What is a liberal?

Dear Commie,

What is liberalism (apart from infuriating) and what’s the difference between liberals and socialists? Is it wrong to dunk on the libs all the time and, if so, why does it feel so good? 


Can’t Quit It

Dear Dunkin’,

Liberalism is an ideology: a worldview and a logic that serves a particular purpose. When people wanna dunk on libs, it’s usually because they’re perpetuating a set of assumptions and proposals that are all ordered through liberalism. Let’s break that down.

First, we have to understand that liberalism has a history. It became the dominant ideology at about the same time that capitalism started to overtake feudalism, and the bourgeoisie fought the old aristocracy (kings, nobles, and the church) for leadership of society. Marx explains that “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force.” Why? Because every society where a minority class rules over the rest of society has to be able to explain why it is that they get all the power and good stuff while other people are exploited. Under feudalism, the aristocracy justified its rule as imbued with divine authority, so the Church played an important role in explaining why everyone was where they were in the social order and why that was okay: God said so. 

When the bourgeoisie started to become dominant, they brought in their own ideas to explain why they are the rulers, and made that the common sense for everyone. The tenets of classical liberalism are based on the capitalist’s need to protect private property and profit: the separation of church and state, individual rights, representative democracy (limited as much as possible to property owners). That’s not to say these things are bad, but their purpose in liberal ideology is to make sure that there aren’t restrictions on the ability for capitalists to make profit (the church was an obstacle under feudalism; the bourgeoisie don’t generally want a king to make a sweeping law – they prefer to work out among themselves with elections and voting).

If you live in a society that claims to be democratic, how do you justify so much inequality? Liberal ideology explains this as a rational thing: meritocracy. The best and brightest rise to the top. The people who are in charge are there because they’re the smartest, the most qualified, the best at what they do. “Elect your betters.” Democrats in particular lean into this, claiming to solve political problems with technical solutions and frothing at the mouth whenever Republicans put forward some kind of faux populist, since they’re “not educated” or “they’re idiots” or whatever (this is simultaneously attacking the idea that working people can rule). The reactions to George W. Bush, Sarah Palin, Trump, and countless others are to be outraged at “incompetence”, as though these people who have been through elite schools and top levels of governance are completely unaware of what they are doing and don’t have powerful, calculating people behind them.

What it shows is that liberalism is actually an anti-democratic ideology: people aren’t smart enough to understand the world or rule themselves, so they need liberal experts to make decisions for them rather than succumb to “mob rule”. It’s not the same as it was in 1800, where the vote was only for property owners, for men, for whites, etc. While the rich may not say that they prefer only to enfranchise white, propertied people now, we’re not all that far off from where we were: even without all the restrictions on your ability to vote, the poorer you are the less likely you are to vote.

In liberalism, you understand the world as being split into three realms: politics (the state), economics (the market), and sociology (civil society). In reality, there’s no distinction between how economics drives people’s lives and politician’s priorities (or vice versa), but in liberal ideology these are separate: The state shouldn’t really interfere with the market, which is this natural self-regulating entity — sometimes there may be a hiccup that needs fixing, but on the whole don’t touch it. Economics are the realm of experts, who talk about the market with special jargon and say that normal people can’t understand it. Social problems are the result of people, not state policy or economic forces: “A culture of poverty” is the problem, suggests liberalism. Homeless people are all addicts and not serious about getting a job. Anyone can be rich if they work hard enough. These are ideological constructions to preserve class rule: the reason these people are at the bottom is because of their individual failures, not because capitalism sucks wealth from the working class like a vampire.

That takes us to two things: understanding problems and liberal solutions. Liberalism views conflict in society as the product of ideas and essentialisms: one idea about what’s best for developing downtown confronts another idea — who’s to say what’s right? This obscures the relationships at play: ideas come from your experiences, your class, race, gender, etc. There’s power involved, but unequal power isn’t a concept to the liberal. They view your social positions as “differences”, and all should be “respected” equally. It gets absurd when class, for example, is viewed as just a difference that needs to be respected, not a relationship of power that needs to be overcome. “We should make space for the unfortunate, we hear you, we see you”….as liberal politicians go on doing the same shit in service of the wealthy.

Its essentialist in that it flattens out all of the conflicts between people in various social groups, as though all women, all people of color, all queer folks, all immigrants, are of one singular mind about every issue and don’t have different interests among us. What this usually does is allow for bourgeois representatives of a group to act as leaders and put forward a class vision as though it represents all people in their constituency universally. (It doesn’t.) An example of this is the assumption that as a woman President Hillary Clinton would have advanced an agenda that was positive for all women, when in reality she would likely have advanced an agenda that was positive for the ruling class, with mixed and even negative results for working class women.

The solution to every problem is the same in liberalism: vote. Elect someone else. If only the right person was in office, all of these problems could be solved. Conflict in society can all be resolved by representatives in government, and that’s the most civilized way to do things. This limits politics to government only, when people live politics in their everyday lives: the politics of the workplace, of your neighborhood, your kid’s school, your commute, your interaction with the police, your walk down the street, and so on. This is a largely a class idea: it contains struggle to the ballot box. It views society as a collection of individuals, and once we win their hearts and minds with better ideas all will be well. It’s why you can have “radical liberals” – people really pissed about awful conditions, but they end up doubling down on the solutions being elections and expertise.

Where does that leave us? Socialists aren’t (or at least shouldn’t be) liberals. Socialism is about the extension of democracy to every facet of life. The working class has to liberate itself, and socialism can’t be given to us by benevolent leaders. Working people are more than capable of understanding the world and managing our own lives, provided we tear down the obstacles placed in our path. A socialist understanding of the world is rooted in materialism — where liberals focus on ideas being the force that determines politics, socialists see social and class position as the key factors: being determines consciousness. Socialists view collective action, organization building, and class struggle as what shifts the balance of forces in society and the main thing that wins changes we want to see. Elections can be a useful tool, but capitalism wasn’t voted in and socialism won’t be either.

Is it okay to dunk on liberals? Sure, within reason. We have to distinguish between well-meaning working class people as against liberal functionaries, politicians, nonprofit leaders, and spokespeople. Some people have a material interest in liberal solutions based on their social and class positions, and when it comes to them, dunk away! For regular folks who like some kinda liberal solution about raising the minimum wage in the future because it’s the only thing out there, don’t be so quick to denounce these people. Class consciousness is uneven, it’s not just about “good ideas” winning — people’s consciousness develops rapidly when they take collective action and feel their power, when they get a sense of mass movements changing the balance of forces in society, making new things possible. Those are the moments that really educate people. 

Don’t call me a liberal,


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