No Such Thing as Liberalism (Part Two)

One further word about my basic argument.  I am accusing those who throw around the word “liberalism” of essentialist thinking.  Such uses appear to assume that liberalism is an identifiable single thing, sharing an essence manifested in all its appearances, an essence that has remained unchanged over centuries and impervious to revision in light of changing historical conditions or experiences.  Martha Nussbaum and John Locke are, somehow, soul mates, with all the differences between them merely epiphenomenal in light of their shared essence.  That’s why I think such uses are cases of lazy and sloppy thinking.  To say the differences between Nussbaum and Locke are negligible is to refuse to actually engage their work.

I am, of course, guilty myself of using the word “liberalism.”  I wrote a book entitled American Liberalism (University of North Carolina Press, 2007) that attempted to lay out the values and commitments characteristic of a certain brand of liberalism, namely the brand associated with FDR and that I thought could also be derived from the work of John Dewey, John Rawls, and Martha Nussbaum.  The book also tries to characterize various versions of modern-day conservatism, by way of contrast.

So, I guess, I am committed to using the term liberalism in cases where its lineaments are specified.  However, given the widespread flinging around of the term as if we know what it means, I think we would be better off without it.  Not that my plea for a moratorium on its use is likely to have any effect.

Here’s a few proposals to bring clarity.

  1. I think the term “social democracy” has a fairly specific referent.  So, for example, a social democrat is clearly in favor of the “social rights” or “entitlements” characteristic of 20th century Western societies: unemployment insurance, old age pensions, free public education, and the like.  So no confusion there about whether “liberalism” encompasses social welfare provisions.  Similarly, social democrats favor heavy state regulation of markets.  Social democrats also clearly  accept some form of market economy.  Finally, there are some “actually existing” social democracies, especially in Scandinavia, so we can look at social democracy in practice—and how it evolves in relation to changing historical circumstances.  In short, “social democrat” covers one type of “liberalism” (the FDR type) while clearly excluding another type of “liberalism” (the Hayek variety).  So calling someone a social democrat promotes clarity.

  1. I also think it is worthwhile to distinguish broadly between the left and the right. My idea is that there are two vectors along which it makes sense to make this contrast.  The first is equality.  A leftist position is one who works toward the promotion of equality in all its guises: political, economic, social (i.e. status), material.  Rightist positions are characterized by their efforts to protect and sustain privilege.  Hence cultural conservatives want to protect “masterpieces” against the leveling impulses of the herd, just as economic conservatives want to protect accumulated wealth against the “envy” of the crowd and the “redistributionist” policies of the left.

If we take “equality” as our focus, the issue of “freedom” looks rather different.  (And I do depart from Dustin’s book insofar as I think his discussions of freedom suffer from his neglect of issues of equality.)  To be concrete: the freedom touted by someone like Hayek as the supreme political good is a freedom that necessarily, once given free rein, will produce inequality.  Forr Hayek, that is a completely acceptable outcome.  The leftist has two possible responses to such a position.  One is to say that equality is a higher good to which freedom must be sacrificed.  The other is to say that freedom, unaccompanied by the material resources to act upon it, is void of any real or “effective” value.  In short, if you want a litmus test for a position being leftist or rightist, look for the writer or party’s attitude toward equality.  That’s where the rubber hits the road.  Worth saying, also, that we are not dealing with an either/or here, but with a spectrum.  Many leftists would say that “liberals” are those who are lukewarm toward equality.  Better to think here about centrists rather than liberals.  Why?  Because of the confusion that takes certain rightist positions (such as Hayek’s or libertarians of the Ayn Rand sort) as “liberal.”   Still, keeping the eye of the ball of equality allows us to focus very sharply on what is at stake in very, very many political battles.

  1. The second dimension upon which to assess political positions is power. Montesquieu is the classic political theorist who argues that concentration of power in one hand or in one branch of government is a recipe for tyranny.  Now, of course, the distribution of power is directly related to issues of equality.  So it’s a bit artificial to say these are two different dimensions.  But since equality has such a wide field of relevance, I think it worthwhile to separate out the narrower, institutional question of the distribution of power.  (Foucault, of course, has taught us to think of power as dispersed throughout a disciplinary society.  But he is careful to say that such power is exercised by its various functionaries, not possessed.) I would define power in relation to effective freedom, in terms of capacities.  Someone has power when they have the capability of achieving their desired ends.  Someone lacks power when their efforts are directed toward achieving the desired ends of another.  Of course, I can choose to work for your desired ends; but then I have made those ends my own.  Generally speaking, I would argue that we know when our efforts are constrained by the power another has over us, a power that allows them to direct our efforts in the way that they choose.  Thus, the dispersion of power (all the way down to the individual) is connected to the enhancement of freedom.

Again, we are talking a continuum here, from totalitarian states at the “right” end and anarchism at the “left” end.  Hence we could have states that, conceivably, are very egalitarian, but use centralized power to achieve and maintain such equality.  Taking Lenin’s Russia as such a state means that it is hard to say it was “leftist” or “rightist,” since it is contradictory along these two different dimensions.  Of course, we could argue quite plausibly that any concentration of power will inevitably work against equality—so that you can’t really achieve social and political equality if power is not widely distributed as well.  I take it that Dustin Howes’s argument that revolutionary violence is self-defeating is an argument along similar lines.  He is pointing to the relation between violence and power.  Where power is over others, i.e. is used to get them to do things they would rather not do, then power will often resort to violence.  And violence as a way of gathering power into one’s own hands is inegalitarian and, thus, an undermining of the very thing the revolution claims to be trying to achieve.

In short, I think attention to equality and power is a better way to proceed than a focus on freedom.  For me, freedom (and justice, the other key term among political “goods”) will be defined in relation to equality and power, which are (if you like) the more “primitive” terms.  Freedom is about having the power to do things with a reasonable chance of success, and equality is the fundamental constituent of a justice that denies privilege, that denies to any human being the right to more of the things that make success achievable.

More to come in subsequent posts.  I want to talk about Berlin’s pluralism, Rorty’s “bleeding heart liberalism,” and the whole notion of “rights.”

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