Part I of this post includes some background of my erstwhile involvement in youth politics, the ideological unmooring of the UK Liberal Democrats, and “the Blue Guard” now common in the party’s Youth wing. Part II uses this as a launching point for a discussion of the ontological foundations of libertarianism and feminism and uses this to look at the debate over campaigning for human rights. Feel free to skip one or both parts!
Once upon a time, I was a young Lib Dem. The world was different then. I was young(er). I was naive, although I supposed myself hard-bitten and somewhat cynical. While still idealistic, I took on the pose of the urbane teller of hard truths to colleagues who I considered suffered from fuzzy-thinking and a lack of organisational know-how. In short, I was as admirable as I was a pain in the arse. The youth wing of the Lib Dems was even known by the clunky acronym “LDYS“. LDYS could boast an exec and a Chair that could best be described as “donkeys led by donkeys“. We were totally ineffective, we were one of the least political political organisations I could name, and internal politics got about as intense as once hearing a rumour that someone thought Alex Ehmann and I were “too posh” (of course I had the rejoinder that Asquith described the party as one “of all classes and none” to hand for the occasion, to emphasise that I was indeed a pain in the arse). Mark Clarke’s Conservative Future we were not. I retain a lot of very dear friends from those days and consider it a political education of sorts, both in an audit of what we did well (little) and what we did badly (just about everything). The Chair before I was involved booked the Royal Festival Hall and forgot that LDYS had neither the members nor the money to justify it (!). The Chair after I passed the baton campaigned for a now-Labour MP at NUS, spent much moolah on the worst Freshers’ campaign that I have ever seen, and changed the “nice” political culture of LDYS with a no-holds barred battle for re-election, with both candidates not exactly covering themselves in glory through personal barbs and leaks to Tory blogs. Much time has passed since then. I recognise myself and don’t as I squint through the fog of time. Like Heraclitis‘ river, that Simon was both me but also totally different.
Probably the biggest change was intellectual. My thinking, which I considered so thorough and well-informed, was hamstrung by a privileging of a codified worldview taken from a pretty two-dimensional reading of J.S.Mill‘s “On Liberty” that I considered the Alpha and Omega of liberalism (a creed inviolate definitionally, and ironically), despite the presence of a sizable canon of other thinkers and traditions from which to choose. A smattering of erudition camouflaged a fear to truly think for myself or acknowledge the fact that while knowledge was infinite, my own understanding of the world was was anything but. Not to sound too much like the recently-departed Justice Scalia, but I found that I was not alone within the Lib Dems in allowing my subjective prejudices to inform my reading of interpretative texts like Mill’s harm principle or picking up half-understood scraps of economic dogma from Econ101 to justify half-baked economics which I considered too sophisticated for the Liberator crowd to grasp. I had no grasp of the history of economic thought, how empirical social science worked, and the 90s and 2000s were full of people who thought all the major questions had been resolved. Liberal democracy and the end of history, the end of boom and bust, and the myth of the rational market. Classical liberalism had won the day (even if hubris always leads to nemesis in the end…).
A lot of Focus Leaflets have been thrust through letter boxes since those halcyon days where sun-dappled lawns were my office, melodious birds chirruped, and old maids bicycling to holy communion summed up Britain’s self-narrative. In those days spirits were brave, the stakes were high, men were real men, women were real women and small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri were real small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri. The Lib Dems were taken over by people like my LDYS self, with the obvious horrific results, but I have (I hope) matured in both my thinking and understanding of politics. Most crucially, I think, I am more humble now. I know much, much more but I know that I know precious little. I also appreciate how much more complicated the world is. As an academic I found an appreciation for how hard it was to explain complex social systems with simplistic heuristics. I read voraciously and widely, both for pleasure and for grad school requirements.
Anyway, with thanks for the allowance for my nauseating nostalgia, so it was that a friend alerted me to a spat in LDYS’s successor organisation: Continuity LDYS. Where once LDYS had been a totally somnolent organisation that had me as a kind of right-wing bookend, now Liberal Youth seems to have been infected by a kind of jejeune libertarianism (masquerading as hard-headed, much as I used to do with my milder economic centrism) coupled with a pre-professionalism and careerism that would make LDYS blush. I guess we should probably call them “The Blue Guard“. There is precious little recognisable from “my day”. Those who most obviously were using the party (allowing for the fact that this in itself showed a lack of political nous) for career advancement, like a Matt Hanney or the like, were rarely involved in the Youth wing to any great degree. Now major positions seem coveted and somewhat ideologically contested. Those who were clearly going to be slogging their way up the party ladder back then, like an Ali Goldsworthy or Jo Swinson, seemed to be at the forefront of making LDYS as non-political as possible (which did succeed in making LDYS bland but welcoming). Members’ newsletters were full of “fun” activities, not ideological statements of radical intent. Generally people were nice, for better and worse. Now the ideological outriders and those who describe themselves as “doing battle” on facebook look as old as we did then. Where once it was hard to provoke the youth wing into any ideological discussion, now a thousand flowers bloom of various strands of libertarianism with the odd welcome social liberal dissent. It’s very possible that I am simply reifying a map from only the mountains that one most easily sees. Those who shout the loudest on Facebook and Twitter tend not to be representative (praise the Lord!). But others to whom I speak who are involved with the party seem to hew to a similar view of the changes within the party and youth wing.
Now, most of these changes are probably to do with the disastrous reign of Nick Clegg. Clegg continues to suffer from all of the pathologies of my youth, leavened with being better-looking and being annoyingly better at languages than I am. The heroics of organisations like Social Liberal Forum and the continued presence of thoughtful liberals from Nigel Smith, Kat Bavage and Seth Thevoz to James Graham, Naomi Smith and Gordon Lishman, as well as the phenomenal work of Rock the Boat and those not happy with a party that is overwhelmingly male, pale and stale, kept some great people still in the party fold. David Howarth remains one of the sharpest minds on British politics and public policy. Tim Farron couldn’t not be an improvement on Nick Clegg. The Lib Dems, however, are a much-diminished force. 2010 probably saw them burst like a star quickly becoming a blackhole. While liberalism seems on a death march, the two political causes which seem to have benefited most from the internet as an organising force are probably libertarianism and feminism. The latest spat within Liberal Youth shows how young politicos are using the coda of both of these for self-advancement and political point-scoring without really thinking through the underlying principles of either.
This post was inspired by a spat within Liberal Youth after some complained that the organisation was “whitesplaining” by campaigning for gay rights outside of the Zimbabwean embassy. There is plenty of evidence that this spat was partially contrived to give cover for a resignation from the Lib Dems by a party activist who has a history of throwing punches and then claiming that others started a fight. I should admit to some personal connection here. When I (and many others) suggested that a speaker who had made arguably transphobic comments should probably not take a precious slot on a Lib Dem conference diversity panel, I was greeted with abuse on Twitter and then attempts to distract by insisting that the perpetrator of this abuse had been the victim. Deleted tweets in the last few days suggest that a cabal centred around her had been using this and similar non-incidents to “battle” against those they didn’t agree with ideologically, while all the time using political jujitsu to try and escape personal responsibility by blaming a noxious party culture for them not getting their way. This is akin to assembling the music playlist, ordering the catering, booking the room, inviting a majority of the guests, and then complaining that the party is shit. It is tempting to quote Trotsky after the Mensheviks left the room during their debate with the Bolsheviks, but I imagine that there could well be personal growth in the future and I remember the rather foolhardy person I was when I was involved in youth politics (see Part I). I have come a long way and I hope they do too. But if we ignore some of the more melodramatic dramatis personae, there actually is an interesting debate here. What is the link between liberalism, human rights, and identity politics?
Sites like Jezebel, Feministing, the Good Men Project and others have been great for the cause of feminism. Awareness of discrimination against women, non-cis-gendered folk, people of colour etc. has risen and campaign groups like Black Lives Matter and others have permanently altered the debate about race relations in the United States and throughout the world. Ta-Nehisis Coates combines an artistry as a prose stylist with a devastating critique of American race relations today. Jessica Valenti‘s documentary on “purity balls” shows how social critique can be funny as well as incisive. Laverne Cox kicks ass in so many ways. While Gen-X’ers huff and puff about millennial “snowflakes“, I defend this generation for caring about structural discrimination in a way that I was not savvy enough to understand at that age. While those with access to column inches and cultural capital point to excesses as symptomatic of an entire generation, we lose sight of the tremendous good so many do. However, as this activism has become trendy, people have picked up and used the vocabulary without seemingly understanding the intellectual underpinnings of from whence these concepts come.
Radicals used critical theory because problem-solving theory denies the presence of social forces that they contend operate in discriminatory ways. This is why Audre Lorde famously said “For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”. Sandra Harding has argued that “science” has developed in inherently gendered ways. Rather than the Enlightenment- and classically liberal- notion of an individual making the world around us using Kantian reason, Foucault instead contended that the world makes us more than we make the world. Like Bentham’s Panopticon, unseen structures (and capitalism in an Althusserian sense) “interpolate” us. In an exam on “conflict and cooperation” we often ask students to compare Freud and Foucault (who they both read) and the best students see that the former sees the world as projections of the mind whereas the latter inverts this process. Foucault is not a liberal. Whereas many Millian liberals see power as simply one individual’s conscious wish to directly (and in the first instance) coerce another, Foucault sees power as diffuse and everywhere. Power is not instrumentally used by an individual by force of will; power is instead constitutive of the individual herself. Hence many critical theorists used something called “standpoint ontology”. Ontology is simply the nature of reality. Standpoint ontology maintains that the nature of reality is only apprehendable to individuals from their own unique standpoint. Individuals do not see the world the same way. Patrick Thaddeus Jackson calls this “mind-world monism”.
Students can use different ways to order the links between ontology, epistemology (theory of knowledge or “how we know what we know”) and methodology. However, some methodologies and epistemologies can’t really be hitched to an incompatible ontological starting point. Thaddeus Jackson uses a helpful 2×2 that has monism/dualism on one side and “phenomenalism” and “transfactualism” on the other. So, traditional positivism (i.e. there is an external world which we can all comprehend and measure) is a dualist and phenomenalist epistemology. Critical realism is a dualist approach that says that there are objective facts that we just can’t measure (e.g. racism might be unmeasurable but we can all understand what it is). Standpoint ontology, however, maintains a monist/transfactualist stance that there are structures of oppression, unmeasurable or perceivable as facts, which are real in one person’s mind in a way that cannot commute over to another’s. This explains why so often “where you stand is where you sit” in the order of society. Don’t “whitesplain” to a person of color, don’t “mansplain” to a woman, and listen to the personal experience of those on the sharp end of structural discrimination. While feminists tackle social science from the standpoint of someone of their own gender, “mainstream” IR scholars, for example, simply don’t understand where they are coming from. This dialogue of the deaf has characterised the embassy debate too.
Liberals can still learn something from “social justice warriors” (why is this not a badge of honour?) even if they see the world differently. If liberals believe in a meritocracy then they need to ask women why they don’t stand for parliament as readily as their male counterparts. Liberals might ponder why Oxbridge sees too few applications from underrepresented socio-economic groups. But liberalism is, at heart, a universal doctrine. Indeed, many of its critics believe that liberalism is inherently colonial and eurocentric. Smart liberals will realise that campaigns outside of the Zimbabwean Embassy that have not already engaged with indigenous opposition groups and campaigners runs the risk of being tone-deaf, politically inert, or, worse, might backfire by painting liberal causes as foreign. Liberalism can seem, in the words of Spivak, as “white men rescuing brown women from brown men”. Liberal Youth might ponder how a day of activism in this way makes them seem possibly opportunist and doing it for the photographs rather than engaging in a long, hard slog for change partnered with those who are the victims and should be the primary authors of that change. Many human rights theorists and anthropologists acknowledge that morality is relative and that this poses a threat for a universal regime of human rights, such as can be read in the Charter, but that overlapping cultural agreements on certain basic rights makes human rights enforcement possible and necessary. Liberalism can traverse cultural relativism and rights enforcement in the post-colonial context if one buys this framework. Indeed, they might point to the elimination of the slave trade, protection of universal labour rights, campaigns against FGM etc. as exactly what liberalism is for. There is nary a mention of Butler’s “Gender Troubles” or Adorno’s “Minima Moralia” in Samantha Power’s “A Problem from Hell” or in “the Journal of Democracy” and this should not be surprising to either side.
This incommensurability between an ontology from critical theory and human rights liberalism is perhaps even more obvious in the juxtoposition of critical theory and classical economics. The irony that many of those wielding these rhetorical weapons being members of Liberal Reform or writing for Spiked would be funny if real people were not getting chewed out on Facebook and Twitter. There are two real brands of libertarian economics: neoclassical economics associated with people like Milton Friedman, Robert Lucas and Greg Mankiw; and Austrian economics like that associated with De Mises, Hayek and Dr Eamonn Butler. The former shares much of the intellectual toolkit of Samuelsonian Keynesianism: theory-building and hypothesis testing with observational data or laboratory experiments. Positivism writ large. The tools of the natural world applied to the social world. The latter are regarded as a “cult” by mainstream economics because Austrians don’t believe in positivism or observational studies. They claim to instead believe in deductive economic reasoning. However, even critical interventions that undermine foundational assumptions like the origins of money do not shake the fervour of the Austrian creed. Faulty predictions (like runaway inflation post-stimulus) seem to make no difference either. Deductive mathematical or economic reasoning to explain social phenomena, however, is not exactly harmoniously coupled with standpoint critical theory.
Keynesians and neoclassical economists have their disagreements, mainly to do with frictions like sticky wages and asymmetrical information, but they share a similar ontology, epistemology and methodology. Post-Keynesians tend to take institutions more seriously, the idea of power, and use a more literary style rather than quantitative hypothesis testing. Keynesian ideas like “animal spirits” might not be observable per se, although its effects might be in things like Minsky’s financial instability hypothesis. Steve Keen builds old-fashioned models, albeit with dynamics and banks rather than fairytales from econ101. Post-Keynesians are unlikely to be radically monist and transfactualists. There are not too many interpretavist standpoint accounts of economics, although works like Ferguson’s “The Anti-Politics Machine” might come closest.
So, what does this all mean? It means that liberals should be liberals and that attempts to silence by so-called liberals using non-liberal concepts are probably attempts at winning inter-personal battles rather than ideological “wars of position“. It means that liberals campaigning on human rights should probably do some intellectual prep work and think about whether they actually care about what they claim or whether they just want to feel good. It means that liberals should go out of their way to listen to women, people of colour, and other members of underrepresented groups because the party (and philosophical cause, arguably) has a HUGE problem with it comes to diversity and tends to be dominated by men who talk far more than they listen. It means that so-called points of crisis leading people to leave the party are probably at best muddled and, at worst, excuses because a monist/transfactualist understanding of one’s own brilliance and need for party promotion was probably not intersubjectively agreed upon by others who didn’t think quite as highly of their talents. But it also means that those who think power is diffuse in a Foucaultian sense and that the world makes individuals as much as the other way around, should probably not be in the Lib Dems. Indeed, my thinking has been dramatically enhanced (I think) by thinkers from other intellectual traditions which has changed where I am on the political compass from my younger days. I’ve changed and the Lib Dems have changed everything from when I was young apart from their super out-of-date campaign tactics of Focus leaflets. Most of all, it means beware libertarians wielding critical theory.
- I write this piece from the standpoint of a procrastinating white male from a comfortable background who has read too many books and attended too many grad seminars.