Lord Meghnad Desai, the British Labour Peer in the House of Lords, wrote in his 2017 book - “Politicshock” that 2016 will go down as the year that marked the collapse of the “liberal world order”.
He added -

“Brexit and Trump mark the collapse of the liberal order worldwide, a phenomenon which saw its beginning with Modi's rise in 2014”
But what was Meghnad talking about? What is this “liberal world order”? It is one of those nice sounding words of modernity that everyone wants to appropriate, but few offer a precise definition.
It is a term which is so universally attractive and capacious that individuals who embrace it range from George W Bush to Barack Obama, Theresa May to Jeremy Corbyn.
What does it mean? What are its principles? What is its history? How has it evolved over time? What are its limitations? What is its prognosis in the 21st century? And why is it that many pundits are worried about its health all of a sudden in the past couple of years?
Let us first make an attempt to understand what it means. One of the reasons Liberalism is extremely hard to define is because of its immensely complex history and the internal contradictions that do exist among liberals on many fundamental political questions.
Does Liberalism stand for greater personal liberty? Or does it stand for an enlarged state and greater government control of private life?
Does Liberalism favor unbridled economic liberty?Or is economic liberty dispensable at the altar of equality-an equally cherished ideal in the history of liberalism?

Does Liberalism stand for strong nation states? Or for a globalist order that discourages nationalist tendencies?
Do Liberals believe in keeping the politics out of the life of individuals to the extent possible? Or do they now think that the “personal is the political” as claimed by second-wave feminists?
Liberals of different hues have answered these questions very very differently in the course of the past thousand years. To understand the internal contradictions, it becomes important to survey the history of liberalism.
This thread is an attempt to examine the history of liberal ideas by anchoring the narrative around the questions posed above, by someone who is both a political conservative, and a sceptic of the liberal world order
What does it mean?

The earliest uses of the word “liberal” corresponded to the word’s literal meaning in Latin where “liber” means “free”
The great Roman consul and orator Marcus Tullius Cicero in the first century BCE uses the term “liberal arts” in his book “De Inventione” to describe the education that one ought to confer to a “free” (liber) man, so that he can partake in public life in a meaningful way
This included a study of disciplines like literature,rhetoric,
mathematics,among other things. A “liberal” education differed from mere vocational training as it transcended the need to equip a person to earn a living,as its recipients are “free” men who are gentleman of means
One must note that the term “liberal” had no political import in the Roman Republic. Cicero used it in its literal sense - which meant “free”. However it was in England that the term “liber” took on a political dimension.
Magna Carta : Imposing limits to royal power

The year is 1215. The place is Runnymede, a water meadow near Windsor in southern England. Over a thousand years have elapsed since the halcyon days of the Roman Republic and the orations of Cicero in the Roman Senate
The Archbishop of Canterbury, the supreme ecclesiastical official in the island of England, has drafted a charter to make peace between the unpopular King John and a group of rebel barons. It was signed by both parties at the said
The charter was in the Latin language and was titled - “Magna Carta Libertatum”- the Great Charter of the Liberties

The Magna Carta remains a very critical event that has to feature in any history of liberalism. The term “liber” was now used very explicitly in a political treaty
Though the charter was ostensibly a peace agreement, it limited royal power,by including clauses that limited the king’s power of indiscriminate taxation,offered protection from illegal detention and imprisonment(a precursor to habeas corpus) and also protected church rights
One of the most significant lines in Magna Carta featured the now much hackneyed expression “Law of the Land” (lex terrae in Latin)
“No Freeman shall be taken or imprisoned, or be disseized of his Freehold, or Liberties, or free Customs, or be outlawed, or exiled, or any other wise destroyed; nor will We not pass upon him, nor condemn him, but by lawful judgment of his Peers, or by the Law of the land"
Now why is this significant in the history of liberalism? Because this was one of the earliest instances of power being vested in a “document” or a “charter” so to speak, in order to regulate the conduct of a monarch’s government.
While it is easy to overstate the importance of Magna Carta, it cannot be denied that the treaty carried in it the germs of “constitutionalism” by sanctifying a secular document
This was a sharp contrast to the old world where conduct of govts was regulated by sheer power of precedent, tradition and religious ideas
The modern liberal obsession with “constitutionalism”and written law as opposed to oral, less formal traditions can be said to germinate here
The document is also important on account of its protection of private
property (“freehold”)of barons. Such an explicit protection is at variance with other societies where property was technically owned by the King and taxation was limited by the power of precedent / tradition
Ancient India is a fine example where tradition and precedent was supreme and very successful in limiting the king, thus precluding the need for explicit protection of private property as in the case in Magna Carta.
The Magna Carta continued to exert considerable influence on later English monarchs. While it was renewed several times, it lost some of its practical significance during the reign of Tudors (1485-1603 CE) when the balance of power leaned towards the monarchy
However this interluding period of strong Tudor monarchy saw a development that was just as critical in the history of liberalism-it brought about the separation of church from state-which to this day remains a sacrosanct liberal principle agreed upon by liberals of all hues
Henry VIII and his six wives : Separation of Church from State

Henry the VIII has gone down in history as one of the greatest Kings in English history. He ascended the throne in 1509 and remained the King till his death in 1547
While he has many claims to fame, he is best known today for his remarkable love life, which interestingly had tremendous implications for world history.
Henry’s first marriage was to Spanish princess - Catherine of Aragon. Despite many attempts Catherine (6 years older than Henry) could not produce a male heir that Henry wanted

Henry was desperate for a male heir and was also in love with Catherine’s maid of honor, Anne Boleyn
To marry Anne, Henry had to either divorce Catherine or annul his marriage. He parleyed hard with the Pope in Rome to get his marriage to Catherine annulled. But the Catholic Church, the greatest power center in Europe, did not relent
Marriage was a sacred inviolable commitment in the Catholic world view. Moreover Catherine’s nephew Charles V - the ruler of Holy Roman Empire- was well connected with the church and there is a view that Pope was under pressure from Catherine’s family not to assent to annulment
Henry lost his cool! The refusal of annulment triggered his rejection of papal supremacy. The Pope excommunicated him upon his decision to marry Anne Boleyn in 1533. In 1534, Henry declared himself the “Supreme head of the Church of England”.
England had officially broken her ties with the Catholic Church. To this
day, the monarch is the Supreme Governor of the Anglican Church.
This was a very pivotal event in English and European history. It marked a clear break with religious authority, and the establishment of secular authority over the church
The supremacy of state over church, an article of faith with modern liberals, stems from this landmark event

When liberals today talk up secularism as an ideal, it is perhaps worthwhile to remember that the ideal has its origins in the lust for a male heir of an amoral king.
But Henry VIII’s revolt against the Church was not an isolated act of revolt. It was merely a manifestation of a deeper ideological transformation in Western Europe – a transformation with wide ranging implications for the
future of the world.
A transformation that privileged the sensual over the spiritual, and happiness over virtue
This ideological shift is best understood by examining the work of two pivotal philosophers – Niccolo Machiavelli and Thomas Hobbes – who may be called the godfathers of “modernity” with some justification
Philosophy sans the soul : Machiavelli and Hobbes

The Soul has always been central to theologians and philosophers in the pre-modern world, be it in Ancient Greece, Rome, or India. The Bhagavad Gita deemed the soul to be indestructible. Socrates believed more or less the same!
While Christian theology was more ambivalent than Greeks and Hindus on transmigration of souls, it nevertheless acknowledged its transcendence.

St Augustine, for eg, looked askance at the human body and its desires and declared the soul to be “immortal” in his “The City of God”
But the 15 th and 16 th centuries saw the birth of two individuals who changed the course of philosophy.

These two men were the first “worldly philosophers” – individuals who focused on the material world and the affairs of men, and chose to discount the soul altogether.
Niccolo Machiavelli was an Italian diplomat, born in 1469. Today he is best known for his short book “The Prince” and the term “Machiavellianism” – a term that is used to characterize lack of scruple in public life and politics
But Machiavelli was a lot more than a scheming practitioner and theorist of realpolitik. One may argue that he was a man who cut the umbilical cord between politics and moral philosophy. He was an empiricist and his writings neglected the soul, and focused on the material world
He eschewed political idealism in favor of realism and did not spend any time at all theorizing on virtue and what constitutes a “good life”
In his “History of Florence”, Machiavelli wrote –

“And if your conduct were in every respect upright, your demeanor amiable, and your judgments equitable, all these would be insufficient to make you beloved. If you imagine otherwise, you deceive yourself"
The quote is striking as it does not view the “moral life” as an end in itself, but as an insufficient means to happiness. Happiness in turn is equated with the “enjoyment of liberty”. “Liberty” as opposed to virtue, now is positioned as the end of human endeavors
This was a radical change that marked Machiavelli out from all predecessors, both pagan and Christian

But Machiavelli did not provide a theory to justify his world view. The theory to justify atheistic materialism came a century later in England. The theorist was Thomas Hobbes
Thomas Hobbes was the son of a vicar, born in 1588 in Wiltshire, England. Like Machiavelli Hobbes discounted the soul completely. But he went a step ahead. He conceived of an amoral, indifferent, godless universe where
there is no positive source of virtue or goodness
Instead, virtue, in his writings merely became an expediency to
get along with others in the world.
Hobbes starts from first principles and imagines what life would be like without government - a condition which he calls the “state of nature”. Here’s a famous extract from Chapter 13 of his masterpiece “Leviathan” -
"In such condition, there is no place for industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture....no arts; no letters; no society; and .... continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short"
So Hobbes is conjuring up a state prior to the emergence of societies and civilization. Every man is onto himself. And is out to get the best deal with the motive of self preservation. This naturally results in a barbaric state.
So men voluntarily agree to curtail their rights, and get into contracts and rule by consent. So in the Hobbesian world view, man is by nature acquisitive and selfish. Virtue is not inherent to man, but is imbibed out of necessity to get by.
This was a revolutionary thought back in the 16 th c and can be regarded as the birth of a new way of thinking– an amoral materialist world view.

The developments in philosophy eventually had an impact on real world – both on political and economic theory, which we discuss next
The rise of the Nation State : Liberal support for national identities

Henry VIII’s break-up with the Catholic church was a significant event at two levels. We already discussed how it marked the separation of church and state.
But it is also significant for a different reason. It is an early manifestation of a
“nationalist” tendency that would engulf Europe over the next century and a half.
For much of human history, the “Empire” has been the most common form of territorial organization. Empires, be it the Roman Empire or the Han Empire or the Mauryan Empire, have been by their very nature, massive, cosmopolitan, and extremely heterogeneous.
It is very hard for us to define the Roman Empire on an ethnic, lingual or religious basis. Because no such basis existed

The idea of a nation was unfashionable even as late as the 16 th c
But the thought revolutions in philosophy in the 16 th and 17 th century made a big difference. There now emerged ideas of “social contract” and “rule by consent”, propounded by the English liberals - Hobbes and Locke.
There was also the example of England itself, an increasingly prosperous and mercantile country, that was, along with Netherlands, the envy of much of Europe during the 17 th century.
The major fillip to the idea of “nationalism” came with the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, at the conclusion
of 3 decades of bloody religious conflict between the different kingdoms of Europe. The Westphalian system gave rise to the notion of “sovereignty”
As per which every nation has the exclusive right to define its territory, and external powers should not interfere in the domestic affairs of another country

This new system was antagonistic to the older ideas of Empire, which were very much mainstream until the 17 th century.
In the course of the 17 th and 18 th centuries, the old Holy Roman Empire broke up, and many independent monarchies emerged , each of which embodied a “nation” naturally held together by an ethnic or a lingual bond
Europe was no longer viewed as a monolith, but as a continent comprising of the French nation, the German nation, Italian nation among others. This process of moving from the Empire model to the nation-state model was complete by the middle of the 19 th century when Italy unified
All through this period, the contemporary liberal thought supported the idea of a strong nation state. Nation states were viewed as more likely to reflect the aspirations of its people, and work towards the best interests of its citizens, than remote, heterogenous empires.
The nostalgia for a new Rome that existed for much of the middle ages, faded away, and the liberal opinion strongly cast its vote in favor of Nation states
Votaries of Free Trade and Specialization : Hume, Smith and Ricardo

This was also a period of great debate in the discipline of economics which took birth in 17th/18th c.
Meditating on matters of wealth, trade and capital was not quite fashionable in the pre-Hobbesian world where the emphasis was more on the spiritual than the material
The rise of materialism changed the course of history. The finest thinkers were now much likelier than before, to think hard about the causes of wealth, and the balance of trade, and other matters
David Hume (1711-1776) was a remarkable polymath, who can also be regarded as one of the earliest economists.

The key idea that he originated was that the economic pie is not fixed, and that trade can actually increase domestic production rather than depress it.
Adam Smith a few decades later wrote his magisterial “The Wealth of Nations” in which he took some of Hume’s ideas forward, and also propounded the theory of “division of labor” – which emphasized the virtues of specialization and its impact on economic output.
David Ricardo formalized the argument for free trade with his theory of comparative advantage, which made a compelling case for trade even for countries that may regard themselves as more productive than others in producing every good.
So the rise of materialism had given birth to considerable innovation in the world of economics, with mainstream liberal opinion clearly siding in favor of greater specialization, and free trade - ideas that liberalism would later turn against in 20th century..
Democratic rage in 18th century :

As the 18 th century wore on there were developments in liberal political theory which took the ideas of Hobbes and Locke forward. And these manifested in the world of politics in the shape of violent revolutions - first in America and France.
One could regard this as the age of democratic rage. It stemmed from ideas of thinkers like Montesqieu - who came up with his "separation of powers" doctrine - which made a strong case against old fashioned monarchies, and called for separate arms of legislature, and executive.
The revolutions in America and France were examples of radical liberalism put to "test"

It was a period when liberalism was not satisfied with constitutional govt (which had already been achieved in England in 1688) but instead sought popular rule.
This was also the period of the great Industrial revolution, which in turn gave rise to its discontents. For the first time, the economic pie in society began to grow, and that meant the rise of jealosy and envy - manifesting itself in the rhetoric of "Equality".
Up til this point, Liberalism pursued "Liberty" as its ideal. But now it had another god to serve - "Equality".

Serving the twin gods of Liberty and Equality would prove to be Liberalism's greatest challenge and its undoing.
The Industrial Revolution in England gave birth to a new theory - Marxism. This was a theory that turned liberalism on its head. By shifting the focus from the "individual" to the "collective".
For the next century or so, from mid 18th to mid 19th c, Liberalism changed in character

a) The shift in focus from the individual to the collective.
b) The increasing focus on achieving equality of condition in society
Things reached their head in the 30s, during the Great Depression, when Liberalism officially turned paternalistic.

It was a period when liberals took upon themselves to establish social safety nets. Eg : Social security in US
While the Liberalism of Magna Carta had started a process of greater and greater liberalization of the individual - and removing "politics" from the lives of people, Liberalism v2.0 that emerged in the backdrop of the Industrial revolution took to paternalism and social justice.
Liberalism v2.0 was ironically about increasing the influence of politics on the lives of the people, the exact opposite of what the Magna Carta intended

The Industrial Revolution had caused Liberalism to do a volte face. IR - its own Frankenstein - devoured its earlier avatar
The Faustian bargain of trading virtue for materialism (which began with Machiavelli) now had culminated in a maddening quest for just one ideal - Equality of wealth and riches.

And this manifested even in the social sphere...
The women's movement had originally begun as a variant of Liberalism v1.0 - an attempt to empower women to pursue their individuality. John Stuart Mill was a fine advocate of this 19th cen version of Feminism
But Liberalism v2.0 changed the character of feminism. Now the emphasis was less on liberty and more on equality

This meant a denial of gender roles. And a radical redefinition of the roles of men and women in society - that culminated in the Sexual revolution of the 60s..
Radical feminists of the late 60s / 70s now claimed that the "personal is the political".

Something that would have shocked the signatories of Magna Carta!
The other great Volte face of Liberalism in the period of late 20th century (post wars) was the rise of a concept called "Constitutional Patriotism".

As per which Nationalism became a dirty word. A huge volte-face as Nationalism was an outcome of "Liberal" thought back in 17th c
Constitutional Patriotism emerged in Germany after the 2 wars, and teh great disasters spawned by the rabid fascist movements of Europe and Japan.
This new liberal doctrine demanded that nationalism be subordinate to constitutionalism - wherein the state does not demand "patriotism" but merely adherence to the constitution.

Nationalism was now deemed to be an old fashioned "emotional" and "troublesome" feeling
"Internationalism" was the new liberal in-thing of late 20th / early 21st century. And most modern liberals pride themselves on having transcended the passions of tribe, religion, language and ethnicity, But instead were cosmopolitans. Citizens of the world
The wheel had turned a full circle!
As we look to the rest of the 21st c, Liberalism has to survey its history and redefine its principles

What is most dear to it?

Liberty or Equality?
Democratic nationalism? Or internationalism?
Freedom of religion? Or rabid secularism?
Its 1000 years of checkered history provides it with conflicting answers.

This is not so much a problem with "conservatism" which shuns ideals and dogma, while merely defending "gradualism" / tradition.
For the "liberal" ideal to remain relevant, it has to make up its mind, on how it wishes to present its case to continue to be a force for "principled" change against the forces of "reaction" and "gradualism" (epitomized by conservatives in every age).
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