Vulnerability as Ideology

Part Three: The Decay of Liberalism

In the previous two parts of this series, Peter Ramsay argued that the promotion of the vulnerability of citizens is a political ideology that has come to dominate capitalist societies. It is a curious feature of contemporary vulnerability-driven politics that, despite the censoriousness of the woke middle classes, the repressiveness of the Covid lockdowners and the warmongering of the Russiaphobics, these vulnerability-driven campaigns are often identified with people who are labelled, and think of themselves, as ‘liberals’. Here Ramsay argues that this is not a mistake. Today’s ideology of vulnerability is a decadent form of liberalism that has arisen from the historical working out of the contradictions within liberalism. Democratic self-government provides the only way out of this decay.

Civil liberty, and freedom of expression in particular, would once have been thought of as bedrock liberal commitments. Today however they are, at best, regarded by the liberal mainstream of politics as merely particular political goods that can be traded off against the human rights of those who might be ‘vulnerable’ to the expression of ideas that are held to make them unsafe. At worst, the defence of freedom of expression is derided as a right-wing plot. The result is an illiberal liberalism that cannot tolerate criticism of its favoured prejudices. 

This apparent paradox might lead us to conclude that although we conventionally label the centreground of mainstream politics as liberal, that just isn’t true anymore: the centreground is in fact simply illiberal. However, tempting as such an understanding may be, we will learn more if we hold on to the paradox of an illiberal liberalism, because it facilitates a richer understanding of our historical situation. It is a paradox that arises from the decay of liberalism. The story of its origins demonstrates that there is no way back to a liberal liberalism. 

As we saw in Part II, the contemporary ideology emerged following the failure of the postwar social-democratic compromise. If we analyse that compromise, we will see that it was facilitated by both socialists and conservatives conceding to a body of liberal ideas that are often referred to as ‘modern liberalism’. Contemporary illiberal neoliberalism is then something that arose from the failure of that earlier modern liberal ideology. And, if we investigate the origins of modern liberalism, we find that it was in turn the form of liberalism that arose from the failure of the original liberal ideology known as ‘classical liberalism’. 

Classical liberalism’s foundation is the connection between individual liberty and property ownership. The contradiction in this foundation was exposed by the distribution of vulnerability that emerged as industrialisation created a society dominated by the relation between wage-labourers and the owners of capital. Modern liberalism was the attempt to resolve that contradiction through state intervention to manage the distribution of vulnerability. It was successful in absorbing and eliminating the socialist challenge to capitalism, but only at the price of its own self-destruction. What remains is a paradoxical authoritarian liberalism in which the continued accumulation of private property is politically sustained by the relentless official promotion of our vulnerability to each other’s liberty, a regime that can only survive in the absence of any alternative to it. Today’s ideology of vulnerability is the end point of liberalism’s long historical career.

Classical liberalism 

We live in a capitalist economy. That means, firstly, that we organise the distribution of resources for producing and consuming the goods and services that we need or desire—ie, the resources through which we sustain ourselves in the face of our vulnerability to death, disease, discomfort and despair—by means of buying and selling them with money, by turning them into commodities. In the 17th and 18th centuries there was a series of political revolutions in the Netherlands, Britain, North America and France that established the political dominance of the class of people who make their living by buying and selling commodities, and by financing this process. To explain and justify their political power, they looked to the ideas that would develop into what became known as classical liberalism.

The English philosopher John Locke gave a concise summary of the essential idea of classical liberalism. Men, Locke argued, exist naturally ‘in a state of perfect freedom, to order their actions and dispose of their possessions, and persons, as they see fit . . . a state also of equality’. Classical liberalism saw human equality as lying in the individual’s freedom, and that freedom as arising from individuals’ unfettered capacity to dispose of their possessions and persons as they see fit. And that individual freedom in turn arose from the individual’s ownership of their person and their possessions. Individuals mitigated their vulnerability through their own efforts, making goods by working on nature, or by buying and selling what they owned. 

Classical liberalism’s robust ‘possessive individualism’ made sense of, and rationalised, a society that was dominated by those whose wealth and power was based on buying and selling commodities, including those made by others, rather than directly appropriating the produce of peasants who worked their land, as the feudal lords had done in an earlier era. It rationalised the new order in the language of individual freedom, and its commitment to individual freedom was central to the great flowering of rational scientific thinking about both human society and nature that became known as the Enlightenment.

A properly capitalist economy, essentially like the one we live in, only developed, however, when the civil society of commodity production and exchange was transformed by the first industrial revolution. Classical liberalism would enjoy the apex of its influence during the height of that revolution, but ultimately it failed as an ideological rationalisation of the society that modern industry created. The key aspect of a capitalist economy is that the production and distribution of commodities is organised by, and for the benefit of, the owners of natural resources, productive equipment and money—that is, the owners of the commodities we call capital—who buy the capacity of wage-labourers to do the actual work involved in the production and distribution. A critical condition for the growth of such a society is the availability of large numbers of people without any other means to mitigate their vulnerability to death, disease and discomfort except by selling their capacity to labour as a commodity in return for money wage. The ideology of classical liberalism explained such a society in the language of freedom because the wage-labourer was free to sell her labouring capacities as another commodity in the market to an employer, just as the employer was free to buy those capacities and sell whatever the wage-labourer produced by deploying those capacities to the materials and tools owned by the employer. The early capitalists were therefore keen on classical liberalism because it rationalised their getting rich from employing others on the basis of their universal equality as free individual subjects.

Industrial capitalism, however, soon exposed classical liberalism as an ideological vision: that is, as a contradictory half-truth, serving the interests of the owners of capital but obscuring the interests of the wage-labourers they employed. Even if it was true that both the owners of capital and the owners of the capacity to labour were equal in so far as both were free to sell what they owned to the highest bidder, they were radically unequal in the outcome of those contractual relations. This inequality had three aspects. In the first place, for as long as there was a plentiful supply of workers without alternative means of subsistence, competition among sellers of the capacity to labour would reduce wages to the bare minimum needed for the workers to survive or even lower than that. Secondly, once at work, the workers’ time, activity and the conditions in which they worked were entirely in the control of the employer. Thirdly, the basic relation between wage-labourers and capital owners was one of exploitation: the wages required in order to pay workers what they need to live are a great deal less in value than what they produce in the time they spend working, which allowed the employers who owned what the labourer produced, and those who financed the employers, to accumulate huge wealth. The result was an extreme inequality in social experience which was hard to ignore. And it was greatly amplified by the cycle of boom and bust that turned out to be a systematic characteristic of the capitalist economic system, in which huge numbers of workers would periodically find themselves unable to get work at all when the system went into recession.

The Dickensian conditions of early industrialisation consisted precisely in the extreme vulnerability of wage-earners to crippling poverty and its effects: overcrowding, malnutrition, ignorance, disease, overwork, industrial accident, despair and early death. The huge degree of inequality between wage-labourers and the middle and upper classes was a problem for a society whose ruling ideology was the equality of free subjects. It made a mockery of the classical liberals’ freedom. For many workers, their individual freedom was experienced as its opposite. Instead of freeing wage labourers to live lives in which they determined what could happen to them, their lives as individuals were in fact determined by their vulnerability in the labour market. The contradictory character of classical liberalism’s freedom had the effect of spurring wage-earners into political action, and the middle classes into reconceptualising liberalism. 

Wage-earners combined into trades unions in which they collectively opposed themselves to the classical liberals’ free-market principles by trying to monopolise the supply of labour in particular trades or industries so as to increase their power in contractual negotiations with employers over wages and working conditions. They also became interested in socialist criticisms of the whole regime of production for private profit. At the same time, classical liberal ideas also tended to provoke workers’ demands for political representation. If workers too were persons, equal by virtue of their freely disposing of what was theirs, why should that freedom of choice not extend to politics? Why should the franchise be restricted to the rich? By the 1830s, British workers had organised themselves politically as the Chartists, the world’s first mass working class political movement, to demand the vote in the British parliament. 

The problem for classical liberalism was that it only worked as an ideology in so far as it had the practical political effect of convincing people that the existing social order, with the particular choices and outcomes that it permitted, was legitimate. Once those concrete subjects who experienced the particular class vulnerability that classical liberalism obscured began to organise politically, the practical limitations of classical liberalism as an ideology began to be felt. And the very success and dynamism of the capitalist economy only led to the creation of millions more workers in the same vulnerable condition that gave them good reasons to be attracted to a different economic system. By the second half of the nineteenth century, the trades unions were becoming increasingly well-organised, and the British elite had granted the vote to at least some male wage-earners. The political problem of the specific vulnerability of wage-earners in the capitalist economy, and the way that this made a mockery of liberal claims to be a regime of freedom and equality became increasingly hard to ignore. Modern liberalism was the result.

Modern liberalism 

In its early development modern liberal thinkers like TH Green and JS Mill elaborated the idea of freedom as autonomy, a condition in which the individual is not merely free of constraints but also free to pursue their own conception of a good life, one that the individual has been able rationally to choose for themselves. The modern liberals recognised that a person may be legally unconstrained, but still determined by such impoverished circumstances, over which they have no real control, that they have no capacity to live a life of their own choosing. On this account of freedom, a person is not simply free or unfree, but more or less free. The political implication of this conception of freedom was one that had been first systematically elaborated by the German philosopher GWF Hegel. To ensure the possibility of this autonomy to all, notwithstanding the radical vulnerability of wage-earners, required that the state make use of its fiscal powers to tax and spend, and its police powers to regulate private activity, to mitigate the vulnerability of wage-earners to the heteronomy they experienced in the unconstrained market economy and to free them from their lack of material independence.

In this respect modern liberalism appears to be opposed to classical liberalism. For the latter the source of freedom was the possession of property, and the state’s only role was to ensure the conditions for the security of persons and property from crime and for the peaceful circulation of commodities among proprietors. By contrast, for modern liberalism the source of real freedom was the state in its pursuit of the common good that would allow all to choose their own paths. That entailed a much larger role for the state: redistributing resources, creating public education and health services, regulating working, housing and environmental conditions and so on.  However modern liberalism was still liberal because it too set out from the conditions of individual freedom and imagined the liberal state as arising from and institutionalising relations of private property; only relations now politically oriented to a richer conception of freedom, that could, by redistributing resources in order to mitigate and equalise vulnerability, reconcile the interests of all.

Modern liberalism can be seen as a civilising, humanitarian response of middle-class liberals to the disastrous impact of capitalist industrialisation on the lives of labourers. However, crucially, it was also a political intervention that sought to head off the threatening rise of socialism among the labourers. For socialists the road to freedom from vulnerability to determination by material circumstances was for workers to take control of the means of production so that production of goods and services could be directly oriented to need rather than to private profit. For modern liberals, the road to freedom from vulnerability to determination by material circumstances was primarily a question of the state policing the pursuit of private profit to ensure an adequate degree of equality in the sphere of consumption, an adequate provision of fundamental goods, the lack of which constrains autonomous self-determination: housing, education, healthcare, pensions (although they were also willing to introduce regulations against the most harmful working conditions). This distributionist approach to the mitigation of vulnerability would later become known as ‘social security’. 

In the later nineteenth and early twentieth century, the demands of the growing and increasingly well organised working-class began to put serious pressure on the capitalist employers. As class conflict escalated, classical liberalism was challenged for ideological dominance by at least three competitors. In addition to socialism and modern liberalism, a more conservative political strand in this conflict was the promotion of imperialist nationalism. Conservatism combined respect for traditional hierarchy, religion and the original ‘Victorian values’ with the promotion of loyalty to the imperial ambitions of the governing class and their military competition with other empires. This was a direct response to the internationalism of the workers’ movement. Each of these three broad movements that challenged the order of classical liberalism —socialist, modern liberal and imperialist—contained many different political tendencies, and some of these tendencies combined elements from more than one of the wider trends. Modern liberalism’s commitment to the nation-state allowed it particular flexibility, combining with imperialism in some political parties, while also being able to influence socialists like the Fabians. 

In the early twentieth century, the struggle between these three ideological movements entirely squeezed out classical liberalism. In place of classical liberalism’s emphasis on the freedom of the individual subject, each of its competitors proposed a collective subject as the locus of freedom: for socialists it was the international working class; for modern liberals, it was the democratic welfare state; and for conservative imperialists, it was the Fatherland (or ‘King and Country’, ‘race and Empire’). The promotion of imperialist nationalism by Europe’s ruling classes eventually led to the First World War, the Russian Revolution, fascist counter-revolutions and the Second World War. The underlying ideological conflict was intensified by the decade-long economic bust of the Great Depression. In these years, the three ideological tendencies fought it out. By the end of the Second World War, working class internationalism had been destroyed but capitalism too lay, quite literally, in ruins throughout Europe and East Asia. Between 1914 and 1945, the working-class movement in the West was slowly surrendered by its socialist leadership to the outlook of modern liberalism. Socialist and communist parties continued formally to proclaim that they aimed, as Clause IV of the British Labour Party’s constitution put it, ‘To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange’. But in practice, they pursued the programme of modern liberalism. At the same time, both capitalism and imperialism were weakened and thoroughly discredited by 30 years of apocalyptic catastrophes, and they needed the legitimacy of a new order. Compromise around modern liberal ideas was the solution.

Although the programme of modern liberalism had been begun in the second half of the nineteenth century, it was completed with the work of John Maynard Keynes. With the final collapse of classical liberalism in the face of the economic disasters of the interwar years, Keynes proposed that economic slumps could be prevented, and the economy stabilised, through a programme of state spending and a guarantee of full employment. By providing a political guarantee of full employment (and welfare benefits in the event of unemployment) Keynesian policies were an essential aspect of modern liberalism’s promise to secure the worker from the vulnerability presented by the market’s inherent tendency to put downward pressure on wages especially in economic downturns. The capitalists in practice embraced much of this during the wartime emergency. In Britain and the USA, trade union leaders collaborated closely with the owners of capital to deliver wartime production. By the end of what was thought of as the ‘people’s war’ against fascism, modern liberalism provided an unchallenged national programme for an exhausted capitalism. In the postwar West, this programme of full employment combined with high welfare spending and collaboration with the trade unions saw the final victory of modern liberalism, and its collective national subject, over its rivals. 

During its brief postwar golden age, modern liberalism did its ideological work. It integrated wage-earners into the nation-state by delivering a degree of social security that sufficiently mitigated workers’ vulnerability to permit a sense, among better off workers at least, that they enjoyed a degree of autonomous control over their lives and their participation in society. But modern liberalism truly represented the interests of the state bureaucracy that administered it and the trade union officials who acquired significant power through it, rather than those of either the workers themselves or even the capitalists, for whom it could only be a temporary expedient. What modern liberalism obscured was the persistent conflict between the interests of these two classes of citizens. If classical liberalism was brought down by the contradiction in its concept of individual freedom, modern liberalism was in turn undermined by the contradiction in the political authority of the state that was founded upon its ideas.  

The contradiction was identified in a 1943 essay by the Polish economist Michal Kalecki. If the state maintained high levels of welfare spending to subsidise the workers’ consumption that would tend to weaken the compulsion on the propertyless to labour for wages, and with it the power of the employers to control the terms of conditions of labour. A political guarantee of full employment was worse still from the employers’ point of view because that eliminated the constant surplus of labour which, as we saw above, allowed employers to discipline workers through the threat of the sack, and thereby keep wages down. Full employment would, on the contrary, only empower trade unionists to seek higher wages. The result would be a crisis of authority within the modern liberal state, based as it was on collaboration between the representatives of capital and labour, a crisis over which side got to set the economic terms. This underlying crisis of political authority broke out in earnest at the end of the 1960s as the postwar economic boom came to an end. The modern liberal regime had raised expectations. And, as Kalecki had predicted, wage-earners were emboldened by powerful trades unions, full-employment guarantees and the welfare state. They refused to bear the cost of economic slowdown. A decade of bitter class struggles followed, and their resolution produced the world we live in now. 

The employers’ side saw this as a crisis of ‘rising expectations’, and the only way out was to lower those expectations again. Wage-earners’ initial political strength turned out to be built on sand because, as a result of political compromise during the world wars and the welfare state, the workers’ movement had become entirely dependent on the protection offered by a state that, ultimately, remained founded on the interests of the owners of private property, as modern liberalism had always imagined it to be. In the UK, for example, governments backed the employers’ interests. First the Labour government reintroduced mass unemployment in the late 1970s, and then, under Margaret Thatcher, the employers used control of the state to tear up the postwar settlement entirely, combining unemployment and vigorous police-backed strike-breaking to destroy the power of the workers’ movement and eliminate it as a political force. The neoliberal revolt shattered the institutional arrangements of modern liberalism and in the process saw off any lingering threat of socialism. 

After just a few decades, the modern liberal system for the reduction and equalisation of vulnerability had collapsed under the weight of its internal contradictions. The tension between the freedom of the property-owners and employers (whose autonomy required only recognition of property rights) and that of the wage-earners (whose autonomy required the limiting of the property-owners rights by coercive taxation and regulation of the assets of the propertied, and by fiscal manipulation of the labour market) had created irreconcilable conflict.

The defeat and disappearance of the political movement of working people in the class struggles of the 1970s and 1980s removed the rationale for all of the competing collective subjects that had arisen along with the class conflict between labour and capital, and that had earlier squeezed out the liberty of the private proprietor as a basis of political legitimacy. The cause of each of these collective subjects is still pursued at the margins by the remaining Marxists, social democrats and national chauvinists, but none has any mass political influence. And there was to be no comeback for classical liberalism either, however much libertarians may delude themselves. 

Authoritarian liberalism 

Neoliberalism proclaimed a return to the liberty of the individual, but as we saw in Part II, its founder Friedrich von Hayek and his disciple Margaret Thatcher had both learned the lesson of the twentieth century. They recognised that without the state or the trades unions, only a return to religion and tradition, to ‘Victorian values’, could sustain wage-earners in the face of their vulnerability to market forces. And Thatcher’s own political experience proved that no such return was possible. Where there is neither a traditional nor a political alternative to the market, the only moral order that can in fact be provided is the institutionalisation of vulnerability itself as a means to police those who are subject to it. The Third Way form in which this adaptation to vulnerability emerged, maintained the ideological focus of modern liberalism on the sphere of consumption, and on the vulnerable identities formed there. But it reoriented the state away from modern liberalism’s political management of the vulnerability inherent in class relations, and towards a fixation on the vulnerability in the everyday relations among all citizens, who were now explicitly reimagined as essentially vulnerable subjects; and, in the ideology’s most misanthropic green form, it emphasised the vulnerability of citizens to our collective existence as a productive species. 

As I argued in Parts I and II, this neoliberal ideology of vulnerability is effective in so far as the politics of both the failed old left and right appear to have ‘no alternative’ to it, because their own failure only focuses their attention on the vulnerability of their original constituencies and commitments. The new ideology makes available only competing claims of vulnerability in left and right forms. And these claims are always claims for protection by the deployment of the state’s bureaucratic ‘police power’, and never assertions of the right to transform the circumstances through which vulnerability is produced by taking political control of them. The ideology does its work to the extent that it renders the existing economic system to be the only one that is imaginable politically

However, since this political regime ideologically constructs individuals as universally vulnerable to each other, and to ourselves collectively, it must cast suspicion on individual liberty because others’ liberty is the source of our vulnerability. For the contemporary ideology, classical liberalism’s liberty has ceased to be what the state exists to uphold, and become instead the problem that the state must constantly struggle to contain in the name of the citizen’s vulnerability. But in what sense can this repressive ideology be thought of as liberal? Retracing the arc of liberalism, as I have tried to do here, should show us that the contemporary ideology is liberalism in decay

The ideology of vulnerability is still fundamentally founded on Locke’s proposition that we are all equal in so far as we are free to dispose of our possessions and person as we see fit. However, this proposition has been stood on its head. Classical liberalism put a premium on the individual liberty of all based on their personhood and property, the better to discount the systematic vulnerability of those who owned their persons but little or no property. Today’s liberalism by contrast puts the premium on the systematic vulnerability of all and discounts our liberty as the source of the problem of vulnerability. 

What both ideologies obscure is that the individual liberty once proclaimed by classical liberalism is also the condition of collective self-government, of true democracy. Classical liberalism obscured this connection by identifying liberty with ownership; contemporary liberalism by identifying liberty with vulnerability. Since, if you look closely enough, vulnerability to harm is more or less ubiquitous, in seeking to contain individual liberty on these grounds, contemporary liberalism sets citizens against each other in every possible way. If the problem that the postwar order presented to modern liberalism was the problem of rising expectations, then the neoliberal response has certainly entailed a radical lowering of them. The best that can be hoped for from politics is that the individual may preserve their precious identity or, with Covid, just their bare life, against the ubiquitous threat posed by other human beings. 

For our liberal oligarchs, the value of the (anti-)politics of identity and ubiquitous vulnerability is that these ideas preserve the basic individual liberty to contract with others—an essential condition of the labour market and the source of their wealth—but nevertheless rationalise the constant and minute policing of that liberty. The contemporary liberal ideology precludes the possibility of political collaboration among the wage-earning majority of society by setting everyone up as a constant threat to each other, a threat that is only facilitated by civil liberties. But civil liberties are a condition of democratic government. This is why contemporary liberalism deserves the label ‘authoritarian liberalism’. Like the authoritarian liberalism of the later Weimar Republic, it seeks to legitimate the conditions that preserve the regime of private property in the mode of production at the expense of the conditions of democracy, relying on the invocation of an underlying emergency to do so. 

Each version of liberal ideology is partially true, as it must be if it is to be politically adequate, if it is to serve as a practical rationale for the social order and for the state’s power. And each is brought down by the contradiction that their partial grasp of the true position obscures.

Classical liberalism was politically adequate to capitalist social relations, but only before the workers’ movement exposed the contradiction in the classical liberal concept of freedom. Modern liberalism proved politically adequate to capitalist social relations for as long as the workers’ movement represented a challenge that needed to be contained, but ultimately collapsed because it introduced the tension between the two accounts of freedom into the authority of the state itself. Authoritarian neoliberalism resolved that tension but through an ideology of vulnerability that is adequate to the capitalist social relation only once the workers’ challenge to market relations has been seen off, and all collective political subjectivity has declined. The contradiction in authoritarian liberalism lies in its repudiation of political authority itself.

If the workers’ movement still existed, a ruling ideology that was premised on the permanent vulnerability of its subjects would be unsustainable. As we have seen, the contemporary ideology leads the state to the relentless promotion of existential threats, and the politics of emergency, and these amount to a more or less continuous assertion that the state’s authority is under constant challenge. Worse still, the official proposition that each is universally vulnerable to all concedes the state’s failure to establish a common basis of unity among its subjects, who instead must be preventively policed in the finest details of their lives—right down to their pronouns—to prevent them from harming one another. The state that stakes its legitimacy on the basis of its own persistent failure to achieve a unity among the population is a contradiction that can persist only in default of an alternative to it.

Democracy v liberalism

There is no hope for liberalism. It has reached the end of the road intellectually: standing itself on its head, subverting its founding commitments, unravelling into incoherence. For as long as decadent illiberal liberalism continues in power it will continue to degrade the state and to fragment civil society. We need to elaborate the alternative to it; the alternative whose suppression is now the raison d’etre of liberalism. That alternative is democratic self-government. It is essential to understand that, whatever modern democracy may have owed to liberalism in the past, liberalism and democracy are now irreconcilable. We may still get to vote but only for some version or other of illiberal liberalism, and the imperious demand to protect the vulnerable will draw liberalism further down the road of suppressing the individual’s freedom of thought, of expression, of association, freedoms that are essential elements of true self-government. ‘Liberal democracy’ is not sustainable, and we need to sharpen the opposition between its two components.

Where illiberal liberalism would have us adapt to a permanent condition of vulnerability, and parade it as virtue, true democracy would have us work together to overcome the worst of our vulnerability, and defy it in order to do so. And the reason true democracy does this is because true democracy is about real self-government of the people, by the people, and for the people. And nothing will enhance government by the people more than the expansion of the material capacity necessary for all to enjoy the autonomy to make of our lives what we will, the expansion of our capacity for self-determination. In this way true democracy can resolve the tension between freedom and vulnerability. But it can only do this by inspiring people to practice a new virtue of self-government; the virtue of taking political responsibility, as opposed to invoking the state’s protective powers of policing.

To overcome our vulnerability rather than adapt to it requires us to take collective control of the vulnerability-producing effects of a civil society that is motivated by the accumulation of private property. And even such an effort can only reduce and equalise our vulnerability, it can never eliminate it entirely. We will also need to establish a new democratic process that is able authoritatively to determine a level of risk and vulnerability that we all agree to bear. It is the decay of any such political authority—of any adequate relation of trust between the political elite and the population—that led authoritarian liberals down the dystopian path of zero Covid. 

This is no small political challenge, as the experience of the twentieth century cannot fail to remind us. Happily, however, meeting it entails resolving the contradiction between the two aspects of freedom that liberalism could not realise, between individual liberty and real autonomy from material vulnerability. True democracy needs civil liberty precisely because it is oriented to the democratic solution of the problem of vulnerability, of achieving real autonomy. To overcome the decadent liberal order will require the collective mobilisation of the knowledge, experience and wits of millions. If the tragic history of the twentieth century proves anything, it is that this immense collective endeavour is not possible without the maximum of political freedom and its attendant civil liberties for individuals. In its decay, liberalism has come to depend on the promotion of vulnerability to limit civil liberty and self-government, the better to maintain the accumulation of private property. Collective self-government, by contrast, depends on civil liberty to limit the accumulation of private property, the better to reduce vulnerability and advance individual self-government. Individual freedom cannot be grounded in private ownership but only in democracy.

At the end of liberalism’s long career, it is democracy that offers the solution to the riddle of freedom and vulnerability.

6 responses to “Vulnerability as Ideology”

  1. After just one read… which type of democracy do you mean, political or economic? As any good Marxist should know, without economic democracy, political democracy is just a sham. Back to Clause 4??

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  2. I mean both. I think it overstates the problem to say that political democracy is “just a sham” without economic democracy. Political democracy is valuable in itself and an essential component of economic democracy. But it is true that the political experience of the past half century seems to prove that when those social forces with an interest in economic democracy are entirely marginalised (as we have been) then political democracy loses its vigour and decays into oligarchy.

    If economic democracy is to be achieved in future, I don’t think it will be by restoring Clause IV. The zombie political movements inherited from the past cannot be revived. Believing they can be revived may be the most important obstacle to democratic advance in the present.

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  3. Thank you for this very good analysis. To have a true democracy, though, the government surely has to control the economy. Government needs to be able to prevent events like the banking crisis of 2008 and the present economic crisis. To do so requires radical measures such as ownership of the financial sector, energy security and food security. There needs to be an immense deglobalisation, but also the connection between ownership and control is very strong. Ownership, after all, is just the bundle of rights which allows one to assert control. I would have thought that radical democracy demands a mainly publicly owned economy otherwise governments cannot be held accountable by the electorate for the economic performance of the nation. I am not sure calling movements for a predominantly-nationalised economy ‘zombie’ and making play of their being ‘inherited from the past’ really overcomes this fundamental democratic difficulty. Perhaps if you are anti-nationalisation you should consider writing a Part 4 outlining your alternative!

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    1. I agree that true democracy must be able to control the economy and ultimately this means public ownership of our productive resources. But who is this public and how it will own and control these resources? Among the many works of the new ideology of vulnerability is the disintegration of the public-private distinction. The question of reconstituting an authoritative vision of the public (and the private) is an urgent one. But answering it definitively can only be done by an actual revival of democratic political engagement among the population.

      This is why I am wary of Mike Stringer’s description of political democracy as a mere “sham” without economic democracy (see above). I agree that political democracy without a movement for economic democracy will be hollowed out, as ours has been. But it seems to me that the character of our political democracy in future will have a powerful influence on the character of any public ownership of the economy. Since our current situation is the effect of the historical failure of the old political compromise between wage-earners and capital owners (one that was mediated, in the public sector especially, by a collaboration between trade union leaders and civil servants), it seems very unlikely that the old forms of public ownership could succeed in delivering what the population needs or wants. That’s why the old forms seem like zombies to me.

      It is not so much that I am anti-nationalisation as such; more that we lack a political nation capable of truly taking democratic control of its economy. The constituting of such a nation is the task of the democratic politics of the future. A state comprised of vulnerable subjects cannot constitute such a nation, which makes the critique of the vulnerable subject a key aspect of that task.

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  4. With a public trained in passive acquiescence to alienation, and a governing class steeped in authoritarian liberalism, where and how could a democratic upsurge quicken and take root?

    We’ve seen Brexit, Trump, perhaps the Gilets Jaunes as signs the public is stirring from the passivity of the neoliberal era, that it senses and rejects the constraining of democracy. But none has proven capable of birthing a new Subject, an enduring solidarity – they were contained.

    The return of systemic economic crisis might sharpen that into more systemic appetite for a collective or communitarian stance towards our economic choices. But it also reinforces narratives of vulnerability, and already seems to be accelerating the State’s legislative programme towards broad, authoritarian measures.

    The emerging contest over sex-based and gender-based rights unlocks another “single issue” solidarity, with similar potential to be boxed-in and tamed. But I wonder, might this one be different, in that it exposes the function of the ideology of vulnerability to critical analysis very directly, in dozens of different fields – trading very overtly in the tropes of ‘marginalisation’ to deconstruct rights and principles valued by the majority – it thereby trains its critics to identify and reject that ideology?

    If not through such “narrow” issues, what?

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  5. The moments of mass protest you mention could all be contained because there is no political outlook that can sustain them. The problem is not that the majority who are excluded from democratic influence will not periodically protest their exclusion (and we should expect more of this); it is that there is no political movement that can articulate either the real sources of their exclusion, or the way to overcome it.

    The gilets jaunes and Trump were both in their own way anti-political. Brexit’s reassertion of national sovereignty was intrinsically political. But there was no organised political tendency during the struggle over Brexit that understood that reasserting national sovereignty would require a reckoning with all the political weaknesses in the state that led the UK to join the EU in the first place. The Tory Eurosceptics were themselves part of the problem of the state’s weakness – the EU is Thatcherism in one continent – and as free trade ideologues they have no idea what national sovereignty is really about, as their performance in government post-Brexit is proving. Nor do populists grasp the nature of the problem because they underestimate the problem of representation to constituting a sovereignty, and fall back on a politics of vulnerability that is as paralysing as that of the liberals whatever its superficial differences, as I argued in Part II of this piece.

    I think you are right that since the promotion of transgenderism amounts to an elite attack on the majority, and one that may be seriously overreaching, the resistance to it has huge potential in helping people to understand the novel ways in which liberalism seeks to police and divide the population. But here too that understanding needs systematic articulation in order to escape the vulnerability paradigm. Resistance to transgenderism has been led by gender critical feminists who have earned that leading position by their courageous work in difficult circumstances. The problem is that gender ideologists are today only turning the particularist identity politics, and censoriousness, that was promoted by feminism itself back on women’s rights. The victim claim is a strong component on both sides of the argument. Getting beyond that to a movement capable of itself taking responsibility for the state (and with it for the construction of gender relations) is still the task, if any wider democratic movement is to emerge.

    Each “narrow” issue needs systematically connecting to the real void of political representation as the means of elite liberal control and to the solution of creating a new authority structure through taking up the democratic responsibility of self-government.

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