Archive for October, 2011

What does it mean to be a ‘liberal’?

First published by the Guardian, ‘Comment is Free’, 15/8/11

What is liberalism? The term is deployed frequently in political discussion but, confusingly, can refer to a great range of ideological positions. So, for example, one type of liberal (a “social” or “leftwing” liberal) might favour generous welfare provision and redistribution, while another (an “economic” or “classical” liberal) might prefer laissez-faire economics and minimal state intervention. The picture becomes even more bewildering when the US political landscape is taken into account. There, the term “liberal” is often used interchangeably with “leftwinger”. To make it still more confusing, liberal-hating US conservatives are usually free-marketeers – ie, economic liberals.

How can we get a firm conceptual grip on this rather slippery political philosophy? Political theorists often identify a series of fixed values that are taken to be the essential properties of liberalism. These might include liberty, democracy, tolerance, constitutionalism and human rights, for example. Some of these are more convincing as core principles than others – until relatively recently, many liberals were decidedly hostile to democracy, for instance. Liberty, constitutionalism and tolerance are more plausible, but are hardly the exclusive property of liberalism. Part of the problem in seeking to define liberalism in this way is that liberalism is the dominant world view (in the west, at least). It is no longer a sharply defined political movement but, in a sense, the very political condition of modernity. There are few political traditions that are clearly separate from it, because most other traditions are situated within this hegemonic context. Thus, modern conservatism is really a variant of liberalism, and socialism, too, is not wholly distinct from it.

Liberalism is best understood as “a specific historical movement of ideas”(Arblaster) rather than as a collection of fixed, abstract values. As such, it has evolved over time. As a political discourse, liberalism provides a set of ideas which can be articulated in different ways. Liberalism has been constantly reshaped and adapted and has, over time, split into different branches. The predominant form it has taken has varied historically from period to period and it has acquired different emphases in different countries. The specific historical, social and political context, then, will inform the precise meaning of the term.

It is helpful to regard liberalism as a political tradition that has developed, in part, as the legitimating ideology of the bourgeoisie. This explains its broad historical trajectory over the centuries. Liberalism emerged as a revolutionary ideology reflecting the ambitions of the rising bourgeoisie in relation to the abolition of feudal privilege. Liberalism won its decisive political victories in the revolutions in England, the US and France in the 17th and 18th centuries. Its rise was concurrent with the rise of capitalism. With the consolidation of capitalism, the tenor of liberalism shifted from emancipatory optimism to a more conservative stance, suspicious of grand projects of social change.

Nevertheless, because liberalism proclaimed radically universalistprinciples – most notably, liberty and equality for all – the doctrine provided ideological resources that could be taken up by hitherto oppressed groups. Those excluded from the early realm of liberal equality and freedom – slaves, women and working-class men – drew on the universalism of liberal principles in order to demand inclusion. So the historical development of liberalism was shaped not only by the interests of the wealthy but also by the struggles of the marginalised.

We can trace some of the major changes in liberalism with reference to these shifting interests, struggles and material conditions. In its earliest form, as we saw, liberalism was the political doctrine of a revolutionary class pitted against the ancien regime. By the 19th century, classical liberalism reflected the interests of a triumphant, confident bourgeoisie, extolling the virtues of laissez-faire capitalism. From the late 19thcentury, a form of social liberalism favouring welfare reforms and state intervention emerged under pressure from a growing challenge from organised labour. Bolstered by the economic theories of Keynes, social liberalism became hegemonic in the wake of the 1930s crisis, which shook capitalism to its core. This branch of liberalism absorbed a strand of the socialist tradition to form what became known as social democracy. The late 20th century saw a revival of economic liberalism –“neoliberalism” – as the postwar social liberal consensus disintegrated with the petering out of the “long boom” in the early 1970s. Round about the same time, a return to classical ideas was also evident in a more egalitarian strain of modern liberalism. Theorists such as Rawls revived the social contract tradition associated with Locke, for example, and sought to combine this with the egalitarian aspirations of social liberalism.

But what is the property shared by these disparate variants of liberalism that makes them all, precisely, liberal? There is a common thread running throughout liberalism’s history – present in all major strands of the tradition. Liberalism is founded on a particular view of human nature and society – the assumption that humanbeings are, first and foremost, individuals. This foundation is simultaneously ontological and ethical. That is, it sees the individual as more fundamental, more real, than society, and at the same time regards the individual as much more morally valuable than any collective entity.

Furthermore, this view of human nature suggests that the individual is fundamentally complete and whole in and of him/herself. This view contrasts with earlier beliefs about human nature – in ancient and medieval times, humans were not regarded as self-sufficient individuals. For Aristotle, for example, the nature of humanity could not be conceived in abstraction from the polis (political community). It also contrasts with traditional conservatism, which sees social tradition as taking precedence over the individual, and with Marxism, which regards humans as fundamentally social creatures.

Liberalism’s ontological basis is, in my view, unconvincing in both philosophical and anthropological terms, but it has, undeniably, a powerful intuitive force – it has sunk deep roots in the modern consciousness. Perhaps liberalism’s greatest strength, however, is its remarkable adaptability. It’s this quality that explains the bewildering variety of types of liberalism – each with an equally valid claim on the term – today.

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Who’s correct about human nature? The left or the right?

First published by the Guardian, Comment is Free, 20/11/10

When the political right confront the left in debate, the arguments of the former usually boil down to a simple underlying idea: that the left’s “grand projects” of social change are incompatible with human nature. Those on the left, in this view, do not understand – or cannot bring themselves to accept – the grim reality in relation to the fundamental determinants of human behaviour. Human beings are essentially selfish, greedy, competitive, individualistic and generally unpleasant. This nature, furthermore, is fixed and immutable.

Rather conveniently, we happen to live in the kind of social order that is most in tune with our natural inclinations – a capitalist free market economy. In fact, for conservatives, capitalism is not really a discrete “system” at all; it is simply the natural and spontaneous state of things.

Almost all political ideologies, in fact, are based on a specific understanding of the nature of humanity, whether this is explicitly formulated or simply implied. The plurality of modern political ideologies implies a plurality of different conceptions of human nature – which implies, in turn, that the conservative understanding of human nature is contested. This is something that many conservatives have difficulty in accepting.

It is simply self-evident for most conservatives that human nature is unquestionably the way that they say it is (this is a defining feature ofconservative thought in general, bound up with its broadly positivistassumption that one can understand the world through simple observation and application of “common sense”) – and this tends to dictate that their conception of human nature is articulated at the level of mere assertion. Human nature just is egoistic, selfish and so on. Such an approach obscures the historical specificity of their view of human nature.

The modern right’s understanding of human nature (and thus the broader political doctrine founded on this conception) first emerged with the birth of liberalism which was itself bound up with the emergence of capitalism. In fact modern conservatism is really a form of liberalism. The formation of the Conservative party in the 1830s represented an alliance of the rump of the old Tory party – previously dedicated to the defence of broadly feudal traditions and institutions – with a faction of the rising bourgeoisie dedicated to free trade and capitalist values. This marked the point at which conservatism, which used to be rather sniffy about nouveau riche bourgeois upstarts, reconciled itself to capitalism. Indeed the intimate connection between modern conservatism and liberalism is revealed in the political affiliation of Edmund Burke. Widely regarded as the “father of modern conservatism”, Burke was in fact a Whig rather than a Tory.

Liberalism, which first emerged in the 17th century, has at its core a distinctive conception of human nature. The most important point about humans for liberals is the fact that they are individuals. It involves “seeing the individual as primary, as more ‘real’ or fundamental than human society and its institutions and structures” and “involves attaching a higher moral value to the individual than to society” (Arblaster). Furthermore, this conception of human nature “tends … to impute a high degree of completeness and self-sufficiency to the single human being, with the implication that separateness … is the fundamental, metaphysical human condition”.

As a fundamentally “complete” individual, the liberal human has pre-given and fixed, rather than socially constructed needs and preferences. More often than not, the liberal individual is also a radical egoist who enters into interaction with other individuals simply in order to satisfy pre-formed preferences.

The relationship between this conception of human nature and capitalism is obvious. The atomised liberal individual reflects the atomised conditions of bourgeois society in which social ties of kinship and fealty have been dissolved. It is worth stressing that this was a new understanding of human nature. In pre-capitalist philosophy wholeness or completeness usually belonged to the community rather than to the individual.

Rather than self-sufficient individuals, humans were seen to be embedded in communal relations that almost wholly defined them. Theview of human nature that underpins the politics of the modern-day right, then, arose at a particular historical juncture. It is not some ideologically “neutral” description.

So what, if anything, is human nature? Marx provides a much richeraccount. He is often said to have argued that there is no such thing as human nature. This is not true. Though he did think that human behaviour was deeply informed by social environment, this is not to say that human nature does not exist. In fact it is our capacity to adapt and transform in terms of social practices and behaviours that makes us distinctive as a species and in which our specifically human nature is to be located.

For Marx, we are essentially creative and producing beings. It is not just that we produce for our means of survival, it is also that we engage in creative and productive activity over and above what is strictly necessary for survival and find fulfilment in this activity. This activity is inherently social – most of what we produce is produced collectively in some sense or another. In opposition to the individualist basis of liberal thought, then, we are fundamentally social creatures.

Indeed, for Marx, human consciousness and thus our very notion of individual identity is collectively generated. We become consciously aware of ourselves as a discrete entity only through language – and language is inherently inter-subjective; it is a social practice. What we think – including what we think about ourselves – is governed by what we do and what we do is always done socially and collectively. It is for this reason that Marx refers to our “species-being” – what we are can only be understood properly in social terms because what we are is a property and function of the human species as a whole.

Marx, then, has a fairly expansive view of human nature – it is in our nature to be creatively adaptable and for our understanding of what is normal in terms of behaviour to be shaped by the social relations around us. This is not to say that any social system is as preferable as any other. We are best able to flourish in conditions that allow us to express our sociability and creativity.

As Terry Eagleton argues, Marx’s notion of “species-being” implies an ethics of self-realisation or flourishing through social interaction. Eagleton argues that Marx was “a closet Aristotelian of sorts”, by which he means that Marx, like Aristotle, felt that humans live well when they act to realise their own creative nature. The main difference between Marx’s (tacit) ethics and those of Aristotle is that for Marx, self-realisation must be an reciprocal process because we are social animals.

“What this means”, Eagleton explains, “is that we become the occasion for each other’s self-realisation. It is only through being the means of your self-fulfilment that I can attain my own, and vice versa.” “The political form of this ethic,” he continues, “is known as socialism”, which can be regarded as a form of “politicised love, or reciprocity all round”.

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The Complexity of Equality

First published by the Guardian ‘Comment is Free’, 14/10/10

The recent Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) report, How Fair is Britain?, has elicited a flurry of criticism from those who regard egalitarian commitment as a misguided, if not sinister, political approach. In his Telegraph blog, for example, the impressively rightwing Ed West thunders against the EHRC and “equality of outcome” which, as every Telegraph journalist knows, is a Bad Thing and, anyway, “impossible”.

In this newspaper, Julian Glover informs the left that it should give up on the ideal of equality since it is “undesirable”. In the Independent, Dominic Lawson asserts that demands for equality and fairness are motivated by “envy” and, as such, should be dismissed. All these objections draw on the familiar anti-egalitarian arguments regularly deployed by the right. Many egalitarians might be tempted to shrug them off as the usual arguments from the usual suspects. But, for me, there is something deeply irritating about them. It’s not just that I disagree – it’s that these arguments are founded on caricature.

All of these commentators assume that when the left talks about equality it means absolute equality of everything. This is a common assumption among those hostile to egalitarianism: that the left want everyone to be exactly the same. No serious political theorist, however, has ever argued for such a self-evidently absurd position. Marx certainly didn’t.

Indeed, Marx’s summary of the principles that we would/should obtain under communism – “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” – implies, precisely, significant inequalities in the distribution of social goods and also rests on the assumption that abilities are unequally distributed, too. Indeed, one of the things that Marx is trying to show is that for a rough “equality of condition” to be obtained, inequalities between individuals are necessary – since we all require and desire different things in different proportions in order to flourish. To treat people as if they are exactly the same is, in fact, to treat them unequally. Equality for the left is a complex concept, which bears little resemblance to the caricatures drawn by the right.

Martin O’Neill brings out something of equality’s complexity and usefully draws our attention to the distinction between two conceptions of equality often conflated by the right – equality of opportunity and equality of outcome. The former focuses on the equalisation of opportunity for those with the requisite capacities or abilities to obtain a particular advantaged social position – it focuses on the elimination of arbitrary discrimination in the process of selection for such positions and, by definition, justifies certain inequalities of outcome. This, by the way, is what Glover appears to favour – he’s not actually against equality per se, but against a certain (caricatured) version of equality (of outcome).

In fact, it’s hard, today, to find anyone who is really against equality. The political dispute in relation to equality is not between egalitarians and anti-egalitarians. It’s a struggle over the definition of the principle of equality: what is to be equalised, between whom equality should be obtained and where the limits should be drawn. Commitment to the notion of equality is deeply embedded in the fabric of modern politics.

Along with liberty, equality was one of the two key principles that drove forward the various 17th- and 18th-century revolutions (English, French and American) that inaugurated the liberal world. The modern liberal and capitalist order, then, has revolutionary beginnings (something that, as Terry Eagleton points out, liberals today find acutely embarrassing and try not to mention), but with the establishment and gradual consolidation of capitalism and liberalism, the tenor of liberal ideology shifted from one of radical optimism to one of “moderate”, “realism” and scepticism towards grand projects of social change.

As the philosopher Étienne Balibar has argued, however, (see also Alex Callinicos), liberalism’s revolutionary ideals retain an inherently subversive nature. Balibar argues that the universalism of core liberal principles – equality and liberty – imbues them with a radical logic that tends to come into conflict with the structural foundations of bourgeois society.

The bourgeois revolutionaries overthrew the ancien régime in the name of freedom and equality for all – and though these ideals were “packed with tacit or explicit clauses excluding women, the poor, slaves and many other groups from its ambit” (Callinicos, Equality), the universalism of these ideals had a tendency to breach these morally arbitrary, power-determined limiting clauses. Groups who were excluded from the realm of liberal equality and freedom (slaves, women, workers) could draw on the stated or implicit universalism of these liberal principles and demand inclusion. Each rectification of injustice drew attention to further forms of injustice so that the extension of liberty and equality moved forward in a rolling, cumulative progression.

For socialists, the next stage in this process of extension is a struggle for economic and class equality. Inequalities of wealth and economic power entail, after all, inequalities in political power. Why doesn’t the ambit of democracy – equal liberty amongst citizens to exert control over social processes – extend into the economic sphere? Doesn’t equality (and liberty), socialists ask, require economic democracy? This, however, would be incompatible with capitalism. Beyond a certain point, then, the dialectic of struggle for the extension of liberal ideals of liberty and equality becomes a definitely socialist struggle.

One can see something of this tendency of liberal ideals to go beyond themselves in the way in which equality of opportunity, on close inspection, slides into equality of outcome. Equality of opportunity requires that each individual has an equal starting point in competition for particular social goods – outcomes reflect ability and effort. The problem is that outcomes are also starting points. A child’s starting point, for example, might be to be born into an affluent family – but this is the outcome of the parents having successfully made use of their opportunities. This suggests that if we really think it’s important to equalise opportunities we need to equalise outcomes too.

We need, also, to question what counts as morally arbitrary criteria in the equality of opportunity view. There is no logical reason, in terms of justice, why if it’s wrong to discriminate against people on the grounds of race or gender, it’s not also wrong to discriminate on the grounds of ability or intelligence. Does an intelligent individual deserve higher rewards simply because they are bright? Why? Surely, they have no control over this any more than they have over their sex or skin colour. This doesn’t mean that ability ought to be irrelevant in allocation of jobs – nobody wants to be treated by a brain-damaged brain surgeon. It does, however, suggest that there is no good reason why higher rewards should be distributed on the basis of these criteria.

The logic of liberal thinking on equality and justice always points towards equality of condition and, since it is difficult to see how such radical equality is compatible with capitalist relations of power, the logic of liberal thinking points beyond itself, towards socialism. This, by the way, is something in relation to which liberal political philosophers expend an extraordinary amount of effort pretending not to have noticed.

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