The basic elements of Ackerman’s proposal for ‘Deliberation Day’ are as follows:
one week before major national elections, registered voters would be invited to meet in neighborhood meeting places (such as schools) for one day, to deliberate on the central issues raised in the election campaign;
this Deliberation Day would become a national holiday and deliberators would be paid $150 for their attendance, provided they showed up at the polls the next week;
deliberators would first meet in small groups of 15 to listen to a live TV debate between the principal candidates and to identify questions for discussion at a later plenary session of 500 people with local party representatives present to answer questions; and
deliberators would then reconvene in their small groups of 15 to share their reactions to the responses given by the party representatives to the plenary session.
An obvious advantage of this proposal would be that voters would become better informed about political issues and policies before they vote. In the US and the UK, where there is no compulsory voting, this proposal would also be likely to increase voter turnout rates.
An obvious disadvantage is the cost; but to put it into perspective, the Australian state of Victoria has an annual public holiday for a horse race! There are currently 15.8 voters enrolled in Australia and $US150=$200AUD, so the cost of the payments would be $3.16 billion – not a huge amount in the scheme of things and worth it, in my opinion.
A philosophical advantage of the Deliberation Day proposal is that it would resolve a conflict over the secret ballot, as illustrated by a debate between John Stuart Mill and his philosopher father James Mill. Prior to the secret ballot, English elections were conducted by voters at polling places having to tell election officials who they wished to vote for in front of other voters.
After the widening of the political franchise, James Mill advocated a secret ballot so that tenants and servants would not feel intimidated by the political opinions of their landlords and masters. On the other hand, his son John Stuart Mill wanted to abolish the secret ballot because he thought the lack of public discussion encouraged undue focus on private interests at the expense of the common good.
The Deliberation Day proposal preserves the benefits of the secret ballot, whilst encouraging voters to focus on the common good rather than purely their own private interests. (The underlying assumption is that voters would be more likely to discuss national interest or common good issues at Deliberation Day).
The claim by Sally McManus, the new head of the ACTU, that when the law is unjust, ‘I don’t think there is a problem in breaking it’, returns us to a deep question in political philosophy: Why should I obey the law and the state more generally?
The howls of outrage from the Prime Minster and some of his colleagues (as well asThe Australian ) about her claims, are part political theatre, but also hint at the challenges these questions raise for self-consciously liberal societies.
What is political obligation?
To have a political obligation is to have a moral duty to obey the laws and support the institutions of one’s political community. In fact, I think political obligations are a broader category of duties then strictly legal obligations. The two can come apart. For example, I might have a legal obligation to pay tax in a deeply corrupt state, but not necessarily a moral obligation to do so.
So the hard question is how we come to actually acquire political and legal obligations. Is it through birth, or through consent? Or do we have ‘natural duties’ that flow from the existence of already reasonably just institutions. But what counts as ‘reasonably just’? And what are the conditions under which we might be ‘released’ from those obligations, if ever?
The PM surely doesn’t believe we must always obey the state – he cut his teeth as a young lawyer challenging the British government’s attempt to ban Peter Wright’s Spycatcher in Australia. On the other hand, McManus surely doesn’t believe we can simply opt out of every law we disagree with. Civil society would quickly become very uncivil.
The argument from fair play
The question of the duty to obey the law is an old question and the subject of one of Plato’s most famous early Socratic dialogues. In the Crito, Socrates engages in an intense conversation with his followers about whether or not he should flee the city that has just condemned him to death. In the end, he decides he should not, mainly because he feels it would involve breaking the commitments and agreements he has made with his fellow citizens and the city that has done so much to nurture and shape him.
Socrates makes a number of arguments in the course of the dialogue, but perhaps the most resonant for us today is an appeal to fairness. He suggests that to disobey the law would be to mistreat or disrespect his fellow citizens. If I have constrained my freedom to be bound by the law, under the premise that others will do likewise, then it’s unfair if you choose to disobey the law whenever it inconveniences you. The city can’t survive, let alone flourish, if that was our general attitude towards each other.
There is a gloriously robust literature in moral and political philosophy on the nature of political obligation and especially the argument from fair play. They key issue here, as far as McManus’s claim is concerned, is whether or not the laws we are subject to are indeed constitutive of a reasonably just, mutually beneficial, collaborative society. This generates the obligation to take on your fair share of the burdens of sustaining such a community. And so a general obligation to obey the law is grounded in the principle of fair play – doing your part to sustain a community you benefit from by others doing theirs.
One problem with this argument is that it might be too weak. How can my not obeying the law in some particular circumstance really undo a large-scale society like Australia?
On the other hand, a simple though experiment suggests it might also be too strong. Imagine a situation in which someone on your street mounts an impressive display of Christmas lights every year. Everyone on the street enjoys the lights enormously. But the following year, your neighbor turns up on your doorstep and insists that it’s your turn to do it this time. But you didn’t ask him to put up the lights. You didn’t consent to share in the burdens of doing so. And yet the principle of fair play would suggest you are so obliged.
Against political obligation?
This debate continues to rage on the pages of political philosophy journals and blogs. But it remains a critical issue too for contemporary politics, where people disagree vehemently about significant political, social and economic issues.
If we really don’t see our community as bound by laws that enable us to cooperate together in a mutually beneficial way, then it’s not clear that we have established a genuine political community in the first place. Citizenship surely involves more than merely a transactional relationship with others in our community.
On the other hand, given the extraordinary powers of the state, the conditions under which I become obliged must surely be stronger then merely being a member of that society. Don’t the laws themselves have to be just? Or, to return to a point I made above, don’t we have a general political obligation only if our political community in a broad sense is actually reasonably just? But is that really a feasible standard for the imperfect world in which we live? Doesn’t that mean that, ultimately, political obligation is basically impossible? (Of course, for anarchists, this is a very welcome conclusion!)
So the Prime Minister and his colleagues has overstated the case that in suggesting there might be times when disobeying unjust laws is justified, McManus is somehow advocating chaos. As a civil libertarian he should know better.
And yet McManus needs to understand that the grounds for civil disobedience must be carefully considered. It is a condition of genuine civil disobedience – as Martin Luther King so eloquently argued in his ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail’ – that you must be willing to suffer the consequences of disobeying the law in the hope of transforming the views of your fellow citizens. You need to take the public good to heart, and not simply your own particular interests. Socrates was willing to die for the sake of his city. Martin Luther King was imprisoned and ultimately assassinated. These are perhaps the extreme cases. But it speaks to the dilemma of how free societies deal with deep disagreement, including about the nature of injustice. It’s not clear yet how far the ACTU would be willing to go.
Is there something about the deep logic of democracy that destines it to succeed in the world? Democracy, the form of politics that includes everyone as equals – does it perhaps suit human nature better than the alternatives? After all, surely any person who is excluded from the decision-making in a society will be more liable to rise up against it.
From ancient thinkers like Seneca to contemporary thinkers like Francis Fukuyama, we can see some version of this line of thought. Seneca thought that tyrannies could never last long; Fukuyama famously argued that liberal democracy is the end of history.
I want to focus instead on the person credited with giving the most direct and uncompromising statement of this thought: Benedict de Spinoza.
For centuries, “democracy” was a term of abuse, understood as a dangerous form of mob rule. Spinoza was one of the first in the history of modern political thought to celebrate democracy.
Living in the 17th-century Dutch Republic, amid political turmoil in his own country, and witnessing the disorders across the channel in England, Spinoza was intensely interested in the concrete, material basis for peace.
He argues that monarchies are flawed political orders because they fail to harness the power of the people. Out of a well-founded fear of being overthrown, they oppress their subjects. The subjects, hating their king, have no loyalty and obey only out of fear.
Also, even the most virtuous king will have difficulty making wise and constant decisions that everyone can respect and uphold. A monarchy can only improve itself by approximating a democracy: instituting a representative assembly to which the king must defer.
But surely an even more direct way to harness the power of the people is not to have a king at all and to simply organise society as a democracy.
Democracies directly engage their citizens’ loyalty by politically involving them. Having diverse voices in their collective decision-making then allows better decisions to be made.
Managing inclusion and exclusion
Thus, Spinoza celebrates democracy and criticises monarchy. On this basis, he is hailed as a democrat and the originator of a radical, materialist conception of democracy, grounded in the power of the people.
But we should be careful here. Between monarchy as rule of the one and democracy as rule of the many, there is an intermediate option: aristocracy, or rule of the few.
Spinoza’s view of aristocracy should give pause to radical democrats. He does not see a historical movement towards democracy, nor does he see the superiority of democracy as written into human nature.
To be sure, politically including everyone, as in a democracy, can harness the power of the people. But Spinoza’s analysis of the commoners within an aristocracy shows the power of the people can equally be harnessed by political exclusion, so long as the depoliticised acquiescence of those excluded commoners is secured.
Everyone’s equal except new arrivals
Spinoza remarks that people generally conceive of themselves as equals and therefore resist political inequality. However, he also tells us a historical story of how this self-conception might be disrupted.
Suppose a population settles in a new place. Nobody wants to be subordinated to anyone else, so they view themselves as equals and organise themselves as a democracy.
… think it unfair that foreigners who come to join them should have equal rights in a state which they have won for themselves by their toil and at cost of their blood.
Do the immigrants object? No, says Spinoza:
Nor do the foreigners themselves make any objection to this, having come to settle there not with view to being rulers but to promote their private interests, and they are quite happy provided they are granted freedom to transact their own business in security.
The regime is transformed into an aristocracy, with the immigrants as the commoners excluded from political participation.
The crucial thing to note is that the power of the commoners is harnessed to the aristocracy. They comply with the laws of the country and contribute to its flourishing, not because they are politically included, but because they are content with their private economic freedoms. In other words, their depoliticised acquiescence is secured.
An unequal order can be stable
Spinoza believes that an unequal political order can be stable. This is because a well-organised aristocracy will have a robust collective decision-making process in its political assembly (thus not being fickle like the rule of a king) and procedures to ensure that, despite their political inequality, the commoners have legal equality and do not suffer abuse.
This example shows that the desire and demand for political equality is not a human universal. Rather, it can be quelled or extinguished under certain circumstances, such as when it is balanced against other desires and expectations.
Spinoza’s story fairly transparently reflects his understanding of the history of Venice. In Spinoza’s time, many writers viewed the aristocratic Venetian republic as the exemplar of good, peaceful and harmonious political order.
So Spinoza may well make a striking new move in the history of political thought by defending the idea of a good democratic regime. But he does not radically reject the common sense of political thought in his period. To the contrary, he provides a theoretical frame for understanding the real possibility of good aristocratic regimes.
The lesson is not that all aristocracies will be as good as Venice. A poorly organised aristocracy will face rebellion from its disgruntled commoners.
But if the material contentment and basic dignity of the commoners are upheld and their expectations carefully managed, an aristocracy can harness the power of the people just as well as a democracy.
Democracy can be hollowed out
Despite the prevalence of democracy today, the phenomenon of depoliticised acquiescence should not be unfamiliar to contemporary eyes.
For example, the United States is formally democratic. Nonetheless, it features two significant forms of political exclusion: migrant populations (legal and illegal) excluded from franchise; and a large proportion of the eligible voting population who (are encouraged to) self-exclude by not voting.
These excluded groups are mostly depoliticised: they are not politically involved, do not seek to make political claim on a larger share of the benefits of social co-operation, and do not mount a serious challenge to the broad stability of the political order or to popular compliance with its laws and institutions.
The predictable result is that they face persistently unequal outcomes in wealth, health and other indicators.
Bringing my Spinozist frame to bear on this phenomenon, we can view immigrants and non-voters as latter-day commoners, whose behaviour reflects their depoliticised acquiescence. When their disadvantage becomes extreme, then they may become politicised and rebellious. Yet so long as this does not happen and they remain depoliticised, their unequal consideration in public policy is unchallenged.
The idea that human nature has some special affinity with democracy as a regime of political inclusion is too rosy. We need to recognise that human nature can equally be channelled into an exclusive kind of democracy.
Contemporary democracy contains within itself impulses towards inclusion, but also impulses towards exclusion. Aristocratic democracy (to use a historical term which sounds strange to contemporary ears) is a real possibility. If we are not attentive, it can insidiously empty out the substantive promise of democratic rule by the people.
Although it is difficult to define, liberalism is now the dominant political philosophy.
By James Fodor
In this piece I want to discuss the political philosophy of liberalism, outlining its key tenets, the historical context in which it has arisen and developed, and discuss its relationship to various rival ideologies in the political landscape.
Although I consider myself to be a liberal, and therefore cannot claim to be unbiased, my purpose here is not to convince others to adopt liberal ideology, but rather to explain and clarify a number of terms and concepts which are endemic to our political discourse, but which are nevertheless widely misunderstood or misused.
To begin, I must first address the thorny question of terminology. In this essay I will use ideological terms in a manner which I think is most consistent with insightful political theory, and which best facilitates the purpose of historical analysis and comparison of competing positions.
This means that the way I use terms will not always align with how those terms are used in the political discourse, where terms are frequently appropriated, discarded, or projected upon others for the purpose of point-scoring rather than conceptual clarity.
Perhaps no word has more commonly been subject to this misuse and confusion as the term liberal, which can mean anything from left-wing, to centrist, to right-wing, depending on the context.
In Australia, a “Liberal” is generally understood to be a member or supporter of the Liberal Party of Australia. This is emphatically not how I am using the term liberal in this piece.
In the United States, by contrast, the term liberal is used to refer to what in Australia we might call progressives, or even socialists. This is also not how I use the word.
The British usage of the term, for example with reference to their Liberal Democrats, is closest to the traditional meaning of the term in political philosophy, and thus most closely aligns with my usage in this essay.
Modern liberalism arose, roughly, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries primarily as a challenge to the existing autocratic, traditional monarchies in Europe. Liberals challenged these political institutions on a number of fronts, generally appealing to Enlightenment ideals of reason and the possibility for human progress. Outlining the key tenets of liberalism is always a problematic endeavour, because the ideology has been deeply contested and divided almost since its inception. Nevertheless, several key ideals and perspectives lie at the core of liberalism, all of which have been widely supported by prominent proponents of liberalism over the centuries:
● Individualism: liberals regard the individual as being the primary social and political actor. It is individuals who make decisions, take actions, have preferences, possess rights, and exercise freedoms. While not denying the power and importance of social groupings, liberals hold that the most basic and important political relationship is that between a state and its individual citizens. The state exists to protect the rights of individuals, to promote equality between individuals, and to promote individual freedom.
● Freedom: central to liberalism is the notion that people should be free. Freedom takes many forms, including political freedom, religious freedom, economic freedom, and freedom of speech. Liberals often express this support of freedom in the form of the no-harm principle: people should be free to do whatever they wish, so long as this does not harm others. Of course, what constitutes “harming others” is deeply contested, but nonetheless this overarching principle is central to liberal thought.
● Equality: liberals have always affirmed two key beliefs about equality. First, that all people everywhere are born fundamentally equal; second, that the state should treat all its citizens, equally. Exactly what these two statements mean has been subject to constant and bitter dispute amongst liberals for centuries. Today differing notions of what constitutes “equality”, some focusing on “quality of treatment” and others on “quality of outcome”, continue to form the fault lines along which political boundaries are often drawn. Nevertheless, the deep commitment to equality is distinctive of and fundamental to liberal ideology.
● Rule of law: this principle is derived from the commitments to equality and individualism. By it, liberals affirm that the state should establish transparent, just laws that apply equally to everyone. Law and politics should be conducted in accordance with these rules, not according to the whims of individuals or arbitrary traditions. Regular, free democratic elections are one of the most important manifestations of this commitment in a liberal state.
Liberalism’s Dominance and its Critics
Some readers may perhaps be thinking that the positions I have outlined above are mostly a matter of common sense. After all, who could disagree with freedom, equality, and the rule of law?
In fact, many people have and still do disagree with various aspects of these liberal positions, rejecting them in whole or in part. The reason they may perhaps seem so self-evident and unchallengeable is because liberalism has become the dominant ideology of our time. Most people living in Western countries today are liberals, even if they would not describe themselves as such. Similarly, nearly all major political parties in democratic countries today have substantively (though not completely) liberal ideologies. Perhaps counter-intuitively, this even applies to most political parties that describe themselves as conservative or socialist. In large part this is because the very political system which we inhabit in today’s world is built substantively upon a liberal framework, and parties which reject this framework typically aim to overturn the current political order. Under normal conditions, such parties are marginalised and have limited electoral appeal.
However dominant liberalism may now be, there nevertheless exist major competing ideologies which, at different times in history, have provided very substantial opposition to liberalism. In particular, both socialism and fascism (discussed below) were widely popular alternatives to liberalism during the crisis period of the Great Depression. As is the case for liberalism itself, much diversity exists within each of these ideological traditions, and generalisations can only be made with caution. Furthermore, many attempts have been made to synthesise various aspects of these traditions, and other political approaches exist outside the four main ones which I discuss. Nevertheless, I do think it is still helpful to talk about these traditions as each possessing a core set of beliefs which are distinctive and generally consist across their various incarnations. I think that an understanding of these approaches to politics, and where they differ, can cast considerable light on political discourse, and clarify many disputes which may otherwise remain mysterious.
The oldest opponent to liberalism I loosely call “conservatism”, a term that is nearly as confusing as the word liberal. Conservatives are typically defined by their desire to preserve some existing status quo, but what exactly that status quo consists of can vary dramatically depending on the context.
For example, in August of 1991 a group of hard-line communists attempted to overthrow President Mikhail Gorbachev and halt his liberalising reforms of the Soviet Union. In any other context these conspirators would most probably be described as elements of the far left, but because they were attempting to preserve the existing set of political institutions, they were characterised as “conservative”.
Likewise, much of the language of American conservatism, with its veneration of the United States constitution, the Bill of Rights, individual liberty, and freedom of speech, is conservative only in the sense that it wishes to preserve what are nevertheless fundamentally liberal institutions.
Notwithstanding their usage in current political discourse, the American founding fathers were by no means considered conservatives during their lifetimes; in fact many of them were vital early contributors to the liberal intellectual tradition. In my use of the term conservative, therefore, I do not simply mean anyone trying to preserve the political status quo. Rather, I am referring to adherents to a certain set of conservative ideological positions, as developed by European intellectuals during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in reaction to perceived excesses of liberals, which was thought to offer a partial defence of existing social and political institutions against liberal calls for widespread reform.
Conservative ideology differs from liberalism in a number of key ways. Critically important is that conservatives are much less likely to accept the individualist approach to politics taken by liberals. Instead, conservatives typically emphasise the importance of social institutions, particularly the family and the church, as vital social and political actors in their own right. Individualism is replaced by communitarianism, which holds that society is not merely an aggregate of isolated individuals, but consists of overlapping communities in which persons are inextricably embedded.
Conservatives are likely to see the role of the state as supporting and promoting these institutions, as well as in upholding traditional social values, all of which they see as important for promoting social harmony and continuity. Conservatives typically value tradition and social stability, arguing that any reforms should be slow and cautious so as to avoid misguided attempts to overturn longstanding social customs that have proved their value by standing the test of time.
This emphasis on tradition often brings conservatives into conflict with liberals who argue that such policies can inhibit efforts to promote freedom and equality. Conservatives, for their part, are likely to reject various aspects of the liberal notion of the equality of all persons. Traditionally, this was manifested in a very explicit belief that nobles were in some real sense “better people” than common folk; it was reflected in the widespread pre-modern practice of applying different laws and penalties according to one’s social rank.
Modern-day conservatives are unlikely to explicitly endorse such practices; however, they are typically more suspicious of what they see as the overly idealistic liberal notion that all individuals are fundamentally equal, or should be treated as such in all contexts. Conservatives are more likely to think that individuals vary greatly in abilities, temperament, and disposition, and that as a result hierarchy is, at least to some degree, a natural and necessary component of human societies.
In emphasising social stability and tradition, conservatives are more likely to favour rule by accepted customary practice rather than by explicitly defined, rationally developed, and universally applied laws favoured by liberals. Conservatives often regard such overly rationalistic legal frameworks as doomed to failure if they ignore the accumulated wisdom of customary legal traditions.
While conservatism was the primary opponent of liberalism in the eighteenth and much of the nineteenth centuries, beginning in the mid-nineteenth century a new, very different ideological opponent developed. For my purposes here I will refer to this broad set of ideologies as “socialism”, though others might argue that communism or even anarchism would be more appropriate.
The many distinctions that have been made between socialism, communism, anarchism, and the many variants of each do not interest me here. Instead, what I want to focus on are the core commonalities that characterise this approach to politics and how they challenge and contrast with liberalism.
Socialism developed as a distinctive and self-conscious opposition to liberalism. While joining liberals in opposing traditional forms of political oppression and hierarchy, socialists argue that liberals fail to recognise the overwhelming social harms wrought by the economic system of capitalism. Socialists believe that a wide range of social ills are caused directly or indirectly by exploitation of the working class by profit-seeking capitalists, and as a result they argue that, in order to truly achieve the ends of human equality and empowerment, capitalism must be abolished and replaced with a fundamentally different economic system.
Although they differ in exactly how they wish to bring this about, and what such a system would look like, socialists are united in the core belief that the means of production (factories, land, etc.) should be collectively owned, and that many or all forms of private properly abolished.
This key distinguishing feature of socialism is very important to understand, because many people who describe themselves as socialists do not, in fact, count as socialists under this definition. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, for example, while describing himself as a socialist, does not support socialisation of the means of production, and therefore is more properly classified as a social democrat.
In championing the socialisation of the means of production and abolition of private property, socialists adopt quite a strong understanding of equality, in which persons cannot be said to be equal unless they have access to comparable material resources. Thus, legal equality and social welfare programs championed by many liberals are judged as insufficient to achieve what socialists regard as true equality between people.
Similarly, socialists reject the liberal notion of freedom, with its focus on being free from being harmed by others or the state, and instead champion a more positive conception of liberty, which emphasises the importance of empowering people with the ability to achieve their desired ends.
Socialists also oppose the individualist focus of liberals, arguing similarly to conservatives that humans are not atomic individuals, but are fundamentally socially embedded. Unlike conservatives, however, they tend to emphasise as paramount the position of individuals within a particular socio-economic class, and consider the interactions between these classes as fundamental to political developments.
This collectivist approach to social and political relations is often extended by anti-racist, postcolonial, feminist, and other critical theory approaches, which focus on group solidity and identity in political interactions, arguing that the excessive individualism of liberalism is both mistaken and, insomuch as it facilitates the perpetuation of unjust social systems, oppressive.
The final class of political ideologies that I want to discuss in this piece arose in the early twentieth century in simultaneous reaction opposition to conservatism, liberalism, and socialism. I will use the termfascism to describe this broad collection of anti-Communist, anti-Liberal, far-right authoritarian movements, although the label is especially problematic because few people openly identity as fascists, and as such the word should be used with considerable caution.
Fascism also tends towards anti-intellectualism, and therefore does not have nearly as well developed philosophical justifications as the three ideologies discussed so far.
Despite these difficulties, several broad generalisations can be made about fascism and related political ideologies.
First and foremost, fascism is authoritarian, rejecting the egalitarianism of liberalism and socialism in favour of the belief in the inherent superiority of some people or groups over others, and adopting the view that strong, decisive leadership is of vital importance for a nation to succeed. As a result of this belief, fascists reject parliamentary institutions and the rule of law as being harmful impediments to the orderly and efficient management of public affairs. In contrast with conservatives, fascists generally do not regard social stability or tradition as necessarily valuable, but instead often campaign for a revolutionary reshaping of social andpolitical life in accord with some idealised end.
Fascists unite with socialists in rejecting individualism, but while socialists regard class as paramount, fascists generally consider nationality, ethnicity, or race to be the primary social groupings along which social and political life is managed. Related to this is the adoption by most fascist movements of some extreme form of nationalism, which usually involves imbuing their nation or ethnic group with a mythical origin story and grand destiny.
Fascist movements typically see their nation or people as under dire threat by internal or external opponents, and regard themselves as leading a revival movement of borderline mystical or spiritual significance. Often, but not always, this ultra-nationalism is accompanied by racism, especially anti-Semitism.
Finally, fascist movements are populist in nature, meaning that they appeal frequently to the popular will and the sentiments and fears of everyday people, while generally eschewing more academic forms of intellectual justification or appeals to complex argumentation.
One manifestation of this emphasis on popular appeal is the widespread provision of social welfare programs by fascist movements, something that was instrument to their popularity in Italy and Germany. Whilst sometimes leading to those movements being described as socialist, these programs are typically not motivated by socialist egalitarianism ideals, but primarily by a sense of national communal solidarity and unity of purpose.
Why Ideology Matters
Having an understanding of the key foundational principles of liberalism and its major ideological competitors is invaluable for being able to understand both historic and contemporary political disputes. The core foundational institutions of our current economic and political system, including electoral democracy with one vote per person, a system of laws equally applicable to all, and a largely capitalist economy with significant state intervention to promote social equality, all only really make sense within the framework of liberal ideology.
Without the belief that individuals are the fundamental political actors, that economic, political, and social freedoms are exceptionally valuable, and that all persons are fundamentally equal, these institutions would lack any justification and make little sense. Indeed, it is precisely because they reject or drastically reinterpret some or all of these core principles that some groups at the extreme ends of the political spectrum oppose liberal institutions and advocate for their abolition.
Much more common for mainstream political parties is to combine their support for these fundamentally liberal principles with elements from other ideological traditions. Typically the “left-wing” party combines liberal thought with some elements of socialism (as in the Labour Party), while the “right-wing” party instead incorporates elements of conservatism (as in the Liberal Party). Given their common commitment to core liberal ideas, the difference between major political parties in Western nations is thus typically much smaller than political rhetoric alone would lead one to believe
Many of the political debates that shape our contemporary political discourse are disputes largely internal to liberal politics. Often these relate to one of the critical tensions which is intrinsic to liberal thought: namely the tension between a desire to promote individual freedom on the one hand, and social equality on the other. Efforts to promote equality often require sacrificing freedom, while increasing freedoms can often result in increased inequality or social injustice. Different people manage this trade-off differently, and also differ in their precise interpretations of such abstract notions as “freedom” and “equality”.
Liberalism is thus not a recipe one follows to arrive at clearly defined policy positions, but rather a general ideological framework for conceptualising the proper role of the state, and its relationship to individuals in a just society.
Whether you, like me, regard liberalism as immensely valuable and a great force for good in the world, or whether you regard it as naïvely optimistic, overly individualistic, intrinsically oppressive, or dangerously degenerate (as various critics have claimed), a proper understanding of liberal ideology is nevertheless essential for engaging in informed political discourse in today’s world.
James Fodor is in his third year of a science degree at the University of Melbourne. He is the author of the blog The Godless Theist. From the Australian Rationalist(Melbourne), v. 101, Winter [June] 2016: 32 – 35. Journal of the Rationalist Society of Australia, www.rationalist.com.au
(Posted here with permission of the author).
Political protesters often don’t play by the rules. Think of the Occupy Movement, which brought lower Manhattan to a standstill in 2011 under the slogan, “We are the 99%”. Closer to home, think of the refugee activists who assisted a breakout from South Australia’s Woomera detention centre in 2002. Both are examples of contentious politics, or forms of political engagement outside the institutional channels of political decision-making.
The democratic credentials of contentious politics are highly ambivalent. On the one hand, contentious politics appears to have insufficient respect for democratic decision. Protesters are often forceful, uncivil and rowdy, aiming to disproportionately influence policy. But shouldn’t proposals be put forward with civility through the proper channels? And shouldn’t their proponents accept with good grace if they are democratically rebuffed?
In my current home, Singapore, contention is viewed as dangerous, at any moment threatening to destabilise the hard-won authority of the government. Consequently it is not tolerated.
The 1965 SAFA Freedom Riders and their bus. From Ann Curthoys, Freedom Ride: a freedom rider remembers,
Allen & Unwin, 2002
At the same time, history offers countless examples of social change that is now consolidated and popularly supported, but which was only achieved through protests that were judged at the time to be extreme and immoderate. Notably, the Australian Freedom Ride of 1965, which challenged the subordinate status of Indigenous Australians, was highly controversial. Today its 50th anniversary is celebrated and recognised in the mainstream media and the halls of power.
A closer look at the history of political thought can provide us with the framework to assess the case for and against the democratic reasonableness of contentious politics.
Hobbes’ citizens accept authority
Best known for his claim that the natural human condition is one of war and all against all, 17th-century English political philosopher Thomas Hobbes is often misrepresented as the ultimate theorist of contentious politics. He actually views conflict as antithetical to good democratic politics (or indeed to any politics at all).
Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes’ ultimate authority. Abraham Bosse
For Hobbes, the purpose of politics is to escape war. As such, he insists that in order to establish a democratic political order, all individuals need to hand over their will to a single point of ultimate authority – in this case, the democratic assembly. Hobbes thought that citizens should accept the determination of the democratic assembly, even when it ruled against their own preferred outcomes.
In Hobbes’ ideal democracy, democratic citizens do have some recourse when they disagree with the assembly. He distinguishes between counsel and exhortation. He sees it as permissible to offer counsel to the ruling assembly. But it is unacceptable for the citizen to become vehement or to let their own interests drive their demand, as this amounts to exhortation.
If citizens were free to protest and seek to overturn the democratic decision whenever they chose, the system would not be one of pure rule by the people, but rather a rule by the people distorted to appease the protesters.
Machiavelli sees room for conflict
The Hobbesian view, while influential, is not the only way to think about political contestation and democratic rule. Written more than a century before Hobbes’s Leviathan, the ideas expressed in Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince are still very popular, making him the archetypal cynical and ruthless adviser to rulers who want nothing more than to hold firmly onto power.
However, Machiavelli’s other major work, The Discourses on Livy, has some important lessons for the future of democracy. By looking at the recent histories of Florence and Venice, along with the ancient history of Rome, he makes clear that while some conflicts of authority are destructive, others are constructive.
Although not concerned about democracy in the modern sense, Machiavelli firmly defends the political power and worth of the common people. He argues that some constructive conflict is necessary for them to enjoy status and liberty in the political order.
Renaissance Florence had been racked by conflict. Different sects hated each other, and the polity was tossed violently from one ruling power to another. Weakened by the transitions, it was easy prey for external domination. Through this conflict, the lot of the Florentine people was very wretched.
Ancient Rome was also marked by conflict. The plebs (the common people) periodically disrupted ordinary politics. They closed their shops, refused military service, ran noisily down the streets or even left the city en masse when they desired something. Unsurprisingly, the Romans were not afraid to bring accusations against arrogant rulers.
The Secession of the People to the Mons Sacer, engraved by B. Barloccini (1849), depicting the commoners leaving the city as a political protest. Wikimedia Commons
Curiously, during all the centuries of conflict in the Roman republic, it was never deeply disordered. Very few citizens were exiled or killed. Instead, there were countless examples of great virtue among citizens, and the laws supported the common good and public freedom.
Constructive vs destructive conflict
Machiavelli identifies a crucial difference between the two cases. In Rome, the citizens were by and large committed to living together in a society on fair terms. Their ultimate goal was not the eradication of the opposed party; their conflicts were aimed at improving the laws, not using the laws to eliminate their opponent.
In Florence, the parties were corrupt in the sense of not seeking a fair common good. Instead, they sought to overcome and crush their opponents.
This type of self-serving conflict destroys liberty. It seizes everything from the losers and denies their existence in the polity. It also produces instability because there is so much at stake in who is ruling. Ultimately, it weakens the polity because there is no public good to be committed to and inspired by.
Hence, the protagonist of constructive conflict is committed to the good of the political order and acknowledges the reasonable interests of opponents. Destructive conflict involves self-interested competition without any higher commitment to living together on reasonable terms.
How does this distinction between kinds of conflict apply to present-day politics?
The 1965 Australian Freedom Ride campaign exemplifies the effectiveness of constructive conflict. The zero-sum racialised conflict suffered by the Solomon Islands over recent decades illustrate the impacts of destructive conflict.
On Machiavelli’s view, the vast majority of political contestation that we see within democracies today would count as constructive conflict. Undeniably, constructive conflict is preferable to destructive conflict, but this raises the question: why do we need conflict at all? Would Rome have been an even greater polity if it had managed to avoid all conflict?
A standard trope of civic republican writing in Machiavelli’s time was to lament the tumultuous character of the Roman republic, often in unflattering contrast to the serene harmony of the republican city-state of Venice.
Lorenzetti Ambrogio’s ‘Allegory of Good Government’ (1338) represents the ideal of civic harmony, with the people shown as small
and orderly below the rulers. Wikimedia Commons
Machiavelli rejects this evaluation. The cost of Venice’s harmony was a political order heavily weighted towards the interests of the nobles and away from the common people.
Contemporary nobles and commoners
In any polity, past or present, there are always powerful nobles (or, as we know them today, corporations and the corporate tycoons heading them, the Murdochs, the Berlusconis, the Koch brothers), who do not of their own accord treat the masses well.
In Machiavelli’s view, the people only secure their own freedom when they actively contest the power and influence of the nobles. The Roman plebs only flourished because of their shrill demands for inclusion and respect against the conservative reluctance of the nobles.
While there may be a legitimate need for citizens to defer to democratic decisions most of the time, unconditional deference might allow oligarchical tendencies to consolidate themselves.
Forgoing the Hobbesian view, where the persistence of protest and contentious politics attests to a deficient and weak political order, Machiavelli’s analysis encourages us to value contestatory politics as an important bulwark against the undemocratic meddling of the rich and powerful.
Our worry today should not be that there is too much contentious politics, but that there is too little. The stealthy capture of democracy by corporate interests needs constantly to be called out.
Rather than hope for a deferential population that does not contest government decisions, we should recognise the role of even the most unruly protest in defending inclusiveness and fairness in society, so long as it is grounded in a constructive sense of shared democratic future.
Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury (1588 – 1679) was an English philosopher, best known today for his work on political philosophy. His 1651 book Leviathan established social contract theory, the foundation of most later Western political philosophy.
The desire to avoid the state of nature, as the place where the summum malum of violent death is most likely to occur, forms the polestar of his political reasoning. It suggests a number of laws of nature, although Hobbes is quick to point out that they cannot properly speaking be called “laws,” since there is no one to enforce them. Here are his first five laws.
Sir Isaiah Berlin OM, CBE, FBA (1909 – 1997) was a Russo-British Jewish social and political theorist, philosopher and historian of ideas, “thought by many to be the dominant scholar of his generation”. He excelled as an essayist, conversationalist and raconteur; and as a brilliant lecturer who improvised, rapidly and spontaneously, richly allusive and coherently structured material.
‘I am normally said to be free to the degree to which no man or body of men interferes with my activity. Political liberty in this sense is simply the area within which a man can act unobstructed by others. If I am prevented by others from doing what I could otherwise do, I am to that degree unfree; and if this area is contracted by other men beyond a certain minimum, I can be described as being coerced, or, it may be, enslaved.
Coercion is not, however, a term that covers every form of inability. If I say that I am unable to jump more than ten feet in the air, or cannot read because I am blind, or cannot understand the darker pages of Hegel, it would be eccentric to say that I am to that degree enslaved or coerced. Coercion implies the deliberate interference of other human beings within the area in which I could otherwise act.’
‘Economic equality is not, as such, of particular moral importance. With respect to the distribution of economic assets, what is important from the point of view of morality is not that everyone should have the same but that each should have enough. If everyone had enough, it would be of no moral consequence whether some had more than others.’
John Stuart Mill (20 May 1806 – 8 May 1873) was a British philosopher, political economist and civil servant. He was an influential contributor to social theory, political theory and political economy. He has been called “the most influential English-speaking philosopher of the nineteenth century”. Mill’s conception of liberty justified the freedom of the individual in opposition to unlimited state control.
“To prevent the weaker members of the community from being preyed upon by innumerable vultures, it was needful that there should be an animal of prey stronger than the rest, commissioned to keep them down. But as the king of the vultures would be no less bent upon preying upon the flock than any of the minor harpies, it was indispensable to be in a perpetual attitude of defence against his beak and claws. The aim, therefore, of patriots, was to set limits to the power which the ruler should be suffered to exercise over the community; and this limitation was what they meant by liberty.” – John Stuart Mill in ‘On Liberty‘ (1859).
His magnum opus, A Theory of Justice (1971), was said at the time of its publication to be “the most important work in moral philosophy since the end of World War II” and is now regarded as “one of the primary texts in political philosophy”. His work in political philosophy, dubbed Rawlsianism, takes as its starting point the argument that “the most reasonable principles of justice are those everyone would accept and agree to from a fair position”. Rawls attempts to determine the principles of social justice by employing a number of thought experiments such as the famous original position in which everyone is impartially situated as equals behind a veil of ignorance. He is one of the major thinkers in the tradition of liberal political philosophy. According to English philosopher Jonathan Wolff, while there could be a “dispute about the second most important [American analytic] political philosopher of the 20th century, there could be no dispute about the most important: John Rawls”.
“Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought. A theory however elegant and economical must be rejected or revised if it is untrue; likewise laws and institutions no matter how efficient and well-arranged must be reformed or abolished if they are unjust. Each person possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot override. “ – John Rawls in A Theory of Justice