The Modern World-System IV: Centrist Liberalism Triumphant, 1789-1914

The Modern World-System IV: Centrist Liberalism Triumphant, 1789-1914

by Immanuel Wallerstein


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520267602
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 06/10/2011
Pages: 396
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Immanuel Wallerstein is Senior Research Scholar at Yale University and the former President of the International Sociological Association. He is the author of many books, including, most recently, World-Systems Analysis: An
and European Universalism: The Rhetoric of Power.

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The Modern World-System IV

Centrist Liberalism Triumphant, 1789â?"1914

By Immanuel Wallerstein


Copyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-94860-0


Centrist Liberalism as Ideology

The French Revolution ... is the shadow under which the whole nineteenth century lived. —GEORGE WATSON (1973, 45)

In 1815, the most important new political reality for Great Britain, France, and the world-system was the fact that, in the spirit of the times, political change had become normal. "With the French Revolution, parliamentary reform became a doctrine as distinct from an expedient" (White, 1973, 73). Furthermore, the locus of sovereignty had shifted in the minds of more and more persons from the monarch or even the legislature to something much more elusive, the "people" (Billington, 1980, 160–166; also 57–71). These were undoubtedly the principal geocultural legacies of the revolutionary-Napoleonic period. Consequently, the fundamental political problem that Great Britain, France, and the world-system had to face in 1815, and from then on, was how to reconcile the demands of those who would insist on implementing the concept of popular sovereignty exercising the normality of change with the desire of the notables, both within each state and in the world-system as a whole, to maintain themselves in power and to ensure their continuing ability to accumulate capital endlessly.

The name we give to these attempts at resolving what prima facie seems a deep and possibly unbridgeable gap of conflicting interests is ideology. Ideologies are not simply ways of viewing the world. They are more than mere prejudices and presuppositions. Ideologies are political metastrategies, and as such are required only in a world where political change is considered normal and not aberrant. It was precisely such a world that the capitalist world-economy had become under the cultural upheaval of the revolutionary-Napoleonic period. It was precisely this world that developed the ideologies that served during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as both the handbooks of daily political activity and the credos justifying the mundane compromises of such activity.

Was the French Revolution inspired by liberal ideology, or was it rather the negation of liberal ideology? This was a central theme of the French (and worldwide) debate during the bicentennial of 1989. The question, however, is perhaps not very meaningful, because liberalism as an ideology is itself a consequence of the French Revolution, and not a description of its political culture. The first ideological reaction to the French Revolution's transformation of the geoculture was in fact, however, not liberalism, but conservatism. Burke and de Maistre wrote about the Revolution immediately, in the heat of the events, in books that have remained founts of conservative ideology to this day. Of course, the concepts preceded the terms. The term conservative apparently first appeared only in 1818,2 and the noun liberal was probably first used in 1810.

Conservative ideology has been deeply tied to a vision of the French Revolution as the exemplar of the kind of deliberate political change that disrupts the slow-moving evolution of "natural" social forces. For conservatives, this disruptive process had a long and dubious heritage:

The French Revolution was but the culmination of the historical process of atomization that reached back to the beginning of such doctrines as nominalism, religious dissent, scientific rationalism, and the destruction of those groups, institutions and intellectual certainties which had been basic in the Middle Ages. (Nisbet, 1952, 168–169)

Conservative ideology was thus "reactionary" in the simple sense that it was a reaction to the coming of what we think of as modernity, and set itself the objective either of reversing the situation entirely (the hard version) or of limiting the damage and holding back as long as possible the changes that were coming (the more sophisticated version). The conservatives believed that, by imposing their "rational," deductive schema on the political process, the partisans of revolution (or reform; it makes little difference in the conservative dogma) create turmoil, undo the wisdom of the ages, and thereby do social harm.

Like all ideologies, conservatism was first and foremost a political program. Conservatives knew full well that they had to hold on to or reconquer state power, that the institutions of the state were the key instrument needed to achieve their goals, When conservative forces returned to power in France in 1815, they baptized this event a "Restoration." But as we shall see, things did not really go back to the status quo ante. Louis XVIII had to concede a "Charter," and when Charles X tried to install a true reaction, he was ousted from power and in his place was put Louis-Philippe, who assumed the much more modern title "King of the French."

The ideal solution for conservatives would have been the total disappearance of movements reflecting liberal impulses. Barring that—it did not happen in 1815 and came to be recognized as utopian after 1848—the next best solution was to persuade legislators of the need for utmost prudence in undertaking any political change of great significance. The continuing political strength of conservatism would be located in the popular wariness that multiple disillusions with reforms would repeatedly instill in the "sovereign people." On the other hand, conservatism's great weakness has always been that it was essentially a negative doctrine. "[Conservative doctrine] was born in reaction to the French Revolution.... [I]t was thus born counterrevolutionary." And counterrevolution has been in general even less popular in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries than revolution; it is a label that has been an albatross for conservatives.

Conservatives felt, nonetheless, that they had an unassailable case. The greatest objection conservatives had to the French Revolution was the belief espoused by its partisans and theoreticians that all was possible and legitimate through politics. Conservatives argued, instead, for an organic conception of society, and the "radical inadequacy of the political as a final account of man." Conservatives supported the state insofar as it incarnated authority, but suspected the central state insofar as it might legislate. The consequence was a penchant for localism, in part because notables had greater strength at local levels and partly because inherently less could be legislated at that level. To be sure, this antipolitical bias was not universal among those who were "counterrevolutionary"; it was merely dominant. Henry Kissinger makes a very cogent distinction between Burkean conservatism (which is what I have been describing here as conservatism) and the conservatism of Metternich:

To fight for conservatism in the name of historical forces, to reject the validity of the revolutionary question because of its denial of the temporal aspect of society and the social contract—this was the answer of Burke. To fight the revolution in the name of reason, to deny the validity of the question on epistemological grounds, as contrary to the structure of the universe—this was the answer of Metternich. The difference between these two positions is fundamental....

It was this rationalist conception of conservatism which imparted the rigidity to Metternich's policy....

It was thus that the Enlightenment retained deep into the nineteenth century its last champion, who judged actions by their "truth," not by their success.

Success. This was the clarion call of the liberals. But success in what? This is the key question we must address. Liberalism as an ideology, as opposed to liberalism as a political philosophy—that is, liberalism as a metastrategy vis-à-vis the demands of popular sovereignty, as opposed to liberalism as a metaphysics of the good society—was not born adult out of the head of Zeus. It was molded by multiple, often contrary, interests. To this day, the term liberalism evokes quite varied resonances. There is the classic "confusion" between so-called economic and so-called political liberalism. There is also the liberalism of social behavior, sometimes called libertarianism. This mélange, this "confusion," has served liberal ideology well, enabling it to secure maximal support.

Liberalism started ideological life on the left of the political spectrum, or at least on the center-left. Liberalism defined itself as the opposite of conservatism, on the basis of what might be called a "consciousness of being modern" (Minogue, 1963, 3). Liberalism proclaimed itself universalist. Sure of themselves and of the truth of this new world-view of modernity, liberals sought to propagate their views and intrude the logic of their views within all social institutions, thereby ridding the world of the "irrational" leftovers of the past, To do this, they had to fight conservative ideologues, whom they saw as obsessed with fear of "free men"—men liberated from the false idols of tradition.

Liberals believed, however, that progress, even though it was inevitable, could not be achieved without some human effort, without a political program. Liberal ideology was thus the belief that, in order for history to follow its natural course, it was necessary to engage in conscious, continual, intelligent reformism, in full awareness that "time was the universal friend, which would inevitably bring greater happiness to ever greater numbers" (Schapiro, 1949, 13).

After 1815, liberal ideology presented itself as the opponent of the conservative thrust, and as such was considered by conservatives to be "Jacobinical." But as liberalism gained momentum, support, and authority as an ideology, its left credentials weakened; in some respects it even gained right credentials. But its destiny was to assert that it was located in the center. It had already been conceptualized in this way by Constant in the eighteenth century. It was institutionalized as the centrist position in the nineteenth century. And it was still being celebrated as the "vital center" by Schlesinger (1962) in the mid-twentieth century.

To be sure, the center is merely an abstraction, and a rhetorical device. One can always locate oneself in a central position simply by defining the extremes as one wishes. Liberals are those who decided to do this as their basic political strategy. Faced with the normality of change, liberals would claim a position between the conservatives—that is, the right, who wanted to slow down the pace of normal change as much as possible—and the "democrats" (or radicals or socialists or revolutionaries)—that is, the left, who wanted to speed it up as much as possible. In short, liberals were those who wished to control the pace of change so that it occurred at what they considered to be an optimal speed. But could one really know what is the optimal speed? Yes, said the liberals, and their metastrategy was precisely geared to achieving this end.

Two emblematic figures arose in the development of this metastrategy: Guizot and Bentham. Guizot was a historian, a man of letters, and of course a politician. Bentham was a philosopher and an advocate of concrete legislative action. In the end, the eyes of both of them were focused on the state. Guizot himself defined modernity as "the substitution in government of intellectual means for material means, of ruse for force, Italian politics for feudal politics" (Guizot, 1846, 299). He said it began with Louis XI, and this may be so. But even if it were so, it became fully institutionalized only in the first half of the nineteenth century, precisely when Guizot was in the government of France.

Guizot sought a way to mute popular sovereignty without returning to the divine right of kings. He found it by claiming the existence of an "irresistible hand" of reason progressing through history. By arguing this more political version of the Smithian "invisible hand," Guizot could establish, as a prior condition for the exercise of the right to popular sovereignty, the possession of "capacity," defined as the "faculty of acting according to reason." Only if suffrage were limited to those having this capacity would it then be possible to have a "scientific policy" and a "rational government." And only such a government would eliminate the triple menace of "the return of arbitrary government, the unloosing of popular passions, and social dissolution" (cited in Rosanvallon 1985, 255–256; see also 156–158). The reference to science is not casual, but fundamental. Manning (1976, 16, 21, 23) develops the links between liberal ideology and Newtonian science. He shows the derivation of what he argues are the three principles of liberal ideology from Newtonian thought: the principle of balance, the principle of spontaneous generation and circulation, and the principle of uniformity. First, the stability of the world "depend[s] upon its constituent parts remaining in balanced relationships." Second, "any attempt to transform the self-moving society into the directed society must necessarily destroy the harmony and balance of its rational order." Third, "we may expect democratic institutions to materialize in human societies whenever they reach the appropriate level of development, just as we may expect any physical phenomenon to materialize given the principle of its sufficient condition for its occurrence."

In short, Guizot supported neither Louis XVI (or Charles X) nor Robespierre, for neither was a rational choice. And of the two, Guizot (and his epigones) probably worried about Robespierre and Rousseau more. "What is still generally called 'liberalism' in the beginning of the nineteenth century was an attempt to conceive of politics against Rousseau. Revolutionary terror was the child of political voluntarism (artificialisme); everyone agreed with that analysis" (Rosanvallon, 1985, 44).

Guizot's reputation faded, sullied no doubt by his increasingly conservative role in the July Monarchy, and is only today being resuscitated by France's political neoliberals. But Bentham's reputation as Great Britain's quintessential liberal has never ceased to be asserted (and acclaimed). Guizot's triple menace was equally there for the Benthamites, of course, but they were perhaps even more adept at countering it. It was the great French Anglophile and liberal Elie Halévy (1900, iii–iv) who pointed out how Bentham took a starting point actually not too different from that of Rousseau but had it end up not with revolution but with classic liberalism:

England, like France, had its century of liberalism: the century of the industrial revolution across the Channel was the equivalent of the century of the French Revolution; the utilitarian philosophy of the identity of interests that of the juridical and spiritualist philosophy of the rights of man. The interests of all individuals are identical. Each individual is the best judge of his own interests. Hence we ought to eliminate all artificial barriers which traditional institutions erected between individuals, all social constraints founded upon the presumed need to protect individuals against each other and against themselves. An emancipatory philosophy very different in its inspiration and in its principles but close in many of its practical applications to the sentimental philosophy of J.-J. Rousseau. The philosophy of the rights of man would culminate, on the Continent, in the Revolution of 1848; the philosophy of the identity of interests in England in the same period in the triumph of Manchesterian free trade concepts.

On the one hand, for Bentham, society was the "spontaneous product of the wills of its individual members [and therefore] a free growth in which the State had no part." But at the very same time—and this is crucial for Bentham and liberalism—society was "a creation of the legislator, the of spring of positive law." State action was therefore perfectly legitimate, "provided the State were a democratic State and expressed the will of the greatest number."

Bentham shared Guizot's penchant for scientific policy and rational government. The state was the perfect, neutral instrument of achieving the "greatest good of the greatest number." The state therefore had to be the instrument of reform, even of radical reform, precisely because of the triple menace:

Bentham and the Benthamites ... were never complacent about the condition of England. They were "Radical Reformers," and they worked hard at their reforms: by working out detailed blueprints for them; by propaganda, agitation, intrigue, conspiracy; and if truth be told, by encouragement to revolutionary movements up to—but not beyond—the point where resort to physical force would be the next step.


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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

Preface: On Writing about the Modern World-System

1. Centrist Liberalism as Ideology
2. Constructing the Liberal State, 1815–1830
3. The Liberal State and Class Conflict, 1830–1875
4. The Citizen in a Liberal State
5. Liberalism as Social Science
6. The Argument Restated



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