Thursday, January 3, 2008

Liberalism, Anti-Liberalism, Radical Leftism

I just gave my intro lecture to Radical Political Theory, and thought it worked rather well,'s (the gist of) what I said:

Radical political theory, for my purposes, comprises anti-liberal political thinkers on the Left. Therefore, I want to spend some time talking about what I mean by this formula. Left and Right are generally identified more by emotional tics and customary sociological groupings than by any matters of definite principle. It is safe to say that 90% of political discourse in North America is neither very Leftist nor very Rightist, in that 90% of political discourse remains within the discursive boundaries of liberalism. Liberalism is the sun of our ideological solar system. Therefore, I think I need to work in the following order:
  1. Identify liberalism
  2. By negation, identify anti-liberalism
  3. By division, isolate Leftist anti-liberalism.

First, what is liberalism? If you look at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, you find something like this (and I'm borrowing heavily here): Liberals accord liberty primacy as a political value, in at least two senses.
  1. Liberals have typically maintained, with Locke, that humans are naturally in “a State of perfect Freedom to order their Actions […] as they think fit […] without asking leave, or depending on the Will of any other Man.” That is, liberty is primary in the sense of natural, or primitive in human beings.
  2. Likewise, liberals agree with Mill that “the burden of proof is supposed to be with those who are against liberty; who contend for any restriction or prohibition […]. The a priori assumption is in favour of freedom.” In other words, liberty is normatively primary; it is the default setting for our political life, requiring no justification; on the contrary, any restriction of it must be justified. This has been called the Fundamental Liberal Principle (Gaus): freedom is normatively basic, and so the onus of justification is on those who would limit freedom, especially through coercive means.
For liberals, it follows from the priority of liberty that political authority and law must be justified, as these limit the liberty of citizens. Consequently, a central question of liberal political theory is whether political authority can be justified, and if so, how, how much, and of what kind. It is for this reason that social contract theory, as developed by Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau and Kant, is usually viewed as liberal even though the actual political prescriptions of, say, Hobbes and Rousseau, have distinctly illiberal features to our contemporary ears. Insofar as they take as their starting point a state of nature in which humans are free and equal, and so argue that any limitation of this freedom and equality stands in need of justification (i.e., by the social contract), the contractual tradition is liberal.

Nonetheless, many people would argue that Hobbes is at best a qualified liberal, since he argues that drastic limitations on liberty can be justified. Paradigmatic liberals such as Locke and Mill not only advocate the primacy of liberty, but also maintain that only very modest limitations on liberty are actually justified. However, (and here my voice comes back in) a funny thing happened on the way to limited government. The state and its coercive laws are justified by their securing equal liberty for all, but that means, mutatis mutandis, that the state and its coercive laws are the conditions of liberty. Only in the state can we be free. (This conclusion is explicitly drawn by Hobbes, Rousseau, Kant and Hegel, and even Locke is committed to it once money is admitted). Our natural, primitive liberty justifies a state with a monopoly on the use of force.

For this reason, I think the folks who want to exclude “statists” like Hobbes, Rousseau, and Hegel from the liberal club want to have their cake and eat it too. They want private property, security of their persons and their contracts, protection from foreign invasion, and stable monetary and credit systems, but they poo-poo Kant’s stark claim that the individual will is secure in its freedom only when the authority of the state knows and polices every bit of property down to the smallest iota. Rudy Giuliani’s claim that “freedom is authority” is right down the center of the liberal tradition. The argument about how much authority is necessary for the state to secure people’s natural liberty is a legitimate one within liberalism, but it is an argument within liberalism.

Now we should be able to address the second question: What is anti-liberalism?

It seems that anti-liberal political theories must, by definition, deny liberalism’s basic premise: the anthropological and normative priority of liberty. This premise could be denied in various ways:
  • With Aristotle, we could say that it is political authority that is natural and primitive, while freedom is exceptional and in need of justification. In general, pre-modern thinkers did not, in Hegel’s phrase, place an absolute value on subjective willfulness; thus, freedom was a condition of cultivation, not a human birthright.
  • With Marx, you could say that the liberty valued by liberals is merely an ideological reflection of the market economy.
  • With Spinoza, you could claim that humans are naturally slavish, and that freedom is only achievable through a (collective) practice of philosophy.
  • Etc.
In general, all of these options involve a denial of primitive liberty and/or a denial of its normative importance. State authority is not justified by its securing equal liberty. Therefore, the state does not hold a legitimate monopoly on the use of force.

Third, what differentiates Leftist from Rightist anti-liberalism?

Here I’m going to declare by fiat: Leftist anti-liberalism is resolutely anti-capitalist, while Rightist anti-liberalism tends to incorporate capitalism within a set of state structures even as it jettisons the (liberal) justificatory discourse of capitalism. Thus, in Rightist anti-liberal regimes, market mechanisms tend to be infiltrated by naked uses of force or violence: an increase in slave or convict labor, other forms of servitude, formation of mafia-like cartels, price-fixing and intimidation, etc.

Part of the Leftist case against liberalism is that it surreptitiously relies upon Rightist anti-liberalism to establish itself and function. In other words, there is a necessary violence disavowed by the liberal theory of justice. In Mao's "Combat Liberalism," he portrays liberalism as a character flaw marked above all by passive aggression. Liberals say "peace" to your face--or say nothing at all--and then look the other way while the Corleones take your farm and build a casino on it.