In case you didn’t get the memo: liberalism is passé. Society’s (imagined) love affair with liberal politics is over, and you’re supposed to be cheering the advent of a new polity: the rise of “radicalism” as the new descriptor of choice, one to be employed by a million student activists and thought leaders in their twitter bios.
Jared Sacks’ piece “A riot is the language of the unheard” characterises the meteoric surge of anti-liberalism in op-eds, activism and intellectual engagement in South Africa. But like much of the new radicalism – which is often divorced from any theoretical foundation – this piece makes many unsubstantiated and unintellectual claims about liberal philosophy and politics.
Sacks’ piece is a response to Rebecca Hodes, who he believes misunderstands liberalism. Without commenting on the merits of either Sacks’ qualms with Hodes or Hodes’ arguments about Rhodes Must Fall (RMF), I’d like to address this unchallenged assault on liberal values.
The media’s desire for short, punchy articles means that Sacks is probably not provided with an opportunity to develop more theoretical depth when he argues that “[…] liberalism has always claimed to embody the values of democracy and equality, in practice liberalism incarnates the opposite.” This argument – which isn’t substantiated – moves onto throwing some shade about the racism of John Locke – a man who was born in the 1600s.
Sacks makes a myriad claims but doesn’t substantiate them with theory. He instead chooses banter about philosophers who lived hundreds of years ago to discredit modern liberalism – which is a vibrant battlefield of academic debate and disagreement. Modern liberal philosophy is a broad field encompassing many people and many political positions. Liberalism encompasses both the disbanded Liberal Party of South Africa who promoted redistribution of land, as well as someone like Robert Nozick – a libertarian philosopher who thinks taxation is immoral.
Liberalism is simply too broad to write off in a few paragraphs. But perhaps more worrying is Sacks’ point of departure: the claim that liberalism has long sought to be the champion of democracy. Perhaps liberal politicians have been saying this, but most liberal theorists – from Locke to John Rawls – fail to adequately address the inherent tension between liberalism and democracy, which can often pursue very different aims. This tension represents a significant, necessary critique of liberalism which Sacks doesn’t unpack clearly.
Sacks also intimates that liberals must account for the racism of their philosophical forefathers – and indeed the past failures of their philosophy. Yet, the radical left must never account for the actions of Joseph Stalin, the homophobia of East Germany, or the brutality of the Khmer Rouge? It would be absurd, biased, intellectually-weak, ahistorical and theoretically-bankrupt to apply this argument to the left; but Sacks – and other anti-liberals – have no qualms about employing this technique when liberalism is the target of their think pieces.
This is because this kind of argument does send a message: that liberalism must be written off, that “actual existing liberalism” sucks, please just forget about it.
In the same breath readers must forget about the actual existing radicalism, and hope for the best. We must forget about oil-rich Venezuela, where a radical government spent half of this year trying to manage the country’s toilet paper shortage and inflation crisis. Of course, this will be snubbed and the source will be relegated to the “liberal media” list – something both reactionary right-wingers and the left tend to keep in their back-pocket.
Liberalism is broader than Sacks would like to think. And radicals are not the only ones engaged in deep debate and thinking about where the world is going. Liberals are also imagining new ways of living and being. I believe that politics – radical, liberal and whatever else – is a space of possibility. Although activists like Sacks create the perception that there is no possibility for liberalism to live on, to create a better world (or redeem itself from its past failures), there are many thinkers exploring these possibilities.
A few years ago South African legal and political academics gathered for an engaging conference on egalitarian liberalism organised by Prof David Bilchitz. These interactions represent the great potential – that is written-off by anti-liberals – for liberalism to become a site of resistance against the problems of the world, whilst simultaneously engaging in a deep internal critique of liberalism’s faults. For these academics,
“[…] liberalism has made necessary points against despotic state power that were vindicated by the late twentieth-century collapse of the Soviet Union and its allied ‘Communist’ regimes. These points remain pertinent in contemporary South Africa where some argue that realising social justice requires the attenuation of so-called ‘bourgeois’ liberal rights.”
Turned off by the post-Cold War neoliberal consensus, many are (rightfully) moving away from liberalism. This, in spite of it its great contribution to political philosophy by way of human rights, and the reform of political and economic systems which engendered despotism. However, this broad philosophy can still be a space for progressive social change, and it can ensure this change without robbing individuals of their freedom.
We shouldn’t write it off based on mischaracterisations by anti-liberals, who employ theoretically-bankrupt hypocrisy as a means to challenge it.
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