Friday, May 19, 2023

Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity in the Postmodern, Neoliberal Age

I want to share with MindBlog readers the background material prepared by Austin Rainbow Forum member Daniel Owen to support our Sunday June 4 2023 discussion on the conflict between the ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity: 

Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity in the Postmodern, Neoliberal Age

The French motto of liberty, equality, and fraternity has symbolized democracy and human rights since the French Revolution. Our U.S. Declaration of Independence declares, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” No mention of fraternity, but in the 1835 political theory classic “Democracy in America,” the French political philosopher Alexis d Tocqueville observed this about American society:

“Americans of all ages, all conditions, all minds constantly unite. Not only do they have commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but they also have a thousand other kinds: religious, moral, grave, futile, very general and very particular, immense and very small; Americans use associations to give fĂȘtes, to found seminaries, to build inns, to raise churches, to distribute books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they create hospitals, prisons, schools. Finally, if it is a question of bringing to light a truth or developing a sentiment with the support of a great example, they associate. Everywhere that, at the head of a new undertaking, you see the government in France and a great lord in England, count on it that you will perceive an association in the United States.”

Perhaps the ideal of fraternity as civic-mindedness was just part of the character of early American culture. Is it still, or have we lost that?

Earlier this year, I listened to a talk by a Unitarian minister who suggested that liberty, equality, and fraternity are like a three-legged stool. If one of the legs becomes too long or too short, the stool is unbalanced. He thought our culture was out of balance with too much emphasis on individual liberty at the expense of equality and fraternity. Agree? Disagree?

How do we find a balance?

How do we deal with differences between the political left and right regarding what form these ideals should take?

How relevant are these ideals today in a globalized world dominated by neoliberalism?

How can we reconcile “We hold these truths to be self-evident…” with the relativism of postmodernism, where such declarations may be seen as socially constructed metanarratives used to advance the power and interests of some groups at the expense of others?

One possible response is to rethink what these principles mean in the 21st century. Liberty does not have to mean unlimited freedom to pursue one’s own agenda. It can also mean freedom to participate in democratic decision-making, to express one's identity and culture, and to access education, health care, and other public goods. Equality does not have to mean uniformity or conformity. It can also mean respect for diversity, human rights, and social justice. Fraternity does not have to mean exclusion or nationalism. It can also mean solidarity, empathy, and mutual aid among people of different backgrounds, beliefs, and interests.


Recommended reading/listening:

When Their Idea of Liberty is Your Idea of Death (12-minute read)

What It Means to Be Woke (5-minute read)

What Is Postmodernism? (12-minute video)

Extra Credit: Why We're Still Postmodern (56-minute podcast.
A lively discussion of postmodernism, neoliberalism, and contemporary culture from a very different angle than the previous video. Worth your time)


  1. I'm of the mind that much intrudes upon our thinking. Key committees of most democracies agree with me. I stopped reading for a second when you asked, "How do we deal with differences between the political left and right regarding what form these ideals should take?" I stopped at "ideals" because it's precisely ideals that the left and the right share; our culture adjusted to facing off, split apart, that's our normal. It's not pollyanna to say there's a long list of agreeableness we're missing from each other. Humanity per se has a millennial record of proof, the natural response to heavyweight challenges made citizens not chattel, freedom not slaves... a long list. To my point, our 'normalness' is attacked.

    We're massively interrupted. The pace of neighborliness and its cousin government is attacked. We erected enormous cultural progress, and that's the strongest memory remaining, a sample if you like of how we behave when the commons is perceived as safe. Disinfo engines and data vault weapons are potent. Civility shrinks as profile psychographics fires up amygdala-driven threat levels. Sounds polemic, but I'm guessing we're stuck until we cull boogeyman engineering and criminal population management. We're accustomed to point-by-point outrage, but excessive misperceived 'neuro-barrage' is simply buggering up good arguing that we could be enjoying.

    1. You make a number of different points. I'm having difficulty understanding how they cohere and relate to each other.