On Liberalism: A Conversation

Hey Akil, I have a bone to pick with you. I notice that your writing says a lot of negative stuff about liberals. What’s your problem with liberals? Aren’t you a liberal?

Hi friend, thank you for asking. To answer your first question, let me just say that I don’t have a problem with liberals per se. I might have particularly harsh things to say about individual liberals or specific liberal ideas but my beef is with liberalism as an ideology rather than the people who subscribe to it. To answer your second question, no. I’m not a liberal, I’m a leftist. 

Ok well now I really don't get it. How can you have a problem with liberalism? What's wrong with things like equality, justice, and freedom? 

Absolutely nothing. It’s just that every modern political ideology claims to be about equality, justice, and freedom. The devil is in the details. And anyhow, describing the stated goals of an ideology doesn’t actually tell you anything about the ideology itself. If you were to talk to a fascist or white supremacist they would eagerly tell you that their political project is not about hate. They want equality, justice, and freedom as well--they just don’t believe these can be achieved in a diverse society. In order to describe a particular ideology (for the purposes of critiquing it) we have to first understand what an ideology is. 

I know what ideology is. I’m not a 5th grader. It’s what you believe politically. Democrats believe in a liberal ideology and Republicans believe in a conservative ideology. Since you hate liberalism, does that mean you’re a conservative?

Oh heavens no. But let’s backtrack a little bit. What you believe in politically constitutes the shape of the particular ideology you subscribe to, but it doesn’t describe the form of ideology in which all singular ideologies fit. An ideology, at its core, is a framework for politics based on a few things: what constitutes a “fact,” which “facts'' matter, and who you believe is an acceptable target of violence. By violence we don’t necessarily mean fists, guns and burning buildings, but any sort of action that causes material harm. For instance, anarchists believe the fact that all humans are equal is extremely important and as such they don’t believe in authoritarian hierarchical structures. Some of them, subsequently, believe it is okay to do violence to those who would claim authority or seek to establish rigid hierarchies by seizing privately held property and redistributing resources to democratically controlled collectives. The degree to which certain facts matter more than others, the levels of violence, and the animus with which that violence can be imbued vary widely within any ideology. Under the framework of Marxism, you can find dozens of sub-ideologies with their own points of emphasis and strategies for a coherent and effective political project. But if you wanted to simplify this down to one sentence you could say that Marxists believe that class is the most important social relationship for understanding a productive society, and that it is okay to do violence to the owner/capitalist class in support of the working class. 

Okay well then under that definition of ideology how would you describe liberalism?

I’m really glad you asked! In a nutshell, I would describe liberalism as the idea that freedom and equality are the most important values in a functioning society, and that the capitalist free market is the best way to distribute resources. 

I agree! So what could possibly be wrong with that?

Well, I didn’t get to the “who violence is reserved for” part. See while other ideologies are quite open about who it’s OK to do violence to, liberalism likes to project itself as violence-free. Or more accurately, free from violence directed at any particular class or race of people. But because liberalism takes capitalism as a given, it has to find caveats to justify the violence capitalism inflicts on certain groups. In the beginnings of liberalism as a (arguably) coherent ideology, it was posited that all men were created equal and deserved liberty….except members of the savage races and barbarians, who needed to be cultivated by their more civilized European masters until such a time when those masters would deem those savage races capable of handling civilization’s demands. That those savages happened to live on resource-rich lands just asking to be consumed by capitalist interests was a happy circumstance. 

That was a long time ago.

A little later on, a group of landowning aristocrats thought to form a new country in a small colonial outpost and break away from their monarchical patrons. They decided that this new society would be based on the liberal principles of freedom and equality…except for the African slaves they would import to build the infrastructure of this new nation and produce profit for its capitalists. And except for the indigenous people upon whose lands they would build this new nation. And except for the people who lived in nearby lands to the south and off of the coast against whom they would wage imperialist wars. 

Yeah, but it’s different now.

Even later still that fledgling nation would go on to become a world superpower and a self-proclaimed bastion of freedom and democracy…..though not for the Black people who were denied an equal place in society, and the women who were denied equal protection under the law, and the workers who were legally allowed to be mistreated and exploited. And except for the democratically elected leftist leaders of other countries who stood in the way of capitalist expansion. 

The functional ideological purpose of liberalism is to justify the violence that sustains capitalism. 

Wait a minute. That’s not any definition of liberalism that I’ve ever read. The enlightenment philosophers and thinkers who developed liberalism certainly never said they were trying to justify capitalism.

That’s true. But I don’t think that’s a courtesy we typically extend to ideologies other than liberalism. The progenitors of fascism claimed their political project was about creating and protecting a secure homeland for their people and culture. But we know that it’s functional purpose was to create rigid hierarchies so that one culture could dominate all others. 

Okay sure. The people who created liberalism and liberal democracies were hypocritical about it. They were from a different time. But that’s the beauty of liberalism. Because liberals value freedom and equality, liberal societies are able to overcome those prejudices over time. Are we perfect? Heck no. But we’ve come a long way because of liberalism.

Have we though?

We have.

Okay well let me circle back to that because I actually wasn’t finished defining liberalism.

Oh brother. Okay, let’s hear it.

One of the important facts of liberalism is that the individual is the most important unit of society. This differs from other ideologies like Marxism where class may be seen as the most important, or feudalism where the family is the most important. It’s hard to argue against individuality. We should all treat each other as individuals with fully formed and unique consciousnesses. But society does not and functionally cannot treat us all as individuals. There is a collective good that must be sought for a society to function--a base standard that applies to all individuals. As a society, we must decide what that standard should be. Because liberalism values the individual above all else, it becomes hard for liberals to fully conceive of a collective good. There are individuals who deserve things and individuals who don’t. We like to think that treating everyone as individuals who can sink or swim on their own effort is just and morally right. But in reality the reduction of society to a collection of atomized individuals is an optimal condition for capitalism. This is important because while liberalism was ready and able to change laws in order to codify equality as a legal standard for the state, it was completely unable and unwilling to do this in the market. 

Sure, we have come a long way from the moral deficit hole that liberalism dug for us. But liberalism's commitment to capitalism is a permanent impediment to creating a truly equitable society. Capitalism cannot function in a truly liberated society. There must be mechanisms of compulsion to make us produce wealth for someone else and be compensated with a tiny fraction of the profit that we generate--whether that compulsion is slavery or poverty or the ability to access healthcare. A collective good that provides true freedom by way of material certainty is antithetical to capitalism. So liberals focus on the individual.

We observe this obsession with the individual when we see fights about the amount of social welfare spending and whether to target aid to only those individuals who deserve it, or they way anti-racism has become an industry that specializes in correcting individuals rather than systems. We see it in the propensity for Black liberals to support the police, because they see crime as a problem of individuals rather than systems creating criminality. At the end of the day we have unsustainable and morally reprehensible amounts of inequality and poverty in our liberal society, and most of that inequity is concentrated among the same populations who have always suffered violence at the hands of liberals in service to the free market.

Okay, I’m noticing a trend here. What you seem to be describing is Republicanism. It’s the conservative Republicans who want rich people to dominate everything and for people to be divided. Liberals, well liberals today anyway, want people to come together and solve problems. You talk about systems, well liberals are the ones talking about systemic racism. It’s the conservatives who want to ignore it. 

Republicans are liberals.

What??

We talk about a left wing and a right wing in this country as if they are two completely distinct ideological viewpoints. But the hint is right there in the nomenclature. The Republicans and the Democrats are the left and right wings of liberalism. Republicans are more reactionary and resistant to cultural change, especially the changes involving racial and gender hierarchies. Democrats are more progressive and open to absorbing cultural change and channeling dissent into capitalist expression. The points of disagreement between the parties are what make the news. We largely gloss over all the points of agreement--things like bloated military budgets and conflicts with governments hostile to capitalist interests. We don’t really notice how similar the parties are because of another defining feature of liberalism. 

...which is?

Liberalism does not want to think of itself as an ideology. It wants to be seen as an anti-ideology. Because freedom of expression is permitted and encouraged, liberalism projects the image that it is above ideology; that it’s a system of political thought that is based in logic, reason, and universal human truths. In 1992, Francis Fukuyama wrote a whole book about how the hegemon of liberal democracy that rose after the fall of the Soviet Union was “The End of History'' because liberal democracy was the “final form of government.” Within this final form, there can be room for differences in opinion but there are a few things that are taken for granted, including capitalism as the organizing principle of the economy, a foreign policy that expands capitalist interests to other countries, and a robust police and security apparatus to protect property. And now, with the advent of neoliberalism, the parties are ideologically closer now than ever before.

Yea I keep hearing that term thrown around but it doesn’t really seem to mean anything. It just gets applied to any Democrat that happens to piss off the online left. So what is neoliberalism?

Neoliberalism is both a subset of liberalism, and its evolved form. Whereas liberalism values freedom and the free market, neoliberalism believes that the free market is freedom. More precisely, it believes that the ability to make choices in a free market is the ultimate expression of freedom. And as such neoliberalism believes that the role and function of the state is to expand the free market wherever possible--whether that is by privatizing previously public goods and services or waging war for capitalist goals.  Neoliberalism believes that the state should address the material conditions of people as little as possible, leaving free enterprise to manage resource distribution. It believes in limiting government spending and lowering taxes whenever possible. Reagan was the first neoliberal to lead America, and Clinton brought neoliberalism to the Democratic Party. Margaret Thatcher inaugurated neoliberalism in the UK. When asked what her greatest accomplishment as prime minister was, Margaret Thatcher replied, “New Labour.” Basically, when you start seeing Democrats worry about the debt and the deficit, that is neoliberalism. When anti-racism becomes a commodity to be bought and sold in workplaces across the country instead of a call to defund the police, that is neoliberalism. 

Okay I hear what you are saying. I guess there is some logic to it. But there is just one problem. I am a liberal. What you described is not my world view. I want rich people to pay their fair share in taxes. I want criminal justice reform. I want to end the military industrial complex and get the troops out of conflicts they have no business in. I want to spend the money for a Green New Deal, and make sure that everyone has access to healthcare. I’m not as down on capitalism as you are, but I certainly think that we need massive economic reform. 

I never even heard of neoliberalism before 2016, and now I guess I must support it, according to you. You’ve given me this long complicated explanation of my politics based on abstract theory and problematic history while ignoring who I am as a person. That’s not fair.

You’re right.

And another thing, I …..wait what did you say?

You’re right. It would be wrong to dismiss someone simply because they identify as a liberal. Just as it would be wrong to dismiss anyone who identifies as a socialist, or a communist, or an anarchist. (Offer does not apply to fascists) Like I said at the beginning of our conversation, my beef isn’t with individual liberals. People are complex, and it is fallacious to try to sum up an individual's political beliefs with a very broad definition of an ideology. When I criticize liberals and liberalism, my goal is not to shame anyone for being a liberal (well, most of the time anyway). Liberalism is hegemonic in the developed world. It makes sense that a lot of people would think of themselves as liberals, or in the case of some conservatives as (ahem) classical liberals. What I’m trying to do is to ask liberals to first understand liberalism as an ideology with a history, and then interrogate the contradictions displayed in that history. Because there seems to be this tension within liberal discourses, especially in the Democratic party. Liberals say they want a better society. They say they want better things for people. And I believe they are being honest when they say this. But there is also this frustration and resignation that better things aren’t possible, and that we can only achieve what is permitted by the liberal framework in which we find ourselves. I think it’s worthwhile to ask if liberalism isn’t, in fact, the solution to a tough problem, but rather is itself part of the problem. We conflate the stated goals of liberalism--freedom, equality, democracy--with the means through which liberalism tries to achieve them. This too is fallacious. Maybe if you believe in those ideals, then liberalism isn't the best ideology to achieve them. Maybe you aren’t as liberal as you believe yourself to be.

Okay last question. Do you have anything good to say about liberals?

Sure. I love Marvel movies! Black Panther was dope.

Oh c’mon!

In all seriousness, I was a liberal. Many of the leftists you see online bashing liberals were liberals at one point. Many of us were radicalized by seeing the failure of liberal politics to meaningfully address the foundational problems in our society. I believe that the values of liberalism as most people understand them are worthwhile. I think the capacity for liberalism to evolve and incorporate a wide rage of political thought is valuable, although imperfect. I know some leftists scoff at Democratic socialism as another way to launder liberalism, but they shouldn’t. Democratic socialism is liberal but it is a kind of liberalism that seeks to address liberalism’s fundamental flaws and separate itself from capitalism. Good things have happened under the auspices of liberalism--and someone needed to do something about feudalism. Liberalism was a necessary step in the process of humanity trying to figure this whole thing out. I just think we need to move beyond it now. It’s holding us back.

I guess I understand you now. I don’t know if I agree with your take but at least I can see some consistency in it. At the very least, we agree that things need to change and that we should work together. I appreciate that.

Oh wait! I didn’t explain how liberalism leads to fascism. 

Okay, I’m going to go now. Goodbye.

Solidarity forever.

I’ll see you at brunch.

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