Liberalism and Radicalism

December 6, 2015

Circling once more around what seems to be this blog’s only real topic of late – radicalism versus liberalism. Nothing revelatory here – just the solidification of what seem like fairly commonplace ideas. Starting with the concept of a collective ‘subject of history’, and moving on to alternatives.

If your politics is based on the idea that if the appropriate collective subject of history attains political power then domination and oppression will cease, your politics will predictably result (should it succeed in attaining power) in domination and oppression. That last sentence is the standard critique of the strand of Marxism that believes in some form of ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’. It’s a correct critique, in my now quite firmly held opinion. But it doesn’t just apply to that strand of Marxism – it also applies to strands of feminism, of postcolonial politics, of anarchism (where ‘gaining power’ may be understood differently, but still) – and indeed to strands of would-be emancipatory movements of all kinds. Problem: one group of people is being oppressed by another. Solution: switch roles, get rid of the oppressors and replace them by the oppressed. The oppressed are the good guys, so problem solved. That’s the approach I’m criticising.

Obviously, I am caricaturing, and in a familiar way that is often used to criticise emancipatory movements as a whole – that is of course not my intention here. Nevertheless, I think this caricature accurately captures the core of a significant portion of left politics. What’s wrong with this approach? A range of things. One of them is using the collective as the unit of analysis. Why is using the collective as the unit of analysis a bad idea? Because doing so makes it harder to see how different elements of the collectivity have different interests, preferences, politics, etc. – and how oppression can operate within the collectivity, not just against it. This lack of critical insight into the internal dynamics of the collectivity means that would-be emancipatory movements that understand themselves in this way frequently and predictably fail to adequately plan for holding power – as well as failing to adequately moderate existing internal power dynamics. More precisely, they fail to adequately consider how to limit the power of those within the collective who end up wielding it. Thus would-be emancipatory movements frequently and predictably end up producing new forms of oppression and domination, rather than any kind of lasting emancipation.

Contrast liberalism. Liberalism is of course an extremely diverse political tradition, so there are major exceptions to what I’m about to say. Still, one of liberalism’s major unifying interests is the way in which diverse individual actions which may be individually self-interested can, with the appropriate institutional structures, create positive collective outcomes. This idea unites economic liberalism (where despite following individual self interest we are led, as if by an invisible hand…) and political liberalism (in which incompatible interests and perspectives hammer out some compromise in the negotiations of non-absolutist government). The radical left is often impatient with / hostile to this approach, for a range of different reasons, some good, some bad. But this liberal perspective is in my opinion a much better starting point for thinking about politics than any concept of a ‘subject of history’ or ‘collective will’.

That is to say: One of the things this liberal approach is good for, is not taking it for granted that with the right people in charge, or with the right collective will expressed, the right political decisions will made. Liberalism tends to assume, instead, that people won’t reliably look out for each other in solidarity, but will rather engage in conflict, disagreement and, potentially, oppression at all levels of the body politic – and that a core political problem is setting up the institutions within which people operate, such that those conflicts can function as checks and balances to produce positive, rather than negative, overall outcomes. In its approach to institution design, therefore, liberalism is a better starting point for thinking about abuses of power than many forms of radicalism.

OK – so drop the radicalism and embrace liberalism? Not altogether, no. There are, obviously, a range of problems with liberalism – or, at least, with ‘actually existing liberalism’ (including most ‘actually existing’ articulations of liberal political ideals). As I have done before on the blog I want to focus in this post on those emphasised by Charles Mills, in his The Racial Contract and other works. That is to say: liberalism’s ideals – including the ideals of institution design I was just talking about – are severely limited in their application. In particular, they are limited by a hierarchy of the human, in which the principles of liberal politics only need be applied to those near the top of the hierarchy – those humans who are fully human, fully adult, in full possession of their own individuality, which individuality can be given voice by the institutions of the liberal polity and economic order. As we move down the hierarchy of the human, people become less and less entitled to have voice or power within liberal institutions, because, from the liberal perspective, they are not real people. This describes the system of global racial oppression – but also many forms of gender oppression, and other forms of systematic domination.

So we have on the one hand a system of checks and balances that aspires to transform varied and conflictual individual preferences into acceptable collective outcomes, without presupposing an unrealistic degree of harmonious or self-sacrificing solidarity or collective will – then on the other hand we have those excluded from full participation in this institutional space, who therefore do not enjoy those liberal checks against oppression, coercion, violence, etc., and do not find their preferences accounted for within the system of liberal negotiations and exchanges. Here the ‘space of liberalism’ itself functions as a form of collective subject – the human, the civilised – contrasted with another collective non-subject – the inhuman, the uncivilised, the childlike brutes, the Other. And this is of course a way of justifying the actually-existing systematic oppression or domination of the latter by the former.

One way of narrating the history of liberalism is as a series of assaults on this charmed circle of the human, in which excluded groups, through the use of collective action, seek to challenge the existing liberal order, and extend the scope of liberal freedoms and rights. These assaults on the liberal circle of entitlements must use methods that are not permitted by the existing liberal order – in that sense, these movements are not liberal ones. But the end result of many of these movements has been the incorporation of their demands into an expanded liberal politics – a liberalism that includes, rather than opposes, workers’ rights, women’s rights, minorities’ rights, LGBTI rights, etc. – at least within some limited, but meaningful, political and economic field. These achievements should be regarded as (incomplete) political successes, in my opinion.

Now, the hierarchy of the human I just described is not the only problem with ‘actually existing’ liberalism – hopefully I’ll come back to all this again one day. Still, I think all this is enough of a starting point to make the case for a form of liberalism. This liberalism should take a ‘cynical’ approach to the problems of political and economic life – it should presuppose high degrees of social conflict and self-interested action at all scales of social life, and aim to design institutions that use this social discord to provide checks and balances against the abuse of any given group of individuals by any other. It should aspire to the traditional liberal goal of achieving positive overall collective outcomes by ensuring, through institution design, that where possible the individual and diverse interests of many diverse individuals interact in broadly socially beneficial ways. But this liberalism should be alive, in a way that actually-existing liberalisms have traditionally not been, to the systematic exclusion of the bulk of humanity from full participation in and representation through actually-existing liberal institutional structures – one major way, though not the only one, in which actually-existing liberal institutions cannot fulfill their (purported) political goals.

As I say, none of this ought to be very earth-shattering – I’ll aim to come back to all of this in greater depth, one day.