The last chapter of Paul Patton’s book about the political aspects of Gilles Deleuze's ideas contains what I think is an exquisitely concise argument about the weaknesses of liberalism.
I mean, aside from the weaknesses we’ve been talking about for the last few days already. But this late passage in Deleuzian Concepts walks through a summary of a very profound problem that I don’t think the liberal approach to politics can handle.
So it goes like this. Because we’re philosophers, Patton focusses his argument on a beautiful summary of what John Rawls was doing in building his reconstructive liberal concepts. We go to the source of the most intense innovation in the concepts themselves – that’s the philosophers. And if you’re talking the 20th century revival of progressive liberal political philosophy in the North American academy, you’re talking about Rawls.
Purpose of Liberalism 1. Discovering the common principles among disputing political factions.
This is a wonderful thing to accomplish – the original position, followed through faithfully, does help you isolate what components of your identity are shared across all people. It helps identify the common ground that can be a slim anchor for peace in an intractable conflict.
Purpose of Liberalism 2. Harmonizing the goals of individuals and communities.
Another product of that original position – where you have to imagine what a community would look like when you have no idea what your place in it would be. So you have to think about the good of your community when you could end up as the lowest of the low in it.
So the original position thought experiment becomes, in this context, an exercise in sympathy with the good of your community – not just of yourself or your family. Not that you’d sacrifice yourself or your family for your community. But you’d be more amenable to helping yourself and your community at once.
Rawls gave us a reminder that there need never be a zero-sum game in life. We need this reminder badly, especially at times like these.
Purpose of Liberalism 3. Demonstrating the limits of conformity possible in a community.
This is a product of the full scope of liberalism, beyond just his original position thought experiment. One of the main goals of liberalism is to allow individual freedom, and so in that simple sense, conformity of culture of any kind is a severe problem.
In that, Rawls comes closest to inching into thinking becoming. But he only ever conceives of being a divergent character – not actually diverging. Oh, well.
Purpose of Liberalism 4. Exploring the limits of possibility for practice social progress in the near-term – a gradual utopian movement of better society.
Because in conceiving of a society where no one is badly off means conceiving of a better society than we live in.
It all sounds great, but there remains one shortcoming. How do we actually get there, once we imagine it? Is that still philosophy? I think so.