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The ambiguity at the heart of the concept ‘liberal’

The history of politics, or of political struggle and political change, can at least partly be understood in light of the tension between two of the three constituent concepts comprising the battle cry of the French Revolution, triggered by the storming of the Bastille in 1789: “Liberty, equality, fraternity!” There is an irreducible tension between liberty and equality, because both can be interpreted in different ways. “Liberty”, or freedom, denotes individual freedom in the first place, although many have interpreted it as meaning “group freedom” of various kinds, usually in cultural or religious terms. “Equality” signifies a species-equality in the first place — the fact that, wherever you are born, you share a common humanity — and secondly, in a societal context, refers to the “equality in relation to the law”, that is (supposedly) the case in constitutional democracies.

But — and here’s the rub — “equality” does not, and cannot, mean “sameness” in terms of cultural and racial attributes, let alone personal characteristics such as intelligence, initiative, resourcefulness, and so on, (which means that even within the “same” culture and race individuals are irreducibly different) and hence individual “freedom” can at best mean the freedom to actualise one’s individual potential under (presumably) conditions of constitutional “equality”. Under such conditions of constitutional (and therefore “legal”) equality, the very ineradicable differences, mentioned above — resourcefulness, etc — unavoidably give rise to, or exacerbate, the individual differences that are there to begin with, because individuals have irrepressibly different characteristics. Some would be drawn to professions like politics, others to teaching, others to commerce, yet others to medicine, architecture, to an artisanship, and so on.

This would be the case if the social and economic playing fields were to be “level” to begin with, that is, if everyone started at the same level of wealth, opportunity, and so on, which is, of course, not the case. In existing societies — some more than others — individuals start off in life under already widely divergent, that is, unequal, conditions of economic wealth and, related to that, abundance, or scarcity, of opportunity to improve their lives materially. Precisely for this reason, existing inequalities — even in constitutional democracies — feed into an ambiguity or tension, this time not between liberty and equality, but one at the heart of the concepts “liberty” and “liberal” (“incoherent concepts” in Deleuze and Guattari’s sense of the phrase) which serve to qualify some democracies as “liberal democracies”, a label which highlights the value supposedly placed on liberty or freedom in such democracies. The label, “social democracies” (Norway, Sweden, for example) implies something different, but not incompatible with “liberal”, namely that societal well-being is given priority above individual liberty, so that a certain measure of social and economic equality can be achieved.

But in every kind of democracy — liberal as well as social — different political interpretations of the concept “liberal”, or “liberty” are at the root of the existence of different political parties, each of which emphasises a different aspect of “liberty”. In some cases — such as here, in South Africa — such divergent interpretations even give rise to unbearable tensions within the same political party, as I shall argue, below.

The ambiguity at the heart of the word “liberal” amounts to this: it can be inscribed in different registers, the most significant of which are the political (specifically democratic) and the economic. As Zizek has incisively argued in this respect that (in Living in the End Times, p. 37): “Today, the meaning of ‘liberalism’ moves between two opposed poles: economic liberalism (free market individualism, opposition to strong state regulation, etc) and political liberalism (with an accent on equality, social solidarity, permissiveness, etc). In the US, Republicans are more liberal in the first sense and Democrats in the second. The point, of course, is that one cannot decide through closer analysis which is the ‘true’ liberalism, one also cannot resolve the deadlock by proposing a kind of ‘higher’ dialectical synthesis, or ‘avoid the confusion’ by making a clear distinction between the two senses of the term. The tension between the two meanings is inherent to the very content that ‘liberalism’ endeavors [sic] to designate., it is constitutive of the notion itself, so that this ambiguity, far from signaling a limitation to our knowledge, signals the innermost ‘truth’ of the notion of liberalism.”

As he then proceeds to point out, this further gives rise to all manner of paradox. It is well-known that liberals in the political sense (eg US Democrats), who also usually happen to be “multiculturalist advocates of tolerance”, as a rule combat (politically conservative) economic liberalism in an effort to shield the vulnerable from rampant economic forces. On the other hand, so-called market liberals (eg politically conservative US Republicans) generally promote conservative social values. From this the dual paradox issues, that while the “political liberals” (multiculturalists) oppose the “free” market (opting for various kinds of economic control and distribution mechanisms), they embrace the kind of socially and culturally variegated society created by that very free market at an ideological level.

On the other hand, the “economic liberals” (political conservatives) promote and justify the free market (because it maintains the economic status quo, in which they occupy a privileged position), while simultaneously vehemently opposing the multicultural, permissive society engendered by this very economic system at an ideological level. (Interestingly, Zizek reminds us that the exception to the above about 50 years ago was Ayn Rand, who combined an enthusiasm for market freedom with individualist egotism, minus the conservative social emphasis on family values that characterises the economic liberals (political conservatives) of today.)

It is quite possible, of course, for the two kinds of liberalism — which rest on two different interpretations of the concept, “liberal”; the one economic and the other political — to function within the same political group, or party. It is probably because of this internal tension within groups that one witnesses some of their members pulling in one (socially and politically liberal) and others in another (economically liberal) direction. In the case of societies which think of themselves as “social democracies” there is a kind of quid pro quo or quasi-equilibrium between economic and political liberalism: they sacrifice some of the individual rewards (such as extreme individual wealth) of economic liberalism for the sake of maximising the distributive (economic) justice promoted by political liberalism, with the result that a measure of economic equality enters the system, with its attendant social security to ward off eventual, unavoidable political-economic protests of the kind we have been witnessing in the Arab world.

Where a political group has been put in a position to choose between political and economic liberty, even given its initial predilection for the kind of political liberty that would tend to lead towards “social democracy” (if not socialism), and for all kinds of historical reasons it opts for economic liberty in the vain belief that it would be able to reconcile its social and political aims with the chosen economic project, it is not surprising that an unbearable tension develops within its ranks. I am talking of the ANC, of course.

On the one hand, given its socialist background — manifested in the fact that, shortly before his release from prison, Mandela still defended the ANC’s “policy” of nationalising industries — there is a conceptual-ideological element within the ANC that tends towards the belief in political liberty, if not political liberalism, and its attendant principle of economic regulative controls. But on the other hand, having tasted the prodigious economic rewards for individuals within the party, rewards that come with economic liberalism (of the neo-liberal variety, that the ANC was virtually forced to opt for in 1994), it has tried to appease those within its ranks, or perhaps more conspicuously within the ranks of its alliance partners (Cosatu and the SACP), who tend to prioritise, at least at an ideological level if not in practice, political liberty (if not liberalism).

If the latter group had their way, South Africa would far more consistently display the contours of a social democracy (with its uneasy equilibrium between economic and political liberty), instead of the schizophrenic character it exhibits at present, namely that of a liberal democracy — with its prioritisation of economic liberalism above political liberalism — while simultaneously engaging in some of the state practices which are recognisably “social democratic”, such as the variety of social (state) grants that are distributed among ordinary people, who would otherwise not have any economic means for survival. In other words, within the ANC, as well as among it and its alliance partners, one witnesses symptoms of both interpretations of the concept “liberty” (and hence, of “liberalism”), interpretations that issue from an ineradicable tension at the heart of this concept.

Given the historical development of South Africa, as well as the fact that this tension is irreducible, as Zizek indicates so well, it seems to me that a social democracy would be far more suitable for this country than the chaotic “liberal democracy” it apparently tries to be at present. At least a social democracy holds out the possibility of an economically as well as politically more effective actualisation of the potential of “liberty”, while simultaneously accommodating “equality” in an economic and a political sense.


  • Bert Olivier

    As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.