Aristocratic liberalism: a brief tour of an extinct tradition

Can one be a liberal who hates the people? Liberalism and democracy are generally taken to be two inseparable sides of the same coin, but as any socialist will tell you, it need not be so. Indeed, it was not always so. Is there not some conflict between a contractual view of a bounded state where governors reciprocally guarantee certain rights to citizens, and a view of a General Will perpetually demolishing fences that the forces of “free expression” and ballot-box anarchy deem unworthy of standing? It seems there is. Of course, any aberration from democracy in a liberal state seems to be quickly corrected, either in the direction of more popular participation with disastrous results (First Spanish Republic, First Portuguese Republic, First Austrian Republic, etc.) or that of more popular participation with careful bureaucratic safeguards (most modern liberal democracies).

Still, the rule of law differing from the rule of the rabble, we will be looking at the dead transitory tendency that was aristocratic liberalism, which flourished during the period from the Bourbon Restoration to the July Monarchy (1814-1848) in France, but with a precedent in the conservative Monarchiens faction during the early stages of the French Revolution (1789-1791), who advocated for constitutional monarchy.

The essence of this aristocratic liberalism is a belief in constitutionalism, representative institutions and civil liberties, but a rejection of what we call “political freedom.” A nonpartisan monarch stands inviolable and infallible, but does not legislate directly, only through his ministers. A bicameral legislature votes on and enacts laws, but they are sanctioned and promulgated solely by the person of the king. Freedom of religion and equality before the law are guaranteed. However, political participation is strictly limited by census suffrage, restrictions on the press and restrictions on political assembly. These are, by and large, the principles of the Charter of 1814 which opened the Bourbon Restoration. The conception of liberty is one based on property, not on voice.

The aristocratic liberals were the epitome of bourgeois values. The term “bourgeois” has, of course, become one of opprobrium. The left associates it with reactionary capitalist robber barons extracting surplus value from powerless wage workers, whereas the right uses it as something of a synonym for an urban bohemian type with progressive convictions and a liberal-arts major, what is today often called a SWPL.

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