The Pessimism of Liberalism

by Jackson Lay

August 19, 2014

Identity should come from community relationships,  not Madison Avenue.

The liberal paradise: individuals identifying themselves by their personal fashion instead of their relationships to each other, conveniently sold to them by free corporations.



“Here we encounter the basic paradox of liberalism. An anti-ideological and anti-utopian stance is inscribed into the very core of the liberal vision: liberalism conceives itself as a “politics of the lesser evil,” its ambition is to bring about the “least worst society possible,” thus preventing a greater evil, since it considers any attempt to directly impose a positive good as the ultimate source of evil… Such a view is sustained by a profound pessimism about human nature: man is a selfish and envious animal, and if one attempts to build a political system appealing to his goodness and altruism, the result will be the worst kind of terror.” (Living in the End Times, 38)



Note that when Zizek talks of liberalism, he’s including both economic liberalism and personal liberalism. Now, in my younger days, I would have questioned Zizek’s pessimism about liberalism, but now I think I see it. The crux of liberalism is individualism: the freedom of the individual to be anything they want (personal liberalism) and the freedom of the individual (often the individual corporation) to interact with others in any way that they want, with only the most blatantly harmful acts outlawed (economic liberalism). This is why, as Zizek states, liberalism is inherently anti-ideological. It seeks no attributes in the state it creates other than an empty void, to be filled by individuals and corporations with their own identities. In the liberal paradise, we’d all be hipsters with unique personal identities, buying the accoutrements that prove such from our favorite corporations.


When it comes to economic liberalism, the void is problematic because it allows powerful individuals to set the rules and increase their power. When it comes to personal liberalism, the void is problematic because individual identities require positive social relationships in order to be satisfying. We don’t, really, want to identify ourselves by who our favorite bands and our favorite designers: those are crutches we turn to when our identity is not being appropriately defined by our social network.


Now, I don’t entirely disagree with the liberals that Zizek is complaining about. I agree that, on a scale as large as a modern state, any attempt to impose a society based on altruism will fail. The modern state is, simply, too large. But we need to expand the scope of the institution that does count on humans being good and altruistic: the family. We need larger familial groups – not nuclear families, dominated by jealous blood relations, but tribes - Atavistic Federations, large enough to support the risks of modern life, but small enough to encourage the flourishing of the individual.


Zizek continues:


“[T]he separation of legal justice from moral Goodness – which should be relativized and historicized – ends up in an oppressive moralism brimming with resentment. Without any “organic” social substance grounding the standards of what Orwell approvingly referred to as “common decency” (all such standards having been dismissed as subordinating individual freedoms to proto-Fascist social forms), the minimalist program of laws intended simply to prevent individuals from encroaching upon one another (annoying or “harassing” each other) turns into an explosion of legal and moral rules, an endless process… of legalization and moralization, known as “the fight against all forms of discrimination.” If there are no shared mores in place to influence the law, only the basic fact of subjects “harassing” other subjects, who – in the absence of such mores – is to decide what counts as “harassment”?” (Id.)


To wit, morals require a social, cultural construct, or else the society trying to enforce them will disintegrate into a chimeric battle to never offend anyone. Zizek may not consider himself a communitarian, but he sure sounds a lot like Alistair McIntyre sometimes.