by Chris Horner
The political world is changing again. In place of the neoliberal politics of the last decades, capitalism and the nation state is undergoing one of its periodic metamorphoses. The period of what Nancy Fraser has called ‘neoliberal progressivism’ – broadly progressive stances by many governments on issues of sexual choice, reproductive rights and so on, coupled with an economic agenda committed to ‘balancing the books,’ actually cutting public expenditure, austerity in other words, is slowly giving way to a new dispensation. This new approach is unsurprisingly favoured mainly by parties of the right, and it threatens to leave centre left parties with a problem. This hasn’t happened in every developed country in the same way, and like any political phenomenon, it is subject to the ebb and flow of electoral fortune. But whether the right is formally in power or not, the we can see a family resemblance in the different forms that the right has recently taken.
It is a much more authoritarian tendency in politics, with the national-popular-leader and state at its heart. It is often headed by a faux populist ‘strong man’ – think of Trump, Bolsonaro and Johnson. National borders are emphasised, the limits of demonstration and dissent underlined, the fringes of the far right, with its racist suprematism and violence moves from the margins to the centre. Groups are demonised as a way to get the ‘real patriots’ focused on an external threat, or on the ‘enemy within’ – immigrants of all kinds, asylum seekers, anyone who doesn’t fit the national image, very much including the political left. Public spending may be increased, selectively, partly to shore up an electoral base among certain groups, but crucially as the state is seen as essential in helping the economy out of the problems the last 20 years of neoliberalism left it with: rampant inequality (which suppresses demand in the economy), massive private debt, a bloated finance sector etc. To be clear, conservative fiscal policies, for instance, haven’t gone away, but a new attitude to using the state, and to spending, definitely has emerged. And so has a turn to harsher, more repressive politics. An illiberal time has come, and it may be that worse is on the way, particularly in view of the worsening climate crisis. All this has led to some recent discussion of the common roots of liberalism and socialism with a view to seeing how they can better oppose their common enemy. How might that proceed?
A first step would be for liberals and radicals to listen to each other, and to reflect on what they both stand for and oppose. Recent discussion has stressed the common roots of liberalism and socialism and the possibility for some strategic alliances. Such a thing is both attractive and difficult, since they share certain goals but differ sharply on important points; seeing what they have in common and where they divide requires clarity about these political ideologies. What follows is intended to be a contribution to that project, and while I cannot claim to be impartial I shall try to be fair. As space and time are limited, I am going to be rather generic here, imagining two big families, one of which I shall call ‘liberal’, the other ‘socialist’. Of course they contain multitudes, and I will necessarily deal very broadly with them: first, the main features of liberalism, then the alternatives to it on the left, as we see them in developed countries such as the USA, UK, Canada, France, etc.
We can distinguish several aspects to liberalism: philosophical liberalism, procedural liberalism, historical or actually existing liberalism and liberalism as an ideology.
Liberalism stresses the freedom of the individual. The idea is that the state should be neutral on matters of the good as the individual may define it, limiting itself as much as possible to ensuring that the exercise of one’s freedom does not damage the freedom of others. The state is thus neutral, a kind of agency for the enforcement of law whose main criterion for is the prevention of harm, and not the promotion or repression of particular world views, lifestyles or religious beliefs. There is a strong emphasis on rights: fundamental claims to be able to do things without hindrance, or not have certain things done to one. While there is a notion in this that individuals have a kind of moral equality (expressed in universal rights) this has not always been imagined as genuinely universal, as applying in practice to all humans. Still, the universalist aspiration is there, and it is shared by socialists: part of our shared history has been the effort to extend equal civil and political rights beyond the narrow groups that originally claimed it for themselves.
A noteworthy fact is that there is no presumption of material equality in liberalism. Material inequality is built into the structure of liberalism, as the idea is that since individuals are free to make choices, some choices will be unwise, or unlucky. Freedom implies living with the results of one’s choices: some people will bet the house and lose. Also, and this is a real issue that will divide some liberals from those to their left, there is the problem of differing material starting points: X has poor parents, Y has rich ones. How much this bothers the liberal will help to determine whether she is a leftish social democrat, committed to some state intervention based on tax to assist or protect X. This principle may be extended to an ethic of ‘meritocracy’ in which material differences are to some extent counteracted in order to help the talented poor compete with their luckier fellow citizens. But competition still implies winners and losers, and the race of life will not end equally, even if there is some help at the start. This is because liberalism developed with capitalism and is more closely tied to the exigencies of the market that some realise or admit. The problem of inequality remains an area of contention both between different types of liberals and even more between liberals and socialists. In an era in which most on the centre-left and centre-right accept or at least pay lip service to these ideas it can seem as if the only thing separating ‘conservative liberals’ from ‘social democratic’ ones is how much they are committed to taxing the better off to minimise the effects of unequal life chances.
It is with the ascendancy of liberal norms such as ‘innocent until proven guilty’, habeas corpus, the right to free speech and assembly, etc., that the hegemony of liberal ideas has been most evident. Even most of the far right at least claim to accept such norms. It is worth noting, though, how much these have been rolled back in recent years, sometimes by figures of the centre left as much as the right. And in 2021 they are under more pressure than ever. This is one of the key reasons that the issue of centre/left alliance gets brought up.
It is clear from the foregoing that anyone with a claim to progressive politics would want to defend liberalism in its procedures, as well as affirm the moral equality of all people. Socialists need to remember this. Too many on the far left have under appreciated the importance of rights, of legal norms on the role of evidence, the principle of innocent-until-proven-guilty, and importantly, of a pluralist notion of politics. In this context we might recall that Marx, a journalist most of his life, whatever else he was, condemned censorship in all its forms. Any socialist, anarchist or communist future you’d want to live in would include people who will disagree about important issues. This is why democracy and a diversity of lifestyle and opinion is absolutely crucial to socialism, not just in an imagined future but in the here and now. The failure to appreciate this was one of the worst aspects of ‘actually existing socialism’, Only democratic socialism has a future on a liveable planet. Marx again: ‘All forms of the state have democracy for their truth, and for that reason are false to the extent that they are not democracy.’
Actually Existing Liberalism
What of ‘actually existing liberalism’ of the last 150 years or more? Here the balance sheet is less obviously favourable to liberals. Its a mixed picture. Liberalism did not develop because the founders actually thought all men were equal, let alone all people, and changing that often took struggle by the excluded. Limitation of the franchise, slavery, expropriation of land from native peoples, imperialism, genocide and more have all been not only tolerated but celebrated and practiced by very many of the key founders of liberalism. This includes the US founding fathers, many of its subsequent leading politicians, thinkers like Locke, de Tocqueville and many more. It is as if the preservation of liberal polity rested on the backs of a multitude of often brown skinned others, necessarily excluded from the demos. And this has not changed as much as it ought to have done, and could have done. The west still draws huge wealth from the poorer parts of the planet. And there is the central fact that capitalism and liberalism – much more than capitalism and democracy – are a close bonded phenomenon. We have a class society.
It is here that socialists are going to find their most profound differences from liberals. Socialists demand that the ideals of liberalism be made real. Liberals accept a system – capitalism – that actually dominates people, and thus denies them the freedom to develop as they might wish. From a socialist perspective, material inequality isn’t just the inevitable outcome of individual choices, with the distributive question of how much to tax and spend as the only important political questions. The issue is one of exploitation, of how wealth is produced by the many and expropriated by the few.
The liberal conception of progress is often limited to empowering individuals. Take feminism for example: liberal feminists often refer to the ‘glass ceiling’ – but their more radical sisters remind them that there is a large basement full of (often brown skinned) women doing most of the wealth creation. A few more women in the boardroom will not change that. So systemic transformation is needed, and not just individual emancipation. Far more than a demand for equality, socialism is a campaign against domination. If a corporation can exploit, impoverish, pollute, buy politicians, deny basic necessities through price fixing, relocate at will to find workers that will labour for less, harass and bully at will, all in the name of profit, then no, we are not free and we are not democratic. Here liberals need to learn from socialists. Only a fundamental change to the economic basis of life, an end to class, will really make good on the promise of the enlightenment.
Liberalism and socialism aren’t in a debate. They are often locked in a struggle. This is because, too often, liberalism operates as the ideology that demands that nothing fundamental should change, the ideology, not of human emancipation, but of Capitalist Realism. Often the liberal (centrist) account claims the mantle of ‘realism’. This has some rhetorical effectiveness, for who could be against being realistic? Too often, though, ‘realism‘ is just a synonym for stasis – or just enough small change to keep things as they are. Nothing beyond what we have now can imagined, and those who would imagine differently must be excluded from political power. So liberals can find themselves in an ambiguous position, employing the language of freedom while acting as the defenders of a system that limits or even denies it. But the world needs radical change, and will change in any case, for better or worse. There is no way back to the ‘progressive neoliberalism’ of the recent past, still less to the thirty years of economic expansion and relative stability that followed the Second World War. And the world is burning.
Realism is a radical demand: capitalism is profoundly unstable and unjust, the natural world is under huge pressure and we have rise of demagogues of the right who call on desperate people’s darkest impulses. They invoke and incite hatred to promote injustice and oppression, whatever their populist rhetoric may be. So yes, the left and the centre need to work together. A strategic alliance in various forms may be necessary, but at some point the question of the private ownership of the means of production and the absence of democracy in the economy will come up. It’s there that the ways will part, if not before. In the meantime, we have enemies to face, enemies who do not think all are equal in any sense, and who work the will of those who would subjugate and dominate. We have to defeat them.