The neoliberal project (peaking from 1980–2010) seems to have fallen into disarray. It has been succeeded by a somewhat nostalgic turn back toward reform liberalism and nationalist economic protection, but also by massive government deficits and ongoing low rates of economic growth in western nations. Meanwhile, liberalism as an ideology faces increasing challenge from other quarters.
Anti-racist, decolonizing, and feminist intellectuals critique liberalism’s emphasis upon individual liberty, and even reform liberalism’s ideals of equality of opportunity, as insufficient. By taking people as they are and encouraging mere ‘toleration’ rather than a deep understanding of, and deference toward, marginalized perspectives, liberalism (they argue) allows profound and invisible biases to fester. For example, hiring committees might unconsciously favour Caucasian, settler males; voters and political parties might harbour received understandings of ‘leadership’ as inherently male (or white). Standard practices in business and government, and all sorts of spheres of private life, presented to us as ‘fair’ and ‘neutral’ might in fact reflect norms created by (and for) straight, white, able-bodied, male settlers. For that matter, liberal societies in countries like Canada are built on the seizure of indigenous lands and the genocide of indigenous inhabitants. Liberalism, these critics assert, has failed to meet the challenges of systemic racism, micro-aggressions, and the fundamental problem of liberal-democratic states and economies having been constructed upon indigenous territories and the forced labour of black bodies. Proponents of ‘social justice’ frequently articulate a need to go beyond liberalism toward a transformation of the prevalent practices, beliefs and assumptions at work in liberal societies. Many liberals worry that this emphasis on social justice pays too little heed to due process, formal equality, and the possibility of sincere and thoughtful disagreement (Campbell & Manning, 2018).
Meanwhile, the existential threat of global warming casts a pall over contemporary capitalism, raising questions about whether the endless quest for economic growth associated with market economics is even compatible with the flourishing of human life on the planet. It remains to be seen whether liberalism, which has been so influential for the past 200 years, can retain its favoured status in light of such challenges.
- Imagine yourself behind Rawls’s ‘veil of ignorance,’ deciding on the basic parameters of a just society without any idea of what your life-circumstances will be in that society once the ‘veil’ is lifted. Would you settle on a reform liberal society? Why or why not?
- J.S. Mill thought that people should be allowed to express any idea – including ideas that members of racialized and other marginalized groups find deeply offensive – partly because he believed that good ideas would gradually overcome bad ones in free debate. Do you agree?
- Do you think liberalism will be able to adapt to the many diverse views in today’s globalized society, or will it fade away? Why? If it does die, what do you think will be most likely to replace it??