Copyright: Dubova. All rights reserved.
I wrote this piece for my Dad. Like most dads, mine is my hero, but in his own words, he’s ‘not an educated man’. This isn’t to say that he lacks learning – far from it, the guy can pull up information from anywhere at a moment’s notice – but it is to acknowledge the fact that he left school at age 14, that he can’t spell to save his life and that he isn’t comfortable using long words.
In a sense, then, my Dad represents exactly the kind of person I think it’s important for academics to write to. He’s interested in the world, he’s got tons of ideas worth listening to, but he’s divorced from public discussion about the nature of our society, either because that discussion is full of the empty BS that characterises most political speech, or because it takes place in the highfalutin language characteristic of how we academics too often peddle our trade.
This piece aims to do a little something about that, and it aims to do so while talking about ‘liberalism’, about its hypocrisies, and about the anti-political problems that make ‘being liberal’ a dangerous thing to be.
So, Dad, what is liberalism? And what the hell is wrong with it? I’ll start with the first question. According to its proponents, liberalism, in a nutshell, is a way of looking at and organising the world that sort of says ‘live and let live’. It holds that each of us is an individual who should be free to be what we want to be and should be able to live without interference from nasty authorities or people that do mean things.
In one of its classic formulations, a guy called John Locke said it was all about the right of individuals to ‘life, liberty and estate’. Which, when you think about it, isn’t necessarily so bad. It means no dictatorial governments can arbitrarily arrest protesters or take away our relatives. It means the guy next door can’t just take our house. And nowadays it involves the kind of thinking that says ‘I don’t care if John’s gay, he’s my mate and he’s a good bloke like anyone else’.
The latter is how liberalism is mainly understood – as social liberalism. In being socially liberal, especially over the past century, more and more of us have said ‘Look, it’s not ok to discriminate against someone because they might be different. At the end of the day, we’re all people’. And so we’ve seen challenges against racism, sexism, the violence associated with nationalism, homophobia, and much more. These are definitely positives.
But liberalism is much more than that, and at its dark heart, its claim to stand for universal equality is in a strange way the root of its problems. Indeed, this is precisely what makes liberalism less liberal in the ‘be nice to everyone’ sense, and much more a violent, politically conservative tool for elite domination.
How so? Well let’s look again at its classic formulation: according to Locke, it’s all about an individual’s right to ‘life, liberty and estate’. Fair enough on the life and the liberty, but what if you have no estate?!? What if you have no property at all and you’re too poor to ever get any? What if your property used to be someone else’s property and you own it because your ancestors pillaged it from them? What if you are someone else’s property?
These aren’t just theoretical questions. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the men who invented liberalism by advocating freedom of property were, you guessed it, all rich blokes who had loads of it. The word ‘estate’ is a bit of a give-away. Many of them were businessmen who made their money by turfing English peasants off the land they’d farmed for generations. And many of them were slave-owners.
So for these fellows, freedom of property didn’t mean freedom from the government taking it away, like now it might mean freedom for you to keep your house. What it meant was freedom from any discussion of the brutal history behind how they acquired their property, as well as freedom from any discussion as to whether it was right for them to have lots of it while most people scrabbled around barely scraping a living. In this sense, when liberalism promoted itself as a doctrine of ‘universal equality’, what it actually meant was equality for those who already had wealth.
And if you think about it, not that much has changed. When you look at our UK political parties today – be they New Labour, Tory or the Lib Dems in coalition – all of them sing the same liberal tune. That’s why they’re all called ‘neo-liberals’. They might reject slave-owning or kicking tenant farmers off their land but they do allow zero-hour contracts, they have introduced the bedroom tax, and all of them agree on the need to cut welfare payments whilst preserving low taxes for the rich or corporations.
Worse still, when they hear mention of higher taxes for the wealthy, they say ‘no, we can’t do that, it’s not fair, it’s their money and they have a right to keep it’. No matter that Amazon are worth billions, that Philip Green stashes his cash in Monaco, or that all of them are rich precisely because ordinary people make and buy their goods. This a world in which the richest 300 people control as much wealth as the poorest 3 billion put together.
Marx and double freedom
This brings me to my next point. ‘Being liberal’ is as much about economics as it is about politics. In fact, it’s about the politics of economics and the economics of politics, or what academics like to call ‘political economy’.
Liberals say that man should be free from interference – his life, family and property are all his to keep. Under those circumstances, if a man doesn’t have any property to keep him and his family alive, then he’s free to sell what he does have – his labour – in return for the wages he’ll need to get by, and which he can then use to feed himself and his kin.
But what if he doesn’t want to work for someone else? Or what if the only guy he can work for is a tyrant and a pig? Well tough luck, old boy, because as Karl reminds us, his freedom is a double one – he’s free from the dictator or the feudal lord, but he’s also free to starve, since the law says that what’s his is his and he can’t go taking anyone else’s. This was summed up perfectly by Robert Lee Hale in 1920s New York:
‘A man must eat. Yet while there’s no law against eating in the abstract, there is a law which forbids him to eat any of the food which actually exists in the community – and that is the law of private property’.
What does this mean, Dad? It means that any notion of genuine liberal freedom is actually total BS! It’s not freedom at all – it’s coercion masked as freedom. You, me, and the rest of us all have to work for other people, not because we necessarily want to, though we might, but because the business as usual of a liberal political economy ensures that we must. The liberal order is the capitalist order – and it’s a political philosophy for the powerful, by the powerful.
The state and its citizens
This of course involves the state – the government and its apparatus. If being liberal is about protecting pre-existing distributions of wealth no matter what that means for the poor, then a liberal state, such as the one we’re from, will use the force at its disposal to do precisely that. Remember those Cambridge students who the police were spying on because they might have questioned inequality? Or what they did to me and my friends when a generation of students gathered to defend our right to education? Well none of that is new – the liberal elite have always used the state to defend property and wealth, from the massacre at Peterloo to the blacklisting of workers during the Great Depression.
This is because, in the liberal state, property is more important than people. That is why it took so long for the working poor to be given the vote – the very liberal ideologues who advocated freedom and equality feared that truly free elections would overturn the basis of their society and the state that was built to defend it. That’s also why Thatcher famously sold off so much public housing – because if you give people a few crumbs of the property pie, then they’ll be less likely to challenge those who share the big slices. Liberalism isn’t really about freedom, Dad, nor is the liberal state a state of equality.
Now before I finish, there’s one final point I’d like to make which brings me basically back to the start. I said at the beginning that the common understanding of ‘being liberal’ meant ‘live and let live’, to accept people as they are. That is true to a certain extent – we are less and less likely to see others as less worthy just because they’re a different colour or from a different place. And that is a wonderful and truly progressive thing.
But there are limits to it, and those limits are set precisely by the liberal establishment, via the rules of the game within which it allows us to live and let live. What do I mean by that? Well, the government might tell us ‘No, you can’t refuse John a job because John is gay’, and John might well campaign for the right to be gay. But if John were a communist who rejected the right of the Earl of Westminster to own half of London, then you can be sure as hell that the state would have something more severe to say about that and if it could, it would ignore his campaign. The liberal regime will therefore let us be socially egalitarian, but it will never let us be economically egalitarian.
More than that, it will actually use its control over the system to try and make us in its own image – to turn us into the kinds of citizens prepared to play according to its rules. Think of everything we’re taught at school, in university, on TV and through the press, about how we need to consume, grow, maximise profits and work-work-work without sharing our wealth beyond those we especially cherish. That’s not about being human, Dad, it’s not a recognition that all of us are more than just money-making, consumption-machines. It’s not about being free. What it is about is becoming the kind of individual wealth-owner prepared to defend ‘life, liberty and estate’. No matter what its effect is on us or anyone else.
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