Press "Enter" to skip to content

What is a liberal communist?

Like all oxymorons, the oxymoron (literally:”sharp-blunt”), “liberal communist”, seems to combine the impossible. And yet, as every lover knows, Shakespeare’s “sweet sorrow” of Romeo and Juliet’s parting is all too real. So, too, the fact that liberal communists, who ironically call themselves by that phrase, are an all too tangible part of our world. As I shall try to show, with the help of that inimitable Slovene, Zizek, that is not where the appropriate use of oxymorons stops — liberal communists are also a sugar-coated (or, as Zizek would say, chocolate-coated) pill in relation to society.

In a nutshell, the adoption of this self-description is supposed to indicate that one way of seeing the function or justification of socialism (or communism, for that matter), namely, to provide in the needs of a broader society than that catered for by capitalism, can indeed be met by capitalists (note: not capitalism per se) themselves — hence liberal communist as description of the individual agents capable of giving the notion content.

So who are these individual agents who think of themselves as liberal communists, and why is this not a directly systemic function of capitalism, but something wholly dependent on the agency — in fact, the whims — of individuals? Slavoj Zizek (in Violence, 2009) points out that the global entrepreneurs who are among the global elites that regularly attend the meetings (in a virtual “state of siege”) at the Swiss resort of Davos to discuss the global economy (pg. 13-14):

” … no longer accept the opposition between Davos (global capitalism) and Porto Alegre (the new social movements alternative to global capitalism). Their claim is that we can have the global capitalist cake, i.e. thrive as profitable entrepreneurs, and eat it, too, ie. endorse the anti-capitalist causes of social responsibility and ecological concern. No need for Porto Alegre, since Davos itself can become Porto Davos … The new liberal communists are, of course, our usual suspects: Bill Gates and George Soros, the CEOs of Google, IBM, Intel, eBay, as well as their court philosophers, most notably the journalist Thomas Friedman.”

In light of the Hegelian/Marxist dialectical transmutation of opposites unveiled here by Zizek, it stands to reason that the old oppositions — in terms of which most people (including commentators here on TL) still think — are no longer valid. Instead of what Zizek refers to as the “true conservatives” of today, to wit, “the old right, with its ridiculous belief in authority and order and parochial patriotism, and the old left with its capitalised Struggle against Capitalism”, who have not woken up to the true new oppositions of the contemporary era, we have the new synthesis embodied in “liberal communists”. Zizek articulates the new oppositions, which correspond with the oxymoronic fusion of the previous opposition between “liberal” and “communist” (pg 14): “The signifier of this new reality in the liberal communist Newspeak is ‘smart’: smart indicates the dynamic and nomadic as against centralised bureaucracy; dialogue and cooperation against hierarchical authority; flexibility against routine; culture and knowledge against old industrial production; spontaneous interaction and autopoiesis against fixed hierarchy.”

In the new society where these structuring principles are increasingly visible — one even witnesses greater tolerance, by “management”, of flexible working hours and patterns among academics at universities — the embodiments of an older social reality are yielding to incarnations of the new. Zizek points to the emergence of the “young nerd” (think of Mark Zuckerberg) who is in the process of replacing the “older dark-suited manager”, as well as to the society where we witness the “end of labour”, and where company headquarters no longer display signs of “external discipline”, but are populated by former hackers whose long hours of work no longer fit the nine to five pattern, and who “enjoy free drinks in green surroundings”.

It is significant, here, that Bill Gates, who is known as a former hacker, is the icon of this “frictionless capitalism” (as he himself has called the new social dispensation) — after all, a hacker is endowed, as Zizek reminds us, with “subversive/marginal/anti-establishment connotations”. A hacker is not content to leave the traditional, bureaucratic way in which corporations have operated, undisturbed, and at a certain level, Zizek suggests, Gates is perceived as a subversive agent who has executed a coup of sorts. To quote Zizek again (pg. 15): “Liberal communists are big executives recuperating the spirit of contest, or, to put it the other way round, counter-cultural geeks who take over big corporations. Their dogma is a new, postmodernised version of Adam Smith’s old invisible hand of the market. Market and social responsibility here are not opposites. They can be reunited for mutual benefit. As Thomas Friedman, one of their gurus, puts it, nobody has to be vile in order to do business …”

Elaborating on this statement, he enumerates the manifestations of fusing the market with conscientious social engagement. For example, liberal communists are pragmatic, insofar as they do not adopt a generalised doctrine on any particular exploited class, but concentrate on the concrete problems to be solved, such as starvation in specific countries or the suffering of women in certain cultures. They especially like instances of this such as the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, he remarks, where international companies doing business in South Africa ignored apartheid legislation by getting rid of segregation and equalising pay for whites and blacks. This contributed to the downfall of apartheid as much as direct political confrontation.

Liberal communists also love to point to what they see as the embodiment of young, creative energy in the may ’68 student protests in France, which destroyed bureaucratic fixity and revolutionised society, as a precursor to the way it stimulated (according to the libcoms’ way of looking at things) social and economic change, subsequent to the disappearance of these erstwhile students’ political illusions.

But first and foremost, Zizek points out, liberal communists are “true citizens of the world … good people who worry” (about the fact that it is poverty that leads to “fundamentalist terror”, for example).

Then he gets to the crux of the matter (pg 17): “So their goal is not to earn money, but to change the world, and if this makes them more money as a by-product, who’s to complain? … The catch, of course, is that in order to give, first you have to take — or, as some would put it, create.”

What Zizek argues here (with his tongue in his cheek most of the way), corresponds to Jacques Lacan’s incisive characterisation of what he terms the “discourse of the capitalist”, which has the outer appearance of having the same structure as what he calls the “discourse of the hysteric” (the revolutionary who questions the dominant powers in society). That is, the capitalist adopts the discursive stance which pretends to be just as, if not more revolutionary than, the hysteric’s, but … in reality he is still (cleverly) serving the dominant powers, of which he is a part, without transforming society as such.

Zizek hastens to allude to the obvious justification of their modus operandi on the part of liberal communists, namely, that to be able to help people, you must have the means, and that their own, private initiative — like Bill Gates or George Soros giving away millions for education of the underprivileged — has proved to be more efficient than the efforts of all collectivist and state-centralised agencies. This gives such liberal communist philanthropists every reason to object to state regulation and high taxes, which, they can conveniently point out, would be an obstacle to their goal of improving the lives of the needy.

This is where the metaphor of the chocolate-coated pill comes in handy. Zizek points to an American chocolate-coated laxative which effectively encourages people to eat more of the very thing that causes constipation in the first place. The same structure, he argues, is visible in the activities of the liberal communists: both George Soros and Bill Gates display the Janus face of this laxative. Both are ruthless businessmen, but/and also philanthropists and humanitarians.

In the case of Soros, he remarks, his daily routine neatly captures these two faces, pointing in different directions — one half of his work-time is dedicated to ruthless financial speculation (which can, at the click of his mouse, sink an entire region’s economy, with immeasurable suffering for many people), and the other half, like a neat counterpoint, concentrates on his humanitarian efforts, which are at odds, ironically, with at least some of the outcomes of his monetary speculation.

With Gates it is no different — on the one hand, he takes over or destroys competitors mercilessly, inclining towards virtual monopoly, while, on the other, Zizek points out, this great philanthropist “quaintly asks” what use it is to have computers if people are suffering from malnutrition or from other diseases. “In liberal communist ethics”, Zizek remarks (pg 19), “the ruthless pursuit of profit is counteracted by charity. Charity is the humanitarian mask hiding the face of economic exploitation. In a superego blackmail of gigantic proportions, the developed countries ‘help’ the undeveloped with aid, credits and so on, and thereby avoid the key issue, namely their complicity in and co-responsibility for the miserable situation of the undeveloped.”

In being the agents of this double-handed strategy, liberal communists (regardless of whether they are hypocritical or sincere, Zizek points out) contribute to something that is necessary, if not indispensable, from a purely economic standpoint: they enable the capitalist system to postpone its crisis by allowing an ad hoc “redistribution of wealth” among the most needy and miserable. Zizek also reminds one of the paradox, that today’s capitalism cannot reproduce itself by itself any longer — it requires “extra-economic charity” to do so.

Whether this is sufficient for the system to continue will have to be seen. For one thing, the growth, in India, of the Maoist Naxals, which now (according to reports) control about a third of the country, signals the failure of capitalism to live up to its empty promises of “wealth for all” there. Indian officials have admitted that the Indian government does not govern the slums where the Maoists rule. This is as much as admitting that its growing capitalist economy is failing its citizens. And it is doubtful whether the liberal communists can change this.


  • 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.


  1. HD HD 15 January 2011


    I also forgot to add the in a libertarian society with no government enforced rules you would be able to own a many pets as you like and whatever pets you like as longs as you don’t violate the NAP principle.

    You and like minded people could also group together and form associations and make rules that protect animal rights – again within the basic limits.

    Lets face it even grating basic legal rights to animals is not going to protect every animal. Look at all the basic human rights and what happens to people under the current system with all its laws…

  2. Bert Bert 16 January 2011

    Aragorn – Thanks for the moral support, but it all depends on what one means by ‘obligation’. I think you would agree with me that, writing on a forum like this one, one should not do it unless one wants to share with readers some of one’s discipline’s insights, not usually easily accessible to them. I don’t believe in ivory tower philosophy, and gladly follow the example of philosophers like Bertrand Russell and Derrida, writing in a space that most people (here, with internet connectivity) can access. It is not always easy to clarify the really ‘profound’ (as Maria said) concepts, like ‘differance’, or Deleuze’s ‘time-image’, but one can try. Hence, given HD’s admirable attempt to come to grips with ‘differance’, let me add that the usual explanation one finds in ‘secondary’ commentaries is a bit of a caricature, and does not do justice to differance’s complexity – as I have tried in the earlier excerpts – but it does give a clue: differance means ‘difference’ and ‘deferral’ simultaneously, in so far as any concept is subject to different interpretations by different people at any given time (difference). Not only that: every person can, and often does, revise their interpretation of a concept from time to time (deferral). ‘Differance’ is Derrida’s way of explaining how this difference/deferral is possible, AND yet, we still ‘know’ ‘what we are talking about’ when we argue about a concepts’s meaning. ‘Differance’ explains difference/deferral AND underlying meaning-stability.

  3. Bert Bert 16 January 2011

    Aragorn – Thanks for the Haraway reference; I haven’t read it, but I like her work very much. I agree that it is, in my view, a more ‘productive’ direction to go into than the ‘rights’ discourse regarding animals, for reasons stated earlier. The rights discourse is patently launched from a position of weakness, whereas the reminder that we share an empathic, ‘togetherness’-bond with other animals (we are animals, too, after all), reminds us that WE are in the wrong when we abuse other animals. They are family, after all. I am reminded of the inimitable Carl Sagan, standing next to a tree in the series Cosmos, saying that he is standing next to one of our cousins, and proceeding to explain what an infinitesimally small genetic (DNA) difference there is between us and such trees. Such difference is even less in the case of animals. We all share a common ancestor in the mists of time, aeons past. Hence, the obligation is on humans to treat our family decently, and to stop being veritable sadists to them.

  4. Garg Unzola Garg Unzola 16 January 2011

    The link I tried to insert earlier is collective intelligence.

    I don’t think that there are concepts that are too difficult to understand for the layman in post-structuralism. It appears like an unnecessary obfuscation, partially due to a narrow focus on semiotics and an intellectually dishonest selective application of un-logic to feign an epistemological crisis where there is none. Like Maria said, we can determine when a thinker is profound when we compare their analysis with reality. What cannot be compared with reality is not necessarily profound merely because it’s baffling. To keep this discussion amusing I’ve decided to resort to Zen koans.

    Derrida’s différance appears like a plagiarised regression problem. It doesn’t have to lead to an infinite regression if one considers context (ie the domain of reality it is meant to capture). In Zen kōan terms, “do not confuse the pointing finger with the moon”.

    With regards to animal rights, the following Zen kōan:

    A monk asked Zhàozhōu, “Does a dog have Buddha nature or not?” Zhaozhou said, ““.

  5. mallencolly mallencolly 16 January 2011

    @ Garg Unzola

    No-one is disputing whether social exchange is necessary (I think that is perfectly obvious). Rothbard’s whole excercise is an attmpt to justify property and the exchange of property in free markets. His dismissal of objections to the idea of property as “romantic” shows this quite clearly. The context is an essay that ignores many possibilities of what could happen (both historical and just plain feasable) in order to ‘prove’ his personal ideas of of what the world should be like. What it does is give a summary of what one particular society did over centuries and asserts that this is our nature and thus necessary. There were many societies that didnt follow Rothbard’s path.

    The voluntary and private aspects of pooled resources, in my mind is a given. The criteria is the critical bit that will be deciding factor in whether such a system works or not. In order to determine those criteria we would need to understand why we use the criteria we do. Like why do we position our moral law as outside of nature and ourselves as extra-natural? Why do we put profit above the continued health of ecosystems (and thus the coninued availability of resources necessary for our survival)? I do not believe we can stop that (thus giving all beings parity) and demand the right to ownership for profit, profit coming from exchange value rather than use value.

  6. Garg Unzola Garg Unzola 17 January 2011

    Rothbard’s ideal society has not been our state of affairs for centuries, as our default state is tribalism. It is rare for individualism (private ownership of property and labour as an extension) to take root. I agree that profit should come from value exchange. This doesn’t come across in Rothbard’s metaphor. I disagree with the Crusoe and Friday premise that private ownership necessary follows from ethics (which is always relative, if not subjective). As previously stated, the ‘right’ and the ‘left’ have identified the same issues, but the proposed solutions differ. I agree with Rothbard and Anarcho-Capitalists on many levels, but their ideas solve Industrial Age problems, much like Marx’s ideas solve Agrarian Age problems. Rothbard’s exchange is about value-for-value, with the rights/ethics added as irrelevant justifications. To keep valuable exchanges, we may need a currency of information or knowledge, with private ownership as a given, that is not open to the same external manipulations by central banks. I foresee 2 ways to solve scarcity: efficiency and developing alternative commodities. The former requires free or black markets (Cypherpunk, perhaps), the latter requires incentive. The green movement has opened a huge market for environmentally friendly technology, despite well-meaning legislation that hampers its uptake (e.g. South Africa’s carbon tax on cars in lieu of alternatives).

  7. Garg Unzola Garg Unzola 17 January 2011

    In short, we don’t have to view ourselves as extra-natural, nor can we fight against human nature aimed at self-interest (rational, ethical or not). Instead, we could focus on things as they are, instead of how they should be, and utilise profit motives as incentive to solve environmental problems.

    This is a great video series on exponential growth explaining why we can play nice, and run out of resources faster due overpopulation, or we can play mean and run out of resources slower due to more manageable populations, but scarcity of fossil fuels at least is not something that greedy naughty-naughty men in fancy suits thought up. We will run out of current resources, sooner than we think.

    I believe there’s a good argument to be made that the main reason we still even care about fossil fuels is due to mercantilism parading as ‘Neo-Liberal capitalism’. We already have alternative technology that is cleaner, cheaper, devoid of Al Gore and more importantly, sustainable for a far longer period of time. Why are they not on the shelves, as it were? Oil mercantilism is the quick and dirty answer.

  8. Aragorn Eloff Aragorn Eloff 26 January 2011

    @All: I know it’s a little late, but I just uploaded an excerpt from a book by L. Susan Brown on the contrast between libertarian and anarchist conceptions of individual freedom; I think it responds well to some of the comments and offers a good critique of the instrumentalism that accompanies free market thinking:

Leave a Reply