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.

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4 Responses to “Liberalism and Radicalism”


  1. A masterly statement, Duncan, with which, as it stands, I fully concur; but one of the main challenges to liberalism comes now from those who claim to speak for creatures excluded from the “charmed circle” because they can’t speak for themselves, particularly animals and the unborn; and I suggest that language rather than humanity is the necessary marker of inclusion, since aliens, – who are by definition not human, – must be included if they have a language translatable with ours.


  2. A feature of radicalism is its need to make a clean break with the past, as in the establishment of a new calendar after the French Revolution.

    Rimbaud’s insistence that “Il faut etre absolument moderne” is an example: the only way you can be “absolutely modern” is to have absolutely nothing to do with the past. It’s amusing how unselfconsciously this can be applied, as in the notice of a Prize Competition in the New Writer Magazine: “What we are looking for is bold, incisive material in any genre just as long as it reflects today’s writing”.

    In a recent review in the NYRB of a new book about the history of science by Steven Weinberg, Jim Holt says: “Weinberg sees (Newton) as marking a genuine discontinuity. Set against what Newton accomplished, “all past successes of physical theory were parochial.'”

    You have to wonder how Weinberg would explain that judgement to the man who famously said, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

    Weinberg, of course, is a militant nacist (naturalist-atheist-consequentialist) who subscribes to what Charles Taylor (in “A Secular Age”) calls the “subtraction-story” of the emergence of “exclusive humanism” , i.e., that it’s what’s left when all errors from the past, particularly those associated with religion, have been purged.

    This kind of modernism exactly parallels the political radicalism for which any measure that could be implemented within the existing system would ipso facto not count as “radical”.

  3. Role Switcher Says:

    Duncan–I’m normally quite a big fan of yours but I think this post is nearly entirely wrong. Some thoughts:

    1) Your past critiques and suggestions for a provisional use of the strengths of liberalism in socialist governance have been very interesting and fairly persuasive. Your critique here of the “collective subject of history approach” or what you also call the “Solution: switch roles, get rid of the oppressors and replace them by the oppressed” is very weak. First, it conflates the sub-concept of a subject of history specific to very particular marxisms with all “radical” approaches to social change. Secondly, you haven’t cited a single person who actually advances the claim about simply flipping roles or “oppressing the oppressors” which you impute to feminism, post-colonialism, marxism and so on. To the extent that anyone actually argues such things, it tends to be much more of a strategic consideration–simply put, how do we keep people who will try to kill us for ushering in even the mildest of reforms–rather than the theory of socialist governance or transition to revolutionary society proper. This isn’t to say that there’s any kind of definitive, obviously correct argument that you’re missing, because your past points about the need to consider this more seriously hold. But it certainly doesn’t exhaust the range of radical thought on post-capitalist governance and it’s a bit irresponsible to suggest that it does. I hate to sound like a preening schoolteacher but have you really considered at length whether your characterization accurately represents even as polemical a piece as Lenin’s State and Revolution? “Caricature” might even be too generous to yourself here! Your suggestion that feminism, Marxism, and postcolonialism are exhausted by a “switch roles” approach, let alone characterized by them to a meaningful extent, fits a sectarian liberal or left-liberal polemic, but I’m afraid that it’s not serious scholarship or political thought.

    2. This is a bigger problem with the historiography of liberalism in general but it seems altogether too generous to liberalism to suggest that it’s so rich and malleable enough that the partial and reform-oriented successes of workers’, women’s and peoples of color’s movements can be read as enlargements of liberalism’s boundaries. Given that all presently-existing societies have strong conflict over norms and practices, is there some reason that we couldn’t, say, describe those successes as the product of such tension? Historical liberalism has been massively racist and exclusionary, almost uniformly, until the growing success of those movements. Even if a kind of decontextualized, expanded liberalism can be said to contain some of the same elements or themes of a reformist workers’ movement, say–why color those successes as advances of liberalism? Why not call them an admixture of social democracy and liberalism? Or with the limited strides towards a post-racial society that we’ve made–Black people have always respected their own communities and have been the driving forces in their own liberation. It seems far more accurate to say that a complex society in conflict might have to respond to those powerful movements and thus adopt some principles of Black liberation rather than to say that liberalism was expanded to include Black people. I know that you’re not saying anything so dismissive as “liberalism is responsible for Black people’s reform wins” but I think even your claim that those wins can be seen as expansions of an ideology that has been overwhelmingly racist, explicitly or very-thinly-veiled, throughout its history ends up being mental gymnastics. Seems far more accurate to describe current US mores and governance as being primarily liberal, oriented towards maintenance of capitalist mode of production, with necessary pivots to traditional Af. Am. values of, well, things like valuing Black people, without fundamentally upsetting white supremacy. Why not call this hybrid an admixture of liberal and Black liberation values? Societies in conflict couldn’t exist without conflicting values. Assimilating it to liberalism seems historically perverse.

    3. While I continue to appreciate your stress on the need to forego utopianism and romanticism, I think remaining agnostic or disinterested in the question of “self-interest” and “human nature” is far more productive than either stumping for humanity’s inherent altruism or making reference to some kind of intrinsic selfishness. Most people’s “self-interest” includes living in a society where at least their particular social sub-group flourishes, anyways, so circumscribing it here to mean something like individual ambition or avarice is misleading.

    Honestly, I really think your opponents’ views deserve far more serious consideration than you give here. This reads like a manifesto for left-liberalism or something–all good and well but there’s precious little serious argument here. I hate to sound condescending but this would receive a “C” or “C+” if submitted by one of my undergraduates.

  4. duncan Says:

    Hi Role Switcher – thanks for commenting. I can only respond sketchily, but:

    – I’m not intending to criticise the traditions I mention – feminist, Marxist, postcolonial – in general, but to criticise one category of position within them.

    – In the opening paragraphs I collapse together a lot of things that would be better distinguished – I agree with that, and it’s a fair criticism. Unfortunately, making all the appropriate distinctions would require a hugely longer discussion. That would be a good thing to do, but this post is meant to be gestural, not academic.

    – I don’t think you need a theory of ‘human nature’ to make the fairly weak claims I want to, about self-interest and incentives – at least not ‘human nature’ in any essentialist (rather than probabilistic) sense.

    – Your position on the historiography of liberalism is coherent, and credible – but I disagree. I probably can’t make a case for liberalism’s emancipatory dimension better than Mills – his Stony Brook lecture is well worth watching (if you haven’t seen it).

    – I do think ‘role-switching’ is an important feature of the traditions I mention, for two reasons. First: lots of people have pretty crass theories of political change. Second: more sophisticated theories of political change still often tacitly rely on ‘role switching’. My argument is that if your governance structures do not involve checks and balances on power, you are de facto relying on the perpetual good intentions of those with power – and therefore your theory of political change must, at some level, boil down to throwing out the bad guys and replacing them with better guys, whatever else you’ve got going on. If you introduce checks and balances on power, this is a less crucial issue – but radicals are often hostile to such liberal institution design principles (mistakenly, imo). So my view is not that many radicals would advocate for ‘role switching’ directly (though some do), but that lots of radicals are in fact committed to the position, given their other commitments – whether they like it or not.

    Of course, things are more complicated than these remarks can get to grips with – but that’s the basic case I’m advocating.


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