This is the first in a series exploring what I believe to be a fundamental flaw in the liberal tradition of political philosophy.
Very briefly, I understand liberalism here as the combination of two claims:
(1) Moral division of labour:
The moral demands of social life - the demands of justice - do not wholly determine the complete ethical lives of individuals. A just society can and should therefore allow for a plurality of different ways of life to co-exist fairly and have a real chance to flourish.
The moral division of labour is far from being endorsed only by liberals. Any ideology that prioritises individual freedom, including anarchism and socialism, will agree that ethical pluralism is compatible with and demanded by social justice.
(2) Institutional division of labour:
The practical mechanism by which the moral division of labour can be realised involves establishing a real, institutional division of social functions. Coercive, governmental institutions take care of social justice, leaving individuals free to pursue their various ways of life within the rules established by just laws.
This second claim is, I think, much more specific to the liberal tradition although, as I will explore in a future post, it seems to accepted in some form by statist forms of socialism.
A Radical Critique
The institutional division of labour is, I believe, rejected by the radical political tradition which can be traced back (at least) to Marx. An important strand of this tradition, including many anarchists, the situationists and Michel Foucault, insists that social order is never wholly a matter of governmental or legal order. The mechanisms by which societies impose uniform ways of life on their members always go beyond law to include the everyday, material practices of economic, cultural, familial and linguistic life.
These are often glossed as ‘informal norms’ or ‘culture’, but such reductive terms merely occlude the enormous significance of these practices. They constitute a quasi-autonomous sphere of social life in which individuals participate directly in the collective maintenance and alteration of basic aspects of social order, like gender, class and ownership by obeying, monitoring and enforcing a huge array of social rules, such as that males should wear trousers and that its socially acceptable to pay for private education. But precisely because these practices are so material, so pervasive, intimate and ingrained, they are fatal to the liberal vision of the institutional division of labour.
The existence and significance of non-governmental social practices is fatal to liberalism because it means that justice can never be realised without socially enforced ethical transformation, not just changes to the laws. It means that justice can never be achieved without society intruding into the most intimate and personal aspects of our lives - how we dress, who we fuck and how, who our friends are, how we talk, what we consume, how and where we work, how and where we live.
This does not, of course, mean that the state should intervene directly in these areas - not only would this be illegitimate and counterproductive, it also completely misses the point of the radical objection, which instead enjoins an array of non-state strategies to achieve ‘the revolution of everyday life’. It also need not involve clumsily rushed and violent methods of Maoist ‘re-education’ - slower, subtler, more consensual methods would be much more like to achieve a long term ethical transformation.
Mill on Quotidian Tyranny and Personal Opinion
I shall illustrate this challenge to liberalism using the example of John Stuart Mill. Mill has the virtue of seeming to see some version of this problem and stating it in liberal terms. I begin with two quotations from On Liberty.
In the first, Mill acknowledges that ‘culture’ can be just as coercive as law and thus just as or even more effective in achieving social order:
Mill agrees with Marx, who knew?! Mill famously argues that individual freedom can only be limited for the sake of protecting other people from harm. In this second passage, however, he explains that some kinds of harmful interpersonal behaviour must be permitted by a liberal society:
Mill argues that that the harm principle does not - cannot - justify restrictions on freedom of thought and association, even though the exercise of these freedoms can impose ‘very severe penalties’ on those whom we disapprove of and dislike.
A devout religious believer is permitted to shun those who do not share their beliefs, counsel others to also shun them and deny them whatever benefits are in the believer’s gift, like jobs or political support. This can do harm, depending on how others respond. Such social harm is the unavoidable consequence of my acting on my opinions. If I cannot act on my opinions, which are part of or consequences of my broader ethical commitments, the freedom to hold them and to live according to my own values is of little meaning. There are limits on my freedom to act on my opinions - I cannot incite violence against them - but these are the same for everyone and endorsed by the harm principle.
The problem for Mill is that personal opinions are inextricably intertwined with and partially constitutive of oppressive cultural norms.
Imagine that you have an idiosyncratic, irrational hatred for people who are exactly six feet tall. Whenever you encounter a six-footer, you shun and otherwise punish them in the manner just described. The harm this bizarre phobia causes will be pretty limited because, after all, it is just one eccentric person. If you suggest to other people that they should also punish the 6-foot-tall, they mostly won’t because they do not share your ridiculous opinion.
But if there were a pervasive cultural norm stigmatising people who are exactly six feet tall, almost everyone would form and act on a negative opinion of them. The reliable emergence of this pattern of opinion is part of what it means for the relevant oppressive norm to exist in our society. Whenever any individual acts on this negative opinion the harm done to a given 6-footer would be the ‘spontaneous consequences of the faults themselves’ or, more precisely, of each individual’s opinion that this is indeed a fault.
If such a norm existed, it would amount to exactly the kind of informally coercive, distributed tyranny Mill decries, denying 6-footers access to many social goods, preventing them from freely going about their lives. This imaginary case would thus be analogous to homophobic, racist and sexist cultural practices, each of which is also partially constituted by a pattern of individual opinions that would, one by one, be unpleasant but socially innocuous but which, in combination, are tyrannically coercive. And yet it is primarily through such consequences that such norms exists and are maintained. The extra-legal ‘social tyranny’ that Mill rightly worries about is to a large extent made up of such patterns of individual opinion.
Mill is unusual in the liberal tradition for coming so close to endorsing a key radical claim about the material reality of social regulation. What this does, however, is illuminate the fundamental tension within liberalism, namely that it it impossible to achieve a genuinely free society without intruding on and altering people’s personal opinions and other intimate aspects of their lives - first eliminating and then prohibiting the emergence of such oppressive norms and the opinions which constitute them.
There is, of course, much more to say about Mill specifically, the nature and potential defenses of liberalism and about the radical challenge and alternative to liberalism. But I’ll save some of that for another day!