On the title “Liberal”

I can never decide whether to call myself a ‘liberal.’ A lot of the time, you’re only presented with two options, and I think in those situations it’s okay to glom on to some basic party affiliation: Democrat/Republican, leftist/rightie, progressive/conservative, etc. But when you’re writing about yourself, you’ve got the power to present yourself in your own terms, so there seems to be no reason to settle for easy dichotomies. In those situations, I’m still not entirely sure how to refer to myself.

As for liberalism, my objection generally is that it’s a misnomer. I suspect that most people who read this are aware of the difference between the liberalism of Locke and Mill, and the current usage of the term. In a nutshell, liberalism simply indicates a regime guided by constitutional restrictions on state intrusion into the private sphere and a respect for property. (Property is both a bundle of rights and the archtypical right: all rights are ‘properties’ of individuals, and all rights generally reflect the exclusion, use, transfer, or possession of something, like one’s speech or one’s body.)

Beyond the homophone problem, I often disagree with the version of rights and property that sustains pretty much the entire political spectrum in this country. So far as I’ve been able to discern, I have too thick a sense of the Good to be a strict libertarian. I suspect that there are many matters in which communally organized governance should involve itself, whether that be civic and moral education, or environmental and labor regulation. I oppose home schooling and the strange usage of the ‘takings’ clause that many Republican jurists favor in order to combat community oversight.

Yet it seems like the strategy of identifying ‘liberal’ with ‘libertine’ has been wholly successful: the thin liberty by which one requires the government to leave one to enjoy one’s privacy gets too easily conflated with the licentiousness we are supposedly engaging in that privacy. So whenever I hear a fellow-traveler accused of ‘liberalism’ in that particular snearing tone that suggests that she has inappropriate relations with her pets, I want to stand in solidarity with liberals. After all, bourgeois property-rights were very progressive when the King effectively owned everything and loaned it out to his subjects until the whimsy struck him to take it back. I’m glad Locke spent the time to deflate the supposed divinity of the sovereign, too. (And watch out during this NSA wiretapping scandal for the Supreme Court to remind us that the executive’s power is unified and came directly from the English monarchy! Never mind that we, like, had a revolution.)

Anyway, back to being a ‘liberal.’ Sometimes I prefer the term ‘progressive,’ because the implication is that I’m hoping things will get better. But this is a little like calling oneself an optimist; it’s not a political position, it’s a mood. Certainly I suspect that many conservatives are driven by a cynical convinction that things will keep getting worse unti the world ends, so the best course of action is to stem the tide of modernity. That’s why they try to conserve traditional values, and hew to settled hierarchies and business models that have worked ages and ages, or at least for several fiscal quarters in a row. But I’m actually a bit suspicious of progress, too. I suspect that we’ve lost a lot, especially compared to the Greek polis, or even the heady days of the American Revolution.

On the other hand, I’ve got these perhaps irrational pockets of hopefulness. I’m optimistic that some developments might improve our situation. I hope that we Americans will someday learn that it is always wrong to torture people, for instance, the same way I hope that my friend’s baby will learn to walk and talk and control her own bowels, like a big girl! But I’m skeptical enough of progress that I think it would be a bit disingenuous to call myself a progressive (since I once thought that our country had already learned to control its own bowels… I mean, its intelligence community.)

The term that has the most promise, from my perspective, is ‘egalitarian.’ I wish a lot more people referred to themselves this way, especially politicians. In the US, egalitarian populism often meets with the charge of ‘class warfare,’ as if making corporations and rich people pay taxes was the same as throwing Molotov cocktails and disseminating seditious literature. But frankly, I like class warfare, (and seditious literature, actually) or at least I think it’s uniquely important to what politics really is, rather than what it’s come to look like. For one thing, the Democratic big three, race, gender, and sexuality, strike me as categories worthy of attention insofar as they have import for class. If non-whites weren’t predominantly poor, or women too often relegated to a strange secondary class of housework, I wouldn’t be as interested in feminism and post-colonial studies. A lot of people complain that there is a collusion between class issues and cultural production, such that we repress and avoid canonizing the work of non-whites and women, and I’m willing to go along with that too, if only because it means that there might be some good seditious literature to be had.

The funny thing about homosexuality, of course, is that it’s not really a class or cultural issue. As Sedgwick puts it, “Not only have there been a gay Socrates, Shakespeare, and Proust, but their names are Socrates, Shakespeare, and Proust.” Rich people seem to be gay about as frequently as anybody else (though there are more poor gays because there are more poor people.) Still, given the role that marriage plays in accumulating capital, it does seem that disallowing marriage has had some impact on the microeconomic situation of homosexuals. But I’m just saying that so I don’t have to admit that I object to restricting marriage for basically liberal reasons. The other way to put this position is that legalizing gay marriage is a matter of equality of opportunity (even if it’s simply the opportunity to be overfed, bored, and vaguely dissatisfied.)

So, call me an egalitarian. I won’t duck the other labels when I don’t have to, but at least now we’re clear.

5 thoughts on “On the title “Liberal””

  1. I don't think I could even call myself an egalitarian. I think "political theorist" is the only label I'm willing to accept. Anything further is met with ambivalence and a little terror.

  2. Perhaps. But theory isn't monolithic, so describing your approach to theory is helpful. I suspect that, if pressed, you might admit to being a civic republican, an egalitarian participationist, an anti-imperialist, or even a feminist.

    Or maybe you wouldn't admit to it.

  3. I don't have a problem with labels. I'll call myself all sorts of things–depending on the occasion, context, audience–to set up a nice contrast.

    Politically, one of the labels I tend to prefer is "liberal socialist" a term that Mouffe uses to indicate granting a fundamental importance to individual freedoms while working for a more just economy.

    As for progressive, I don't see it as synonymous with "optimism," but as more of an ideal. Progress is a story we tell and it is surely preferable to the salvation and armageddon myths that are still all too prevalent in the modern world.

    But, even personally, I find the myth of progress to be psychologically fulfilling. If my life had no direction (at least in terms of ideals one aims at), I'd just feel lost. And, really, I do believe that I've made progress in my life, that I am better off than I was before.

    I can also get behind the egalitarian label, even though I suffer occasional flashes of elitism, but also as an ideal. There are many natural inequalities and differences in starting points that make equality difficult to achieve.

    Anyway, nice, thoughtful post. I'll be sure to call Steven by all sorts of labels now, since he so clearly appreciates it. 😉

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