If there is any area where liberalism needs to regain the impulse of its core meaning, it is here. Instead of liberalism always acting defensively toward new technologies--protecting turf that is going to be lost anyway--it ought to be ahead of the game in anticipating how technologies can breed forms of democracies. Technology has a way of becoming oppressive, it tends to become overbearing and dominating, always holding the promise of freedom but rarely delivering in reality. People ought to have the freedom to inhabit multiple levels of technology, not an oppressive singularity. If this becomes possible, then it is also possible to envision people inhabiting multiple levels of democracy (or human potential) despite inhabiting the same geographical or historical space.
4. Freedom to Opt Out. There ought to be the possibility of anonymity, privacy, disappearance, the chance for not only starting over (starting over implies rejoining the mainstream, only at a different position) but not to have to make a formalized effort at all. And this ought to come without retribution. Today liberalism envisions the citizen as a cradle-to-grave participant in a limited range of bounties, and shirking responsibility at any stage of the individual's growth invites lifelong penalties. The idea that there is a right age to do a certain thing harkens to primordial times, the era of tribes and superstitions and rituals, rather than an individualism that we ought to stop being scared of at last. Advances in human health and reproduction make this ideal more possible than ever.
A lot of human unhappiness--once basic needs are met--results today from the clash between liberalism's monochrome expectations of a virtuous citizen and the anarchic, chaotic, sub rosa desires of actual human beings to challenge predestined timelines. It's a tall order to expect the state to allow the kind of anonymity I'm advancing here, but short of that, liberalism will continue to be confronted by movements (distorted versions of libertarianism) that try to steal the thunder without putting the substance of freedom at their center. The only thing for liberalism to fear is liberalism itself, which has become congealed into an elaborate matrix of rewards and punishments for behavior deeply tied to time-dependent success.
5. End Money. For the above prescriptions for diverse lifestyles to happen, the money economy must end. Liberalism must start thinking about an eventual transition to an economy whose measurements of progress and development are entirely different from those that exist now. The bane of quantification has overwhelmed not just the economics profession, but all social science and public policy as well. The root of quantification is money. Can we imagine a society that functions without money? Of course we can and we must, if advances in technology are ever to deliver more than rhetorical benefits. By severing human action from money, by removing the need to accumulate money as a function of physical survival, new forms of community, new forms of human relationship, will come into being that we can hardly anticipate yet. Art will at last become democratized and liberating, because its compromise with money will not be a factor.
Liberalism, in this manifestation, will start to resemble something like idealized Marxism, and why not, since Marxist thought is liberalism's first cousin? All ideology since the end of the dark ages has foundered on the recapitulation of the individual in the form of gross quantification. Thus romanticism comes to be seen as a perverse greed for self-gratification, a dangerous idealistic indulgence. Liberalism has long stopped dreaming of the impossible, but if the world comes closer together and population stabilizes as is widely expected, then it will have to cut off links with its own monetary foundation.
Some might say that what I have proposed is not liberalism at all, it doesn't fall within liberalism's precincts to undertake this kind of self-reform. Indeed, the criticism would be correct to a point. Yet liberalism--as it gelled in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries--still seems to me to hold the kernels of an ideology that makes sense for the material and technological conditions of the twenty-first century.
Nowhere in the world is liberalism actually practiced, however, since we only have versions of the managerial state where freedom--or rather, its legalistic incarnation, "civil liberties"--is a concession, often only rhetorical, made to elicit individuals' participation in a scheme of productivity that generally only aggrandizes impersonal forces the truly free individual would rather have nothing do with. It's as though we're living in a dream, shackled to occasionally pleasing thoughts, yet perpetually dissatisfied, a dream in which every road seems to lead to the same predetermined conclusion, in which our very ideas of happiness and fulfillment have become bound and gagged by commercial definitions.
Much of liberalism's current negativity is because it's become caught up in a needless argument over abundance versus scarcity, mostly coming down on the side of the latter; neo-Malthusian convictions have sapped the joy out of liberalism, and made it excessively skeptical of the liberating power of technology. Money, as accumulated power, exercised for domination over other human beings, is a problem; instead of a singular money-defined economy, it is possible to envision parallel economies (and parallel democracies) which coexist in the same space and time, and among which individual transitions are possible depending on free choice. If the social contract is exclusively between a state and its citizens, then empowered states make war on others to preserve privilege for their own citizens when they're under threat of erosion; as with economies, the idea of unitary citizenship will have to be done away with, to prevent the inevitable slippage into aggression.
At the moment--and this will become increasingly clear in the first few decades of the twenty-first century--a certain minimal convergence in worldwide income (and opportunity for education and health) is shearing liberalism apart, so that it faces a mortal struggle. It pretends, in America and Europe, to still be basically what it was half a century or a century ago, able to deliver the same goods at the same costs. In fact, it has never been so lagging in response to changes in material conditions, so mired in its own fancy constructions of constitutions and policies, as to overlook the human dimension altogether. At times liberalism comes off as the benevolent master issuing handouts, at times it becomes the reluctant enforcer of politically correct norms to suppress the more extreme forms of social brutality. At no time does it appear as the embodiment of our highest aspirations as human beings, at no time does it appear willing to shed the hard encrustation that makes it a museum piece rather than a living reality.
We're fighting still over the scraps of twentieth-century desserts. We ought to be planning for a whole new feast to which everyone will be welcome as an equal guest. That reality is almost upon us, and the various forms of retrogression in the West--prompted by fear of the new openness--are only going to hasten the event.
Anis Shivani is a fiction writer, poet, and literary critic in Houston, Texas. His books are My Tranquil War and Other Poems (Sept. 2012),The Fifth Lash and Other Stories (Nov. 2012), Against the Workshop: Provocations, Polemics, Controversies (2011), and Anatolia and Other Stories (2009). He has just finished a novel called Karachi Raj, and is writing a new one called Abruzzi, 1936.