Liberalism and Radicalism Again

August 23, 2016

Going over yet again (very much in ‘notes to self’ mode) the same issues I’ve been circling around for a couple years here now – what is the relation between a radical politics and liberal principles?

Return to the three forms of liberty: negative liberty (freedom from unjust coercion); ‘capabilities’ liberty (freedom to exercise one’s faculties – to realise one’s goals – within that sphere of negative liberty); positive liberty (the grounding of governance – the power to coerce – in the will or decisions of the governed, in some sense).  Add the idea that human nature (which I think is a legitimate concept to use provided we understand that it is probabilistic) is often self-interested and violent.  That means we need coercive institutions to sanction and constrain those who would do harm to others – that’s a condition of widespread liberty.  But those coercive institutions will ‘naturally’ (that is: probabilistically, but predictably) incline to the abuse of power, so we also need a ‘checks and balances’ approach to institution design, in which different elements of governance institutions constrain the abuse of power of other elements.  Democracy is one such check and balance – I’m unclear how much of the warrant for democratic government should be understood in positive liberty vs. in checks and balance terms.

Here are two radical objections to this liberal approach, political and economic. 1) The circle of individuals who are taken to possess the rights to liberty (negative, capabilities, positive) is drawn too narrowly: in liberal practice – and indeed often in liberal theory – there are distinctions along racial, class, gender and other lines between those who deserve these political rights and those who do not.  2) The economic structure of society is such as to intrinsically deny liberty to significant portions of humanity.  Enslaved, enserfed and proletarianised economic actors are – to very different degrees across and within these categories – denied full access to the social power required to achieve self-realisation (capabilities liberty), and must submit themselves to the coercive power of others (loss of negative liberty) to survive, even if they possess liberal rights and entitlements in some other respects.

So – very crassly, you can say that there’s the goal of achieving political power or representation for marginalised groups, and the goal of transforming the structure of society to increase the liberty (negative and capabilities, as well as positive) of those formerly denied it.  Crudely, you can see the twentieth century communist project as driven by the idea that removing – or refusing to introduce – checks and balances on power could be justified by the ability it gave governments to serve, via planning, the economic interests of citizens, increasing capabilities liberty.  The social democratic project, by contrast, aimed to work within a broadly liberal political system, using the power achieved by elected representatives to influence policy in ways that increased the liberties of the citizens represented.  Neither communists nor social democrats necessarily understood their projects primarily in terms of liberal ideals, so there are important dimensions of those projects not captured by this framing.  Still, this is I think a good ‘first pass’ way to think about what is valuable in those political projects.

So: if we reject the communist indifference to checks and balances, as leading predictably to despotism, and if we likewise reject liberal governance over populations seen as existing outside, or only partially within, the sphere of liberal rights – for example, the colonial periphery – as, again, despotic, what are we left with?  One obvious answer is the debate over the appropriate balance between the three different forms of liberty, within a generalised space of entitlement to liberal rights and freedoms – and the problem of what institutional structures can achieve this, both within the traditional modern unit of political governance – the nation state – and also internationally.  This institution-design challenge is compatible with the twentieth century social democratic project – but we shouldn’t assume that social democracy’s institutional achievements are the only or best way to attempt to realise this project.  Anyway, this seems to me to be a useful way of understanding the goal of political-economic institutional proposals.

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2 Responses to “Liberalism and Radicalism Again”


  1. Duncan,

    You say, “Enslaved, enserfed and proletarianised economic actors are – to very different degrees across and within these categories – denied full access to the social power required to achieve self-realisation (capabilities liberty), and must submit themselves to the coercive power of others (loss of negative liberty) to survive, even if they possess liberal rights and entitlements in some other respects”.

    I think you need to flesh out the notion of “self-realisation”, because I suspect there may be a kind of self-realisation that emerges in slaves, serfs and proletarians (a) through the recognition between them of their condition, i.e., their exclusion from social power, and (b) through their active resistance to it: let’s call it the Spartacus Phenomenon. In such cases, “self-realisation” cannot be theorised as dependent on the social power whose very absence is the occasion of its emergence. Equally, there may be bourgeois and aristocrats, – call it the Nero Phenomenon, – who have all the necessary social power at their disposal, but fail to achieve any meaningful “self-realisation”.

  2. duncan Says:

    yes I agree with that, I’d aim to cash this out in terms of the capabilities approach – social position and power influence the capacity you have to achieve different things, but obviously you can do a lot under intense constraints, and little despite few constraints. probably ‘self-realisation’ is a bad term to use here, since it’s often used by marxist-humanist philosophical anthropology approaches – which is fine but not what I’m after – I’m trying to make a less philosophical claim – basically just: you have little ‘material freedom’ if you have few social resources, and more ‘material freedom’ if you have more resources. clearly this is all underdeveloped though.


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