Through one of life's little quirks I happened to be reading an old book on American politics just as a miscellaneous mob stormed the Capitol chanting the name of Donald Trump. Louis Hartz, a professor of government at Harvard, published The Liberal Tradition
in America in 1955. In some ways, it's an infuriating read. Hartz delights in showing off his learning, referring without explanation to dozens of little-known scholars and politicians, and revelling in paradox and epigram.
But his central thesis is devastatingly simple and may shed some light on the current crisis. He asserts that American society is uniquely, absolutely and irrationally liberal: no other country has had a remotely similar history. His book starts with an epigraph from Tocqueville: 'The great advantage of the Americans is, that they have arrived at a state of democracy without having to endure a democratic revolution; and that they are born equal, instead of becoming so'.
Hartz's argument is that the US is a country born liberal, free of the curse (and/or blessing) of feudalism. The Pilgrim Fathers were already Protestant individualists when they fled religious and political oppression in Europe. In the late 17th century, John Locke set out the philosophical basis of liberalism and a version of Locke (limited and conservative) was enacted in Britain through the Glorious Revolution of 1688/89. On this account, society is created through a voluntary social contract between free individuals who retain an inalienable right to liberty and property – not far from what C B Macpherson has called possessive individualism.
Americans internalised this philosophy from the start and brought it to fruition in the 1780s. In Hartz's eyes, the American Revolution (unlike the French Revolution) was not a real revolution: it merely polished up something that already existed.
The key point here is the absence of what Hartz calls feudalism. Modern historians would probably query his use of the term: it may be clearer to think of the medieval notion of the Great Chain of Being (which provided a philosophical rationale for feudalism). Here society is viewed as a hierarchy created by God, ranging down through the angels, kings and and the various ranks of mankind to the beasts, plants and minerals of the earth. Leaving God to one side, the metaphor of human society as a natural organism operates in much the same way.
One effect of feudalism (to stick with Hartz's term) is to provide people with predefined collective identities. You are born a noble or a serf, French or German, with very little scope to change your status. But the US is different: all Americans are Americans because they or their ancestors made a deliberate decision to migrate, and by law all Americans are born equal. (Black people forcibly imported as slaves obviously pose a problem for this narrative.)
Americans – Hartz continues – have never had identities of the traditional European sort, and because they never experienced feudal collective identities they could never conceive of socialist collective identities either. In Marxian terms, the US is a country without either an aristocracy or a proletariat. Every worker is an individualist who aspires – not entirely unreasonably – to become a bourgeois and a petty capitalist (or even a great capitalist). As a result, all the competing parties in American political history – federalists, Whigs, Jacksonian democrats and progressives – turned and twisted within the same, barely grasped, liberal tradition.
Throughout the 19th century, these progressive assumptions worked well, supported by geography and demography. The fledgling state occupied the seaboard of a continent rich in natural resources, with apparently unlimited scope for expansion. 'Go west, young man!' Manifest destiny led Americans to move onwards and upwards, aspiring to control ever more of the world, both natural and cultural. This expansion was fuelled by an unlimited pool of immigrant labour, happy to exchange poverty and repression at home for a life of economic opportunity and social self-reinvention.
This geographical and social mobility became integral to American culture. As Hartz puts it, 'in a real sense physical flight is the American substitute for the European experience of social revolution'. This point has been developed by another American thinker, Albert Hirschman, who argues in Exit, Voice and Loyalty
(1970) that 'exit has been accorded an extraordinarily privileged position in the American tradition' and that 'this preference for the neatness of exit over the messiness and heartbreak of voice' is a persistent feature of US politics.
This hostility to voice, with its negotiations and compromises, may help to explain the current gridlocked state of US party politics. In recent decades, progressive liberal assumptions have hit several different barriers. First, there is no more space for geographical expansion: physically there are no exits left. Second, since the financial crash of 2008, economic growth has stalled while inequalities have increased: social mobility and egalitarianism have lost their mojo. Third, the environmental limits to continued material growth are becoming steadily clearer while the logical alternative, a diversion of resources from material goods to immaterial cultural goods, threatens to plunge the US deeper into culture wars.
By mainstream standards, some of those who stormed the Capitol might be considered poorly educated and culturally deprived; their response to this can easily be imagined. Remember Hillary Clinton and her 'basket of deplorables'.
There were always paradoxes hidden within American liberalism. While people were encouraged to see themselves as individuals making free choices, there were narrow social limits on the choices deemed acceptable. Socialism, for example, was simply un-American. As long as society remained fairly uniform and egalitarian, the resulting conflicts could be managed, with dissenters exiting in search of a more congenial community.
Recent social and technological developments have destabilised this consensus. With the rise of the internet and social media, people no longer follow the same handful of news sources and watch the same TV programmes. Society has become more diverse, with a wider range of views becoming acceptable (in one place or another). In their online lives, different groups can avoid conflict by retiring into separate silos but when – inevitably – they meet up in real space-time, problems arise.
Two decades ago, before the 9/11 attack and the financial crash, many people were hailing the global triumph of liberal democracy. Now the pendulum has swung dramatically and many people are predicting its collapse, with the US cited as the prime example. A reading of Hartz may suggest caution. The US is exceptional, as Americans love to proclaim, and it may not be a useful comparison for developments elsewhere.
On Hartz's interpretation, American culture is exceptionally hostile to collective identities of all kinds. It also has an exceptionally shallow history, both in time and complexity. Most of America's cultural background is imported, mainly from Europe, often severed from its native roots. This may be one reason why hyphenated American identities proliferate as individuals seek their 'real' roots elsewhere.
When Americans contemplate their own history, they are immediately confronted with the issue of black chattel slavery and so forced to think about racial identities. Both left and right in the US have – to my mind – tied themselves in impossible knots over the issue of race, perhaps because, lacking the necessary social categories, they are driven into biological essentialism instead.
This may be less of a problem outside the US. The West certainly has issues to face about imperialism, colonialism and capitalist exploitation, but these are not the same thing as racialised slavery. Other societies have institutional resources and historic solidarities that might conceivably be reformed and reinvigorated. If Hartz's view of liberalism is right – a serious if – it may be true that liberal democracy is doomed. But this does not rule out (say) a revival of social democracy.
Dennis Smith is a retired librarian who dabbles in philosophy, watches birds
and does a bit of conservation work in the hope that the planet can still be