The word ‘liberal’ occupies a funny place in our society. Its meaning is slippery, difficult, and weird. That’s odd for a word that so many of us use so regularly, whether in disdain or praise. When I was young, I rarely questioned what liberalism was, but I knew that being liberal was a good thing. It meant giving people the space to be who they were, and using public services to give people the opportunities they needed to become who they wanted to be.
I remember . . . At the height of W-era cultural insanity, when the United States, Britain, and its cobbled coalition was invading Iraq – which turned out so very well – I heard a story. It was a story my friend L told me about a conversation he had in a bar with an old union activist. The old man was amazed that “you can’t even say you're a liberal anymore.”
If I could say that philosophical writing has a general purpose, it would be to investigate ideas and concepts that we find confusing. It doesn’t necessarily clarify the true meaning of the concept, but it does investigate the concept and how we understand and use it. At the least, by the end of our philosophizing, we might know more about why and how the idea confuses us than we did before.
Liberalism is one of these ideas that we’re very confused about on a cultural level, and the Utopias project will explore what’s so confusing about it. As far as I understand the thread of Utopias at this stage of planning its composition, the madness of liberalism is a schizoid split between ideal and execution.
Iain Banks can actually be pretty enlightening about this split, now that I’ve finished reading Consider Phlebas. I’m probably going back over territory that science-fiction scholars have discussed before, and if anyone reading has any references, please send them to me. The actual pdfs would be better, though.
Anyway, Iain Banks and liberalism. The key tension I see in the concept of liberalism is about freedom. Liberal conceptions of freedom is that it lies in your ability as an individual to think, say, and do what you want, and you have a corresponding obligation to give others the space for the same.
This is an incredibly simplified way of thinking about this concept of freedom,* but it gets to the concept at its most basic. I always thought that central liberal idea embodied some serious tensions. Probably the biggest one is that a liberal utopia can probably only come true in a world of total abundance.
* The first complicating idea that came to me was John Stuart Mill’s image of the marketplace of ideas. Notions and opinions don’t just sit suspended in the vacuum of someone’s mind; they go to work in the world. And sometimes, an idea will cause more harm than good, or turn out to be silly, useless, or inspire discord and violence. They encounter other, different ideas, and compete with them on their truth, power, risk, harmfulness, and what they make more and less possible.
Imagine a society where everyone is able to do what they want, free from the interference of other individuals and even larger economic and social forces. You can run whatever business, take up whatever trade or hobby you want, whatever you can to avoid feeling useless. This is Banks’ Culture.
One character in Consider Phlebas calls it communism, but it’s really a liberal paradise. It gets to be a paradise because it’s free from the compromises with material reality – that no one has enough money to be independently wealthy and so has to work for a living – so everyone can really live in pursuit of their higher pleasures in life.
It’s another notion we owe to prototypical liberal John Stuart Mill: that we should rather be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied . . . But the best possible scenario would be a satisfied genius. Which we could become in a world of universal wealth where everyone shared the basic moral and political value of letting everyone get on with their life as long as they don’t hurt anybody.
So many of the injustices of liberalism come from its compromises with reality, and the cynical embrace of inequality and exploitation that come when a society’s economic system means that a gain for one may be a loss for many others. Freedom to be left alone in all spheres can make it easier to ignore a plea for help.
The other tricky situation in liberalism is that awkward imperial tendency . . . To be continued.
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