„Liberalism is good in theory, but in practice it just doesn't work.” Three immanent critiques of liberalism and possible liberal answers

Floris Biskamp

September 27, 2021 2:02 PM

In this essay[1] I will discuss immanent critiques of the dominant normative position within the Western tradition over the last centuries: liberalism. What do I mean by liberalism? I mean a normative framework centered around the idea of individual liberty. According to liberalism, everyone shall be free to choose the life that is good for them; no one, and particularly not the sovereign, should enforce their conception of the good on others. To use more demanding terms: Liberalism opts for individual autonomy and against heteronomy, which means for self-determination and against rule by others. This individual liberty or autonomy shall be exercised under the rule of law protecting it as a right. The state must not infringe on this individual right to liberty but has a duty to protect and enforce it. Moreover, liberalism is egalitarian and universalist in the sense that everyone who is recognized as a full human subject has an equal right to such self-determination. It seems proverbially self-evident to me that such autonomy protected by rights is a normative good. One may argue that there are other rivalling goods. But it will be very hard to convince me that autonomy is normatively indifferent let alone an evil. To borrow an expression from Gayatri Spivak, I see it as something that “one cannot not want” (Spivak, 1999, S. 110).

Therefore, the critiques of liberalism in which I am interested are immanent critiques that acknowledge liberty and self-determination as attractive ideas but still hold that the liberal version of these ideas produces problems or contradictions when put into practice. Such immanent critiques of liberalism argue in two directions: On the one hand they argue that liberal practice has preconditions that are not accounted for in liberal theory. On the other hand, they argue that liberal practice produces consequences that are either in contradiction to liberal norms or that undermine said preconditions of liberal practice. I will discuss such critiques in three spheres: culture, economy, and politics. In the full version of the essay, I also include the natural environment as a fourth sphere.

1 Culture: Communitarian Critiques

The first group of critiques is what Michael Walzer dubs The Communitarian Critique of Liberalism (Walzer, 1990). These critiques make arguments concerning the cultural preconditions and consequences of liberalism.

I want to boil down the argument concerning the preconditions to one core motif here: Liberalism cannot work without the presence of thick cultural traditions and communities. Liberalism may grant each individual the right to choose the life they want. But these individuals can only make such choices, if they have a notion of what is good. It is only within thick normative frameworks i.e. within cultural traditions and communities, that we can make sense of the world, develop a notion of a good life, and hence make the life choices that liberalism allows (or forces) us to make. Liberalism itself cannot offer such thick normative frames because liberal norms are by definition too thin. Liberalism’s very punchline is that it does not make any prescriptions concerning life-choices and therefore it cannot offer a basis for making such decisions. Thus, liberal practice will always have to rely on the presence of particular cultural traditions and communities. And the preconditions of liberal practice are even more demanding: Not only does liberalism require the presence of some particular cultural traditions and communities. These traditions and communities must also be compatible with or even better supportive of liberalism. At the very least, their notion of the good must not be anti-liberal; in order for liberalism to thrive, some of them should also provide a positive motivation to engage in liberal public life.

So far this communitarian argument is analogous to the Böckenförde-Dilemma: Liberal practice has preconditions it cannot guarantee by itself. This alone, however, does not mean that liberalism cannot work in practice. To assess this question, one also has to look at the consequences of liberal practice: Here, some communitarians go even further and argue that liberalism is not only unable to produce its cultural preconditions but actively destroys them. By endorsing individual liberties and by fostering commercialism, this argument goes, liberalism contributes to the disintegration of the very same traditions and communities it requires in order to exist. Yet these claims about a self-undermining destruction of traditions and communities through liberal practice are empirically and theoretically shaky. There is hardly any evidence that liberal societies in general would destroy their cultural preconditions and disintegrate due to a self-produced lack of cultural traditions or communities. Liberalism certainly transforms cultural traditions; but so far, these consequences of liberal practice have not effectively undermined its cultural preconditions. Traditions and communities as they are required by liberal practice have not dried out.

Therefore, the communitarian critique cannot prove that liberalism cannot work in practice. However, there is an important takeaway, namely that liberalism cannot afford to engage in full-blown cultural wars pitting progressive liberal individualism against cultural traditions and communities in general – because liberalism needs tradition and community in order to work in practice. This critique even shows that on the contrary liberal states have good reasons to engage in cultural policies that actively foster the production and reproduction of the cultural traditions and communities that make liberal practice possible.

2 Economy: Materialist Critiques

Next, I want to discuss materialist critiques liberalism. I want to emphasize that I explicitly include a wide range of feminist, anti-racist, and anti-colonial critiques here. Materialist arguments, too, aim at the preconditions as well as the consequences of liberalism.

When it comes to the preconditions, materialist critics argue that the maintenance of liberal subjects able to pursue autonomy is rather demanding: These subjects must certainly be procreated, born, fed, and raised; probably they also must be clothed, housed, educated, and equipped with all the stuff they need to realize their autonomy – paper, ink, smartphones, and the like. And in order to engage in public life, they also require a lot of spare time. All this means that massive amounts of work need to be done for liberal subjects to exist let alone enjoy their liberty in the first place. Thus, the question arises: Who is doing all this work? Is it the liberal subjects themselves who divide work among each other in such a way that it ensures the reproduction of liberal subjects while still leaving enough spare time for everyone to pursue individual and collective autonomy? Or is the work outsourced and offshored to other groups who are at the same time excluded from the enjoyment of autonomy.

There can be little doubt that for most of the history of actually existing liberalism, the latter was the case. This highly unequal division of labor can of course be legitimized with specific liberal theories, most prominently with the most liberal of all social institutions: the contract between (supposedly) free individuals. As Carol Pateman has demonstrated, such contracts are imagined to be acts of freedom but can de facto serve to legitimize relationships of domination (Pateman, 2018). This will happen if one side enters the contract in a situation in which they must “freely” agree to their domination by the other side in order to survive. According to this materialist critique, liberal theory justifies a social relation that allows one group of humans to pursue their autonomy while exploiting other groups in a way that subjects them to heteronomy. Such a realization of liberalism is indeed its derealization: If large parts of the population must choose either to starve or to work 16 hours per day under the command of others, then it would be cynical to call this choice liberty let alone autonomy.

But does this argument mean that liberalism cannot work in practice? It certainly does point out two fundamental problems. First, it demonstrates that actually existing liberalism systematically engaged in horrendous forms of oppression depriving vast parts of humanity of any meaningful chance of self-determination. Second, it demonstrates that through a certain idea of liberty and a certain conception of contracts, liberal theory even legitimizes this oppression as liberty. Thus, we could truly say that this (Lockean) notion of liberalism necessarily de-realizes itself when it is realized and thusly cannot work in practice. However, I do not believe that this allows for a generalized judgment that liberalism cannot work in practice. At least with the current level of productivity, I can see no fundamental reason, why labor in a liberal society could not be divided in a way that gives every person the opportunity to pursue their liberty in a meaningful way – working, say, 35 hours per week seems compatible with an enjoyment liberty, even if this work is done under conditions of heteronomy.

Now, let us look at the consequences of liberalism in the realm of the economy. Here, I want to mention two problems, both related to capitalism as the economic and social order typically justified by liberal theory. The first problem is the interrelation of capitalism with inequality. If it could be demonstrated that capitalism necessarily requires and reproduces a degree of inequality that prevents substantial parts of the population from enjoying meaningful self-determination, then we would have to agree that liberalism paired with capitalism cannot work in practice. The second problem is capitalism’s proneness to crisis: If it could be demonstrated that capitalism necessarily produces economic and social crises which deprive substantial parts of the population of meaningful chances of self-determination, then we would also have to diagnose an unfeasibility of liberal capitalism. The problem with both arguments is that the picture becomes less clear the more literature on the political economy of capitalism one reads. Thus, I must suspend judgment on these two issues for now. What can however be said with a reasonable degree of certainty is that any liberalism with an economic laissez-faire agenda is self-defeating and will certainly deprive large parts of the population of a meaningful degree of self-determination. Thus, if capitalist liberalism can be realized, then only with a robust interventionist welfare state ensuring a certain degree of equality and ameliorating the effects of crises. If, however, it could be demonstrated that capitalism necessarily produces the derealization of liberal norms, then liberal socialism would be the only liberal alternative. Whether such a thing is possible, is a question of its own right – and it relates to the question of statehood.

3 Politics: Anarchist, Realist, and Other Critiques of the State

And this very question of statehood is in the focus of the third groups of critiques. Individual liberty as envisioned by liberalism presupposes the existence of law and law presupposes the existence of a state sanctioning it. Thus, liberalism endorses the existence of a liberal state. Once again, we can look at the conditions and at the consequences of the existence of such a liberal state.

Looking at the conditions of a liberal state, we must first acknowledge that they are rather demanding. A liberal state can only exist, if it has substantial economic resources at hand and if there is a liberal civil society supporting it. Neither can be taken for granted. The scope of this problem becomes clearer if we combine it with what I said before about capitalism and put it in the international context. Then we may end up with something like Kees van der Pijl’s theory of a Lockean heartland and Hobbesian contender states (van der Pijl, 1998, S. 65–97). According to van der Pijl the modern world has always been divided into two camps: On the one hand there are the “Lockean” liberal heartland states historically led by the UK and the USA; on the other hand, there are illiberal “Hobbesian” contender states – in a rough historical order these were Germany, Japan, the Soviet Union, and today Russia and China. The heartland states champion liberal norms domestically and to some extent internationally, the contender states do not. Both are parts of a system which does not allow for all countries to meet the preconditions of a liberal state, thus the contenders will always be Hobbesian. In such a world of Lockean Heartland and Hobbesian contender states, liberal theorists can sit in universities within the Heartland and chastise contender states for their illiberalism – and they are normatively right in doing so. If, however, it could be demonstrated that the illiberalism of the Hobbesian state is to a substantial degree a product of the way in which the Lockean Heartland pursues its liberalism, then the latter and its liberalism must also be the object of criticism. Once again it is impossible to prove this point beyond reasonable doubt and therefore it cannot support the claim that liberalism cannot work in practice. Yet, it should at least be a warning against complacent forms liberalism.

If one turns towards the consequences of liberal statehood a whole other set of problems becomes visible. The state of liberal theory is a neutral instance limiting itself to enforcing liberal law. Yet, a host of theories have cast doubts on the idea that such a harmless state can exist. Authors from all political camps – including liberalism – have argued that statehood has a life of its own and that the outcomes tend to undermine the very individual liberties liberalism endorses. Very different variations of this argument have been presented by Mikail Bakunin, Carl Schmitt, Hans Morgenthau, F.A. Hayek, Jürgen Habermas etc. Others, particularly Marxists, feminists, and anti-racists have argued that the state tends not to be as neutral as liberal theory would like it to be but rather has systematic biases in terms of class, gender, and race. These problems weigh even heavier if we consider them in connection to the two preceding sections. So far, I have suggested that liberalism should address the problems pointed out by communitarian and materialist critiques through an expansion of state activity. If, however, such state activity systematically produces illiberal outcomes, then the medicine that I prescribed turns out to be poison.

Things become even worse if we take into consideration that liberal states are almost by definition nation states. Such liberal nation states prioritize the interests of their own population over that of others. This becomes particularly problematic because the means at the states’ disposal are very unequally distributed. In such an unequal world the richer more powerful states pursue what Stephan Lessenich terms externalization (Lessenich, 2018). They increase the opportunities for self-determination among their citizens by reducing these opportunities for non-citizens in poorer countries.

All these arguments, too, are very hard to drive home with absolute certainty. Yet, they weigh heavily, since they cast doubt on the very solutions, I suggested in the two preceding sections. And what amendments to liberal theory could be suggested to address these new problems? There are some suggestions such as global governance for the international consequences of statehood or new public management for some of the domestic consequences. Yet, whether such measures can overcome the problems of state hood is exactly what anarchist, realist and similar critics doubt.

Conclusion: Well, maybe

So, can liberalism work in practice? The three critiques I have sketched at the very least point towards problems that should be taken very seriously. They certainly demonstrate that liberal practice does have external preconditions that cannot be taken for granted. They also name various ways in which the consequences of liberal practice undermine these preconditions. However, it does not seem possible to prove beyond reasonable doubt that liberal practice undermines itself necessarily – at least not with the means at my disposal. So, being the good Westerner that I am, I am still unable and unwilling to give up the liberal position that individual liberty protected by law is desirable. Therefore, I close with a quote from George Michael. In his work on liberalism aptly titled “Freedom” this great critic of ideology pointed out: “All we have to do is take these lies and make them true. Somehow.”


Lessenich, S. (2018). Neben uns die Sintflut: Wie wir auf Kosten anderer leben (2. aktualisierte und überarbeitete Auflage). Piper.

Pateman, C. (2018). The Sexual Contract. John Wiley & Sons.

Spivak, G. C. (1999). A critique of postcolonial reason. Toward a history of the vanishing present. Harvard University Press.

van der Pijl, K. (1998). Transnational classes and international relations. Routledge.

Walzer, M. (1990). The Communitarian Critique of Liberalism. Political Theory, 18(1), 6–23.

[1] An extended version of this manuscript is available at researchgate.

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