Carrying on with another short reflection about liberalism. I went to the Andrea Horwath rally up in Brampton today. It seemed like the most exciting thing to happen in Brampton in years, though in this context, we are dealing with a pretty low bar.
As I work more in the different vectors of resisting oligarchy and nationalism in North America, one thing annoys me. It’s just a contingent little quirk of the rhetoric,* but it just plain bugs me.
* And if you want to get a little too poetic about the whole mess, aren’t we all, really?
Why do nationalists keep calling us liberals?
I mean, in a way, I’m happy to be misidentified by the people with large private arsenals of weapons. They might not be the most accurate in tracking us down, so they’ll kill some of their own when they invade the cities to end the liberal slime once and for all.
The Dershowitz Problem I talked about yesterday is the perfect example of this. Paul Patton explores more of this idea in one of the most interesting passages of his book on Deleuze and Guattari’s political thinking.
See, liberal philosophy** is fundamentally about identifying and protecting rights against state violation – a boundary of personal sovereignty around yourself that every other personal also shares.
** I’m distinguishing the singular character of the philosophy from a lot of the ways liberal politics have been done over the years. All political projects end up including aspects of every relevant philosophical concept that it interacts with as it develops. But the concepts themselves are pure structures.
Liberalism’s essence as a philosophy is the civil right – the negative right to be free from interference in expressing yourself. That’s why liberalism is such a great philosophy for protecting people from privacy violations or defending them from state intimidation and power.
But it’s awful for protecting you against the corruption of your economic system. It won’t protect you against the oligarch, the robber baron, the pirate hedge fund. They won’t steal from you specifically, but they’ll change the conditions under which you can earn your keep. Yet there’s no liability on liberal principles because the zone of personal sovereignty only regards direct, personal violations.
If you aren’t directly and intentionally seeking to cause some particular harm in your actions, you aren’t responsible in a pure liberalism. Even if you’re looting the public treasury with tax breaks and industrial contract giveaways, defunding to dysfunction a state institution that people rely on isn’t a harm.
Because there are no responsibilities in a pure liberalism to each other beyond leaving each other alone. So you’re free to do what you want, no matter the indirect harms your actions cause. You only have your civil rights.
Civil rights definitely can’t be dispensed with. But in terms of what we need to live well, civil rights are incomplete.