Edited by Luigino Bruni and Stefano Zamagni
Chapter 21: Liberalism
Until the global economic crisis struck in 2008, liberalism was the dominant ideology of our time and undoubtedly the most influential political philosophy of the last 300 years or so. Its origins, evolution and meaning are deeply contested by liberal and non-liberal thinkers alike. Many contemporary historians and political philosophers claim that liberal thought first emerged in the late sixteenth or early seventeenth century and evolved into a distinct philosophical tradition during the Age of Enlightenment (e.g. Mesnard 1969; Kelly 2005, Paul et al 2007). Thus, key liberal figures such as John Locke (1632–1704), Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) and Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) opposed what they viewed as the unholy alliance between the Church, absolutist monarchs and the feudal capitalism of the landed gentry. They defended alternative ideas such as freedom of religion, tolerance, constitutional rule, individual property and free trade. These antecedents were important, but – so the dominant narrative goes – liberalism’s evolution as an ideology and political movement only took off following the impact of the American and the French Revolution. Thereafter the liberal tradition was instrumental in the ‘three waves of democratization’ (Huntington 1991). The first wave saw liberal governments triumph in much of Europe and the Americas in the nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries.
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