Liberalism and Social Action

Liberalism and Social Action

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Pages: 98
First ed.: 1935
Author: John Dewey

This time the attack to (classical) Liberalism comes from the American pragmatist John Dewey (1859-1952), also known to be one of the first "Progressives" who called himself "Liberal" – in the new sense. Dewey's attack is against what, in his period, passed as "liberalism" – the absolute defense of private property, laissez-faire, and policies against government intervention in social matters.

John Dewey (1859-1952)

Dewey criticizes liberalism for its immobilism: the philosophy advocated by Adam Smith and John Locke one century earlier (the one of private property, laissez-faire, and against government intervention) had remained unchanged throughout all that time, even though social conditions and problems have considerably changed.

Liberalism, which distinguished itself for being the philosophy of social change, by continuing to defend the same principles, had resulted in a philosophy that defended the status quo, better represented by the so-called possidentes.

Liberty and Historical Relativism

Dewey's critique is rigorous and on point, sometimes delivering uncomfortable truths. He highlights some paradoxes of 18th and 19th century liberalism (Smith, Hume, Locke, etc.), with the most important one – in my opinion – being that it falsely adopted a definition of "liberty" as absolute and attempted to universalize it.

Instead, Dewey argues, the definition of liberty is always historically relative and contingent because

"liberty is always relative to forces that at a given time and place are increasingly felt to be oppressive."

In a particular time, the government may be the major source of oppression, and liberty means liberation from government encroachment – as in the period of Smith and Locke.

At other times, such as now, Dewey argues that the oppressed are the workers and those without property; therefore, liberty means liberation from an oppressive economic system.

So, the major difference between 18th and 19th-century liberals and progressive liberals such as Dewey lies in the definition of liberty they adopt. For 18th-19th-century liberals (and for 20th-century classical liberals such as Hayek), liberty is not a historically relative concept but finds expression in precise postulates such as life and property and the absence of government intervention. These were postulates and, therefore, not historically relative.

For Dewey and the new school of liberalism, liberty means liberation from oppressive forces. As oppressive forces are likely to change from time to time, the oppressed groups that need to be liberated will change as well, and the definition of liberty too. This conception of liberty is, therefore, historically relative.

Paradoxically, the adoption of a "static" definition of liberty by 18th-19th-century liberal thinkers hindered social changeonce economic freedom and private property were secured by the government. They believed that everything they wanted to achieve had been accomplished, and they merely became defenders of the status quo. They hadn't realized that the status quo they were supporting was oppressing other individuals who were at odds with that definition of "liberty." Oppression started to be justified as "natural" inequality among people with different skills, psychology, and morality, and everything was deemed to depend upon "the virtues of initiative, independence, choice, and responsibility, virtues that center in and proceed from individuals as such."

The rejection of a historically relative definition of liberty is for Dewey just a malicious interpretation of history. If we look at history, he argues,

“Liberty in the concrete signifies release from the impact of particular oppressive forces; emancipation from something once taken as a normal part of human life but now experienced as bondage.”
  • At one time, liberty signified liberation from chattel slavery;
  • At another time, release of a class from serfdom;
  • During the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries it meant liberation from despotic dynastic rule;
  • A century later it meant release of industrialists from inherited legal customs that hampered the rise of new forces of production;
  • Today, it signifies liberation from material insecurity and from the coercions and repressions that prevent multitudes from participation in the vast cultural resources that are at hand.

Liberty cannot be a universal and universalizable concept in that

The direct impact of liberty always has to do with some class or group that is suffering in a special way from some form of constraint exercised by the distribution of powers that exists in contemporary society.

Historical Relativism and Social Conditions

The shift to a historically relative interpretation of liberty is crucial if we are to understand why "progressives" started calling themselves "liberals." By applying historical relativism to "liberty," the old liberal tenets of property and economic freedom (as tools of liberation for the oppressed) become thought as subject to change whenever social conditions and oppressive forces change.

Liberalism would not mean adherence to a pre-established set of values such as property and absence of government intervention but support of oppressed people and the tools of liberating them, which would change from time to time. If we understand liberty and liberalism in this way, it is straightforward to consider progressives such as Dewey liberals – with no reservation.

But this shift of interpretation in the meaning of liberty – from a set of definitive values to a historically relative definition – changes 18th-19th-century liberalism even further. In this way, institutions and customs are considered the result of directed social changes – namely, of people who intentionally liberate themselves from oppression and therefore are in the position to establish new institutions.

British House of Commons in 1833

Institutions of the 18th-19th centuries were the design, according to Dewey, of the bourgeoisie who liberated themselves from the government of kings and aristocracies and their policies against economic freedom. They were historically relative. Similarly, with the rise of a new oppressed class (the labor force), institutions and customs will have to change.

Intentional Social Change

Dewey is very clear here; the change of institutions will be intentionally designed. As the bourgeoisie designed its institutions, the working class will design its institutions because the social conditions have changed. Intentional design is the result of individuals employing intelligence, which is the driver of "social action," and institutions and arrangements are within deliberate human control. From the title of the book, liberalism is that which frees intelligence and directs social action.

 “The knowledge and the habits have to be modified to meet the new conditions that have arisen. In collective problems, the habits that are involved are traditions and institutions. The office of intelligence in every problem that either a person or a community meets is to effect a working connection between old habits, customs, institutions, beliefs, and new conditions.”

This tendency toward social planning of the new liberals is a reaction to 18th-19th century liberalism’s neglect toward social organization which paved the way to totalitarianisms which were governing Europe while Dewey was writing: 

“The crisis in liberalism, as I said at the outset, proceeds from the fact that after early liberalism had done its work, society faced a new problem, that of social organization. Its work was to liberate a group of individuals, representing the new science and the new forces of productivity, from customs, ways of thinking, institutions, that were oppressive of the new modes of social action, however useful they may have been in their day. But when it came to the problem of organizing the new forces and the individuals whose modes of life they radically altered into a coherent social organization, possessed of intellectual and moral directive power, liberalism was well-nigh impotent. The rise of national polities that pretend to represent the order, discipline and spiritual authority that will counteract social disintegration is a tragic comment upon the unpreparedness of older liberalism to deal with the new problem which its very success precipitated.” 

For Dewey “unplanned and external convergence of the actions of separate individuals” cannot bring about social order because he does not conceive that private plans bent on personal private advantage can result in “social order” – the contrary to that Hayek would advocate some 10 years later.

More precisely, this anarchy of individual plans is for Dewey “the Achilles heel of early liberalism.”

That society “served by the unplanned coincidence of the consequences of a vast multitude of efforts put forth by isolated individuals without reference to any social end” has worked in the 18th and 19th century but its achievements were tied to an earlier time that “which the advent of new forces of production was to bring to an end.”

Now that “concentration and corporate organization are the rule,” organized social control needs to replace unplanned and individual separate actions in order to relieve the new oppressed – those oppressed by the structure of economic organization. Material security will relieve the oppressed and the only way to achieve this goal is, Dewey claims, to socialize the economy