Liberal fundamentals: Invisible, invasive, artful, and bloody hands

Naeem Inayatullah, Ithaca College
David L. Blaney, Macalester College


Returning to liberalism's Scottish Enlightenment precursors suggests that the liberal order might best be described by the tension between its assertions about the smoothing natural harmonies within the social order and its doubts about whether those harmonies can appear spontaneously and therefore require aggressive projects of reform and correction. Although committed to the inevitability and inexorability of progress, such doubts led Scottish Enlightenment figures to strategies that even today continue to mark liberalism's effort to purify modern progress of tragedy's taint. We continue to justify apparent social failings as necessary to the natural order, regarding them instead as advantages in a Providentialist manner (Smith and Hume). We preserve our faith in commercial society by aggressively reforming and correcting those inside and outside others who resist the inevitabilities we have embraced (Millar). We accept the disorders and instabilities inherent in modern market society, but replace our hope in the automaticity of adjustment with a belief in the capacity of the state or some form of international governance to resolve tensions in some higher-order liberalism (Steuart). We call for a moral revival to restore values that our contemporary liberal institutions cannot possibly sustain (Ferguson). In sum, maintaining liberalism's idealised vision of itself in the face of these necessary limits and ill consequences calls forth the purificatory zeal of the fundamentalist. If we wish to move past a response that offers us more liberalism and more zeal as a solution to the problems of liberalism, we need something that is both within and beyond liberal fundamentals: a liberalism that accepts truths beyond itself; that looks to multiple ontologies for political and ethical resources; and that accepts plural and multiple versions of virtue and progress negotiated between liberalism's fundamentals and varying local ideals and conditions. © 2012 Macmillan Publishers Ltd.