Who exactly is the "we" that liberalism talks about?

Though always a construct by necessity, the gap between the idea and the reality of "we" is getting ever larger.

Annabelle Sreberny
17 November 2014

Two key terms of the liberal tradition, the ‘people’ and the ‘public’, are under siege.

The idea of “we, the people” is enshrined in both the US and Indian constitutions. But Richard Sennett once called ‘we’ a weasel word that insinuates itself into easy claims of identity. The importance of the self-definition of a people begs the question of how a ‘people’ is formed and how it is so acknowledged by others. Numerous theorists, including Balibar, Bhabha and Hobsbawm, have written about the narrative process needed to ground a nation, with a supposedly ready made pre-history and set of cultural icons and myths. ‘We’ is written backwards, not forwards, recuperating historical time and claiming an essential identity that actually has to be always reinvented. In such processes, minor differences sometimes become the basis of struggle for nation-formation while other differences become minority positions with an other’s whole. 

The political unit of the nation-state is being challenged from two directions. It is challenged from the outside through the deterritorialisation of politics, the internationalisation of economies, the transnationalisation of the cultural realm and other forms of practice and affiliation that erode sovereignty. But perhaps even more significantly, it is challenged from the inside, with the rising significance of minorities and localised cultures with a range of different values, beliefs and practices.

Time and again in the media debates in Britain around the recent Scottish referendum, the argument was made for a non-ethnicised version of nationhood at the same time that television speakers were introduced as having Scottish grandfathers or English forebears, an ethnicised version of a ‘we’. Almost never was the issue of a multicultural nation with many ‘peoples’ in our midst raised. This speaks partly to the hostile anti-immigrant debate that is being so adeptly utilized by both UKIP and parts of the tabloid press and which now tempts even the Labour party. But it also speaks to liberalism’s difficulty to fully imagine a different form of the polity, a ‘people’ beyond the ethnicised nation-state.

Appadurai argues that states and nations are each other’s projects. There are some old nations/peoples (the Kurds, for example) still struggling for a recognized statehood while other states have to work hard to create a sense of nationhood; Qatar, for example. There remains a profound struggle on the international stage to ground and reground ethnicised political units.   Indeed, the tearing up of the 1915 Sykes-Picot map of the Middle East and beyond with the proclamation of a Sunni caliphate by Da’esh suggests the return of political units far larger than current nation-states and based on competing definitions as to who ‘we’ are.

The issue of the constitution of difference remains central to contemporary politics inside states. Shlomo Sand, the Israeli historian, has renounced his Jewish identity as a way of spotlighting the privilege of Jewishness as the sole route to full citizenship in Israel, supposedly the only democracy in its region. Yet his personal choice hardly impacts Israeli state practice that names him as a Jew in his passport, that ultimate arbiter of individual identity.

Beyond the issue of political rights lurks the question of cultural rights, the need for recognition of minority cultural beliefs and practices within the boundaries of nation-states. If liberal democracies have moved someway toward de-ethnicisation, there remains more to be done. Scholars have noted the weakened nationalism of much history teaching in European schools and a general attenuation of ethnicised nationalism. But the problem is then shifted from the state’s provision of an environment that welcomes minority cultures, however defined, to an individualized responsibility for tolerance and acceptance.

Notions of multicultural citizenship and cosmopolitanism raise important questions about our multiple affiliations in today’s world. They do not resolve the feminist concern about women’s rights being silenced by traditional group rights. And they do not settle the comparatively easy shift in rhetoric that can be made toward inclusiveness and diversity, without any structural processes of resource-allocation nor a commitment to social justice. And yet, those tropes produced not only academic and intellectual but also public debate about the nature of liberal democracies, what stories they tell about themselves, who ‘we’ are and how ‘we’ participate within them. Cameron’s insistence in early 2011 that multiculturalism had failed was made precisely in order to foster a stronger sense of national identity in order to prevent extremism, revealing a profound misunderstanding of almost all the issues at play.

If the idea of who constitutes the ‘people’ is confused, so too is the current idea of the ‘public’. “Public services” intended to benefit all, such as the National Health Service and even the BBC, are underfunded and in decline, with private providers of health care and media content on the rise. Yet the “public school” system continues as a private bastion of privilege and still overproduces Westminster politicians, lawyers and financiers. And even as more evidence reveals the full extent of social inequality in Britain, the ‘public’ is made to blame: ‘ we’ are the illegal immigrants, scroungers, benefit-fraudsters, couch-potatoes. The victims of banking failure and financial mismanagement are blamed for the rise in the benefits budget, not those who finagle the system, cook the books and refuse to alter weak tax regimes. A recent Guardian article noted the claim by a current welfare minister that the rise of food banks was because ‘people like a free meal’ as he tried to bury a report documenting the real social need behind the growing phenomenon. And despite the plethora of reports that document the net economic benefit to Britain of immigrants (bracketing any other possible benefits) all the major political parties insist that the ‘public’ are most concerned about immigration, as if the ‘public’ does not include immigrants. Increasingly, it is the excluded and the marginalized who are made to pay the price for incompetence, hubris and hypocrisy, and the poor who are deemed at fault for their poverty. In such linguistic sleights of hand does a government wish to revive liberal notions of individual responsibility while avoiding those of the liberal, caring state.

I missed any celebration in the Scottish debate of the diversity of Britain and feel we shouldn’t let Cameron kill off multiculturalism, for all its challenges and difficulties. Nor can the Tory or UKIP definitions of the ‘public’ prevail; rather, we the ‘public’ can resist the destruction of our public services. Echoing Badiou, “we, the people” has to be written forwards, in solidarity and political action and with a language rescued from illiberal politicians and their political spindoctors.


This article is part of the Gender and Race strand of the Liberalism in neoliberal times series that OurKingdom is running in partnership with Goldsmiths, supported by the Department of Sociology. You can read Gholam Khiabany's introduction to the whole series here.

Liberalism in neo-liberal times - an OurKingdom partnership with Goldsmiths, University of London

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