From Enlightenment to Neoliberalism

Written by Jonathan Moss

Execution of Marie Antoinette on October 16

The Enlightenment brought many values to Western society, but for the sake of simplicity I will concentrate on the triad of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. These are of course abstract values and thus had dual appeal to Liberals and Radicals. In practice they became the slogan of the French Revolution which, combined with the Industrial Revolution, was a revolution of the bourgeoisie. This isn’t to say it wasn’t progressive, with capitalism easily being preferable to feudalism, and indeed being the next stop from it towards the road of socialism. So the slogan can be seen as twofold at this point, on one hand as abstract ideals and on the other as the justification for capitalism and liberalism, with the ideals providing this justification.

At this point these ideals became reified, though in a dialectical turn they still served as an abstract motto for humanistic marxists and anarchists as a goal still to be reached, with liberalism obviously failing to do so in a manner in which was anything more than superficial.

However this is where the reality of the capitalist mode of economy set in. As soon the progressive character of capitalism wore off and what remained was a dehumanising totality which was extremely oppressive to the proletariat it created. A new form of capitalism also emerged, one called neoliberalism, named after its so-called relationship to the classical liberalism of the enlightenment, in contrast to social liberalism which was seen as a socialist deviation of it. So, since Neoliberalism tacitly places itself as the heir to The Enlightenment, it seems fair to analyse it in relationship to the values of liberty, equality, and fraternity.

So, in a dialectical hypocrisy, neoliberalism upholds enlightenment values whilst not believing them itself, like a functionalist who preaches Christianity for the masses whilst personally holding religious belief to be idiotic. This is best demonstrated with freedom and equality. Neoliberal ideologues argue that freedom and equality are in contradiction and freedom must be prioritised over equality. This produces another interesting hypocrisy where they argue that freedom will lead to equality. So freedom and equality are in opposition, but not really, we just prefer freedom, is what they seem to say. It is obvious that “freedom” in this case  means the freedom of the bourgeoisie, the freedom for the capitalist boss to do what he will, with the proletariat being nothing but a cog. But this is only a momentary injustice, as it is argued that since capitalism is based on competition any member of the working class can start their own business. So, according to this schema freedom does in fact lead to equality, the equality of business. Even ignoring the argument that the structure of capitalism requires a surplus of workers, the argument ignores the monopoly structure of capitalism, with any small business being started likely being trampled by big conglomerates. This is not what is assumed by the enlightenment slogan, where rather freedom and equality were seen as components of the same totality, if all humans are equal- and not just equal before the market- they will have the freedom to do what they want. This of course has communistic implications and thus cannot be supported.

Fraternity is forgotten altogether, replaced by an atomistic individuality culminating in Thatcher’s maxim “there is no such thing as society”. This slogan of course when examined completely negates the enlightenment, which although based on a certain level of individualism did not reach the frankly nihilisticThatcher, and of course had a communitarian current as best exemplified by the works of Rousseau, and a humanist one shared by most. The slogan represented no abstract ideal and was a thinly veiled justification for the harsh policies Thatcher and the conservative government carried out against the poor. This goes against the radical-democratic impulse of the enlightenment where people really were seen as equal and a public sphere where debate went on and the free press was pioneered. This isn’t to romanticise it, all of this was heavily bourgeoisie and quite exclusionary towards the proletariat and women. However it does help to illustrate that an attempt at fraternity was made, and this stands heavily in contrast with the individualism of neoliberalism. Perhaps it helps to use one example of how individualism didn’t go that far even amongst the individualist side of the enlightenment, with the economist Adam Smith advocating government intervention for businesses which were not fair towards the proletariat they hired. The idea of a social contract was also prevalent, showing that people were generally keen on a way to hold society together. So, it can perhaps be debated out of the triad fraternity is most neglected, and yet in another dialectical hypocrisy it is argued that focusing solely on the individual will ultimately make a happy society, ignoring the inequalities inherent to the system.

One can debate the extent to which the enlightenment lived up to its own principles, as the enlightenment was the making of white bourgeois males subject to the many prejudices of their class, race, and sex. That’s not to say there wasn’t a working class element and a feminist element to the enlightenment, but this base had little influence in the superstructure created by enlightenment. So the point of the essay is not to completely defend the enlightenment, there have been plenty of relevant critiques of it made, coming from philosophers such as Friedrich Nietzsche, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, amongst others. If the Enlightenment project is to continue it will have to do so in a reformulated form based on these critiques, otherwise it will lose its radicalism, as it currently doing. This isn’t to postulate that neoliberalism is a legitimate heir to enlightenment, but that the dialectic of enlightenment could and did lead to neoliberalism. The Enlightenment, despite being presented as a monolithic in current liberal media against another monolith, postmodernism, with the former being completely good and the latter completely bad. Despite this The Enlightenment- like postmodernism- is not a monolith and its conservative elements did lead to neoliberalism. This does not negate the basic principles of the enlightenment as demonstrated with the triad of liberty, equality, fraternity are essentially correct and though abstract, are worth fighting for, even if it means fighting against the people who ostensibly hold these principles up. These abstractions can be mediated and made concrete through the completion of the socialist project.

One can argue that it is the abstractness of the principles which led to their downfall. They served as admirable goals to fight for in order to secure a better order, but once this order was established the enlightenment and its principles were rationalised. From noble principles they are transformed into a mundane and reified reality. In the process of rationalisation they are forgotten altogether, and so contemporary political liberalism is a liberalism without the liberalism. Instead a kind of careerism becomes the norm, politics is revealed as business, having an underlying philosophy is seen as extremist, against a false pragmatism which negates itself. But true to functionalism, for the sake of the people these values are still promoted in some forms, such as media. People after all still need something to believe in and in a post-secular age God will not do entirely. So like the liberalism without liberalism we have an enlightenment without enlightenment, the values put out on display when necessary and the french revolution taught as an important epoch of humanism and liberalism, but none of it truly believed. It is reified into an almost sort of false consciousness. The most important thing taught is that under our liberal democracies you can succeed and for this to happen you need to work for it.

As I have said previously in this essay, such an idea of a democratic meritocracy is not the case. Due to the racism and sexism of the capitalist system, in conjunction of its monopoly form, most people do not succeed under it, and instead remain alienated under the means of production. However the bourgeoisie is able to pump out enough rags to riches stories in order to maintain its hegemony. The false enlightenment of neoliberalism is able to keep itself stable enough so that generally people have enough hope under it.

I’d argue though that recently this has changed, and such a change is evident based on our current political climate. Due to the amount of crises’ and the terrible state of the economy the neoliberals are no longer able to honestly promise success under enlightenment, and take a turn towards an honest but dangerous pessimism. Theoretically this should be something of a good thing, people realise the false illusions of the capitalist system and agitate for a system that can actually fulfil its promises. However, here the process of rationalisation comes in, people associate these sublimated principles with the enlightenment itself and so do not just turn against neoliberalism but the enlightenment as a whole, including its genuinely progressive values.

This has lead in turn to a resurgence in fascist ideology, as best demonstrated by the success of Donald Trump in America and the prevalence of fascist political parties in several European countries, along with the “alt-right” movement. All of these movements arose in opposition to the philosophy of neoliberalism, even as they promised people the same things neoliberalism did. Despite this fascism is an authoritarian, racist, exclusionary ideology2 thus going against at least the enlightenment progressive, egalitarian current. And whilst the promises of neoliberalism are promised, they are not promised on enlightenment values but are instead founded on the premise that western civilisation is degenerate, being attacked by feminists, communists, multiculturalists, and political correctness.

In order to fight fascism on an ideological level one of the things necessary to do is to bring the Enlightenment back in its radicalised form, to somehow unreify it, especially the slogan “liberty, equality, and fraternity” and thus separate it from neoliberal dogma. Hopefully this essay has opened possibilities of showing how this can be done and hence why, despite its problems, the project of Enlightenment is worth fighting for and Fascism seen as an anti-enlightenment ideology.

  1. No offence to nihilism, which as a philosophy is fairly interesting.
  2. As nationalism was something pioneered by the french revolution it can be argued to what extent fascism can actually trace its lineage back to enlightenment. However as we are going for a dialectic understanding of enlightenment we can say nationalism, like capitalism, was at this point genuinely progressive, and like capitalism served its purpose, thus becoming reactionary.