(Featured image: “File:Murmure d’étourneaux.jpg” by Anne Jea. is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0)
The US isn’t a democracy, but it plays one on TV. When election year comes around, a lot of video cameras point at politicians making speeches about how they’re gonna fight for you and your grandma. A paradise is promised and all you have to do is vote for them as a show of your belief in democracy and freedom. Then after the election is over, politicians go back to playing golf with CEOs.
In a world like ours, one with so many horrors and so much duplicity, it’s not hard to see why some people tire of hearing about democracy. But is there any other way to dream of a better world and move toward it than to get with others and decide collectively what is needed and how to get it?
When I look into the face of a student, I see a human face. As an educator in schools there’s a feeling of responsibility that pulls on me to preserve their humanity, partly by my own efforts to make things fair and keep them safe in school and partly by helping them learn the skills to make things fair and keep themselves safe when they enter the “real” world. How to be faithful to the whole of a child’s current being and future potential is the daunting task all educators face. Even under perfect conditions this task is difficult enough. Under the conditions of the education system we find ourselves in this task is all too often impossible.
The multitude of problems in the school system leads any caring educator to ask larger questions about why things are the way they are. “Life’s not fair” is one answer, one we tell ourselves as often as we tell our students. If we don’t see agency in ourselves or in others, accepting the problems of the existing world as inevitable can be the first step in hardening ourselves and others as a strategy for mental and biological survival. “Life’s not fair, but…” accepts the world as it is in the present but makes space for the possibility of the world to be changed in the future.
When an educator looks a student in the eye, what about their economic relationship shapes what the educator sees? The educator is paid to be there and the student is compelled to be there to learn skills and get credentials that they’ll need later to get a job. These are partly class relations, relations of people in specific economic positions who encounter each other in the context of larger economic systems.
(See Part I here. While closely related, Part II is readable as a stand alone piece.)
Economics. We know the economy mostly through the dollars we keep (or lack) in our pockets and the jobs we work (or suffer through) during a major portion of our waking lives. Outside of these more tangible ways we experience the economy, talk of the stocks, bonds, and securities, the federal reserve, supply-demand curves, etc… mostly seems arcane and safely ignored. And yet upon reflection, it’s difficult to escape the conclusion that this topic doesn’t deeply determine our lives and social relationships.
How can we imagine a better world and then make one if we refuse to look economics in the eye? Avoiding the principles of economics shackles us to our more immediate impressions of the world and fogs our capacity for critically relating to ourselves and society as a whole. Economics isn’t just for bootlicking academics and the self-aggrandizing rich; it’s also for restless workers and the scheming masses. It may be an abyss, but it’s one that with a little encouragement and self-assurance we can get to the bottom of and weaponize in service of our own ideas of liberation.
This piece is Part II of a series on liberalism. As a refresher, liberalism as a political philosophy does not refer to the first part of the liberal/conservative dichotomy in US politics but is the more encompassing mainstream worldview “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.” Part I focuses more abstractly on defining liberalism and showing how it ignores inequalities of power which then corrupt everything liberalism claims to stand for. Part II is a look at how this plays out more concretely through capitalism.
(See Part II here.)
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.