When the Berlin Wall came down and Leningrad changed its name back to St. Petersburg, the West was able to claim more than a small victory over its critics. The powerful communist bloc centered in Moscow, the inspiration and support of many radical Third World regimes and Western dissidents, had met its demise. When this bloc crumbled from within, critics of liberalism and capitalism lost their most significant alternative model.
While Marx's historical analysis and prescription are slowly falling into the dustbins of history, much of his critique of capitalism and liberal democracy remains valid. Adam Smith's invisible hand that has brought “wealth to nations,” has no promises for virtue other than that brought about by the material satisfaction of greater numbers of people (i.e. people are less likely to steal if they have a reasonable standard of living).
We are in the midst of a technological revolution, discovering more and more information, creating more and more products, all ultimately based on the profit motive. The entertainment industry is a good example of developing whatever the market will bear. Neither capitalism nor liberal democracy assure social responsibility – they simply allow the individual unfettered pursuit of happiness. Rather, there seems to be a popular Hegelian assumption that things will continue to evolve progressively and that we must merely fine-tune the system to ensure that social justice will not be trampled by man's selfish nature.
The purer the liberalism, the more divorced it is from promoting a moral agenda. The classically liberal state is only there to provide a fair playing field, not to tell the players what their goals should be. In such an ideological vacuum, man has difficulty controlling his over-stimulated desire for gratification. Indeed, capitalism pushes man towards such gratification. In the words of columnist Benjamin Schwarz, "the free market...elevates individual choice as the highest good; [and thus] the radical individualism it engenders...uproots and destroys all traditional values and social relations."
Much of Jewish history is about our confrontation with or adaptation to the various zeitgeists of human civilization. Our own time is no exception. The confusion of the Jewish response to modernity is in no small measure due to general confusion about the direction of modernity itself.
Many modern Jews tend to look at all the benefits bestowed upon us by the liberal state and cannot but look upon it with admiration. The social degeneration and decadence we see in front of our eyes is viewed as a cultural anomaly. Again, such Jews speak of fine-tuning education, community, social welfare etc.
Yet viewed more objectively, the liberal state falls quite short of the Jewish ideal. As classically understood, the ideal Jewish state needs to propagate Torah and enforce halacha. The lack of such functions is considered to be a trait of Galut. Similarly, a Noachide state is expected to enforce a theological morality that encompasses such issues as polytheism and sexual depravity. No matter how much an orthodox Jew admires the Western democracies, he must admit that they are not utopian.
The pagan societies of the ancient world were generally bastions of religious tolerance – but this did not make them morally progressive, nor could one assume that man would continue to progress within them before destroying himself and his civilization.
There is much good in liberalism. There are also great dangers inherent in it. Our ultimate role as a people is to be a light unto the nations – this is not furthered by rah-rahing a system simply because it provides us with unprecedented physical and material comforts. On the contrary, the depth of our own ideology should provide a yardstick to evaluate a system that, historically speaking, remains unproven.