Why I Am Not A Liberal

 

Those of us in the contemporary academy who are not liberals ought given an account of why not. This asymmetric burden falls on us because the presumption is so strongly that one does fit within the broad confines of liberalism that if one does not explicitly identify out, and explain why one has done so, then two things are may occur. First, people may reasonably presume on statistical grounds that your politics are as such and engage with you with this in mind. This will make intellectual back and forth, the lifeblood of our profession, frustratingly congealed — always having to go back and check unstated presuppositions half way through a conversation, never getting to the meat of things. Second, one allows whatever thinking one does to accrue to the greater glory of an ideology you reject. Since the natural presupposition is that whatever insights you achieve have been achieved through the lens of liberal ideology, it will seem that whatever is good in your work is evidence that liberalism can sustain that good. 


I think it’s fair to say that in one form or another liberalism is the dominant ideology among contemporary academic philosophers. However, it’s actually slightly harder than one might think to provide straightforward targeted evidence for the claim. It is not, for instance, easy to find evidence of this as the explicit self conception of philosophers. The best evidence I know of on contemporary philosophers political views is this survey which was largely (but not entirely) carried out on European and North American philosophers. It found that a plurality of philosophers identify as “left leaning”. Given that most of the left parties of Europe and North America are very much in the liberal tradition this is a sort of evidence of that they are liberal. But only weakly so, and the paper itself discusses the problems with that inference. And in fact the next best source is this Phil-Papers survey which found that a plurality of the faculty at prestigious Anglophone institutions preferred socialism to capitalism. Now no follow up questions were available on how people understand “socialism” so this is perhaps compatible with identifying as a liberal. But it is not obviously so; caution is required. Another purpose in writing this blog post then is to explain the sense in which I think liberalism is dominant — it is not necessarily so in terms of self-identification.


Finally this blog post has a couple of issues specific to the left I wish to address. First, at some level it is clear that identifying as a liberal is just to identify as uncool and mainstream-in-a-boring-clueless-way among left cohorts. I don’t mind liberalism having a bad name, why would I?, but a result of this is I think people often miss the affinities of their thought with the liberal tradition and neglect its insights. A proper rejection of liberalism ought to involve understanding it as more than just a loser thing boring normies do — there is a reason it has won out in modernity. That reason may not (indeed I think should not) lead you to endorse liberalism; but you will get nowhere if you do not understand it, what liberalism responds to and addresses, and what of it one may wish to carry forward. Second, I think if we are being real with ourselves, a great many leftists in the academy who consider ourselves left of the Overton window should admit that we are de facto small-c conservatives — and in at least my society, to uphold the status quo just is to uphold a liberal social order. We are de facto conservatives in the sense that the modern university has clearly slotted into an important credentialing role for the approximation to meritocracy that dominates our economic, political, and ideological order. Materially speaking then just by going in to work and doing our job, however we may feel about it, we are playing the role of functionaries helping this system perpetuate itself. I think we ought be precise about the sense in which we are not liberals if only to self-acknowledge the many senses in which we are, and thereby cut out the bad faith pretences of pseudo-radicalism that so tiresomely dominate many academic spaces.


Ok, on to characterising liberalism and what I mean by saying it is dominant. I see contemporary liberal ideology as the confluence of three factors that led us to where we are today. First, there is the strand emphasised by Rawls in his famous lecture series on the history of liberalism. Here we see liberal political thought gradually emerge as a response to the civil wars in England and the wars of religion on the European continent. The diagnosis the intelligentsia of the day came up with was something along the lines of — these disastrous wars were caused by making control of the state a zero sum conflict over the ability to realise the most important goods and avoid the most disastrous evils. As such, we should reconceive the role of government to avoid its capture being so high stakes. Rather than a means of securing the good, it should exist to keep the peace between potentially fractious citizens and groups thereof. Part of doing so involves dividing up matters into those of private conscience versus those of public reason. Matters of private conscience are for the individual to freely decide and for others to respect in their wishes. Matters of public reason are those for which we need some way of deciding on social action that does not override what is for properly for the individual — initially and usually conceived, to be clear, as the propertied male head of a household. Privately we ought develop virtues of tolerance and mutual respect to enable the “live and let live” required for this to work. And publicly notions of private property and a sphere of action and protected rights that should be relatively free of state or other- imposition are developed. This goes well with notions of democracy (among the people who really count) as embodying the commitment to public reason delivering results that treated all perspectives equally, not a priori favouring one religious subset over another.


Obviously this is a very Rawls inflected way of describing the historical development, but I do believe it captures something important about the post-Westphalia social order. One can see something like this notion of a private conscience worthy of public respect coming to be in Montaigne and his ironical detachment from religious wars, likewise in Joseph Butler’s moralised theories of human nature, and of Locke on religious toleration; one can see the idea of government as keeping the peace very explicitly in Hobbes, of it existing to respect individual freedoms while still enabling collective action in Rousseau and Montesquieu. None of these are quite the full Rawlsian picture of Political Liberalism (surely Hobbes would seriously dissent!), but I think it is right to say that they all gradually set the scene for what we now think of as liberalism, and they are recognisably responses to a cogent diagnosis of what went wrong for Europe during the turbulent years after the emergence of Protestant theology.


The second stream of influence involved the rise of the commercial bourgeois made possible by an influx of wealth from New World conquests, plunder, and plantation economies, combined with technological advances making the returns on owning the means of production and hiring proletariat labour to work one’s capital suddenly much higher. These processes were thoroughly intertwined, as is documented in this fascinating (no, really!) discussion of the political economy of wood and timber in early modern England and its colonies.. This newly wealthy bourgeois faced threats to its dominance from multiple directions — on the one hand the king and the nobility, with the ancient duties of obedience they felt entitled to and which were thought to bind bourgeois to lower social status and less power. On the other hand, the peasants and slaves and conquered people of the new world did not seem to benefit from this new arrangement, to put the point mildly. If they were to occupy a social position befitting their newfound wealth and economic importance, the bourgeois needed an ideology that would rally people to their cause while making it natural that they should reap the benefits of these social changes. Under such selection pressures did liberalism develop many of its distinctive features.


Gradually what developed to meet this need is something like the following view of society: society is best when it is organised along the lines of being something like a fair playing field, where rational and thrifty subjects may thrive and benefit the common good if they display the appropriate mercantile virtues in pursuit of their enlightened self interest. Aristocrats are a wasteful and vain bunch who totally lack the virtue of thrift (Adam Smith’s damning explanation of how they lost their social position is representative here), and it just so happens that the inhabitants of the New World, the peasants of Ireland and Poland, anyone African — all lack the capability to be rational in the required fashion and so cannot reasonably be expected to benefit from any social system, at best being capable of enjoying the benevolent oversight of their rational betters (Montesquieu for instance considers this the only serious justification of slavery, but conveniently it works well enough). So emerges an ideology that encourages the bourgeois to band together to create the conditions of that fair playing ground and drive the wasteful decadent aristocrats from their thrones, the peasantry from their common lands, and the blacks to the fields. Many of liberalisms’ best theorists like Locke, Kant, and Mill spent their time refining the theoretical elements of this herronvolk meritocracy. Contemporary liberals don’t tend to be so keen to advertise this aspect of their intellectual history, but it is nowadays the subject of much historical philosophical work. This is the liberalism of the ascendent bourgeois.


Third and finally, there was the continuation of Occamite and nominalist tendencies from scholastic medieval thought. Already battles between the Papacy and secular powers had led to development of the bases of the idea that Church and State should be divided and private property respected. Nominalist thinking seems to have influenced Calvin, which not only indirectly therefore leads to the wars of religion and thus the first stream, but it is famously argued that Calvinism encouraged habits of saving and reinvestment over consumption that made liberal capitalist societies able to successfully replicate themselves and expand. More generally, there is the nominalist vibe. A nominalist picture of the individual person paints us as in some sense constructing our own worldview from our experiences rather than receiving the set concepts of a pre-ordered world. It thus kind of encourages a sense of individual primacy. It centres the individual will and reasoning capacity in a way that other views of the human person do not, and this notion of the person is vital for both the previous two streams above. Or so, at least, argue cranky mid 20th century conservatives.


So we are left with a worldview and practice that attempts to allocate some powers and responsibilities to individuals, or at least heads of propertied families, conceived of as rights-bearing rational and thrifty subjects pursuing their own vision of salvation and proper social order. Meanwhile the state is conceived of as a way of protecting those rights and the ability of those persons to engage in the kind of market activities that would allow them to thrive and get the resources they need to pursue those projects, with each standing equally before the law to ensure the outcome of their competitive acquisition reflects their mercantile virtues rather than the phoney notions of privilege by which the Aristocracy swindled the world out of their bread. Our norms, laws, and institutions - including that of the nation state itself but at lower levels of bureaucracy too - exist to carve out and protect that space of action, with the personal property and constitutional liberties it requires. Each full person therein may thus pursue their vision of the good, and the rest (initially being the vast majority of human kind — women, children, workers, the disabled, non-whites, certain backwards peasant groups, and so on) are enriched by the creation and spread of wealth this allows for. 


Now I hope this looks familiar as a vision of liberalism. I neither intend it to be charitable nor polemical, but (allowing for a certain degree of sweepingness and generalisation befitting an already over-long blog post) accurate - liberalism warts and all. And the two things I want to say about it are, firstly, that what it means for this to be dominant is that all of our political squabblings still recognisably take place within this framework. We still debate who exactly gets to count in the full person category with liberal rights attendant — can liberal democracy properly work for children given the role of the state in their education and parental control of their activity? (As Bruenig points out their odd fit with the liberal story are why children come up in so many debates — reflected in debates about trans or other LGBT youth, in debates about COVID policy and other medical exemptions, in debates about sex education and religious freedom.) What about refugees or people seeking entry into the nation state — should they more or less be granted access to this system by default, or does it only work if we limit access? Forms of state assistance to the poor and marginalised are defended as a means of ensuring people have the minimum necessary to act as free persons pursuing their vision of the good, or attacked as discouraging the sort of rational and thrifty behaviour that liberalism thrives upon. Even when defended in more welfarist terms, these schemes are often framed as correcting market failings; i.e. smoothing out the rough edges of a society basically committed to organising things along the lines of private competitors in a market system. Classic academic works wrestle with how to square the incongruent elements of the above story, especially where individual right and common good come apart. What sort of speech can count in as part of reasonable public discourse versus what is disqualifying? These are our debates, this is the stuff of our political sphere; we are essentially arguing about where to set the dials of the liberal machine, where exactly the public/private line goes, who exactly gets the benefits of liberal citizenship. The dominance of liberalism consists not in our self-conception, but in the structuring of our entire political lives.


Second, even the supposed left-challenges to this in the Anglosphere, Bernie Sanders and Corbyn’s Labour Party, in fact never stepped outside this framework even slightly. I think a lot of people who are on the left would do well to think about whether they really object to the above picture. I think in many cases really what is happening is they believe a left liberal state could be great, but unfortunately we have not historically had a liberal state which set all the dials leftwards at once. Even the Nords, through highly restrictive immigration policies, do not tend to really offer the benefits of the liberal state to all. As such they think they are advocating something not liberal, when really it is just a version of liberalism that has not yet been tried. So it’s a perfectly respectable political viewpoint to just be a left liberal, perhaps on the lines of Mills’ Black Radical Liberalism. Here one would want to count as many people (or maybe more generally: sentient beings) into the fold of liberal rights bearers, argue for an expansive system of support to ensure that everyone has a genuinely fair opportunity to participate in society (this can include reparations to redress past causes of disadvantage), favour actions that protect the common good and so have a more restrained notion of what counts as the private sphere, and so on. I think lots of people are in fact left liberals, this is nothing to be ashamed of, and they would be better off trying to grapple with how to make that plausible and workable than simultaneously adopting an oppositional stance to liberalism while in fact having it set your agenda. 


None the less, I am not a liberal, and the final element of this blog post is me explaining why in virtue of the account above. There are three elements where it is not just that I think liberalism needs to be reformed but that it is fundamentally unworkable. First, I do not believe that anything like the public reason/private sphere of activity can be made to work. I think the state has to in fact take a side on contentious issues, there is no neutral position or viable overlapping consensus or anything of the sort (and nor does the liberal historical compromise just so happen to constitute the ideal moral position, as perfectionists bizarrely convince themselves). What made it seem plausible that this was a solution to the problem of the wars of religion was that in fact very substantive consensus did exist among the various dominant Christian sects, and where that agreement wasn’t there they didn’t really feel the need to respect the rights of outsiders (go back and reread Locke’s letters on toleration if you don’t believe me). Or, at least, substantive consensus existed among the restrained class of people that liberalism was willing to consider full persons worthy of consideration. Now we have expanded that class massively, as we surely must, and perhaps with broader social changes bringing more diversity, it is simply no longer tenable to seek to govern in light of a minimalist neutrality. What I think it leads to are just bad faith illusory politics where people must pretend procedural objections when really substantive objections are at stake. Hence lots of absurd claims that bigoted opinions somehow aren’t really opinions and so not covered by free speech protections. Or indeed the constant temptation on the political centre to make any debate into a metadeabte about the free speech right to engage in the debate itself, rather than just having the argument they wish have against some point of left-liberal consensus. 


This simply isn’t viable, it has led our public discourse and political culture to grind to a halt, and if anything is leading to the recreation of the competition for control of the state as zero-sum as rather than adopting an attitude of tolerance people simply persuade themselves that their preferred vision of the good is a procedural pre-condition for any decent politics to occur, and so the other side’s claims must be ruled out at that level. Better, by far, to simply drop this core tenet of liberalism, admit that common life must be organised around a notion of the common good, and try to work out how we can do this without raising the stakes of political disagreement too high. (Contemporary religious right “common good illiberals” I view to be mostly useful idiots for plutocrats, but in so far as it is worth critiquing their ideology I would say it is that they do not seriously have a plan for avoiding capture of the state becoming a zero sum forever war. They are just arrogantly confident that they would win the fights, and enjoy the comfy facade of hard nosedness from the armchair of “owning up” to the violence thus required.) This is very difficult obviously - I suspect it involves much more devolution of decision making power, a highly democratised to the point of maybe even being consensus based decision making procedure, and freedom of movement in a way that ultimately also speaks against the nation state and border controls. But I do not have time to go into what I think the alternative is here, just state that I think one is needed.


Second, I think this political vision is self-undermining. The notion of private property used to undergird the notions of self-governance and a private sphere, as well as ground the activities of the rational and thrifty subject in the market, contains within itself the seeds of the destruction of the liberal order. For the market society was only ever a compromise - no one merchant was powerful enough to overthrow the old order, so a social vision that gave them all a chance was selected for as it allowed the bourgeoise to overthrow the nobility as a class. However, once market societies are allowed to develop I think they tend towards the concentration of wealth and capital, and so ultimately the ability to buy the state and shut down competition. Actually existing liberal capitalism ends up being very different from the theoretical market society with its attendant advantages of competition and efficiency. It is much more like a neo-feudal oligopoly, except without any notions of hegemonic Christian charity or noblesse oblige to at least soften the blow. But for the brief digression of the thirty years post-world-war-two (which I think Piketty well explained) I think this increasing concentration of wealth along with tendencies to entrenched hierarchy and the arbitrary power of the rich is plainly visible in the history of liberalism and proving disastrous today. It interferes with our ability to resolve our worst social problems, to direct resources to fighting climate change, or generally to generating faith in public life as actually a site wherein we can get things done together. Liberal attempts to regulate and reform away this problem, I think, can only ever slow it down or temporarily arrest one branch of the oligopoly. Because I think the fundamental problem is private ownership of the means of production, and this is simply not eliminable from liberalism as I understand it. 


Finally, I think it is at least an open question whether liberalism can truly dispense with its herronvolk aspects while retaining its desirable aspects. Surely at least some of what has made liberalism attractive as a social philosophy has been the plain fact that it generates relatively materially comfortable lives for many, and does so better than a great many other social systems that have been devised. So far, however, that has always existed along an imperial-core vs brutally proletarianised outer periphery model. Now, the claim of liberalism is that it can raise standards of living by, basically, converting those outer periphery nations into versions of the imperial core, with their own specialised comparative advantages and cetera. So it’s not zero sum, liberalism creates a bigger pie through encouraging development, and in the medium to long run we all win. There are some success cases for this! But also lots of cases where I suspect that really what is happening is we just shifted the location of ultra exploitation under the global rug, eternally seeking out new more vulnerable populations to exploit surplus value from, and leaving the messy business of suppressing unions and workers movements in those countries to death squads that we’d really rather not think about. 


Maybe maybe maybe it is true that one day this process will end in a world without sweat shops, galamsey miners having to eke out a living by polluting their own waters, or oil companies running spy networks to maintain terror state fiefdoms. But I will believe it when I see it, and right now I rather suspect that high-income-lifestyle liberalism will either always be reliant on shifting the ultra-exploitation elsewhere or shall have caused ecological collapse well before it has time to transition out of this. (I should say this last is a bit less fundamental, as maybe we could by some sort of leviathan compact agree to all limit our consumption. I suspect that might also be impossible though for reason of my second concern discussed above.)


So there we have it. I do not think we just need to do left liberalism. I believe core elements of liberalism, derived from the central historical missions it is meant to fulfil, are untenable. We cannot have a neutral public sphere and nor would the greater good just so happen to coincide with what liberals say the neutral public sphere looks like. As such we cannot make liberal tolerance norms work. What is more, the notion of private property used to make that tolerance concrete by giving each a sphere of action over which they have control, in fact tends towards undermining what is elsewise best in liberalism, and prevents collective action that might stop its reliance on imperialist exploitation. I hence think a system which did not rely on the public/private division, or anything akin to private ownership of the means of production in a market society, is required if we are to make good on the promise of Enlightenment.



A final coda: note that I mentioned but then did not dispute the Occamite legacy of liberalism. This is because I actually like that, I self-consciously want to maintain the nominalist view of mind and concepts. I think many of my fellow non-liberals in philosophy want to target that in particular, and if anything when they reject liberalism it is often very much this and its specific legacies they wish to challenge. So this also sets me apart from many of my comrades.

Update: I will link responses to this post here as I see them! First is this fascinating piece which basically argues that a consistent liberal could take all the things I view to be critiques and ponens where I tollens. Owen thinks if you really wanna get at the core you gotta attack the nominalism!

Next there is a piece in Digressions&Impressions wherein it's argued that part of liberalism's core mission is the fight against mercantalism, and in fact part of the means by which liberalism sustains itself in that eternal struggle is by means of critiques like this very blog post! Oh the irony.

Third up there's this piece. The interesting case made there is that I have under-estimated liberalism's scope, or ability to adapt itself. So my claims that it is reliant on self-undermining commitments to ownership rules in a basically market structure mean I mistake critiques of capitalism for critiques of liberalism. And there is a passionate defence of the settlement or compromise we have reached re neutrality norms. Great stuff, check it out!

Fourth is a nice piece here wherein it's argued that liberalism has done a better job resolving disagreements towards some points of consensus common good than I allowed for. This is illustrated and discussed with a look back at Locke on toleration (as I asked!) and an account of what he said and how we might want to update it. 

Fifth is this really lovely response piece by Alex Douglas. I see Douglas as making two points here -- first, the idea that toleration arose out of the wars of religion is just Protestant propaganda. In fact people accepted de facto neutrality on matters of state religion out of sheer stalemate and exhaustion, and it was theorists of Protestant nations who spun this in a way to make it seem like a virtue. The thing is... I agree with this! I also think that the idea of state neutrality is a post-hoc rationalisation of a situation that really just reflected an inability to decisively win the total war for Christendom. (I don't think I fully appreciated the Protestant propagandistic element though, so that was cool to read about!) But I just view this as a cunning of history sort of thing -- a material necessity was subsumed and beautified by the ideology, which worked because the decision makers in the status quo post bellum had enough in common ideologically that the rough edges didn't stand out to them.

The second point Douglas makes is that the neutrality doctrine did in fact end up tying liberalism to capitalism by serving as a way of undermining any notion of just price. This was not really neutral, it was hypocritical, and in general the liberal ideal of neutrality is an impossible lie in something like the manner I suggested here. Douglas worries, though (as do I!) that at last compelled to face with sober senses our real conditions of life we might find brute force becomes a more tempting instrument of state. I think the project for the illiberal left has to be finding a way of recapturing what was good in the liberal diffusion of zero-sum competition for the state, and avoid slipping into Melian cynicism.

Comments

  1. One issue I see here is that you are, not completely unreasonably, wanting to saddle "liberalism" with what we might think of as "actually existing liberalism" or "historical liberalism" - and that often looks not so great. But, BUT! - if you're going to do that for liberalism, and not let it appeal to ideals or a philosophical vision, then it's really necessary that you do it for non-liberal positions, too - that you take "actually [formerly] existing socialism" more seriously than seems to be done by most people who consider themselves socialists, or "actually [or formerly] existing 'common good' societies" more seriously than seems to be done here. The problem is, of course, that those options don't look super good in comparison to even "actually existing liberalism", let alone a philosophical ideal of liberalism. But if you're not going to make an apples to apples comparison, then the comparison isn't really very good. It's not clear to me that you're making the right comparison here.

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    1. I agree that one should take such histories into account. And it is not to my credit that I can say: there is no history to take into account for my proposal, because I don't yet have a proposal concrete enough to bear any historical comparison. So more for me to do here to even enable the comparison! Watch this space ;) Thanks for reading!

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    2. How was actually existing socialism not a massive success by almost any objective measure? Life expectancy and literacy being two core measures of the success of a society I would think, which both improved incredibly quickly despite obvious hostility from the more powerful capitalist nation states.

      Additionally, the relevant insight must always be, "What was the alternative?" For Russia, there was no path of moderation, and I think we are all thankful they did not end up fascist. For the West, today? The only paths most see ahead are quite bleak given our replication of the aristocracy.

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    3. Liberal capitalism was a success by the same standards.

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  2. Contra 1. Agree pure neutrality wrt a common good is impossible. But one can be more/less neutral, no? Thus, a state which does not enforce religious practice is more neutral wrt religion than one which enforces Christianity. And the Christian state is more neutral than one which enjoins a specific Christian sect. We can always seek more neutral solutions. And we can have regulatory principles/practices (free speech, religious toleration, freedom of association, school choice) which *in general* instantiate more neutral baseline conditions.
    Contra 2. Matt's real/ideal distinction seems relevant here. Yes, the institution of private property can lead to wealth that corrupts the political process and leads to oligopoly. But lots of things can corrupt the political process! For example, the institution of the family, or political control of the means of production itself. Have societies that abolished private ownership maintained notably less corrupt political systems? Is a liberal system destined to be more of an oligarchy than a situation where the state controls capital allocation decisions? Has Elon Musk been able to leverage his vast wealth into anything like a regulatory monopoly on the electric car market? Seems like these are empirical, not theoretical, questions.
    Contra 3. Agree that liberalism has historically had a close connection with exploitation. So too has every ideology which has ever had any political success. Also agree that dominance of liberal regimes has coincided with a massive technological boom that has raised living standards, and it is a stolen base to assume that increasing living standards from technology/industrialization can be attributed solely to the regime type under which they occur. This feels like a more general point rather than a specific anti-liberal one.

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    1. Contra 1: perhaps so! I think the issue has been liberal attempts to find that reasonable baseline have tended to go via trying to find something like an overlapping consensus. And I think that will turn out to be too thin to do the work. Maybe there is some other better way of doing it though, I certainly haven't here ruled that out in principle!

      Contra 2: I agree it's an empirical question, I guess I am just stating without defending which way I think the evidence will point all things considered. But I dunno it took Piketty a tome to make this kind of case so I don't think I have the skill to do it myself, alas.

      Contra 3: agreed!

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    2. Thanks for a thoughtful reply btw :)

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  3. " I hence think a system which did not rely on the public/private division, or anything akin to private ownership of the means of production in a market society, is required if we are to make good on the promise of Enlightenment."
    So after spending a painful hour reading your interpretation of changes in the social order down through the ages you close with a statement that would seem to indicate that you believe some form of socialism is the answer. You could have saved us all some time by eliminating all of your academic double talk by saying I reject classic liberalism because I believe socialism is the answer.

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    1. Ah sorry it was no fun. But to some extent I think my positive views (which are only very hazy and even more hazily stated here) aren't really meant to be what's interesting in the post. The history with what I take to be core to liberalism and where I think it's difficult is meant to be the meat, even if my suggested alternatives are no better I think there'd still be things worth thinking there. But in any case if it was a painful hour to read that stuff then it seems I just didn't keep your interest for the main event! Alas, but plenty of other blogs on the internet and all that. Still, thanks for reading!

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  4. Thanks for this fascinating post! You identified the intellectual misgiving I've always had with anti-liberal / counter-liberal arguments: that boiling away the illusory liberal metanarratives from the public sphere to focus on common good tends to assume that the substantive proponent would prevail in the—as you said marvelously—the "zero sum forever war." The conservative version of this trend is particularly odious because of the obvious bloodlust, but it's difficult to find a version of an affirmative anti-liberal argument without that (*very* unjustified) triumphalist assumption lurking somewhere.

    And I definitely don't fault the post for not theorizing a counter-liberal common good that could reckon with these issues—like you said, your post wasn't about that. I do wonder, though, whether the project is to imagine an alternative that does *not* end in that forever war, whether that war is accompanied by a triumphalist assumption of total victory or just a (perhaps more realistic but not exactly inspiring) expectation of permanent mobilization. Gotta be a place for the squish in the non-liberal future :)

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    1. Thanks for reading and the kind words in reply! :)

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  5. This is similar to a point already made, but I think you're assuming a very Rawlsian picture of neutrality, where the obligation of the state to be neutral has some sort of deontological status. There's a failure to respect other people as moral agents if the state bases its decisions on some substantive picture of the good which some people will respect. But if you read Mill, or more recently Raz, or some of the liberal responses to communitarianism, there is another way of thinking about this. Modern states in giant societies with some inevitable degree of pluralism (from size if nothing else) will probably be pretty bad devices for getting people to pursue substantive values, or develop virtue, or find God, or whatever. Individuals and informal discussion in civil society will tend to work much better. So, in general, let's try to pursue government policy that is neutral to a reasonable degree. Will we be completely neutral? Maybe not. I suspect there will be a public picture of the good that is broadly humanistic and places a lot of emphasis on individual autonomy and success. But I don't see that as particularly problematic. If some degree of partisanship is inevitable, then don't worry about. Just try your best to achieve neutrality where possible; keep in mind that the state is a heavily armed bureaucracy, and so maybe not the best way to get people to be good. Keep in mind that some degree of dissent is inevitable and might actually be a good thing.

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    1. Ah I think this is one of those things where, I guess, to some extent I wanted this post to prompt left liberals to work out their view as much as anything else so I hope they do the kind of work you are calling for here!

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    2. Thanks for reading and giving a lovely response btw :)

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  6. Interesting points. A few comments, with the full disclosure that I am an economist somewhat sympathetic of marxism and I have no philosophical training:

    1. Something that makes me a little uncomfortable is that you avoid the question of how democracy fits into this liberal state. By the end of your first point, you seems to suggest liberalism embraces democracy. However, this is at tension with the third point, as emphasized by Bobbio Norberto, Adam Przeworski and many prominent socialist of the second international (Kautzky, Luxembourg) is that there is a tension between universal democracy and economic liberalism. That's why many socialdemocratic parties fought for universal suffrage: since in modern capitalists societies most of the population is made up of proletarians, the argument goes, they should vote in mass either to tax the hell out of capital or expropiate the means of production all together. Naturally, this didn't happen, but most modern capitalist states have instituional provisions, i.e, constituions, where expropiation is explicitly forbidden. So this shuts downs some of the democratic process.

    I belive some form of unrestricted, radical democracy (perhaps of the council communism or anarchist variety) is inevitably at conflict with the liberal social order.

    2. Regarding some of the arguments made against private property and market economies, I don't think your case is spelled out convincingly. The main thrust of Das Capital is precisely what you point out: either capitalist crisis of ever-increasing magnitude or the law of increasing immiseration of workers will bring about the collapse of capitalistm. As we now understand, real wages have not declined (at most they have stagnated for prolonged periods, like Engel's pause in England, or during some time of Colonial South Africa), and modern capitalist economies have figured out how to stabilize business cycle fluctuations and prevent crises (even more: we are wealthy enough where engineering a crisis, like it was called for in the COVID response, can be done in the name of the greater good, i.e, saving lives).

    Versions of these arguments were later hashed out by Paul Sweezy and Baran, and other dependency theories, but now the fundamental internal contradiction was concentration of capital, which you point out. We can ask whether this is actually a long-run trend - after the second globalization, during the 80's and 90's, competition at the global scale has increased fiercely; true, there are sweatshots in Vietnam, but Japanese car manufacturers nearly make general motors bankrupt; Huawei is another more recent example.

    This is not to say that I endorse market economies or private property - I oppose them fiercely - but any argument based on some sort of ever-increasing-internal contradictions, while interesting and somewhat insightful, have been ultimately wrong. We don't need to conflate the internal viability of capitalism with normative arguments about it's exploitative properties; i.e, about the unequal exchange of labor, in true Marxian spirit.

    So to summarize I would argue that another reason not to be liberal, comrade, is a belief in radical democracy; and this is because this is incompatible with property rights and market economies. And there is no problem in this, since in fact much is wrong with property rights and market economies, even if they don't have an internal tendency towards collapse.

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    1. Thanks for reading and for the detailed response!

      re.1: to some extent I just agree! I think when I write more positive things I will try and explain the sort of deeply democratic system I think would be preferable, and it will let me illustrate why I think we need an illiberal framework to achieve that.

      re 2: let me be a bit clearer about my worry. I worry that liberal capitalism generates wealth by finding people in traditional economies, brutally proletarianising them until their grandkids or great grandkids are too wealthy to get away with this, then moving on to another group to do this too. I don't doubt that this does in fact generate wealth over a sufficiently long period of time, and I don't think this process need necessarily just collapse of its own accord. But I do think it is far more brutal and cruel than development needs to be. And also that we can't effectively act to collectively stop it while market capitalism also empowers and enriches the very people who benefit most from this brutal way of developing economies.. So I think that this sort of imperialist brutality has in fact historically been the pattern and I worry it will continue so long as we have anything like our present arrangement. But to be clear it's not obvious that one couldn't find a better way internally to liberalism. I'm worried it won't be possible, but I can't predict the future and don't subscribe to the sort of strict determinism you are right to say needs to be rejected. It's just, like, a crude induction from how development has gone so far, and my sense of the underlying balances of power that perpetuate it.

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    2. Oh and you are right that in many ways the OP is just standard Marxism. I am not a very original thinker, sorry to say! Thanks again for replying :)

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  7. Thanks for this brisk and thoughtful post. The history is elucidating! There's a lot I'm inclined to agree on with you here. One question, though. In arguing against the pretense of a separate public and private sphere, you write, "Better, by far, to simply drop this core tenet of liberalism, admit that common life must be organised around a notion of the common good, and try to work out how we can do this without raising the stakes of political disagreement too high." But this latter portion strikes me as one of the fundamental questions that you note liberalism was designed to address, i.e. how to organize society to avoid the capture of government being zero-sum and extremely high stakes. Do you have any sense of how that sort of stakes-lowering might be achieved via some other mechanism than the liberal approach?

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    1. Thanks Sammy! I certainly agree that this is one of the core things liberalism does. What I would like to experiment with is something like: incredibly devolved very localist consensual government, with highly facilitated wide ranging freedom of movement. It would make any one community's value alignment highly attuned to its members so far as is feasible, and an inability to fit into one community's set of value structures becomes much lower stakes when its very easy to move (not even a great distance) and find other modes of being. I am sort of inspired by this: http://sootyempiric.blogspot.com/2016/12/schlicks-utopia.html -- But obviously this is super speculative and not worked out, I hardly think I have some model of governance to just roll out here! I guess I hope at least this encourages people to at least think about it and down the line experiment somewhat with our social form.

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  8. Thanks for writing this. The online discourse around liberals/liberalism really does need clarifying and it helps to have the various commitments explicitly laid out and a picture of what “best case scenario liberalism” might look like. The hard thing for me, at least, is the extreme range of figures that are classified as liberals (an issue you point out early on). In particular, there are a lot of radical leftists that adopted the label. This is especially true of anarchism and the libertarian socialist tradition. Several of the Haymarket defendants were active in the Chicago Liberal League, for instance (vice president Samuel Fielden among them), and the Harlem Liberal Alliance was one of the main backers of Emma Goldman’s Mother Earth. Voltairine de Cleyre founded the Ladies’ Liberal League and used it as a platform to defend expropriating capitalist assets. 

    As a leftist, it’s hard to know what to do with this. If one adopts a narrower conception of the term (as in this piece), one ends up with a paradoxical scenario in which the founder of the Ladies’ Liberal League and the vice president of the Chicago Liberal League weren’t liberals. If one takes a broader reading, however, one has a comparably strange grouping of these same figures with a Rawls or even a Mises—the category becomes so broad that it is no longer informative. My own preference has been for the second option, accepting the self-identification of the figures but viewing “liberal” as a category with few fixed commitments beyond opposition to divine right and perhaps an Occamite tendency of the kind you cite. Practically-speaking, I think the outcomes of the two approaches are similar: whichever horn of the dilemma one takes, one should probably add a bit of qualification and explication if one wants to be understood. Still, I’d be curious to know your take on the various “liberal” clubs and figures on the left.

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    1. Thanks for the interesting reply! Ah my general take is that one should just clarify what one means in one's own case, trying to be cooperative in so far as one roughly accords with past usage but not worrying too much about that so long as one is clear oneself. I take this from Carnap and his ideal of "explication" in philosophy, if that is of interest to you. Thanks again!

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  9. This was a great read on my morning commute. It hashes out many of the things I am uncomfortable with liberalism much better than I could have.

    Your account of the history of liberalism and the conditions in which it emerged are largely the reason I personally do not see it as a viable option for much of the world. The Liberal West has a neat conception of history in which liberalism arose to address certain issues and challenges – the historical process is organic to it. But for the rest of the world, the enlightenment, liberalism, capitalism, nationalism, etc are external products that have been thrust upon it in large part because of liberalism's universalizing features, or what you attribute to it's expanding conception of who is rational and worthy of entry into the Liberal system and who is proletarized to serve the system. Thus, for most of the world, a universal history is thrust upon them alongside a project that is neither organic or authentically theirs. The cost of accepting the liberal project wholesale (even IF it succeeds, despite good empirical evidence that it tends to fail) is to cast away ones own past and situate yourself within a distinctly European historical Timeline and present.

    Great read once again!

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    1. Interesting thoughts, thanks for reading and the kind words!

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  10. Very fun to read this on the same day my philosophy of law students are learning about critics of rights-centric liberalism!

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  11. “Finally, I think it is at least an open question whether liberalism can truly dispense with its herronvolk aspects while retaining its desirable aspects…So far, however, that has always existed along an imperial-core vs brutally proletarianised outer periphery model.”

    But since any surplus accruing to non-workers constitutes exploitation, a major implication of the above is that …. economic development is morally indefensible? Isn’t it? At least all forms of actually-existed historical economic development — whether British, Finnish, American, Japanese, Soviet, Maoist, post-Mao Chinese, South Korean, etc. — required exploitation in the Marxist sense. Development (in any politico-economic system) is the improvement of the productive forces to increase relative surplus value, and its extraction to reinvest in even further improvement of the productive forces. (It’s immaterial whether the transfer of surplus value takes within a country or between countries.) So inasmuch as you object to exploitation, the objection is not to liberalism, but to economic development! Am I wrong? If you argue that extraction of surplus value can be made more ‘humane’ by some criteria of your choosing, why is that argument not applicable to liberalism?

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    1. Yes I think it is true to say that all actual development that has occurred thus far has involved exploitation in the sense in which Marxists use the term. Imperial modes of development up to and including the present era have often been, in addition to that, rather brutal in a more intuitive sense of the term. Union workers killed off by hired death squads (https://prospect.org/features/coca-cola-killings/), Shell's appalling behaviour in Nigeria (https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2020/02/nigeria-2020-could-be-shell-year-of-reckoning/) and so on. Not, of course and alas, that Imperial exploitation has been the only brutal economic activity in history! So my third worry about liberalism was that while in principle I do think that level of brutality in economic development could be reduced consistent with remaining liberal, in practice the concentration of wealth and power discussed in the second worry mean that the very people who benefit from this peculiarly awful way of treating our fellows can do much to shape our media and political environment and make it extraordinarily difficult to act against them. I discussed some similar ideas relating to climate change policy in a previous blog post: https://sootyempiric.blogspot.com/2021/08/pessimism-of-intellect-optimism-of-will.html

      I also think that we should at least be willing, cautious of the lessons of history, to think about whether some genuinely different mode of economic development might bring about good results but not involve exploitation at all (in the Marxist sense). It's not clear to me that Marx in fact thought this was possible (though I guess Marxist-Leninists would, and would claim that Marx did) but in any case I think acknowledging the issue in how it is that liberalism has brought about economic development -- which, to be clear, in the long run has benefited many, but I simply think is needlessly cruel and (perhaps) needlessly exploitative in the short to medium run -- should get us to be at least willing to think about whether or not we could do better. This is part of what I meant by invoking the promise of the Enlightenment at the end, I am in some sense a very optimistic person about what we can achieve, and even if we act with caution I think it is an abrogation of intellectual's duties to not at least attempt to think about genuinely new possibilities in advance of that action.

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    2. Thank you, of course, for the thoughtful engagement!

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  12. I totally disagree, but love the premise! You even inspired me to re-read Locke:

    https://funnyjokes.wordpress.com/2022/04/06/lkb/

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    1. Ha! I did read to the end, but you should get your other work done! I will link your reply in the edit at the end of the OP so people can see for themselves. Thank you for taking the time, it is always an honour!

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  13. question, if I may! you mention liberalism was forged in a context greater consensus than today. Is the point that people out of war weariness following the wars of religion drew up a social contact to disagree on (now private) religious matters but agreed broadly on the rest, which was everyone should be able to make money (except slaves) and the aristocracy should step out the way?

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    1. Of course you may, thanks for reading! I think it's more that -- the early liberal consensus took the politically relevant agents to be a much smaller subset of the population than subsequent developments would think legitimate. So what was needed was something like - consensus among landowning Protestant (where relevant: white) men of various denominations. That they found they could achieve. Subsequent historical developments have meant liberal polities now want to take account of the perspectives of a much broader array of people. The "neutrality" that seemed possible before is now no longer so viable.

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  14. A dense read, but very thought provoking. But this is not the first post I've seen that chronicles the history and development of our current system of government, or the strongest or weakest argument for why it is ultimately insufficient. But I enjoyed it, and thank you for taking the time to research and compose.

    What I'm not seeing, either from professional or armchair intelligentsia, are suggestions for "what should come next"; i.e. what values we should prioritize (or deprioritize) in the future, what kinds of institutions would be needed to support those values, how we go about making those changes without crippling disruption, what weaknesses those institutions might have, how some future system might be exploited, and what safety valves should be in place to self-correct (or actively correct) such "deviations" (i.e. exploitations).

    I'm concerned about where we are, even more about where we're going without fundamental change. But without a vision, an actionable plan, and some idea of risks and unintended consequences, it's pretty much farting in the wind. Transformational change is hard, and how do you convince those that just know that change is not necessary? It would be best to achieve it without war or revolution; unfortunately that how these things have generally come about in the past. Where do we go now that isn't navel gazing?

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  15. Thank you for this extremely thoughtful critique. I've had difficulty finding versions of this argument that don't resort to strawmen, and in particular ones that actually grapple with liberal capitalism's effectiveness to date in raising standards of living. You've done a great job of that, and raised questions that are difficult to dismiss. I'm looking forward to reading the responses as well. Again, thanks!

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