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Technocratic liberalism, a threat to liberal values and democracy

June 20, 2018


In his May 21, 2018 article, “Right-wing populism is rising as progressive politics fails – is it too late to save democracy?” in The New Statesman, Michael Sandel suggests that we can learn from the populist revolt only if we are willing to enlarge the conversation beyond a liberal concept of economic “fairness”, to cultural, even spiritual or moral, issues of meaning, identity and purpose. Since the 1980s technocratic liberalism remained largely unchallenged, not only as an economic, but also as a political and even cultural phenomenon. The unquestioned central premise that government was the problem markets were the solution, led to an unfettered market-driven version of globalisation that included a “growing financialisation of the economy”. The unintended consequences of the increase in liberal trade agreements at a global level and a deregulated financial industry, included a stark and unrelenting rise in the extremes of wealth and poverty. And with fewer people holding more wealth, their power in governance increased. Sander challenges the widely accepted view of “meritocracy” which he calls “meritocratic hubris”, where “social positions reflect effort and talent.” This economic and cultural environment has proven to be more congenial to professionals and those with college degrees, which are seen as the road to “advancement and as the basis for social esteem”, and hostile to those who have lost faith in the promise of upward mobility, where progressives assume that “mobility can compensate for inequality” and the maxim of hard work brings financial rewards. Sanders calls for a revisiting of a “central premise of contemporary liberalism.” He suggests that the moral and cultural grievances of the middle class and working class have been flattened into economic grievances. He says it is time to examine concepts of humiliation, shame and self-esteem and to understand what it means that ordinary people feel disempowered. If our goal for a liberal society is tolerance, then there is a need to engage in “substantive moral argument in politics” and to “reimagine the terms of democratic public discourse.” He summarizes his argument here: “Liberal neutrality flattens questions of meaning, identity and purpose into questions of fairness. It therefore misses the anger and resentment that animate the populist revolt; it lacks the moral, rhetorical and sympathetic resources to understand the cultural estrangement, even humiliation, that many working-class and middle-class voters feel; and it ignores the meritocratic hubris of elites.” He asks us to consider the ethical implications. In our journey towards a liberal neutral concept of “fairness” in a “cosmopolitan ethic of universal human concern”, how do we respond with sympathy to the legitimate grievances of our fellow citizens in nation states whose lives have lost a sense of “meaning, identity, and purpose” and are feeling culturally estranged and even humiliated? How can we do this is societies that fear conversations about spirituality?

One Response to “Technocratic liberalism, a threat to liberal values and democracy”

  1. Ken Wallewein Says:

    I am quite disappointed by all the bipartisan thinking, assumptions and foregone conclusions in this writing. The in-crowd buzzwords and memes make it impossible to take seriously. This is neither intelligence nor respect for other viewpoints.

    See https://www.marioninstitute.org/the-other-side-is-not-dumb/


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