Liberalism (Yet Again)

In his London Review of Books review (February 6th issue) of Alexander Zevin’s history of The Economist magazine, Stefan Collini makes a point I have often made-and which I presented at some length on this blog some eighteen months ago.  To wit, the term “liberalism” is used in such a loose, baggy way that it comes to mean nothing at all—or, more usually, everything that the one who deploys the term despises.  If John Dewey and Margret Thatcher are both liberals, what could the term possibly designate?

My take has always been that there are a number of things—habeas corpus, religious tolerance, social welfare programs, freedom of the press—that in specific contexts can be identified as “liberal” in contrast to more authoritarian positions, but that the existence of these specific things are the product of different historical exigencies and do not cohere into some coherent, overall ideology.  They may be a family resemblance among the positions that get called “liberal,” but there is no necessary connection between habeas corpus and religious tolerance.  You can easily have one without the other, as was true in England for several centuries.

In a letter to the LRB, Zevin objects to Collini’s refusal to credit the more generalized use of the term “liberal.”  I find his objection cogent and thus offer it here:

“Resistant, in general, to overarching categories, he [Collini] seems particularly sensitive when it comes to liberalism. ‘When people ask me if the division between men of the Right and men of the Left still makes sense,’ the essayist Alain once remarked, ‘the first thing that comes to mind is that the person asking the question is certainly not a man of the Left.’  When someone says, mutatis mutandis, ‘all you mean by liberalism’ is ‘not socialism’ and ‘there is no such thing,’ it is safe to assume the speaker is a liberal, defensively protecting himself.”

So, yes, guilty as charged.  I am a liberal—and do have something at stake in claiming that the term ‘liberalism’ is used in too loose a fashion to do much good.  I want a finer grained statement of what specific features of the political landscape are desirable, are worth fighting to preserve where they exist, and to introduce where they do not.  We should know what we are talking about—and what we are advocating for.  Zevin’s point (not surprisingly) is that the liberalism of The Economist encompassed its support of the Vietnam and Iraqi wars; Collini, no doubt, would argue that many liberals opposed those wars, whereas they were the brainchild of many to the right of liberalism, those often called neo-conservatives.  The right, in other words, was more solidly unified in its opinion on those wars than a sorely divided liberal camp. Yes, some liberals supported those wars, but hardly all.  And it is very hard to believe that a centrist like Al Gore would have led the US into that “war of choice” in Iraq.  To which, the anti-liberal leftist says I have two words for you: Tony Blair.

The left, it seems, needs to continually assert its distance from a detested center that it calls ‘liberalism.”  It also needs to constantly trumpet the sins of that liberalism and to mitigate its differences from the right.  For the soi disant radical left, neo-liberal and neo-conservative become equivalent terms, with no appreciable difference between them.  Hilary Clinton is no better and no worse than George W. Bush.  And somehow both are liberals.

My defensiveness comes from wanting to save the term “liberal” to designate a raft of values and positions I wish to advocate.  Maybe I should give that up, call myself a “social democrat,” and move on.  I resist that move because there are values captured by “liberalism” (especially those connected to rights and tolerance) that aren’t covered by “social democrat,” with its focus on economic sufficiency and regulation of market forces and market practices.

But how about the “not socialism” broad brush?  Michael Clune, in an essay entitled “Judgment and Equality” (Critical Inquiry, 2019, pp. 910—917), repeats the by-now familiar dismissal of liberalism’s individualism, its reduction of everything to “choice,” to “consumer preference.”  Even a cursory reading of 20th century liberals such as Dewey or Charles Taylor would indicate how sloppy a vision of liberalism such a charge demonstrates.  Not to mention that one standard conservative charge against liberals is precisely that they negate individual responsibility in their emphasis on the social determinants of behavior.  Which is it?  Liberals are full-scale believers in heroic individual autonomy, or they are apologists for the impoverished and the misfit, blaming social conditions for their perceived failures?

Still, Clune does make a concrete claim: “The liberal tradition supports the effort to correct egregious market inequities through policies that leave the market intact” (928).

Now we are talking.  I do think that the commitments I think of as liberal include an acceptance of the market.  That acceptance is, partly, pragmatic (in the vulgar, not philosophical, sense of that term.)  I think the chances of overthrowing the market and installing something different in its place are nonexistent.  In that sense, there is no realistic alternative at the current moment.  So, says the radical, you and Thatcher are the same.  Told you so.

Not so fast.  What I am saying is that the consequential political battles of our time are going to be fought over what kind of market we are going to have.  This is a real battle, with real stakes.  The right over the past seventy years has fought tooth and nail to discredit social democracy, to roll back any state (or other) regulation of the market, and any mechanisms (from unions to minimum wage laws to other forms of state involvement in wage negotiations) that would overcome the imbalances of power existing between employers and workers in an unregulated market.  We know two things: one, that the right has been largely successful in this battle; two, that the vast majority of workers in the West are worse off now than they were in 1960.  Social democracy was a better deal for workers than the present regime (call it neo-liberal if you like, although that term ignores the liberalism of the twentieth century in favor of the “classical liberalism” of the 19th).

Another (contingent) feature of liberalism is its distrust of concentrations of power, its desire to share power around, to create “checks and balances.”  Currently, that entails a recognition that economic power is over-concentrated; that we need state power to counterbalance it because the collective power of workers (through unions or other mechanisms) is hard (if not impossible) to mobilize under present economic conditions.

It is fair to say that the founders were more concerned about concentrated state power than about concentrated economic power.  It is a stretch, I believe, to see Jefferson as a laissez-faire classical economist, but his words and ideas can be wrenched in that direction (by historians like Joyce Appleby) because he wanted to establish sources of power outside of the state’s reach.

I think economic sufficiency does provide a citizen with some independence from the state.  Therefore, I am also willing to argue that acceptance of markets is not just a pragmatic expediency, but also justified in its own right.  Economic bases of power apart from the state are not necessarily a bad thing.

The bad thing is overweening economic power, just as tyrannical state power is a bad thing.  Markets, like states, tend toward the abuse of power.  We need mechanisms, enforceable regulations and structuring rules, to curb market power.  We also need to identify various basics—like health care, education, transportation, clean water and energy—that are not well served by markets and create alternative institutions for their provision.  The best guideline for these alternative institutions is that old liberal standby: equality of access for all.

There are three very strong arguments against the market.  One, the market inevitably produces wildly unequal outcomes.  The liberal response: there are mechanisms, including unions, taxes, and redistributive policies that can combat those unequal outcomes.

Second, markets are inimical with democracy.  The liberal response: workplace democracy is possible, as is political democracy.  Its achievement depends on active mechanisms of participation which must be mandated as part of corporate and state governance.  But there is no absolute bar to the existence of such mechanisms.

Third, economic power always overwhelms political power—if it does not simply convert itself directly into political power.  The reforms that liberalism envisions as answers to numbers one and two never happen because the opponents of such reforms always already have power—which means the power to perpetuate existing inequalities.

That last argument is the killer.  It simply seems true—and then the issue becomes how best to diminish the power of the wealthy, how to turn plutocracy into democracy, and use the democratic state to rein in the inequities of the market (not to mention its environmental degradations).

At this point in the argument, I don’t think the leftist and the liberal have very different goals.  They just differ strongly on tactics.  Is it better to aim to win the way to reform of the market?  Or is it better to work toward the total overthrow of the market?  I don’t see any remotely realistic pathway to that second goal, which is why I remain someone committed to the re-emergence, in even stronger and better form, of social democracy.

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