Liberalism and Violence

This will be the last of this series of posts on liberalism, although there will be one more post on the theme of “hatred of politics.”  After that, I hope to abandon political theory for a good long time, turning to other topics of interest.

For leftists, one form of their contempt for liberals is to claim that liberals are blind to 1) the violence that underwrites the societies in which they live and 2) to the fact that class conflict (or some other kind of conflict) is endemic to those societies.  Liberals are Pollyannas, simply unwilling to face up to the facts of violent oppression.  (Conservatives offer a version of the same argument when they say squeamish liberals leave the tough work of insuring social order to the police and the army—and then don’t have the police or the army’s back, but instead criticize them endlessly.)

Are leftists fatalists?  In other words, do leftists believe class conflict is always present, that all societies are ultimately reliant on oppressive violence?  If that is true, then liberals can be condemned as fact-evading and delusional, but are they to be faulted for trying to imagine societies in which conflict is muted?  The leftist, presumably, has a utopian vision of a violence-free society, but it is not present here and now.  What that leftist objects to is the liberal’s apparent belief that current society is not conflict-ridden or violent all the way down, with that conflict and violence permeating every single interaction within the society.

Leftists, it seems to me, face two dilemmas.  The first is that, if violence currently rules the roost, then it is only violence that is going to change the current order.  It is the liberal refusal to endorse such violence that (partially) motivates their scorn.  But, in fact, it seems to me that most leftists today (at least in the US) do not openly advocate revolutionary violence.  (The right—with its gun advocates and militias is much more likely to espouse violence.)  So the left can’t bring itself to embrace the means for change that its own political analysis appears to make mandatory—even as it scorns liberals for not being “radical” enough.  But leftist radicalism looks to me like posturing; it’s an attitude thing not any difference in tactics or actual behavior.

Second dilemma: this is a classic one.  Does the leftist utopia require everyone to be on the same page, for everyone to get with the program?  That is, does a conflict-free society have to eschew pluralism?  How do we imagine a pluralist utopia?

Before I get to that question, let me give a good instance of leftist confusion.  I have just finished reading James Bladwin’s The Fire Next Time.  In that text, Baldwin excoriates liberals precisely for their blindness to the violence that keeps blacks “in their place” in US society.  And Baldwin is highly skeptical that the non-violent tactics of the civil rights movement will bear any fruit.  Yet, in the closing pages of his essay, Baldwin also writes that violence corrupts those who employ it—and urges instead a politics of love as the course that blacks should pursue.  Except that this praise of love leads directly into his closing threat that it will be “the fire next time” if America does not become more just.  So his whole essay is premised on a violent, fiery apocalypse—but there is no agent of this avenging violence.  It just somehow appears.

I think this basic move is repeated time and again in leftist writing.  Violence will be required to effect change—and that violence is invoked.  There is even a call for it in a kind of magus voice.  But there is rarely any descent into actual tactics or any attempt to identify a concrete agent of that violence or an appeal to any group of citizens to take up arms.  It’s as if the violence will occur naturally, the inevitable outcome of long prolonged injustice.  Violence as natural, not political.

That change can be effected by non-violent means—and that those means are quite specifically and purposively political—is the main stake in Dustin Howes’s book Freedom without Violence.  He wants to convince us that non-violent means can be effective—and, crucially, that they are the only means that will secure the outcomes we desire.  Like Baldwin in his sections of love, Howes argues that violence corrupts—and thus undermines the very justice and freedom it claims to be seeking.

Back to liberals.  They do not deny there is social conflict.  But they want to contain conflict to words.  (Rorty makes this point again and again in his work.)  A pragmatist view of democracy is to say democracy is a way to manage conflict.  Since everything in a democracy is up for debate, and since no political decision or institution is immune to becoming a subject of debate, there is good reason for everyone to stay within the game.  There is always the next election, the next legislative session, another day in court.  A vote only cuts off debate temporarily.  The losers can always take their case to the public—and work to win the next election.  The gambit is that the benefits of social peace are big enough to provide everyone with a reason to go along with decisions democratically arrived at.  (Again, we are in the land of trade-offs.  The benefits of peace weighed against decisions that I hate.  No guarantee that I—or anyone else—will choose peace.  There may come a decision that seems worth fighting for—literally, violently, fighting for.)

If we accept this pragmatic view of democracy, we can see why screwing with the rules, with democratic procedures, in a way to game the system so your side can hold onto power indefinitely is a formula for disaster.  If the losers in an election or a debate have no reason to believe they can win the next time around, they have no reason to remain players in the game.  At that point, their only reasonable course is to take to the hills and take to the various forms of rebellion that are not “within the rules or norms of democratic procedure.”  If those rules have been abrogated by the party in power, there is no course open but secession or rebellion or a fatalistic acceptance of injustice, inequality, and the death of democracy.

All of which leads to the final point.  Liberalism is about imagining a pluralist utopia, not a homogeneous one.  Just as liberals are all about trade-offs among competing, incompatible, values, so liberals are trying to imagine a polity that can encompass the widest diversity of peoples, of fundamentals values, and of ways of being in the world.  Conflict in such pluralistic societies is inevitable.  So it is not about avoiding or denying conflict.  It is about keeping conflict from erupting into violence.  One path is tolerance—which might be called “cultivated indifference” to the ways that others live.  Cultivated because indifference does not come naturally.  We are all busy-bodies and we are all outraged by the foibles of our neighbors.  We have to learn how to leave them be, to allow them to do as they please (so long, as the liberal J. S. Mill mantra goes, as they are not harming anyone but themselves).

But pluralism also entails, beyond tolerance (which is a negative virtue), the positive development of institutions, norms, laws, and social arrangements that provide a space for conflict to occur (a free press for example) or that mitigate it (by insuring equality before the law and the full operation of oppositional parties).  What looks to leftists and rightists, then, as liberal wishy-washiness, as the inadequate “radicalism” of liberals, is, in fact, a principled stance that says you should never wish for the annihilation of your opponent, of the person or groups with whom you disagree.  That is the formula for endless violence—and produces a world that we really wouldn’t’ want to live in.


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