The Impotent Liberal III: The Only Possibility is Nothing, Composing, 22/12/2016

This is a Composing post. An extremely Composing post if you know what I mean.

So the previous post was very rooted in real-world concerns – trying to understand what tendencies in the liberal conception of how to do politics made it vulnerable to fascism.

A perennial topic in political philosophy since about 1945. It’s waxed and waned in and out of prominence over the decades. But somebody was always thinking about it. Hannah Arendt did, for example. Now Arendt scholars and more original thinkers she’s influenced think about it too.

No, I can't think of any reasons in contemporary politics why we should
be worried about liberalism's weaknesses in the face of reactionary
authoritarian movements. Why do you ask?
Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe think about it from time to time in Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. Reading that book over the past little while encouraged me to think about it. There seem to be some pretty big reasons for thinking about it in politics today.

Yet despite its weaknesses, the liberal idea expresses a pure and profound drive among humanity to be free. How we live out our desires for freedom may change over the generations. But the desire can’t be restrained – if it ever really was in the first place.

And on an individual level, that’s the problem with desire. Desire has no necessary ending point – just contingent, often reactive, developments. It keeps chugging along, fuelling activity until something cuts it off.

Some other demand or desire gets in the way, or its own activity starts to change the world so that it becomes more difficult, or outright impossible. With the desires that constitute societies from individual actions, it’s usually other people that block or shut down our desires.

Political activity is the management of all the desires of everyone in a community for constructive ends. Maybe that community is simply a family, maybe it’s a country of millions, or a planet of billions. People jockey for power, respect, and happiness. No matter the scale, this is human life.

Politics at a family level rarely gets out of control. Even when it does, it’s usually only people in the families themselves who are hurt or killed. Same with small communities and small concerns. Scale this up to a planetary level and you’re potentially dealing with nuclear war and totalitarianism.

This year's American Presidential campaign
saw genuinely powerful appeals to a utopian
vision for freedom. Yet those to whom those
visions don't appeal often misunderstand
them. Pictured here is what
conservatives believe is the average Bernie
Sanders supporter.
Totalitarianism and oppression are major problems with any kind of utopianism. It’s the single vision and direction, imposed on a whole society through state control. Forcing a utopia on the world always has that result.

Yet our utopianism is bound up in our desires for freedom – we conceive of our utopias as the perfect society. A union of the cities of the divine and the mortal. The messiah complex in all of humanity. The positive programs of any utopian vision turned into a political program and state policy is a single prescription for freedom – the society where we will all be free.

But that freedom is false, because totalitarian imposition imposes a single vision of freedom on society. And humanity is a complexifying creature. We always make things more complicated for our society because we’re always drifting toward creating new ways to live, new priorities, new identities, new desires.

This is how reading Laclau and Mouffe got me thinking through this problem. They critique traditional marxism for its premise that industrial advancement will simplify society into two antagonistic classes. But the continuing development of industry and technology actually encourages people to become more complex.

We develop new identities – or become more conscious of desires that have always been part of our society, see how they’re typically suppressed, and bring them out into the light to celebrate their difference.

Cultures merge, new sexualities and genders develop. New social classes and communities develop from new professions and work cultures.

Using the state (or any kind of military-police institution) to impose a single vision of the free society on a whole community of people is the most blatant and horrible oppression imaginable.

So is it even possible to think in utopian terms about politics? To imagine some setup for society that would maximally free us as well as be peaceful?

I think the liberal idea is actually best suited for this task. Because the utopia of a liberal isn’t strictly negative – like a radical libertarian’s reactive, paranoid guard against state activity or control. And it isn’t positive either – like the white nationalist’s dream of a uniform ethno-state.

Liberal philosophy contains the only utopia worth having. A utopia that has no content. Nothing to impose. Nothing to oppress on people. Just the freedom of space itself.

You might be asking: What the fuck does that mean? Well, . . . To Be Continued

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