewhat static and homogenous local identities, and relatively disengaged from technological dynamism and science. The classic process of political and economic ‘development’ (or modernization) generally entails a traditional society moving into a more ‘modern’ condition akin to that described above. Thus, modernity has spread, with many variations, across much of the globe (e.g., Eisenstadt, 2002).
Liberalism can be understood as the first ideology of modernity. It arose as European society gradually shifted from its feudal to its modern incarnation, and it supplies a way of thinking that justifies many of the tendencies of modernity.
- The Feudal Society in Medieval Europe © Simeon Netchev is licensed under a CC BY-NC-SA (Attribution NonCommercial ShareAlike) license
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system for structuring society around relationships derived from the holding of land in exchange for service or labour.
an economic system in which private actors own and control property and demand and supply freely set prices in markets in a way that can best serve the interests of society.
period of development in the latter half of the 18th century that transformed largely rural, agrarian societies in Europe and America into industrialized, urban ones.
the attempt to discern the activities by which that success is achieved by way of systematic observation and experimentation, inductive and deductive reasoning, and the formation and testing of hypotheses and theories.