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On Liberalism, Again.

Osita Nwanevu
9 min read
On Liberalism, Again.

Hey all. Let’s hop to it.


I’ve been off Twitter for over a month now and can’t say I’ve missed it for the most part. I do wish, though, I’d been around for the debate about LSE philosopher and Leverhulme Prize winner Liam Bright’s latest short essay. Bright’s really bright, and I always come away from his writing feeling like I’ve learned something, which I can’t really say for most of the things I read online. This particular post is a critique of liberalism from the left. I’ve written about such critiques previously for the newsletter. And while Bright’s post is thoughtful throughout and right on the money on important points, I think his arguments help illustrate the grip liberalism’s first principles have on its putative opponents.

There are three basic components to liberalism as Bright sees it: a framework of property rights, a “sense of individual primacy” that centers the individual’s agency and capacity for reason, and the separation of human life into public and private spheres ⁠— a separation that demands agnosticism from the state about the common good. An excerpt from the post on the latter:  

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.

All told, he goes on to say, liberalism is:

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.

Bright has a bit to say, too, about what I’ve called “reactionary liberalism” and rearguard efforts to protect specific claims or realms of thought on, say, race and gender identity, under the guise of upholding liberalism’s “minimalist neutrality.” The concept of liberal neutrality, he argues, produces a “bad faith illusory politics where people must pretend procedural objections when really substantive objections are at stake.” “Hence,” he continues, “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 metadebate 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.”

I’ve been ranting about the dishonesty and evasiveness of our speech metadebates for years now; Bright’s completely right there. But I’m ambivalent about his hostility to liberal ambivalence overall. “Better, by far,” he writes, “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 he writes without raising the stakes of political disagreement too high.”

We’re hearing more and more about “the common good” these days, particularly from figures on the hard right, like Adrian Vermeule, who’ve tired of leaving societal outcomes to chance and competition in the “marketplace of ideas” and within free market capitalism. It goes without saying that Bright and “common good” conservatives have entirely different social and political projects in mind. But what they share ⁠— and what all critics of liberalism who are serious about devising and presenting real alternatives share ⁠— is a sense that, as Bright says, society ought to direct itself towards a particular purpose.

But in making these arguments, liberalism’s critics have a tendency to overstate how agnostic most liberals actually are about the common good. It seems to me that most liberals believe either that liberal rights and freedoms actually constitute the common good in some sense, or that liberal freedoms, the free exchange of ideas, and trial and error through liberal democratic processes will help society discover and implement the common good ⁠— whatever it may be. Moreover, as Bright explains at length, liberal principles have, despite liberalism’s putative openness and neutrality, materially contributed to the rise of specific economic formations and forms of governance. Liberalism thus far has organized the state around “a notion of the common good” — that notion is capitalism. It’s just one that the left opposes.

Personally, I really haven’t the foggiest idea whether “the common good” really exists beyond contestable notions at all; what it is if it does; why there might not be multiple, even contradictory “common goods”; how many people have to benefit for a “good” to be “common”; or why the most “common good” would be inherently more desirable than other less “common,” but still expansive “goods.” Given all that, I might be the kind of liberal Bright is actually arguing against, although, again, I don’t think there are many liberals who agree with me.

But all that’s neither here nor there, really. If we want to take “the common good” seriously, we ought to think through its relation to the division, in liberal thought, between the public and private spheres. The public sphere, to me, seems like the natural home for “the common good” as a concept ⁠— it is in public that we act in “common.” And here in our remarkably ideological age, we increasingly do so for abstract societal ends. Again, the preservation of liberal society is itself a desirable and crucial end for many; beyond that, liberals are constantly competing to bring the state in alignment with particular values ⁠— ostensibly for “the common good” as manifested in particular material outcomes.

Then there’s the private sphere ⁠— here again, I don’t think enough was said about how willing liberals have often been to regulate private behavior for “the common good.” Nevertheless, liberals ⁠— modern ones anyway ⁠— generally do so while stressing the importance of preserving a division of some kind between the private and public spheres. Bright argues we should do away with it entirely. “I do not believe that anything like the public reason/private sphere of activity can be made to work,” he writes. “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.” This is a real departure from contemporary liberalism ⁠— one Bright radically undermines almost immediately.

While he doesn’t flesh out his thinking fully, Bright says in his post and in a comment below it that one viable alternative to liberal society might be a major devolution of state power:

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 it's very easy to move (not even a great distance) and find other modes of being.

Of all the different sociopolitical arrangements Bright’s critiques of liberalism might have drawn him to, he seems to have chosen what can only be understood as a kind of hyperliberalism. In practice for Bright, the state pursuing a particular common good and the erasure of the division between the public and private spheres actually means the dissolution of the state into thousands of communities with their own particular visions of the good ⁠— communities that people would be able to jump between, as a matter of individual feeling, reason, and conscience, whenever the visions of the good they happened to live under clashed with their private lives.

It’s difficult to square this idea with all that preceded it, and it feels like Bright backed into it having perceived, rightfully, that a supreme, sovereign state pursuing a particular and not easily escapable vision of “the common good” would be a recipe for oppression. But replacing such a state with a constellation of miniature governments with their own visions of the good isn’t actually a more palatable version of that goal ⁠— it functionally gives up on the idea that there might be such a thing as “the common good” that we might arrive at or construct collectively at all. Moreover, what would normatively ground the freedom of movement that would be granted to individuals in such a system? Why would we care, actually, whether people found themselves in communities governed by a vision of the good they didn’t agree with? It’s difficult to defend that or, really, any given individual right or freedom without recourse to what Bright calls “individual primacy.”

I made this point in my earlier post on liberalism where I mentioned Marx’s vision of communist society in The German Ideology. “[A]s soon as the distribution of labour comes into being, each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape,” he laments. But, “in communist society,” by contrast, “nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.” As far as I’m concerned, this is a utopian picture of liberal individual freedom; it is the product of liberal, contestable, and relatively historically novel ideas about what individuals are capable of and entitled to. I don’t know how it can be read any other way.

I don’t think Bright’s other hits against liberalism ⁠— which center around liberalism’s relationship to capitalism and private property rights ⁠— really land. It’s not obvious to me, as I’ve said before, that liberalism is conceptually inextricable from the private ownership of capital and I’d like to read more from Bright and others on the question. That said, I also don’t agree with Zack Beauchamp, who argued in response to Bright that the atrocities perpetrated by putatively liberal governments don’t matter for liberalism philosophically ⁠— slavery and colonialism are, for Beauchamp, best understood as hypocrisies by bad actors who simply failed to live up to the actual precepts of liberal ideology. But all ideologies carry implicit exceptions within them ⁠— extremely few liberals today believe, for instance, that the rights of all to life and liberty should bar the state from imprisoning people or waging wars. The broad language of ideological priors is routinely trumped by practical concerns, material interests, and various contingencies. And in liberalism’s case, its first theorists also actually tried to reconcile slavery and colonial expansion with the rest of the system.

I don’t think that fact is fatal for the ideology as a whole. But it does tell us that liberal precepts aren’t strong enough, on their own, to ensure that the versions of liberalism that actually obtain in society are universal and maximally inclusive. Liberalism justifies itself in part with the insight that values can be interpreted in myriad ways; good, forcefully made arguments that slavery was impermissible given the universal rights of man did not, in themselves, do the slaves any good. A war that killed some 700,000 to 800,000 people ⁠— a material conflict spurred by material divisions over the political and economic future of the country ⁠— did.

Reasons to Be Cheerful

We have new data from the National Labor Relations Board on the unionization wave. From Truthout:

Between October 2021 and March 2022, union filings increased by 57 percent, up to 1,714 from 748 over the same period last year. Unfair labor practice charges have also increased by 14 percent, the labor board reports, from 7,255 to 8,254.
The data confirms what labor organizers have already noted: there has been a marked rise in workplace organizing over the past year or so. Previous research found that workers logged over 3.2 million strike days last year, and that there was an increase in strike activity in October, which labor advocates deemed “Striketober” –- but last year was the first year for which researchers compiled that data, so there was no baseline to compare it to.
Roughly 180 of the filings over the first half of the 2022 fiscal year were from Starbucks workers; other movements like that of unionizing graduate students at schools across the country have also been experiencing a surge over the past year.

A Song

“your clothes” ⁠— dltzk (2021)