Liberalism does not imply Democracy

Liberalism implies an individualism which makes no room for institutions, non-choice based groups or the power these exercise. So what does its success imply? Jeremy Gilbert tries to get to the heart of his disagreement with Rosemary Bechler, David Marquand and John Rawls
Jeremy Gilbert
26 September 2009

An OurKingdom conversation. This is Jeremy Gilbert's response to Rosemary Bechler in OK's debate on liberalism and democracy [History: Jeremy Gilbert Rosemary Bechler > Jeremy Gilbert > Rosemary Bechler (part 1; part 2) > this post]

Agreeing to Disagree?

Reading Rosemary's double response to me Unselfish Individualism and Power and the Many, I'm reminded of a conference at which I heard Ernesto Laclau reply to a question about the differences between his philosophy and that of Alain Badiou. In response to a technical query about their respective attitudes to post-Cantorian set theory and its implications for the ontology of the political event, Laclau quipped ‘The real difference between myself and Badiou... is that Badiou is a Maoist and I am a Gramscian'

Not funny? Well, maybe you had to be there.

What got a laugh from the audience that day was the recognition of the truth implicit in Laclau's remark - that discussion of the technical differences between a pair of contrasting philosophical positions must at some point cease, if it is not to degenerate into endless, circular babble. It ceases at the point where each side accepts that there are some fundamental differences at stake which neither party it likely to be talked out of.

I think Rosemary has helpfully clarified the differences between us, because to the majority of her remarks I can only respond that I simply disagree, not with many of the finer points or details but fundamentally. What is clear is that the difference between myself and Rosemary... is that she is a liberal and I am not.

I really don't mean this in a pejorative sense. (I know there is a danger that it will be taken as such, because both Rosemary and I have backgrounds in political traditions which are contemptuous of liberalism.) I also don't mean ‘liberal' in a casual sense: certainly not in the current United States usage of a general supporter of social liberalism and welfare egalitarianism. I mean quite specifically that Rosemary's operating assumptions and priorities, like most of her civic republican sources, are clearly those of the great liberal tradition which is, after all, the major tradition of Western political thought in the modern era.

The assumption that political and cultural individualism does not necessarily imply an assent to the basic philosophical assumptions of the most violent kinds of possessive individualism; the belief that communities are or should be formed on the basis of individuals choosing freely to belong to them; the belief (implicit or explicit) that the rights and freedoms of individuals are the highest good to be defended by any political project; these are the core assumptions of the liberal tradition.

Of course Rosemary is a much more interesting and thoughtful sort of liberal than say, Richard Reeves in the UK and his hero John Stuart Mill (so too are David Marquand, or most followers of the great philosopher of republican justice, John Rawls). Nonetheless, most of Rosemary's criticisms of me amount to criticisms of any position - radical or conservative, left or right - which does not share these cores assumptions of liberalism.

Now I recognise that, not only are these Rosemary's assumptions: they are also likely to be beliefs which many, perhaps most, oD readers will not only share, but will regard as too self-evidently true to be rationally questionable. On top of all this, it is important to recognise the enormous power and success of liberalism in recent years, as it has transformed the world in its image and freed up the lives of millions of people in the process. Nonetheless, it is also crucial to recognise that for all of their power and global popularity, these liberal assumption have not been and are not shared by a vast majority of human beings at any time in history: and they are also assumptions which I freely, gladly, joyfully admit that I do not share.

Apart from anything else, it strikes me as self-evident that the most important groups in the lives of most people - their families, their nations, the communities where they grow up, the people they go to school with - will always be ones that they do not and cannot choose, and that democratic progress relies on democratising and empowering those kinds of groups more than any others. But I don't think that I'm going to talk Rosemary out of her liberalism, and she isn't very likely to persuade me of its validity.

Liberalism Vs Democracy

There is one assumption common to many contemporary liberals, which I have already invited Rosemary to defend against its critics, which she simply has not done (she has asserted its validity very eloquently, but she really has not presented an argument for it). But I think it remains very important to challenge, namely that liberalism and democracy somehow imply each other.

This only makes sense if one accepts the liberal democratic common-sense according to which, in effect ‘democracy' just means liberalism. There are many people today for whom the word ‘democracy' does indeed simply mean: personal freedom, freedom of speech and expression, the maximisation of personal choice. However, this is an ideological nonsense which utterly strips the word ‘democracy' of any specific meaning.

If it is to retain its meaning, then ‘democracy' must refer to the principle of popular sovereignty: to the idea of collectivities making effective and binding decisions which they are capable of enacting in the world.

The great achievement of liberal democracy is that it manages to combine the two distinct sets of core aims held by liberalism and democracy - the protection of personal freedoms and the maximisation of popular sovereignty - into a system which tries to avoid the worst excesses of each, by guaranteeing individuals a degree of protection from the popular will (through the courts and a guaranteed collection of basic rights) while enabling the popular will to find a measure of political expression through the institutions of representative democracy. But the relative success of this achievement does not alter the fact that these are, at root, two contradictory sets of tendencies.

Just look at Iran : a fine example of a country which - to the chagrin of its critics and to the dismay of liberals and libertarians of many stripes (myself included) - has been for most of the history of the Islamic Republic a functioning democracy, but one rarely characterised by any kind of liberalism. The point is that for at least two decades after the revolution most Iranians haven't wanted their country to be any more liberal than it is, which is why it hasn't been. On the other hand, countries like the UK have seen themselves become more and more liberal in recent years, as personal freedom and diversity of lifestyle have increased extraordinarily; yet at the same time in such contexts the capacity of collectivities - voluntary or otherwise - to form, make decisions, and act upon them has clearly been in decline for decades.

It is this historical problem - the problem that liberalisation does not necessarily lead to democratisation, and can even seem to undermine democracy in some forms - which Rosemary signally fails even to acknowledge, despite my invitations to her to do so. I understand her anxiety that this line of thinking might tend in an authoritarian direction, but I do not think that simply ignoring these issues or singing hymns to personal freedom is any way to avoid authoritarian solutions to these dilemmas from emerging.

Liberalism Vs. Radicalism

I suppose I must confess at this point that I think that Rosemary's response - or lack of it - to these questions is absolutely symptomatic of the aporias of liberalism itself. Liberalism, I would argue, is itself constitutively unable to face up to the problems raised by its own tendency to undermine the bases for effective democracy - and the extent to which this then also undermines the material freedom of people to act collectively in the world. 

This is why I do not think that liberalism actually contains within it the resources to protect the freedoms which it holds so dear. As a libertarian, but not a liberal, I think that freedom is something too precious to be left to ‘individuals' alone. I will try to elucidate this point in a moment.

Before doing that, I feel compelled, for the sake of readers who might have got the idea from the exchange between myself and Rosemary, or from Anthony Barnett's characterisation of it, that I regard myself simply as a ‘left communitarian', to make clear that I don't. My position is not derived from the moral critique of individualism (selfish or otherwise) which motivates that tendency, but from the far more fundamental ontological and epistemological  critique of individualism which derives from the radical tradition of Winstanley, Spinoza, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, Lacan, Foucault, Derrida and Deleuze. From this perspective, the assumption that ‘the individual' is or ever can be the basic unit of human experience is simply regarded as a mistake: not a moral failing, but a logical and factual error.

This observation is not made, as liberals tend to fear, in order to promote some Stalinist or Maoist notion of the primacy of ‘the group', ‘the collective' or ‘the society'; but rather to insist that the arbitrary category of ‘the individual' is too limiting, to restrictive, too weak a notion with which to try to delimit the multiple potentialities which every human body contains, potentialities which are only ever realised by virtue of the complex relationships which that body can enter into with other bodies (human and non-human, organic and inorganic).

There is no ‘individual' because there is nothing that cannot be divided (which is what the word ‘in-dividual' literally means - that which cannot be divided): everything and everyone is more complicated than that, and it is only in the realisation of that complexity that something like freedom can be attained.

This is not a good situation or a bad one: it's just the way things are, and the trouble with all forms of individualism is that because they do not recognise it, they do not work. They do not deliver the freedom, the happiness, the ‘choice', the ‘individual power' that they promise. That is why the inhabitants of the richest societies the world has ever seen are today so deeply unhappy and so deeply frustrated at their inability to act upon the world around them, despite living with the highest levels of personal freedom any culture has ever known.

This is my view, but I do not make these remarks with the intention of trying to convert anyone. I've come to this view after reading lots and thinking lots and living lots, and if the same processes have led other people to different views then I see no reason to expect a few lines of mine to change their minds; but I'm certainly not going to change mine because someone quotes Richardson at me. Indeed, my view is one which was already implicit in the work of Richardson's great contemporary Lawrence Sterne.

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy remains one of the classics of experimental literature precisely because it sets out to demonstrate and to lampoon the impossibility, the absurdity and the implicit solipsism of any attempt to force the complexity, messiness and endless divisibility of an actual life into the kind of neat linear narrative which novels like Pamela proffered.

As for the question of power: again, I think that what has become clear is that Rosemary and I simply inherit two quite different intellectual traditions. Liberals never like the idea that power is a matter of numbers, or that politics can be thought in military terms (see Foucault's Society Must Be Defended for an interesting discussion of the history of thinking about history in these terms), or that there are some collectivities which we have no choice about belonging to, or that there are some ‘choices' which can only be exercised by groups: they have been not-liking those ideas quite vociferously and quite eloquently at least since the days of de Tocqueville. There is nothing new about a liberal objecting to a radical in these terms.

Having said all this, there is an interesting resonance between some of Rosemary's remarks about power and some of the most influential ideas of some of my own most cherished sources. Deleuze & Guattari famously distinguish between the molar dimension of politics and the molecular. The molar is the dimension of aggregation, the level at which collective identities are stabilised, norms established, majorities formed. The molecular is the level at which differences (which for Deleuze are always creative) are produced, norms destabilised, minorities and singularities liberated. The brilliance of Deleuze & Guattari's understanding of power is that it encompasses both of these aspects, despite the fact that many of their liberal or anarchist followers would like to ignore the fact.

Rather like Rosemary in her remarks on power, such commentators tend to want to pretend that the molar dimension of power simply does not exist, or can be ignored, or wished away. The point is that power, of course, operates both at the levels of the molecularity and at the level of molarity, and that power relations can only be intervened in and transformed by taking account of both of these aspects. To assume that simply paying any attention at all to the molar is a necessarily authoritarian gesture, and that it necessarily implies an  ignorance of the importance of the molecular...well, I would say that this is the liberal assumption par excellence: and it is, from my perspective, simply a mistake.

Liberalism Vs. "Hegemony"?

If all this is too abstract then let me put it this way: of course I think that all the things that Rosemary says should happen in her post on Power and the Many ought to happen (and in my next piece for oD  I will discuss some of the terms of reference for a positive political pluralism as I would understand it). The point is that there are very powerful institutions in the world which don't want them to happen and are going to be successful at stopping them happening unless they are themselves made incapable of doing so. The idea that we are somehow going to just erode, undermine, hollow-out or evade such power blocs without ever confronting them seems to me to be highly improbable indeed.

Rosemary's only defence against this observation is to suggest that "I'm not sure that neo-liberal hegemony is that coherent". Well, here the onus of proof is on Rosemary. By any ordinary usage of the term ‘hegemony', the ‘managerial populism' which she describes would be understood precisely as an ideal-typical example of a coherent hegemonic operation: an operation which makes selective use of strategic advantage in order to neutralise opposition and normalise a set of behaviours which ultimately benefit one social group at the expense of others.

The evidence for the coherence of neo-liberal hegemony is there for all to see: the inability of governments to imagine a future beyond it, and their willingness to bankrupt themselves defending it; the persistence of competitive, individualist and consumerist norms across almost all of commercial popular culture; the attempted imposition of exactly such values throughout the public sector. If Rosemary has an argument as to why that does not constitute coherent neo-liberal hegemony, I would be interested to hear it: although I suspect that, like so many commentators, she mistakenly assumes that ‘hegemony' implies only enthusiastic self-conscious consent on the part of the governed for the explicit political projects of the governing (that was never what the term meant: not even in Gramsci, not even in Plekhanov).

But of course, the objection that ‘there is no hegemony' is another classic liberal reaction to radical critique (it is analogous to the claim that ‘there is no institutional racism', which is also typical of liberal attitudes). So perhaps Rosemary and I really should agree to differ. And lest this sound merely dismissive, let me freely admit: it is not Rosemary, but a self-styled ‘radical' like myself who should be asking themselves right now if they are not merely wasting their time, kicking their heels down one of history's dead ends.

Liberalism is the philosophy and the cultural tendency which has achieved the most awe-inspiring victories in recent decades, produced the most extraordinary social transformations, liberated millions from the drudgery of prejudice, dead tradition and hoary superstition. Yes, it may not make people as ‘happy' as they would like to be: but isn't that just the human condition anyway? Is anyone who is sane and grown-up as ‘happy' as they think they would like to be? My advice is: if you can believe in the assumptions of liberalism then do so.  I wish I could: I would be much less frustrated with the world. So I do not expect Rosemary or any other liberal to change their position, or to feel that they have to justify it to me.

But perhaps if we can agree to differ on these points of principle, we can focus on more concrete issues.  Rosemary's critical and direct attacks on my contributions to oD raise a question of wider significance to which the answer remains unclear: what exactly does she want? What, in practice, does she think that her kind of politics would look like if successfully enacted, and how would it look different from mine?

Most of her suggestions, and most of the sources which she cites, suggest that what she wants is, like, me, radical democratic reform and a chance for voices other than those of the neo-liberal management to be heard in our public sphere. Ultimately, what seems to have provoked her in my contributions (and she seems to acknowledge that she has been trying to goad me into a fight over this) is my assertion that campaigns for democratic reform which are divorced from wider struggles - in particular labour struggles - will be unlikely to effect any significant shifts in social relations of power or, to use the phrase, real change.

Given that this was the sole upshot of the contribution which first provoked Rosemary, one can only infer that it is ultimately this political point to which she objects (and if it isn't then it still really isn't clear what her problem with me is). And to this I would simply ask, for the second time: please can we have a historical example? Please, Rosemary, can we have just one scrap of historical evidence that your faith in institutional reform and media pluralisation, divorced from wider social struggles, is justified?

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