Occupy Liberalism

August 11, 2015

No new content here from me, but as a sort of follow-up to this post from last year, in which I discussed Charles Mills’ Stony Brook lecture on ‘liberalism and racial justice‘, I wanted to draw attention to a related essay by Mills, also from 2012, but which I missed until this week: ‘Occupy Liberalism! Or, Ten Reasons Why Liberalism Cannot Be Retrieved for Radicalism (And Why They’re All Wrong)‘.  You will of course be a better judge of how to spend your time than I am – but imo this is a great essay which deserves very broad readership in radical spaces, so I wanted to ‘signal boost’.

Some relevant quotes from early in the piece:

In this essay, I want to propose as a target for radical occupation the somewhat unusual candidate of liberalism itself.  But contrary to the conventional wisdom prevailing within radical circles, I am going to argue for the heretical thesis that liberalism should not be contemptuously rejected by radicals but retrieved for a radical agenda… My aim is to challenge the radical shibboleth that radical ideas/concepts/principles/values are incompatible with liberalism…

Once the breadth of the range of liberalisms is appreciated – dominant and subordinate, actual and potential – the obvious question then raised is: Even if actual dominant liberalisms have been conservative in various ways (corporate, patriarchal, racist) why does this rule out the development of emancipatory, radical liberalisms?

One kind of answer is the following (call this the internalist answer): Because there is an immanent conceptual/normative logic to liberalism as a political ideology that precludes any emancipatory development of it.

Another kind of answer is the following (call this the externalist answer): It doesn’t.  The historic domination of conservative exclusionary liberalisms is the result of group interests, group power, and successful group political projects.  Apparent internal conceptual/normative barriers to an emancipatory liberalism can be successfully negotiated by drawing on the conceptual/normative resources of liberalism itself, in conjunction with a revisionist socio-historical picture of modernity.

Most self-described radicals would endorse – indeed, reflexively, as an obvious truth – the first answer.  But as indicated from the beginning, I think the second answer is actually the correct one.  The obstacles to developing a ‘radical liberalism’ are, in my opinion, primarily externalist in nature: material group interests, and the way they have shaped hegemonic varieties of liberalism.  So I think we need to try to justify a radical agenda with the normative resources of liberalism rather than writing off liberalism.

The whole piece is here.