maybe not so liberal afterall (or maybe...)
April 3, 2016
After my last bit of liberal apologism, I got into a conversation with my bro and he put forward the claim that liberalism is inextricable from economics (ie, you cannot have liberalism without capitalism). Now… I’m not sure this is true but it could be. I think it really depends on how we are going to slice this.
Referring to SEP’s entry on liberalism, we can see that both my bro and I are right. What he says about capitalism (but more specifically private property) is definitely true of ‘classical’ liberalism. What I contend, re: that economics need not be a constituent part is somewhat true of ‘new’ liberalism. In the sense that many articulations of ‘new’ liberalism outright challenge the notion of private property (and thus capitalism).
More recently, liberalism has (occassionally) gone beyond just challenging a notion of private property:
One of the many consequences of Rawls’s great work, A Theory of Justice (1999 [first published in 1971]) is that the ‘new liberalism’ has become focused on developing a theory of social justice. For over thirty-five years liberal political philosophers have analyzed, and disputed, his famous ‘difference principle’ according to which a just basic structure of society arranges social and economic inequalities such that they are to the greatest advantage of the least well off representative group (1999b: 266). (Standford Encyclodedia of Philosophy’s entry on liberalism)
A liberalism focused on this principle can be anti-capitalist, given that private property and capitalism do their absolute best to violate this principle and, well, create an unjust society where many are oppressed.
In any case, getting to the heart of this issue really depends on what you consider the ‘core’ values of liberalism. Which values are necessary and sufficient for ending up in the liberal side of things.
I know I started on this path of revisiting liberalism by rechecking my facts via reading the SEP’s entry on liberalism which writes: “liberalism’s core commitment — liberty”. This would suggest that if your core value is ‘liberty’ (or ‘freedom’) then you’re a liberal.
And before anyone jumps on this, we are talking about the core value which isn’t the same as suggesting that only liberalism has liberty as a value. In other words, it isn’t the case that, idk, marxists or whatver don’t think freedom is important. Or that it isn’t a value within marxism. It just isn’t the fundamental, core value (and it really isn’t). Nor is it to say that conversatives want everyone to be non-free. It’s just that liberty is not the core value.
(Of course, from my perspective neither marxism nor conservatism actually instantiates ‘liberty’ in a meaningful way, since many of their ideas end up reducing the liberty of someone. Yes, within each respective ideology, these restrictions are necessary and justified. But still….)
It all really depends, since – as is usually the case – the overall situation is complex and there are many different liberal theories. Some of which are mutually excluding (as in: a proponent of classical liberalism who thinks that individual freedom is inextricable from private property isn’t likely to get along with a new liberal who thinks that private property creates oppression).
As I’ve pointed out in the past, my main motivations for revisiting liberalism is my committment to two (and now three) values: freedom, pluralism, and the above difference principle. It would appear that I can adhere to these values and be anti-capitalist and still be considered a ‘liberal’, although for most people this is kind of a position that isn’t easily recognized (esp, since as noted in the SEP entry a lot of ‘new liberalism’ has really been re-labelled ‘social justice’ leaving classical liberalism as the stereotypical notion of liberalism.).
Of course, this leads to a different question as to whether or not there is any real value in rehabilitating the liberal label. For many people, including those involved in social justice, ‘liberal’ leaves a bad taste in their mouths. Even when some of the social justice people are actually just new liberals.
And… I think there is something here, especially from my perspective since I’m not really committed to any particular label. Nor do I really want to look forward to a lifetime of trying to ‘defend’ liberalism (or a lifetime of being an apologist). I really have better things to do with my time. So I also don’t think that social justice warriors (lol) who are actually just new liberals need to start thinking of themselves in that fashion. It doesn’t really matter – on a pragmatic level.
However, I am a philosopher, after all. So these distinctions matter insofar as I – personally and for my own knowledge – like to understand the relationship between certain contemporary ideologies and overall intellectual history. These posts are really me processing all of this and thinking aloud.
And, yeah, I am interesting in the exercise of trying to articulate a type of liberalism that incorporates the three values I mention above – liberty, pluralism, and the difference principle – while also being 10000% anti-capitalist, anti-colonialist, and so on. A type of liberalism that, more or less, asserts that the only way we can truly be free is via decolonization and a complete dismantling of pretty much every social and political institution we currently have.
I don’t think anyone will be free so long as the various settler states exist. A just society is impossible within this context and reform is impossible.
According to something else I read (but didn’t keep a link to), this could possibly mean that I’m not a liberal at all. Hard to say. The page was about ‘radical liberalism’ and this was described as the ‘non-revolutionary’ left. Then again, is likely an arguable position as to whether or not decolonization and revolution are the same thing (I strongly suspect that they are not – especially given the way each word comes loaded with certain assumptions and concepts that I don’t think are equivalent). Maybe I am non-revolutionary but believe in decolonization.
Not that I particularly care about identifying a pre-existing strand of liberalism that I’d identify with. Or explicitly labelling my political stance at all within the current framework. But it is interesting to bring in some historical context to some of the ideas I’ve been articulating and that I’ve seen others (who would never call themselves liberal) have been articulating.