GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

February 21, 2010

The Mistake of Liberal Democracy

Filed under: GA — adam @ 5:25 pm

Liberal democracy is constituted by the severing of equality and freedom, which become incommensurable “values” which need to be balanced and one of which must be given priority at any instant. This has been a serious, perhaps fatal error, because the balancing and prioritizing is inevitably done by the state, which develops an interest in privileging those forms of freedom that are as distant as possible from equality (like, say, transgressive sexual practices) and those forms of equality that have nothing to do with freedom (like, say, government run health care). Under such conditions, equality and freedom become pathological, and so does the state—any mode of freedom that threatens to trample on any mode of equality needs to be pruned, but that’s any mode of freedom, and the our sensitivity to the threat can only increase.

The notion that equality and freedom are competing values is false to the core. I defy anyone to name a mode of equality that can exist in the absence of freedom, or vice versa. At best, you could name the equality of the slave, or the invalid, or the incompetent—but that, of course, presupposes the absolutely inequality of the master, the therapist, the expert. If you are to speak freely and trade freely with whom, precisely, are you to do so, if not your equals? Liberal democracy, in this sense, is a new phenomenon, radically different than the constitutional liberalism it supplanted (while, of course, developing potentialities within its predecessor); nor does it exhaust the potentialities of freedom and equality—it is not a “higher” level or more “advanced” form of anything.

The only difference between equality and freedom is that equality tells us who is covered by the rules, who is protected by them, who is expected to play by them, who will support their enforcement if necessary, and who can be penalized by them. Freedom is whatever you can do within and with the rules. Rules emerge in any space where violence has been sufficiently deferred so that it can be kept out of mind, and they are as thick (exclusive and prescriptive) as they need to be in order to keep it out of mind. The thinner the rules, the more violence is proscribed implicitly, and the less the violation of any particular rule or action which is ambiguous under the existing rule-set will trigger broader contests over the rule-governed space as a whole—and, therefore, the more freedom. If I can barely hint at my disagreements with you without leading to a break of relations, our conversations will be to that extent unfree, and our equality constantly in question; if I can tell you that I think you are completely wrong and you can respond in kind and both of us end up remaking our views and deepening our friendship, we simply take our equality for granted and our conversation will be freer in proportion to that unconstrained assumption of equality. This structure holds for economic as well as political spaces, so the issue of public vs. private freedoms also seems to me to miss the point. Finally, the formulaic contrast between “equality of opportunity” and “equality of outcome” simply presupposes the split between freedom and equality—equality of opportunity is shared freedom, and so defending it is a rearguard maneuver against liberal democracy in the latter’s idiom.

There are, then, two questions: first, how did the wedge between equality and freedom get installed and, second, how can it be removed? In answer to the first question, it seems to me the guilty parties are those modern elites who appointed themselves guardians of the newly proletarianized masses—the Social Democrats in Europe and the Progressives in the U.S. They assumed society would become unmanageable due to its material inequalities and the irrationalities of the market, and the only way to make it manageable would be to “thicken” the rules, i.e., dole out rights in separate parcels—a bit of equality here, a bit of freedom there. It was not very difficult to bring big business on board, as the new administrative state gave them a seat at the table and protects them from competition. Resistance was bribed and suppressed when necessary, and, to be fair, there was no interest in taking away more freedom than necessary—I suspect the mistake had a lot to do with the need to package constitutional government for export, but this history has been written many times and does not need recounting here.

The second question is the hard one. It is also unavoidable if you believe, as I do, that liberal democracy has reached its limits—it has run out of slush funds to buy off opposition, and I suspect its power of repression would be found wanting as well. But the vast majority has bought into it, and will not come anywhere near the sensible option of cutting its losses before it is much too late. The incentives and disincentives can’t be rewired in time and, indeed, who would do that? Who would know how?

The only answer I can think of now is to insist upon and embody the indivisibility of equality and freedom in all our actions. If someone wants to engage us with strict and all encompassing rules, and you find it nevertheless advantageous to enter the relationship, insist that they be bound to the letter of those rules as well, while perhaps trying to maximize freedom within them. Meanwhile, seek out those willing to take the risks in exchange for the pleasures of more minimal rules and expanded modes of freedom. Refuse as much as possible duplicitous situations, where the tacit rule book contradicts the explicit one, or where the status of the “referees” is unclear. Avoid rigged games and replace them with transparent ones whenever you can. Anyone can do these things privately and publicly—we can all identify, expose and denounce rigged games—rights without responsibilities and responsibilities without rights.

A portion of American conservatism has begun to think through the legacy of Progressivism—the audience of Glenn Beck and the followers of Ron Paul in particular, and this is by no means a marginal group. What I refuse to do (without necessarily accusing anyone) is to treat that legacy as monstrous, rather than mistaken, as requiring repudiation rather than correction. To do otherwise is make another, potentially disastrous mistake, and to indulge oneself in scapegoating. We have all indeed bought into liberal democracy, we are all invested—it wasn’t a mere few who foisted it upon us, nor was the history of the U.S. through the 20th century irrevocably “tainted”—the foreign policy views of the libertarians are as crazed as anything coming from the Left, and are stamped with the illicit pleasures of scapegoating, wherein the other side becomes more guilty and you more innocent, the more you look into matters. The victory over the two totalitarianisms was a remarkable accomplishment, and so was the creation of a vast middle class, and we wouldn’t be able to have this conversation without it.

We can also recognize the fantasy of an equality without freedom as an attitude derived from the originary scene—such a fantasy confuses desire with the resentment of the center so that one’s own deserts can continually be recalibrated to one’s own advantage. The best dissection of this fantasy I know interesting comes from Karl Marx, and his Critique of the Gotha Program (focusing on the defects of the first stage of communism):

But one man is superior to another physically, or mentally, and supplies more labor in the same time, or can labor for a longer time; and labor, to serve as a measure, must be defined by its duration or intensity, otherwise it ceases to be a standard of measurement. This equal right is an unequal right for unequal labor. It recognizes no class differences, because everyone is only a worker like everyone else; but it tacitly recognizes unequal individual endowment, and thus productive capacity, as a natural privilege. It is, therefore, a right of inequality, in its content, like every right. Right, by its very nature, can consist only in the application of an equal standard; but unequal individuals (and they would not be different individuals if they were not unequal) are measurable only by an equal standard insofar as they are brought under an equal point of view, are taken from one definite side only — for instance, in the present case, are regarded only as workers and nothing more is seen in them, everything else being ignored. Further, one worker is married, another is not; one has more children than another, and so on and so forth. Thus, with an equal performance of labor, and hence an equal in the social consumption fund, one will in fact receive more than another, one will be richer than another, and so on. To avoid all these defects, right, instead of being equal, would have to be unequal.

In other words, the quest for equality of results requires the continual creation of new categories of victimization, of unfairness built into the nature of things. Human judgment measures according to a standard, but the standard (insofar as it’s not a sheer defense of some privilege or order) is an attempt to maintain the articulation of equality and freedom. The inhuman fantasy of an external canon of judgment (that will naturally come down on your side) is itself universally human, and the only way to defuse it is probably by spinning out its implication until it reaches its absurd logical conclusion. The problem is that we have come to let such fantasies govern our public life and dignified them with their own political category, to be “balanced” against another: “equality of outcome.”

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