Time to Give Up Your Fear, Research Time, 25/05/2018

One final criticism of liberal thinking in Paul Patton’s use of Gilles Deleuze’s weapons on the subject.* It's based on liberalism’s aversion to risky, rapid political change.

* This was already a good book. But it would have been so much better if he’d done that very thing, without ever referring directly to Deleuze.

Liberal thinking is inherently gradualist. There was an old joke in Canadian politics that a New Democrat is a Liberal in a hurry. Well, that’s the Liberal Party at its best, anyway. The next generation really is farce.

We live in a time of unprecedented political developments.
The most powerful social movements emerge from
complex, self-organizing networks of cooperation.
What the Liberal doesn’t realize when he tells that joke is that the joke is on him. What a liberal calls careful caution, it's more sensible in some circumstances to call fearfulness. What a liberal calls a commitment to gradual reform, it’s more sensible in some circumstances to call cowardice. Or worse, a blatant willingness to prefer an unjust status quo to the risks of a radical change.

Risk averseness is its own kind of risk when circumstances require risky behaviour. Here are some political examples that are bound to be controversial. The anger they generate in simply discussing them is enough to frighten a liberal away from mentioning it at all.

An oil pipeline is slated to move through ecologically sensitive territory, where an Indigenous nation also has its territory. The protests from environmentalists and Indigenous people are unprecedented. The situation is manifestly not okay.

What does a liberal do? Well, in the case of what a Liberal does, they put their fingers in their ears and talk seriously about compensating the oil company for their trouble, like they can’t afford it or something. Because The Economy™.

And that follows pretty much what liberalism does as a philosophy. Social change, in this perspective, is always a matter of slow-moving reform, mitigating all risk. That has its problems.

I’m not about to be one of those left-wingers who grumbles about the reformists. When I read Antonio Gramsci, particularly some of his pre-prison essays, there are a lot of slugs thrown at “reformists.” The social democratic parties, the trade unions that are happy with general improvements in work conditions – everyone who falls short of full revolution against the ruling class comes in for scorn.

Gramsci gets a little more chill once he’s had a few years to rot in a cell. You can really reflect on yourself when you’ve been reduced to the barest murmur of a life. But I see some of this talk when I check out the forums and articles of young marxist academics and Communist Party members.*

We shouldn't ignore our democratic instincts which show us that the
current trends are not something you can negotiate with. You can
only achieve social progress through reforms when there's a social
consensus behind their goals. We can't rely on the consensus that
privileges human rights and peace about police and war.
* You don’t see the Marxist-Leninist Party of Canada getting into this pettiness. So I respect them that much.

That kind of talk just doesn’t work anymore. The progressive social movements aren’t interested in taking over the state – we’re much more radical, in that way, than the Communist guerrillas of the 20th century. Radical in our peacefulness.

The progressive social movements of the 21st century have largely understood that the structure of the state is the problem. States were designed as police apparatuses. You can’t liberate people by forcing them into obedience to an authority, no matter who’s in charge of that authority. An order is still an order.

Liberation is about having to rely less and less on the state to live a good life. And where we have to rely on states, they should be tools always at our disposal. That’s a deeply radical shift in the entire way we treat our states, our governments, our leaders.

I’ll get into it over the next while, once I catch up to my notes about Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt’s new book Assembly. But for today, I want to make this last point about the weakness of the liberal state of mind.

It’s that presumption that nothing fundamental needs to change. Reformism that takes all the underlying system of institutions and relationships as basically okay, just in need of a tweak. Some more funding going here, tax things a little differently over here. Enforce those laws, but decriminalize these other things. Fine enough.

But good intentions can still be part of a problem. Sometimes, polishing the status quo isn’t good enough to achieve the world you want.

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