Friday, May 8, 2009

Liberalism and Violence

Lately -- probably since the release of the torture memos -- I've become fascinated with the relationship between violence and liberalism.

Politics is violence. No question. There is violence in liberalism, but it is kept within certain boundaries. Beyond those boundaries, the law cannot cross. Liberal regimes use violence in respectful ways - at the limit, on the basis of reasons all citizens would accept, if such reasons were presented to them.

In this way, liberalism is taken to be not just superior, but uniquely superior to any other form of politics. Every other form of politics involves subordination: the king commands and his inferiors obey. The king need not offer any reasons to his subjects; they obey merely because he tells them to obey. The king does not respect his subjects and nor do they respect him. They fear him, and so they obey. Perhaps, in some sense, the king even fears them, which keeps his edicts within certain bounds.

Liberalism is different. In the ideal form of liberal politics, citizens interact with each other respectfully, as moral equals. Within the political sphere, no one tells another what to do without providing reasons both will accept. The subordination of one will to another is replaced with the rule of public reason. Fear of the Other is replaced with respect for the wisdom of the consensus.

(By the way, I think a good case can be made that Rawls' later work - exemplifying this vision - is much closer to Rousseau than to Kant.)

This is the liberal ideal. And it is a noble thing. But it is a manqué. I don't just mean that it is unobtainable - although this is certainly true. I mean that it is not and cannot be what it claims to be. Liberalism is not a fake (maybe); it's a never-was, wrapped in a set of plausible concerns that lend the ideal itself an air of credibility.

To explain, let us return to violence. Where is the violence in the liberal ideal? It is no where and everywhere at once.

The king exudes violence. In the very interesting cover of the first edition of Hobbes' Leviathan, the sovereign carries a sword in one hand - his right - and the scepter in the other. In Leviathan, all are subordinate to the sovereign - which is what the term means after all - but they are in fact subordinate to the sword.

For Hobbes, who carries the sword is less important than that there is someone who is carrying it.

The sovereign's awesome power to inflict violence makes not only society possible, but justice itself. "Justice therefore, that is to say, keeping of covenant, is a rule of reason, by which we are forbidden to do any thing destructive to our life; and consequently a law of nature," he writes, before going on to say that,"covenants, without the sword, are but words and of no strength to secure a man at all."

In other words, justice, absent the sword, is a manqué. Violence -- overwhelming, incredible violence -- is what makes justice real, instead of a never-was.

As I understand it, the liberal ideal promises to take us beyond the Hobbesian vision. Justice, to the liberal, is formed by the strictures of public reason. It is unjust to coerce someone on the basis of reasons he could not accept. What makes justice possible for the liberal -- here I take Rawls as the exemplar -- is not violence, but our capacity to respect others even when we completely disagree with them about matters of morality.

And this is why the liberal ideal is also a manqué. Out of respect for others, we try to meet them on common ground, making our case for the use of violence on the basis of reasons they themselves will accept. But if we are successful, then violence is unnecessary: they will be convinced, and comply without the sword! If we are unsuccessful, then - compatible with the ideal - we will not use violence against them.

Thus, while the Hobbesian vision starts and ends with violence, the liberal ideal never allows violence to enter the picture.

So while liberalism starts out life as a theory about the proper and respectful use of violence, the ideal cannot sustain itself: there can be no respectful use of violence, and hence nothing like a liberal politics. Liberal politics is a never-was. A manqué.

So why haven't liberals followed this line of reasoning to its conclusion and become libertarians? Good question!

Here is how forming policies around a manqué, a never-was, pays off. To return to the king, there is never any question about his ability or right to inflict violence. Hobbes didn't invent the idea of the sovereign; he only gave him secular clothing (and what clothing: take a look at the cover illustration again if you haven't seen it before.)

The relationship between the sovereign and his subjects is impeccably honest. He will kill them if they disobey. They obey.

But imagine a weakening sovereign, one whose sword is rusting and falling apart. Hobbes was very clear about what a sovereign should think of himself once he finds himself in this position: look out! If you're too old to swing the sword, you shouldn't be sovereign in the first place.

This decaying sovereign, terrified of being displaced, comes up with a new scheme: liberalism. "Citizens," he declares, "why must there be so much violence in our relationship? Why can't we relate to each other as equals?"

The citizens-cum-subjects respond: "Give us a break. We can't respect you while we're subordinates. Put down the sword and we'll talk."

However, the sovereign is too clever for such a ploy. Instead of putting the sword away, he addresses the citizens thusly: "If I give up the sword, there will be chaos. But I'll make you a deal. Bring me the people you hate the most. The ones you despise. The blacks. The queers. The foreigners. Bring them to me and I will slay them before you, every year without exception. If I do this, will you let me keep the sword?"

And so it was agreed. And there was even a great deal of new found respect between the sovereign and (most of) his citizen-subjects. They did share common ground after all! The sovereign got to keep the sword, and he pointed it mostly at those in the hated groups, the minorities who could not rally a coalition of other indifferent or hostile citizens to defend them against the sovereign's violence.

They called it liberal democracy -- and it was good.

If anyone protested the "special" treatment he got at the hands of the king and his mob, he was denounced as unreasonable: "Surely, you can't reject the wisdom of the consensus," it was said. "After all, things are much better than they used to be when the king would just inflict violence on whoever he liked."

There was much tut-tutting about how the new system was uniquely superior to whatever had come before. Much less violence, always inflicted in the name of the king and his citizens. Violence that became laws codifying the new relationship between people and state, a relationship of equals, united in hatred and fear.

Violence made respectful, because it was the instantiation - albeit impure - of a genuine ideal. But mixed with violence, the manqué merely provides cover for the yearly slaughter. After all, no one really expected violence to leave politics. What they wanted - and what they got - was less violence, comfortable living, and their consciences cleaned in the abattoir of the "reasonable overlapping consensus."


Calgary Libertarian said...

Great Post, it really fits my focus lately of the morality of libertarianism , which we all need to focus on getting the word out more in my opinion.

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