What is a Liberal? Part One
“There are human beings attached to those things!”
“Subjective reflection, even if critically alerted to itself, has something sentimental and anachronistic about it: something of a lament over the course of the world, a lament to be rejected not for its good faith, but because the lamenting subject threatens to become arrested in its condition and so to fulfil in its turn the law of the world’s course. Fidelity to one’s own state of consciousness and experience is forever in temptation of lapsing into infidelity, by denying the insight that transcends the individual and calls his substance by its name.”
Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia
In common parlance, a liberal is a Democrat; specifically a preferred pronouns-respecting, moralizingly identitarian Democrat. Classically, a liberal is someone who believes in the rights and responsibilities of the individual. These two understandings of the word are not, however, wholly separate, as liberals in the contemporary sense are by and large liberals in the classical sense. Their hatred of misogyny, racism, xenophobia, oppression, and exploitation stems from their commitment to individual free expression as it is threatened by the bad behavior of other individuals.
Contemporary conservatives, strangely enough, are also classical liberals. They too believe in the freedom of the individual against larger instantiations of evil, though their chosen enemy differs. What we call “politics” in America today, then, is largely a competition between two competing versions of classical liberalism, each taking the other to be part and parcel of a looming threat to freedom.
This should come as no surprise, as liberalism is not one ideology amongst others. It is the ideological perspective that is structurally compelled by capitalist society. “If in all ideology men and their circumstances appear upside-down as in a camera obscura,” Marx declared, “this phenomenon arises just as much from their historical life-process as the inversion of objects on the retina does from their physical life-process.” In the historical life-process, all individuals from CEO to minimum wage laborer are subject to the impersonal domination of the profit motive. We are all subject to capital.
It only makes sense, then, that the dominant ideology of capitalism, the perspective that allows wrong life to be lived rightly, would turn subjected subjects into subjects tout court, and filter the myriad goings-on in the world through the absurd lens of individual agency. Right side-up, we are pawns in the churnings of capital. Upside-down, we are heroes of our own lives, battling not the structural forces of our subjectification but the bad people somewhere else who are the source of all our problems.
As such, liberalism is the default perspective in capitalist society. One doesn’t come along and choose liberalism from a host of competing options. One is born into it, as a fish is born into water. A fish does not see the water, but everything about its life, down to its most minute bodily movements, is structured by water. It is similar with us and liberalism. Thinking is impossible without liberalism in the same way that swimming for a fish is impossible without water.
This is not to say that there is only ever thinking with liberalism. Liberalism points beyond itself because it is the dominant ideology of a mode of production that also points beyond itself. We all begin as liberals, but within liberalism it is possible to counterpose political aims and economic ones—to see, in other words, liberalism at odds with itself—and thereby inhabit a new perspective. Liberalism is the point of departure, but it is always leading somewhere else.
But it is also always bringing us back to the beginning, like an ideological death drive. One can be a full-throated socialist and be constantly slipping back into liberal ideology. To really free oneself from liberalism requires a level of analytical discipline of which no one is capable. You see someone attractive smiling at you, and without a thought of the constant instrumentalization of our personalities, their cooptation as “use-value for others,” you flash a brilliant smile back and begin again at square one.
It’s easy to backslide, then, and it’s also tempting to do so. Everything human in late capitalist society poses in the garb of liberalism. Individual beauty, individual creativity, individual genius, individual accomplishment… sometimes you can’t help but stare. And if, in those precious moments free from the liberal stupor, you are critical of liberalism’s ideological lifeblood, around which bodies huddle claustrophobically, then you are marked. You are out of touch, cold, unlikable, biased, and downright mean. In a world where liberalism has proven itself definitively to be a bankrupt political-economic project, liberals rely ever more on personal attacks on anyone too far out into the periphery. Socialism is not an anti-humanism, but liberals make it out to be.
At the same time, however, the human face of liberalism has grown as contorted as the humanity of liberalism. It is attractive without actually attracting. It is convincing without making an argument. It is nice without knowing friendship. Typically we’ll warm ourselves by just about any fire: “the more stereotypes become reified and rigid in the present set-up of cultural industry, the more people are tempted to cling desperately to clichés which seem to bring some order into the otherwise ununderstandable.”
But if we can withstand the cold of the periphery for long enough, there is undeniably the promise of life. Not life itself, in its entirety, but a little feeling here and there. Tired bones remembering what visceral pleasure is, what it is to really hate and not just project, what it is to converse without aim.
Liberalism’s endpoint—individual freedom—long ago escaped the grasp of liberalism. Actually existing liberalism can only imagine freedom in bits, a freedom of well-delimited parts of ourselves, a freedom that most of us are willing to take if it’s ready-to-hand anyways. With some distance from the mangled core of liberalism, however, it is still possible to glimpse human beings attached to those mouths, breasts, and genitals.
Aurora Borealis ate her own parents and has nothing to show for it but a vivid fantasy life.