Thursday, November 23, 2006

Liberal Anaemia

I have been thinking a little more about what it is that I find so unsatisfactory about liberalism (in the philosophical sense - it's obvious what's wrong with 'economic' (neo)liberalism - although whether one can make a clear distinction between these two strains of liberalism is matter for some debate. It's quite easy to argue that the two go hand in hand - and modern philosophical liberalism, in my opinion, often functions as a kind of 'ideological shell' for neo-liberal 'economics', precisely because, more often than not, liberal political philosophers have absolutely nothing to say about capitalism - as if it doesn't exist. There is, therefore, an implicit, unspoken apology for liberal capitalism - it is taken as a given). I read a paper, recently concerning (amongst other things) 'deliberative democracy' - and something became quite clear to me. Deliberative democracy, like 'cosmopolitan democracy', is a vague, foggy conception of the 'good society' which a lot of left liberals seem to be bandying around at the moment. There is nothing particularly uncongenial about 'deliberative democracy' - in fact I'd be rather in favour of such a social and democratic arrangement. What's so deeply unimpressive about it is the fact that it's so nebulous. What would be the concrete political institutions in which deliberative democracy could be embedded? How would it work, precisely? What, if any, are the political, economic and other obstacles to its functioning in contemporary societies/states? How might it be set up? What are the political and economic obstacles to the creation of such a thing? These questions, of course, do not concern most liberals in the slightest, because liberalism is a politics free-zone. There isn't, as far as I can see, the slightest interest in strategic political questions (ie. how do we get it?) or in specific analysis of the concrete institutional stuctures necessary for the functioning of such an arrangement (ie. how would it work, exactly?*). Its this absence of politics, this luxurious contemplative passivity, this treatment of social/ethical questions purely in terms of a kind of intellectual parlour-game that annoys me.

I find myself in agreement with the general principles, the ethical drift, of egalitarian liberals. I think we are on the same side in these terms. I am a socialist because I am fairly convinced that it is impossible to realise those principles in any meaningful way within a society in which market forces, the law of value, governs. I am a socialist because I can see that there are deeply embedded structural obstacles in capitalist society to the establishment of a just, egalitarian and democratic society. I was radicalised, not because I liked the idea of being a radical or because I had some a priori attraction to the idea of class struggle or the expropriation of capitalist property. I was radicalised because it occurred to me that in order to have any chance of overcoming the obstacles to the establishment of a just society one needs to get politically radical (whether one likes it or not). There is no way to abolish poverty without taking on the power of private property. Even relatively modest reforms run up against the logic of capitalist accumulation - it would be difficult for a relatively radical left labour government to carry out a programme of redistribution and nationalisation without being subjected to a run on the currency, spiralling inflation, an investment strike, disinvestment of FDI and so on. In other words, capital has power of veto over capitalist democracy. It's this that liberals don't see, or don't want to see. How does one overcome capital's power of veto? You have to resist it, you have to confront it, you have to take it away. You have to act quickly and decisively, you have to build a movement capable of taking it on. Anathema to liberals of course - we are getting far too political.

One can, like Jurgen Habermas, for example, spend one's time building up the moral and philosophical case for some kind of cosmopolitan democracy, some 'transnational civil society' in today's 'Post-National Constellation' (cough, bollocks, cough) - but this is simply pie-in-the-sky unless you analyse the obstacles and constraints on the construction of such a thing and unless you concern yourself with questions of political strategy. Otherwise it's just glorified navel gazing.

This is the thing. Liberals won't like to hear this, but it is socialists who are the realistic ones. Liberals are the utopians and dreamers.

* Although, come to think of it, I would make exactly the same kind of criticism (the latter one I mean - socialists are very good at the former) of Marxists, here.

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