Against Bloodless Liberalism

Liam Kofi Bright wrote a very good explanation for why he is not a liberal. It makes a couple of particularly useful points in service of the broader goal of explaining his rejection of liberalism as “unworkable.” Among others,

  1. liberalism is the default setting of politics, even for the Sanders and Corbyn types on the democratic left. They do not question the core liberal premises of democratic politics. Most everyone is a fish, unaware they are swimming in a liberal sea.
  2. liberalism-as-actually-practiced was simply awful anytime it encountered people living on top of land that contained valuable resources, or who could be compelled to harvest sugar or cotton at musketpoint. It was helpful for liberals to argue that such people weren’t really people, or were not yet complete people.
  3. liberalism as a public philosophy emerged alongside a robust debate about individual virtue. The people arguing the foundations of what became liberalism as we understand it today were not indifferent to moral questions.

Most people who think critically about liberalism understand (2). Perhaps they also remember (3).

(1) is more contentious, but let us grant the point for now, and I do tend to agree with it anyway. It is also true that many self-described “conservatives” are “liberals” in the sense the Bright means it, they simply have different setting on liberalism’s “inequality” dial than do the liberals of the left.

Bright describes this as “liberalism warts and all.” He does suggest that most people who protest that they are not liberals should face up to the fact that they are. But he will not, because he is not! His objections to liberalism are three:

  1. separating the public and private spheres is unworkable
  2. capitalism generates inequality as a matter of course, and
  3. the liberalism that produces comfy livelihoods for some seems to always coexist with exploitation (you cannot name a counterexample).

I think that there is a coherent liberal response to the first of these objections, and I suspect that that response also gets you some of the way towards the other two, although I have not seriously thought out the details of that.

At issue is the question of whether or not liberalism can separate public and private spheres. Here’s Bright:

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 (and nor does the liberal historical compromise just so happen to constitute the ideal moral position, as perfectionists bizarrely convince themselves). What made it seem plausible that this was a solution to the problem of the wars of religion was that in fact very substantive consensus did exist among the various dominant Christian sects, and where that agreement wasn’t there they didn’t really feel the need to respect the rights of outsiders (go back and reread Locke’s letters on toleration if you don’t believe me). Or, at least, substantive consensus existed among the restrained class of people that liberalism was willing to consider full persons worthy of consideration. Now we have expanded that class massively, as we surely must, and perhaps with broader social changes bringing more diversity, it is simply no longer tenable to seek to govern in light of a minimalist neutrality. What I think it leads to are just bad faith illusory politics where people must pretend procedural objections when really substantive objections are at stake. Hence 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. 

His diagnosis of the problem is correct, but that the idea that this is a problem for liberalism rests on the presumption that liberalism could ever be bloodless or sterile. By this I mean, that it could be grounded on some pre-political consensus of what values were worthy of toleration, from which one could then derive principles that we could use to write rules for how a collection of individuals would govern themselves.

An alternative is to just abandon this whole charade (which Bright also thinks we must do) and to accept that liberals are engaged in an argument about values, and that arguments about procedures will always be grounded in arguments about interests. William Riker* understood this, and many anti-liberals do too. Liberals might own up to the fact that values like bodily autonomy are not inherent moral values for most people. And hence, liberals are engaged both in the construction of systems that protect bodily autonomy and in the cultivation of citizens who hold such values.**

Perhaps some liberals want to believe that there is a bloodlessly pre-political way of constructing a state, but no one else does. Every other theory of the state embodies some sense of either the common good or some normative claim on whose values are the correct or admissible ones. Let liberals propose a set of values too, disagree internally about what exactly they are, and defend their politics as an ongoing project with no fixed endpoint rather than as a normative ideal.***

There two loose ends here, however. One is that an argument against liberalism does not provide much guidance on what ought to replace it. Writes Bright,

We cannot have a neutral public sphere and nor would the greater good just so happen to coincide with what liberals say the neutral public sphere looks like. 

Point taken. But I cannot imagine what kind of human organization would give us a better foundation for society than the perspective that we ought not assume that we can know what anyone else wants. This is kind of like the ur-fact about human collectives, and embracing that has been tremendously beneficial to a lot of people.

The second loose end is liberalism as a theory (normative or otherwise) of world politics. Embedded liberalism, as Sara Goodman and I recently argued, had exclusionary foundations. The history of liberalism as a global political project has been terribly disappointing for most people (although comfortable if you happen to be an American). These are facts. I still don’t yet know if I understand their implications for liberalism as a normative theory of politics in any one country.


* Political scientist, not Starship first officer.

** I maintain that this is consistent with Bright’s endorsement of liberalism’s “nominalist vibe,” which I also share.

*** This is where I think a “punch-throwing liberalism” offers a response to Bright’s second and third objections.