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Chapter 1: Introduction

Published onSep 11, 2019
Chapter 1: Introduction

Raymond Williams once suggested that the term ‘liberal has, at first sight, so clear a political meaning that some of its further associations are puzzling.’ This, as Williams demonstrated, is partly because the word itself has a long and fascinating history that dates back to the fourteenth century. The original uses of ‘liberal’ were mostly positive. Liberal was a mark of distinction, a free man in contradistinction with those who were not; liberal arts was a reference to skills appropriate for men who had means and status; liberal also came to be defined as generous, open-minded, and unorthodox. The distinction, from its very first usage, was all about class, privilege, and status. However, ‘liberal’ also had, and still retains, negative meanings. For example, cultural and social conservatives still associate ‘liberal’ with unrestrained and undisciplined attitudes and behaviour. Taking liberties is pejorative, as is a liberal reading/attitude to facts and figures.1

In the realm of politics the term is just as complex and puzzling. On the one hand, being liberal has been regarded as being open-minded, progressive or even radical, while, on the other hand, liberals are attacked for either being insufficiently radical (from the Left) or being too progressive (such as in the United States). The prevailing definition of liberalism (as an ideology, political philosophy, and tradition) has historically revolved around tolerance, progress, humanitarianism, objectivity, respect for and promotion of reason, democracy, and human rights. To be considered a ‘liberal’ (in this sense) can still be seen as a positive thing. Yet despite receiving a very good press throughout its history, liberalism has also been subject to passionate and sustained critiques by the Left and the illiberal. For the latter, liberalism has gone too far; for the former, it has never gone far enough. Raymond Williams, for example, argues that liberalism, while referring to a ‘mixture of liberating and limiting ideas’, is ‘essentially, a doctrine of possessive individualism’ and that it is, therefore, ‘in fundamental conflict not only with socialist but with most strictly social theories.’2

In the opening chapter of this collection, William Davies argues that the basic premise of liberal thought is the equality of individuals before the law—a conception that stresses the negative immunity of citizens from political intervention and coercion. Yet, as Davies notes, private property ‘has long been recognised as a fundamental individual right within liberal frameworks, which partly accounts for the connection between political and economic liberalism.’ Historically, however, economic participation and entitlement have been limited to a small minority of people with resources and capital. It was precisely this liberation of men to ‘own property’ that Marx criticised so trenchantly. ‘None of the so-called rights of man’, Marx argued in On the Jewish Question, ‘therefore, go beyond egoistic man, beyond man as a member of civil society—that is, an individual withdrawn into himself, into the confines of his private interests and private caprice, and separated from the community.’3

The variety of uses and connotations certainly makes sweeping generalisation about liberals and liberalism impossible. Yet the seed of contradictions was visible from the very first moment of liberalism: the strength of liberalism—its commitment to emancipation—is also its main weakness in that there were at least three major exclusion clauses in this project. Not only love for liberty but also contempt for people of the colonies, the working class, and women more generally were factors that united liberal thinkers. In his book on liberalism, Domenico Losurdo reminds us that liberal thinkers—including Locke, Smith, and Franklin—shared an enthusiasm for ‘a process of systematic expropriation and practical genocide first of the Irish and then of the Indians’, as well as for ‘black enslavement and the black slave trade’.4 The contradictions at the heart of liberalism are sharply expressed in its approach to ‘liberty’. Losurdo stresses that slavery was not something that preceded liberalism but rather fostered its maximum development after the success of liberal revolutions. The total slave population in the Americas increased from 330,000 in 1700 to 3 million in 1800 and then to over 6 million in the 1850s. The tangle of emancipation and enslavement also shows itself in the slogan of the rebel colonists during the American War of Independence: ‘We won’t be their Negroes’.5

Even for the most radical of liberal thinkers, John Stuart Mill, democracy was fit only for a ‘civilised’ community. ‘Despotism’, Mill asserted, ‘is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement, and the means justified by actually effecting that end.’6 Indeed, the 1789 ‘Declaration of the Rights of Man’ said nothing about the rights of slaves, the people of the colonies, or women. And the power of capital in the land of ‘barbarians’ came not through ‘peaceful competition’ (as is usually claimed) but through the barrel of a gun.

The scars are still deep and still fresh. Slavery continued by other means in both the colonies and in the metropolis. The ideology of superiority and difference that underpins this barbarism is liberal in its origin and in its make-up. Contemporary versions of this thinking about freedom and democracy—as evidenced through recent ‘humanitarian interventions’—continue to evince a sense of superiority in which liberals enforce ‘democracy’ upon the ‘less enlightened’. The love of freedom and liberty that is central to the idea of liberalism is indeed one that, in its realisation, has all too often been easily sacrificed at the altar of the interests of capital and (imperial) states.

Liberty, for Mill as well as other liberals, was exclusive to those with ‘developed’ faculties. As such, it was not just the ‘barbarians’ but also the native working class, the illiterates (that is, the majority) that were considered ineligible for the right to vote. Nothing was considered worse than giving representation (and the right to vote) to the working class for it would give them the chance to negotiate for better wages and working conditions. The lack of freedom in the colonies, therefore, was extended to the metropolis and issues of race and class intertwined from the start.

In short, while liberty has provided an ideological bulwark against authoritarianism, it has also always been connected to the configurations of the liberal democratic capitalist state. Linked to this, therefore, is another contradiction: the equation of liberalism with democracy. Italian philosopher and political scientist Norberto Bobbio,7 who was on a (peaceful) mission to bring liberalism and the Left closer together, argues that a ‘liberal state is not necessarily democratic’. Indeed, while liberalism is about ‘a particular conception of the state’, democracy ‘denotes one of the many possible modes of government’.8 Bobbio further suggests that the relationship between liberalism and democracy resolves itself into a more problematic relation between liberty and equality. The question, contrary to rigid liberal thought, has not been simply about liberty or freedom, but about the precise nature and definition of liberty itself: freedom from what and to do what?

Much of the history of liberalism has been about separating these two historic demands for liberty and equality. Throughout the history of modern times, and even in the most liberal of societies, what has been lacking is precisely the more expansive, anti-authoritarian sense of ‘liberal’. The United States is a significant example. The decision to invade Iraq, revelations about extraordinary renditions, and the surveillance of key members of the UN and major US allies have also shown the rule of law to be selective, if not a myth. At times in which even the liberalism of liberal America has been tested to its limits after the terrorist attack of 9/11, and in the period in which the much celebrated First Amendment has been hijacked variously by corporate America, the gun lobby, and the Ku Klux Klan, and with visible and increased state tyranny and violence against African Americans, rarely has the United States been so desperately in need of a touch of anti-authoritarian liberalism.

As William Davies explains in some detail in the opening chapter, the relationship between economic and legal liberalism and the market fundamentalism advocated by neoliberals is another contradictory and contested arena today. If neoliberalism is a political project at least as much as it is an economic theory, ideologically it is associated with a classically minimal liberal state, with the efficiency of ‘free markets’ as against the ponderous and wasteful outcome of state-planned economies and nationalised industries that characterised Keynesian welfare states. In practice, however, neoliberalism has been linked with increasingly authoritarian uses of state power—at home and abroad—and with re-regulation of the economy to protect financial capital rather than the deregulation championed by advocates of neoliberalism. What we have witnessed is not the withdrawal of the state as such but further interventions by the state and the redistribution of wealth in favour of capital. We have only to consider here the ‘bail out’ of banks that were ‘too big to fail’ following the financial crisis of 2008, and the violent repression of protests against ‘austerity measures’ demanded by ‘global markets’ (more or less personified in the European Union and the IMF) that we continue to see played out in Greece.

And here lies a further contradiction. What has been considered as a beautiful dimension of liberalism, both in its longevity and its attachment to a basic welfare provision, is the social democratic experiment in Europe after World War II and the use of large-scale public spending to enact progressive social and economic measures. Yet this has been the exception rather than the norm in the history of capitalism and, even here, it has taken place because of the pressure of mass movements and social struggles. Similarly, the struggles for democracy in the colonies and the metropolis came from outside liberalism. India became free not because of liberalism but in fierce opposition to it. The struggle for liberation and modernization also came as part of broader struggle for independence. The right to vote, welfare reforms, and public services were gained through organised working-class movements in the metropolis. It was not liberals but emerging radical movements that made those gains after forcing the liberals to retreat from their positions that saw the law of the market as the ‘divine’ law.

Yet liberalism continues to be a live question for radical movements for equality and freedom today whether in relation to imperialism, gender, race, or austerity. Liberals and liberalism remain, therefore, very relevant in contemporary neoliberal circumstances as sources of ideas and action. This book aims to provoke critical engagement with the theories, histories, practices, and contradictions of liberalism today, in particular by taking specific contemporary topics such as education, social justice, media, and race and gender equality as a way of assessing the transformations in, as well as the transformative aspects of, liberalism. Contributors to this volume reflect on how liberalism—in all its forms—continues to underpin specific institutions such as the university and the ‘free press’ and how these ideas about liberalism are mobilised in areas such as human rights, minority rights, and liberal political cultures.

In the opening chapter, William Davies highlights important distinctions between political liberalism, economic liberalism, and neoliberalism and pays particular attention to the clash between liberalism and neoliberalism. He outlines and explains key terms that are mobilised through the rest of the volume. The subsequent chapters in the collection are organised into four sections. The first is focused on human rights. Putting ‘liberalism’ and ‘human rights’ together tends to prompt critique from political theorists. Liberalism is invoked to justify injustices that are simultaneously made invisible: the oppression of women, colonial adventures, socio-economic inequalities, disciplining disruptive subjectivities. If human rights are too closely tied to liberalism, justice becomes impossible. As Ratna Kapur, paraphrasing Gayatri Spivak puts it, while human rights ‘appear to be something we cannot not want’, their progressive potential is limited through too close association with liberalism. While many contributions argue that we should remain suspicious of liberal claims, others—for example Bas¸ak Çalı, writing on the European Court of Human Rights and Roberto Gargarella, writing on the Argentinian Constitution—make a case for the continuing value of political liberalism in relation to human rights. Monika Krause refuses the link between liberalism and human rights altogether: in a pragmatic sense, perhaps what guides thought and practice on human rights is more concrete examples than ideology?

The second section deals with liberalism and the media. Alejandro Abraham-Hamanoiel explains how media monopolies confine freedom of expression in South America, while Colin Leys discusses the failure of the British media, and particularly the BBC, to explain the implications of the 2012 Health and Social Care Act. Des Freedman critiques ‘muscular’ liberal reactions to the Charlie Hebdo killings and John Steel stresses the importance of moving beyond traditional liberal conceptions of the role of the media in society which, he argues, are lacking in critical rigour and are too firmly embedded in outmoded conceptions of democracy. Jonathan Hardy, taking the example of the UK’s Channel 5, demonstrates that neoliberalism infuses modern communications companies not simply in the manner in which they are owned and structured but also in the kind of content that they habitually produce—a situation that will not be changed simply by swapping corporate owners from time to time. Finally Robert McChesney invokes Alexander Meiklejohn and his 1948 work, Free Speech and Its Relation to Self-Government, to argue that the actually existing capitalist model for the media has been an abject failure in democratic terms. He argues that a commitment to liberal values also requires a commitment to the establishment of an independent, largely non-commercial media sector, and that any measures to protect freedom of expression, such as the First Amendment in the United States, need to be conceived primarily as policy prescriptions for a self-governing society and not as protective legislation for investors in the communication industries. In the concluding chapter of this section, Natalie Fenton examines mass surveillance by governments on citizens and suggests that if ‘freedom of assembly and protest are one of the basic tenets of liberalism, it is hard to surmise anything other than in neoliberal times, we have reached the very end of its limits.’

Contributors to this section disagree about the extent to which ‘classic’ social-liberal values are relevant to the analysis of media in a neoliberal age, but they are clearly united in their belief in the need for such analysis and critique and in their dismissal of the notion that the marketplace of ideas can flourish only if the media are left to regulate themselves. Nor are they persuaded that ‘old’ problems will be remedied by the new media: networked communications may have transformed the capacity for messages to be created and exchanged, yet problems of access and control remain as pertinent as ever. Meanwhile issues such as privacy take on ever greater salience, as both state and corporate interests increasingly monitor people’s online lives, demonstrating the way in which the state—for all its protestations about the importance of ‘deregulation’—and the market can become fatefully intertwined, to the detriment of the citizen.

The next section explores the idea of the liberal university. Universities, as Joan Pedro-Carañana points out, are key Enlightenment institutions—predicated on a belief that the pursuit of knowledge might be an end in itself with tremendous benefits to humanity, creativity, and economy. Enlightened passions, however, appear to have been drowned out in recent years by the icy calculation of a bottom line that has little time for immeasurable principles like tolerance, equality, and universalism. According to John Holmwood, ‘universities no longer function to ameliorate social status and inequality, but are part of the new status order of a renewed patrimonial capitalism.’ Liberal values concerning the intrinsic desirability of knowledge and its contribution to shared dialogue have been repackaged so that universities tend to function, both in their administration and their output, as service providers to the highest bidders and most lucrative customers.

Articles in this section highlight the failure of liberalism to resist this trend and point to the implantation of a neoliberal logic in the restructuring of higher education across the world. Contributors address the complicity of academics in their own downfall (Michael Bailey), the commercialisation of social science research (John Holmwood), the virtual disappearance of the liberal arts in a marketised education system (Toby Miller), the twisting of liberal principles of free speech to undermine minority voices (Howard Littler), the incorporation of universities into a security state (Jonathan Rosenhead), as well as the inability of traditions of academic freedom to protect radical voices, like that of Steven Salaita, from persecution by university leaders (Priyamvada Gopal). The university, it appears, has lost its way—its status as a key pillar of a liberal society has been undermined by the instrumental logic of contemporary neoliberalism—and it needs extensive re-imagining and rebuilding if it is ever to rediscover a role of critical enquiry and truly original thinking.

The particularism that undermines the apparently universal claims of liberalism is most visible in relation to two other ‘isms’: sexism and racism. These provide the focus for the final section of the collection. Here, the major exclusion clauses that are at the heart of this system of knowledge have been shaped and defined by the very paradox of its own universality. As Arun Kundnani points out: ‘In the abstract, there is no reason why liberal principles of individual freedom cannot be applied consistently. And principled liberals have been essential to many struggles against racism and imperialism. But, liberalism is not just a body of ideas; it is also a social force. And, as such, there are structural reasons why liberalism keeps undermining its own ideals.’ While this is a theme that runs through the entire collection, it is especially highlighted in this section.

Annabelle Sreberny, for example, introduces two additional terms that she believes are crucial to the liberal tradition: the people and the public. These, she argues, have come under renewed attack in neoliberal times. However, in her discussion of cultural and political rights and identities, she also states that the gap between the idea and the reality of a supposedly homogeneous ‘we’ is getting ever larger. Milly Williamson reminds us that liberal thought was not aligned with ‘female emancipation’ or ‘gender equality’ and yet, in recent times, women’s emancipation has been used as a justification for illegal wars. This issue is further explored in Deepa Kumar’s assessment of colonial feminism. Other contributions in this section tackle the polarising topics of anti-Muslim racism and Zionism. Kundnani refutes the binary division of liberalism versus Islam and suggests that it is not the integration of some people in the system but the system itself that is the problem. Haim Bresheeth then traces the history of Zionism as a liberal ideology and its replacement with a militaristic and racist state.

The starting assumption of this project was that the emancipatory potential of liberalism is far too important to be left to self-proclaimed liberals. We hope that the thirty-seven articles in this collection will confirm the value of this perspective.


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