What You Need to Know about Liberalism: What It’s Made of, What It’s Missing, and What It Means for Organizing (Part I)

(See Part II here.)

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It is of the utmost importance that we know our enemy. In the context of radical grassroots organizing, this means we must know liberalism.

Liberalism is the water we all swim in. It’s the institutional and ideological political-economic-social apparatus of the contemporary US and Western Europe and has spread to countries on every continent. It’s all too easy to forget it’s there at all because it’s what we all grew up in and is all most of us have ever known.

Naming and defining liberalism can be a small revelation to those who are starting to question the status quo but don’t have the vocabulary to understand what they find unsettling about it and what the alternatives are. To show what liberalism looks like today and to give it a past makes it appear less written in stone and more part of an ever-changing and thus contingent historical process. What can be built can be taken apart.

The whole of liberalism is intimately tied to the whole of modern Western civilization, which can hardly be covered in a blog post. This introduction to the subject is more of a grassroots organizer’s guide, presented from a position that is critical of the authoritarian, top-down nature of society’s economic and political institutions. It is inclusive of various kinds of anarchism and socialism, as well as many who have eschewed simple labels. This political current in organizing can be found in elements of the Civil Rights Movement (The Student Nonviolence Coordinating Committee) and the labor movement (the Industrial Workers of the World), and I use the term radical to refer to this kind of politics. This tradition is motivated by an opposition to the core ideas of liberalism.

The Definition: Capitalism and Representative Government

The short version is that liberalism is the political philosophy that holds that free market capitalism and limited representative government are the best way to organize society, protect human rights, and promote the freedom of people to choose how to live. The liberalism we know today has been inflected by many disparate historical trends but nonetheless has meshed into a cohesive and holistic ideology. Politically, it emerged from under the monarchies of Europe; technologically and economically, it was sprung up with the rise of the steam engine and the industrial revolution’s factories for mass production; historically, it most famously surfaced with the political revolutions in France and America in the late 18th century; philosophically, it is one of the political ideologies to develop out of the Enlightenment, which privileged acquiring knowledge through reason instead of tradition, authority, or religion.

Liberalism is all-encompassing of contemporary mainstream political currents. Confusingly, it includes both sides of the dichotomy of “liberal vs. conservative”. It includes Democrats and Republicans as well as traditions on the periphery or outside these parties, like right libertarians and left social democrats.

LiberalismDiagram

Outside of liberalism lie those ideologies that reject capitalism and/or government. The accompanying diagram is a somewhat crude reduction of a complex web of political worldviews, but it helps delineate the boundaries of liberalism. Anti-capitalism comes in both right and left flavors. Anti-government doesn’t necessarily mean anti-administration, that there would be no apparatus for organizing society, only that this administration would have some fundamental differences from government because it would not be top-down. Representative government has some limited democratic mechanisms like voting for politicians once every couple years, but I use the term “democracy” below to refer to the stronger and original meaning of the word: a social system where people are empowered to run all of society together. Most of the content of ideologies flows straight-forwardly from their respective positions on capitalism and government.

On top of the foundation of capitalism and representative government, liberalism has constructed a complex apparatus of auxiliary concepts and institutions. How liberalism manifests itself depends on local conditions and cultures, but there’s nonetheless a great deal of overlap among different liberal societies.

When liberalism articulates justice, it speaks about rights. The 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the preeminent document on rights and is a pinnacle achievement of modern liberalism. Article 1 begins: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” The right to life, to free speech, to vote, to freedom of assembly, to fair trial, to religion, and so on.

Law is the enforcer of rights under liberalism and has the police, the prisons, and the courts to defend those rights. If you break a law, the police will capture you, the courts will determine your punishment, and the prisons will socially remove you. These institutions as they exist today are largely liberal inventions, which isn’t to say all societies haven’t had ways to decide upon and enforce social norms. Outside of capitalism and representative government, however, institutions to enforce fairness and norms can look very different.

To summarize: Liberalism holds that rights are fundamental and that they are best protected by laws as enforced by police, prisons, and courts, and that freedom is best nurtured by capitalism and representative government.

The Critique: Liberalism Ignores Power

Competing political visions disagree with liberalism in various ways. Anti-authoritarian grassroots organizers disagree with liberalism about the freedom-promoting capabilities of capitalism and the state. What liberalism is missing is an understanding of power and its abuses. The critique of liberalism advanced here focuses on its acceptance of inequalities of power, though the case against liberalism as a whole is only complete when integrated with a more specific critique of how capitalism, property rights, and the state interact (to be covered in Part II).

Talking about power in the abstract is an attempt to strip away all the details of social reality and discover the elemental physics of human relations. Power comes in many forms, including economic, physical, emotional, political, cultural, etc. (sometimes “power” is used exclusively to refer to state power, but I mean it in the general sense). Whatever the form, power follows certain principles and patterns. If indeed these ideas about power are central to how society works, then the basic ideas can be used as tools to analyze and dissect human relations of any scale and complexity.

Power is simply the ability to get what one wants. Because all human behavior is in service of some want and since collective human behavior is what makes up society, the lens of power shows us how society operates. Self-determination on individual and communal levels is only possible when people have similar amounts of power. When some people getting what they want conflicts with other people getting what they want, the more powerful group can force their will on the less powerful group to attain their ends. This is domination can be direct and brutal, like police beating homeless people for sleeping in the park, or it can be diffuse and bureaucratic, like black people being denied federal housing loans–to the benefit of white people accessing those funds–through the 1970s and thus being shut out of the primary engine of middle-class wealth accumulation. The end result is that people with lots of power get what they want and those without power get very little of what they want because of the relationship of domination between them. The radical grassroots organizing tradition opposes hierarchies of social power because they invariably stifle self-determination.

Since power is the central property that shapes individuals and societies, all political ideologies are just, at bottom, different ways of claiming who gets to have power and why. For example, in simple terms, monarchism (monos: one, arkho: to govern) is the belief that kings should have total power because of their divine right, and democracy (demos: people, kratos: strength or power) is the belief that people should govern together because of basic human equality. Actually, the function of ideologies is to justify and advance the interests of those with power because those with power will tend to choose the ideology that serves them and not vice versa. The ideology of the divine right of kings did not emerge because some people thought it up in the abstract and only then decide to create kingdoms. The divine right of kings emerged because a few people were able to seize power, crush their enemies, declare themselves kings, and then choose and spread the ideology that advanced their interests. Likewise, the purpose of liberalism is to glorify and justify a certain distribution of power because it is very useful to those who benefit from that distribution.

Money is not the only form of power in society, but it is an important one. The uneven distribution of power due to economic inequality is what liberalism exists to justify. On the one hand, liberalism preaches equality of rights in the political and civic domains, with each person having one vote, for example, and this was originally a reaction against the absence of such rights under monarchies. On the other hand, liberalism enables extreme inequality in the economic domain through the free market and property ownership.

This kind of partitioning of different domains of life might be somewhat excusable if not for one special property of power: it tends to spill over from one domain to another, not unlike the way physical energy can change forms. An engineer designs a car to be able to transfer energy between chemicals (gasoline), electricity (to start the car, run the radio and AC, etc…), movement (to drive), and heat (to heat the car and as exhaust). Similarly, people with power transfer that power easily between economic, political, social, and other forms in order to get what they want. Examples of power being used in one domain to affect power in another domain include money being used to influence votes by buying advertising or to influence politicians directly with lobbyists and campaign contributions; military power being used to seize economic assets; religious demagogues using social power to accumulate wealth from followers through donations; and judicial power being used to declare labor strikes illegal and break unions with police force and destroy workers’ economic power.

So when an inequality of power is allowed in one domain, which is the economic domain under liberalism and capitalism, that inequality of power bleeds into and corrupts all other domains of human life and makes them all unequal. I don’t think it takes much of an argument to show why rich people have enormous advantages over poor people in political, civic, and social domains. Liberalism’s hallowed equality of people as protected by political and civil rights collapses under the weight of economic inequality. This is how power works. While laws that attempt to enforce rights can sometimes dampen the crushing effects of economic inequality, they can only do so much when liberalism gives the rich so many levers to push and pull legislation.

Power has a second special property: it is self-amplifying. Like an avalanche that accumulates more mass and force the further it goes, power snowballs. When inequality is allowed in one domain, that inequality will grow and grow. Look at wealth inequality in the US since the 1950s. While America was never the egalitarian utopia some imagine, wealth inequality has ballooned over this period. There’s a lot of reasons for why this happened, but the central mechanism is that when someone has wealth, they use that wealth to get more wealth by investing it, they then invest that newly acquired wealth to get more wealth, and so on. Those who don’t have extra wealth around to invest never get on the capitalist gravy train and instead are stuck on the working class hamster wheel (illustrated in this graph and in this further analysis of income growth by percentile over the last 30 years). Economic power is the most clear-cut instance of this self-amplifying process, but a similar thing can happen with other forms of power. For example, the Romans would conquer territory, use the plundered resources to conquer more territory, and repeat, thus self-amplifying their military power. The beneficiaries of liberalism advocate for economic inequality in order to take advantage of power’s two special properties–self-amplification and the ability to move between different domains–which gives them immense influence over all aspects of society.

Particularly important to any ideology is how it sculpts its concept of freedom.  Liberalism imagines freedom largely as the freedom to choose — to choose between political candidates, religions, and how to one’s spend money, among other things. Of course, individual choice is important and should be protected, but liberalism goes about this in a back-handed way. Whereas everyone can only have the same amount of votes or religions, namely one, not everyone has the same amount of money under liberalism.

What this ignores is that people have different sets of choices available based on their economic power. The freedom of a rich person to get what they want is of a different order of magnitude than the freedom of a poor person to get what they want, and to pretend that they are both “free” in any common sense is disingenuous. As Anatole France wrote, “The law in its majestic equality forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the street, and to steal bread.” As long as both the rich person and the poor person can make basic political and civic choices about religion, voting, and what kind of breakfast cereal to buy, liberalism sees no objection in principle to the one-sided power relationships between rich companies and underpaid workers, rich slumlords and poorly-housed tenants, rich insurance companies and neglected patients. Sentimental adherents of liberalism urge that the powerful should be kind and generous to the powerless, but when more money is to be made from dangerous working conditions, the removal of housing safety regulations, and rejected insurance claims, kindness becomes a luxury that the rich cannot afford.

The Mindset: How liberalism manifests itself within organizing

“If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without demand. It never did and it never will.”

-Frederick Douglass

Radical grassroots organizing is about building power to engage in disruptive conflict to change social conditions. In opposition to this, liberalism seeks to guide conflict through acceptable channels that rely on appeals to reason to battle ignorance, technocratic approaches to reformist policies, and using love to battle hate in a non-disruptive way. These channels are designed to avoid challenging power relations and thus are mostly useless, or at least not as effective, for those who seek to displace liberalism and not merely tinker with it.

As an Enlightenment ideology, liberalism places reason at the center of its process for attaining a just society. Injustices exist, according to this narrative, because some people are ignorant of the truth and therefore pursue their own ends in a way that hurts others. Public debate and reason are presented as the salves for this ignorance that will lead everyone to the right conclusions. If only people read the right books, took the right college courses, and watched the right TV news networks, everyone would then reason correctly towards voting for the right politicians who would then herald in a better world.

As much as I would like to believe that reasoned debate alone could deliver us to justice, liberalism fails to acknowledge that it’s the rational moneyed self-interests of those in power that leads to domination and exploitation that perpetuates injustice in the first place. “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” Despite the high and low tides that might persuade liberals in power to be alternatively more or less generous or genocidal, the waves of reason are ultimately rebuked by the rocky coastline of material reality that separates the rich and the poor.

This is why the radical organizer doesn’t expend all their efforts politely lobbying politicians to prosecute police who murder civilians or delivering lengthy philosophical treatises on justice to persuade bosses to raise wages. Reason, while indispensable for many things, is just not the right tool for the job of directly changing power relations under liberalism.

When talking to people about radical social change, the liberal response is that this or that policy will solve the problem. Of course, policies are what we want to change, but most often liberals present policies that tweak existing laws or shuffle around resources in small ways instead of fundamentally changing power relations. Most politicians will do almost anything instead of working to create meaningful economic equality, and they will wave their hands about this or that new idea that’s going to change the game and solve our problems. Instead of universal healthcare, all kinds of byzantine plans are dreamed up to make us think we’re getting better medical care. Instead of giving schools more and equitable funding, reformers promise to make education better by introducing market mechanisms like school vouchers and charter schools. Instead of taxing the rich, new international trade deals are guaranteed to create jobs and spread prosperity. Searching for who benefits materially from policies is more revealing than what politicians tell us.

When liberal reform policies are centered as the key to overcoming deep injustices, they are assuming reasoned policy on its own is the answer rather than social struggle that can change power relations. The right politician with the well-reasoned ideas is being implicitly centered as a solution on its own instead of a mass movement that can raise hell and give us the power to solve problems ourselves. This is a central way in which liberalism pervades popular beliefs and obstructs grassroots struggle. But if we reject liberalism and come to believe that ignorance of social-moral truth is in fact not the root of social problems, we must conclude that reason on its own will not produce real-life solutions. Since we see self-perpetuating imbalances of power as the root of injustice, we believe building popular power to challenge the status quo and thereby equalizing power relations will be more effective at bringing social change than relying on appeals to the powerful to listen to sound moral arguments.

Disruptive conflict is demonized under liberalism for a variety of reasons. Most of all, those invested in the maintenance of liberal society are against change to begin with and will oppose the tactic of disruption as an indirect way to oppose change in the first place. Secondly, disruption nearly always stops the flow of commerce and state functions, which is how the rich and powerful derive their power. Lastly, liberals will blame disruption for getting in the way of respectful debate and thus preventing “real” (polite and insubstantial) reforms from being passed.

In addition to the use of public reason and peaceful debate, the other non-disruptive liberal method for change is expressions of love and compassion. I think these methods are great for many things, I just don’t think that on their own they will change or challenge those in power. If someone materially benefits from oppression and exploitation, loving and debating them might work for one person in a hundred, but no movement for social change has ever succeeded relying on those tactics against the powerful. We should use peaceful debate and love on those who are hurt by exploitation and oppression, and then build with them a movement that can use more disruptive tactics against those in power. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Black Freedom Movement didn’t achieve change with love alone, but with disruptive street marches, direct action, and boycotts that challenged the material basis of racist power structures.

According to the strategy of fixing social problems with love, hatred against oppressed people–people of color, the poor, women, etc.–is due to ignorance of knowledge about who is deserving of freedom and social privileges, and that only love, compassion, and reason can fix this. Political messages about love conquering hate sound nice but are liberal approaches to changing society because of their focus on love and reason instead of recognizing and organizing against the material realities that underlie oppression and exploitation. Conflict is a necessary part of social change and we shouldn’t let liberals persuade us that loving our oppressors and peacefully debating them will eliminate domination. To return to Frederick Douglas, “Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground.”

The Solution: What Does a World Without Liberalism Look Like?

Rethinking what freedom means can start to reveal what alternatives to liberalism might look like. Whereas liberalism portrays freedom as having choices, I think a better kind of freedom consistent with the radical grassroots tradition is one based on power. When people and communities engage each other from a place of equal power, they are free to determine their lives as far as possible without infringing on other people’s lives. This would take the best parts of liberalism, those of political, civic, and social equality, and combine them with principles of economic equality.

This idea of freedom as power is hardly new. The Roman statesman and philosopher Cicero wrote that “Freedom is participation in power.” Any inequality of power is necessarily an inequality of freedom. If freedom is something every human being has legitimate claim to, then an equality of power is the only way to ensure self-determination and minimize domination, and this is why the grassroots radical tradition organizes to flatten social power relationships. In other words, radicals want democracy.

What would social institutions look like under such a vision of society? Only a cursory answer can be attempted here. One thing this vision of power values is people’s abilities to determine the shape and form of their society once they have won the power to be able to do so. People new to radical politics have a difficult time imagining what a non-liberal society would look like, and often they ask for a fully detailed blueprint of such a new society. While getting stuck in the details of how society would look can distract from more immediate concerns, it’s worthwhile to draw out in broad strokes the kind of society we might someday enjoy.

Perhaps the most dramatic difference between liberal and radical visions of society is the organization of economic institutions. Under liberalism, owners retain almost total control over their companies and are able to fire people at will, alter the company direction or conditions of work, and basically do anything they want within the flexible confines of the law. Owners usually hire and instruct managers to do most of this work for them, and then workers produce valuable commodities and services. Workers spend more time at their workplace than at any other social institution, and yet they have almost no formal power to influence that institution. Most of all, owners control how much people get paid for their various roles in companies, and this is what creates inequality. In liberal society, democracy is championed as an essential value but then is tossed out the window for the domain of life, work, that matters most for people in their everyday lives. The corporation is a prototypical dominance hierarchy.

To imagine alternative economic forms, we just have to ask, “what would be a democratic way to run companies and the economy?” This question is no different than any other that peoples throughout history have needed to answer in creating institutions that serve the many instead of the few. Essentially, decision-making needs to be distributed so that the stakeholders of the institutions determine how the institution is run. Presumably, people would have access to the information needed to make decisions, there would be forums for exchanging opinions, and procedures for voting to choose between policies. These processes could be replicated for different scales, like local and national. If this all sounds rather familiar, it’s because these ideas are what liberals already advocate in theory, at least for some spheres of life, but then deviate from in practice regarding labor and economics.

When it comes to payment for work, it seems likely that people would democratically decide upon a much more equal payscale for the various forms of labor that needed to be done. Perhaps the least desirable jobs would be payed the most to incentivize someone to do them. Perhaps people would still be paid roughly in proportion to how much they worked (aside from people who can’t work being adequately provided for). Mondragon is a worker-owned federation of cooperatives in Spain with an annual revenue stream of $16 billion and 74,000 thousand employees. While Mondragon is far from a radical, anti-capitalist institution, the mere existence of collective ownership leads to a much more egalitarian payscale. Mondragon workers vote democratically each year on wages for their cooperative, resulting in wage ratios–the ratio between the highest and lowest paid employee of a company–that range from 3:1 to 9:1, instead of an average of 300+:1 for the largest companies in the US. I personally would like to think that this ratio would be flattened further, though perhaps not entirely, if the companies weren’t under external pressures from capitalism to pay more to highly skilled workers who are being offered much higher sums by competing firms. Mondragon is no utopia, but it provides a meaningful example of a large, multifaceted company that is collectively owned and institutes relatively egalitarian policies for many of its workers.

The radical critique of police, prisons, and courts doesn’t mean we’d dispose of institutions for safety and fairness. This critique just places existing institutions within the context of the functions they serve in liberalism. The foundational theorist of capitalism, Adam Smith, wrote that “Civil government, so far as it is instituted for the security of property, is, in reality, instituted for the defense of the rich against the poor, or of those who have property against those who have none at all.” If maintaining economic inequality wasn’t built into the function of legal and civic institutions, what would they look like?

Honestly, I think they would look how most bleeding-heart liberals think they should look but are frustrated from attaining because of their attachment to capitalism and its inevitable reproduction of poverty. Economic crime would virtually disappear if people were not desperate from poverty. This is already partly the case in Northern European social democracies with strong welfare systems and labor unions. Injuries to people of a non-economic nature could be solved using largely non-punitive, transformative justice principles. According to Michel Foucault, the liberal theorists that first proposed carceral institutions in the 1800s as an alternative to public torture initially strove to end punishment for crime entirely and focus on rehabilitation, but the state instead came to use prisons for its own punitive and economic ends. Liberal principles of equal representation and treatment by a system of justice are only truly possible when the quality of your legal representation is not dependent on the size of your pocketbook and when judges are not appointed by wealthy politicians with wealthy friends who want to secure their interests. For the most part, radicals envision the utopia liberals have been dreaming of all along except without the billionaires.

Another shift in perspective is required for the role of human rights. Radicals want human rights for everyone. It’s just that under capitalism and the state, human rights discourse gets twisted around and does more harm than good. Human rights’ ideological function is to make people believe that everyone is equal while in reality economic inequality reigns. When liberals fight for human rights, it almost always means strengthening the liberal institutions of police, prisons, and courts. Without economic equality, human rights will always be selectively enforced and hollow because of the influence the rich have over these institutions.

The best way to acquire and protect rights is to have the power oneself to do so. Relying on elected politicians who run the state to safeguard your basic needs is a dangerous game because sooner or later some politician or party will come to power who then can throw away your rights when they’re inconvenient. If we fight to build our power, our rights will follow, but if we fight for rights without acknowledging the primacy of power, whatever victories that are achieved will be subject to the capricious will of elected officials. We can still use the term “human rights” in our political messaging because that’s the terminology the public is familiar with, but we should make clear to ourselves that we are seeking to build grassroots power first and foremost.

A knee-jerk reaction to ideas of economic egalitarianism is that without competition and the threat of poverty, people would not be motivated to work. If everyone got paid roughly the same amount for working, wouldn’t people just do the bare minimum? I don’t think so. First, most of the world’s hardest workers already get paid the least and have the least opportunities for other forms of work. For instance, sweatshop workers in China and Central America (and more than a few in the US) work in grueling conditions for 12+ hours a day for measly wages, so the claim that meritocratic pay truly exists under capitalism feels dishonest. Secondly, those from the wealthiest backgrounds and with the most opportunities for advancement disproportionally end up getting the jobs that pay the most and are much more rewarding and stimulating, like doctors, lawyers, and engineers. In fact, rentiers get paid for not doing work at all and are the wealthiest. Third, much work is so disempowering precisely because workers have so little agency and voice at their jobs, and if workplaces themselves were made democratic and gave people outlets for self-expression and self-determination, work might be somewhat enjoyable for everyone instead of for the few who currently enjoy such privileges. Lastly, there is a broad scientific finding in economics that higher pay doesn’t stimulate harder or better work except in the case of the most menial physical labor.

Even with all of the arguments about individual institutions and the radical principles that can organize them, it’s still helpful to see the whole caboodle in motion. Fully fledged non-capitalist and non-statist societies are sparse in the recent historical record, but there’s a substantial sprinkling of instances that approximate these ideals: virtually all hunter-gatherer societies during which 99% of human evolution occurred, the Paris Commune of 1871, Manchuria in Korea from 1929-31, Barcelona in 1936, the Argentina recovered factory movement of the 2000s, the Kurdish movement in Rojava today, and many others.

In some ways, a radical vision of society would be extremely different from our own. Developing all the institutional details would take a good deal of work and experimentation. But in some other notable ways, such a radical vision is entirely compatible with much of liberal dogma and thus is not so difficult to imagine. I’m entirely aware that I’ve not proven the viability of a radical vision for society, and I am not so deluded that I think such a society would solve all human problems. Having any opinions about society and politics, especially regarding principles about freedom and justice, requires some leap of faith because we just don’t have access to complete information about human nature or about the full range of possibility of social structures and their effects. When we alter our worldview, it’s not because we come into possession of logical proofs, but merely that we begin to prefer one set of evidence and arguments over another. I hope to show that the reasons and rewards for abandoning liberalism weigh heavier on the scale.

The Distraction: How Not to Attack Liberalism

What distinguishes liberal approaches to social change is that they rely to varying degrees on “the system,” meaning that they rely on those who derive their power from the institutions of liberal society. If a social justice non-profit is taking money from rich donors who derive their wealth from the economic inequality that liberal economics affords them, that non-profit is not challenging liberalism but enacting it. Supporting the local progressive Democrat in order to pass a minimum wage increase is not a challenge to liberalism. Liberal reforms can have good social effects, and radicals should support many such reforms, but whether these reforms are seen as the end of the road to a just society or not is what separates those who seek a different politician or CEO from those who seek to build grassroots power. This is what separates liberals from radicals. At bottom, appeals to the wealthy and the politicians to solve problems are liberal because they do not empower the powerless; these appeals are not rooted in the everyday activity, resistance, and organization of the people who are hurt by the status quo.

The prototypical liberal strategy for improving society is addressing the symptoms of liberalism, like hunger and disease, instead of the roots of liberalism, like capitalism and white supremacy. Because charity and volunteerism do address the injuries inflicted by liberalism, they have some value, but how they are framed dictates whether they are obstructing or furthering radical change. The big magnates of the 19th century, the Rockefellers and Carnegies, built their fortunes through corruption and exploitation, though we know them today because of the libraries, concert halls, and universities that bear their names. They gave money to charity to make themselves look good and to help cover up their crimes, such as when the national guard and camp guards opened fire on and burned down a camp of 1,200 striking miners and their families, killing two dozen people. John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who owned the mining company, was widely criticized for the working conditions and company escalation that lead to the strike and what is now called the Ludlow Massacre. Those at the top of society like to show themselves to be generous people, because it has the effect of justifying social relations in the first place by aligning material success with moral uprightness. Furthermore, when corporations today like WalMart give money to reform schools and supposedly help poor children, their charitable gifts often hurt the education system by trying to introduce mechanisms of privatization to the basic societal need of education. Even when there’s no apparent ulterior motive, what the wealthy accumulate in the first place such that they’re able to give is usually gotten through underpaying workers, seizing public assets, or harming public goods.

Charity and volunteerism to address the harms of liberalism can also be done in service of radical change by being explicitly aligned with it. The Black Panther free breakfast programs were not about to end hunger or exploitation on their own, but they met a crucial community need, exposed mainstream institutions for being unable to meet that need, and were integrated into a larger program of grassroots power and radical change.

Electoral organizing for radical candidates is often advocated for as a path to radical change, but for a number of reasons this conflicts with grassroots efforts to build independent power. At a basic level, we have limited resources with which to fight for social change, so putting money and time into electoral efforts will subtract from grassroots organizing. Electoral organizing almost always needs a charismatic leader to rally behind, which tends to put the onus of change on the leader and dilute the sense of agency that people have in their lives to solve problems themselves in their neighborhoods and workplaces. Electoral organizing comes in spurts during election seasons, and all too often organizations engaged in electoral work don’t do anything between elections. At the very least such groups are ill-equipped to transition between political campaigning and grassroots organizing because the issues that need attention from organizing don’t conveniently disappear when politicians want your time and energy. Lastly, a belief in electoral organizing invests a certain amount of credit in the state to run fair elections which is undeserved; Bernie Sanders being shafted by the Democratic National Committee is just the latest instance of this (and predictably, most of the energy behind Bernie has dissipated since the election).

I don’t think voting itself is much of a waste of time, mostly because voting takes so little time, but the thousands of hours and millions of dollars that go into running left candidates every 2 years is certainly a drain on our efforts. Some think that electoral organizing can be integrated alongside other forms of radical grassroots organizing, but I am skeptical.

Progressivism is the left-wing of liberalism, and progressives often work on similar issues to radicals and often populate the same social movements. What distinguishes radicalism from progressivism is that progressives think capitalism can be tamed and used for good, and they are much more willing to use electoral politics. In terms of power, this means that progressives are fundamentally ok with uneven distributions of power, so long as they don’t become too uneven. But because any situation in which some people have more money and power than others inevitably leads to domination, and because those in power can then use that power to exacerbate inequalities further to their advantage, I think the progressive liberal vision is self-defeating and will not lead to a free society.

In the short term, radicals and progressives will often fight towards the same short-term goals–universal healthcare, free education, reigning in the abuses of police and corporations–and I think radicals should work with progressives where shared interests invite collaboration. But in many situations, radicals will have fundamentally different goals and strategies that accord with their long-term vision and should not be shy about pointing out these differences.

The Strategy: How to Attack Liberalism

The fight against liberalism requires increasing capacity for popular grassroots power that is independent of the power brokers of the status quo. Only by escaping the isolating and individualizing forces of liberalism and coming together in radical organizations is it possible to meaningfully confront the centralized power of the state and capitalism.

We should seek to create radical institutions of two kinds. The first are organizations whose primary objective is to build power by organizing to directly confront and challenge existing institutions in order to eventually take them over or dismantle them. For convenience, I’ll call these revolutionary institutions. Radical unions that seek better wages and benefits in the short term and seek to overthrow owners and managers in order to run the companies themselves in the long term are one example. Another example would be those organizations that seek to protest police and eventually abolish police. These groups usually work gradually and through winning reforms, but the difference between reformist reform and revolutionary reform is that the former sees reforms as the end-goal while the latter only seeks those reforms that are part of a trajectory towards a long-term transformation of society. Such a revolutionary approach requires that reforms are part of an effort to build popular power and not allow them to be tools of the powerful to defang and dissolve radical organizing, which is what reformist reforms often are. Revolutionary institutions are the battering rams of radical change.

The second kind of institutions are those whose primary objective is to fulfill basic social needs themselves and already exist in the desired, democratic form. I’ll call these prefigurative institutions, in that they prefigure the kinds of institutions we eventually want to run all of society. For example, worker cooperatives produce goods and services through an internally democratic, non-capitalist structure (also the Mondragon example discussed above). Worker cooperatives can either be started that way, or they can start as typical corporations and be taken over by workers and run as cooperatives when the workers win workplace equality. A concrete example are community- and democratically-run health clinics in Greece, which are staffed by a combination of “physical therapists, psychologists, doctors, nurses, dentists,” and others. Community groups that respond to mental health crises and dangerous situations can also be democratically run in such a way that they serve the function of community safety that the police and our deeply troubled mental health system claim to fulfill. Such community groups can have a hotline to call during crises (like 911), have people trained in de-escalation and counseling and other emergency situations (like emergency responders), and can be organically part of community networks. These groups can start small, and widen the scope of emergencies they can respond to as their capacity, resources, and skills grow. Prefigurative institutions meet basic social needs while eschewing state and capitalist structures, and this both sustains radical communities and helps demystify the status quo by showing that there are viable and better alternatives to mainstream institutions (the anarchist movement as a whole in Greece is a good example).

In lefty parlance, the strategy of building radical institutions, including both prefigurative and revolutionary kinds, in opposition to liberal institutions is called “dual power” because these two ideologically competing sets of institutions will vie for social legitimacy over the course of movements. However, this approach falters easily if either revolutionary or prefigurative institutions are focused on to the exclusion of the other, or if the two strategies become isolated from each other. For example, worker co-ops that look only after their own interests and that are disconnected from active working class struggles are not institutions for wider change on their own. Conversely, radicals who only revolutionary institutions for changing society without creating institutions that are prefigurative and democratic will keep most of their followers powerless and unprepared to run society themselves if some degree of social revolution does occur. This is part of the trap of radical political parties because they require hierarchies in interfacing with and seeking to take part in the state. I do think that given the paucity of a strong and independent leftist movement in the US currently, a preliminary emphasis on building revolutionary institutions would be better for building a base of popular struggle upon which prefigurative institutions could subsequently deepen and reinforce such efforts.

Conclusion

Liberalism sets us up to be isolated from each other and dependent on power-wielding bosses and politicians. While some nice bosses and politicians can be found, it’s not their personalities that concern me but the function of the institutions they work through that do. To see the problems of society as caused by a few bad apples falls for the liberal trick of making us think individuals are responsible for everything and not institutions and larger social forces.

But liberal society wasn’t built in a day, and a radical one won’t be either. Building popular movements to eventually replace liberalism doesn’t mean delaying all revolutionary gratification until complete transformation is within reach. Grassroots radicalism does not require waiting to “take over” until we have enough votes or conditions are right or our leader gives us the go-ahead. Rather, it means acting now towards both immediate gains for human dignity and long-term visions of social equality. Every victory on the road to a future society is a victory for the present as well. As the saying goes, we must “build a new world in the shell of the old.”

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For more content on liberalism, see my Further Reading page.

One thought on “What You Need to Know about Liberalism: What It’s Made of, What It’s Missing, and What It Means for Organizing (Part I)

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