By Joel Lazarus.
In The Guardian’s Opinion pages, something big is up with ‘liberalism’. David Boyle insists it’s ‘alive and well’, but Kenan Malik says it’s ‘in trouble’ and Gary Younge sees liberals ‘in retreat’. Despite the proliferating paragraphs, pinning down a definition of liberalism is hard-going. Liberalism is apparently ‘Hydra-headed’ and ‘full of contradictions’. Some distinguish ‘economic’ from ‘socio-cultural’ liberalism. Most fundamental seems to be a commitment to the individual’s rights and freedoms. All commentators position their liberalism against the universally loathed ‘neo-version’ – ‘neo-liberalism’.
Such ambiguity isn’t just characteristic of liberalism, it expresses its essential political function – the act of depoliticisation. By ‘depoliticisation’ I mean two related things. First, the establishment of supposedly separate spheres of human existence – economy, society, politics, culture, nature – and, second, the ethical and analytical focus on the individual that obscures the systemic, structural nature of power. Identifying these flawed and myopic ontological foundations helps us understand why the copy produced by The Guardian’s defenders of liberalism sheds far more heat than light. When even that small amount of light proves insufficient, we can always count on them for a periodic rehash of the ‘excessive complexity’ argument.
Is it really just all too complex? What if we adopted a different definition of liberalism instead, seeing it simply as the ideology of capital? Capital I will define here as money deployed in a process of necessarily endless accumulation. This endless accumulation drives capital ever further and deeper into previously sacred realms of our ecology, our society, and our very selves. It was and remains the violent transformation of commonly shared and sustained resources into private property that defines and enables capital accumulation.
This definition of liberalism as ideology of capital reveals the foundation of these ‘contradictions’. Liberalism is and always has been, above all, in the service of private property. As Domenico Losurdo so persuasively shows, the European forefathers of liberalism’s supposedly universal individual rights and freedoms were also champions and, as property owners, direct beneficiaries of colonialism and slavery abroad and wage-slavery at home. Can we dismiss their contradictions as mere products of their time? Not when so many of their peers stood against these brutalities and not when this contradiction is maintained to the present day in the form of interventionism in the name of freedom abroad and the defence of capitalism, be it ‘free-market’ or social democratic, at home.
A key element of any hegemonic ideology is to make what is artificial, contingent, and temporary seem natural, stable, and permanent. With their wooly, reformist critiques, the Guardian’s liberals historically perform this function just as crucially as neo-liberals in the pages of the FT or Telegraph. Yet, the current crisis has exposed both the fragility of this set-up and the vacuity of liberal thought. Nowhere in these articles on liberalism, I posit, can we find a clear, persuasive analysis of what the hell is going on and, consequently, a proposal for action. Even the most self-proclaimed ‘progressive’ here, Kenan Malik, offers nothing but the vaguest of conclusions.
To his credit, Malik recognises the sharpening tensions between liberalism and democracy, identifying how liberal governance regimes are being constructed beyond democratic control. But, by not naming ‘capital’ – and the very real, material relations it expresses – Malik can offer neither diagnosis nor remedy. Putting liberal governance structures beyond democratic control in lay speak simply means trying to pursue policies aimed at maintaining and reviving corporate profits while imposing vast social and environmental costs with no fear of political reprisals. Just think how the ‘Troika’ of the ECB, European Commission, and IMF has crushed the supposedly democratic, sovereign state of Greece.
Malik insists that ‘democracy is not just about placing a cross on a ballot power’, but is ‘fundamentally about the contestation of power’. Indeed. Yet, the problem is that Malik, like all good liberals, has no realistic understanding of the nature and forms of power. So, while he rightly calls for a ‘new politics of solidarity’, he can offer no solidaristic vision. Why? Because his analysis is devoid of any materialism, i.e. the actual relations of production, consumption, exchange, and, above all, ownership in society. So, in my remaining two hundred words, I will offer a definition of power, of crisis, and of what we must do.
Power is always relational. It flows through the relationships we have with each other. In turn, social and natural relations express multiple, intersecting structures that make up our complete life system – the ‘web of life’, as Jason Moore puts it. These intersecting structures can and must be named. They include patriarchy, racism, colonialism, heteronormativity, ableism, ageism, and class. These structures construct and enforce binaries and divisions that maintain the painful illusion of separation: from our ecology, from each other, from ourselves. Here, I am emphasising the class relations of capitalism. We are experiencing the terminal collapse of capital as life – human and non-human – reaches the limits of its ability to meet capital’s extractive and exploitative demands. The threat of ‘permanent collapse’, as George Monbiot, has put it here, is real. The only solution lies in a transformation of relations of ownership as equally radical as the one that capital has driven: this time, from a regime of private property to one of collective trusteeship – a recommoning. This process is already well under way.
Neo-liberalism was new liberalism. Its ascendancy to dominance cannot be explained by remaining in the realm of ideas, as David Boyle insists, but by recognising how it met the urgent material needs of capital in the 1970s. The growing crisis has left capital increasingly unable to use neo-liberalism to legitimate its increasingly violent accumulative strategies. To paraphrase Albert Einstein, we can’t solve our problems with the ideology that caused them. Liberalism – capital’s ideology – cannot solve the crisis of capital. We need to substitute the talk of rights and freedoms for the language of justice, and the cult of the individual not with the veneration of the worker, but with the defence and promotion of life in all its beautiful forms. I’m calling time on liberalism! We need to talk about capital.