Towards a Reclamation of Substantive Liberalism

John Rudisill

The George Washington University

1. Introduction

Somewhere along the way, it seems, liberalism has gotten a bit off track. The central preoccupation of this paper is the defense of a specific, substantive and historically precedented conception of liberalism against three predominant criticisms that have been made against it. The reader will be correct in recognizing that my defense of this variety of liberalism carries with it the intended implication that one of the most influential among the more recent defenses of liberal theory is an impostor to the throne, motivated in large part by an over-estimation of the criticisms I discuss.

In chapter eight of A Matter of Principle, Ronald Dworkin distinguishes between liberalism and conservatism in terms of how each position interprets the following principle of equality:

A just government must treat all those in its charge as equals - as entitled to its equal concern and respect.

The liberal, argues Dworkin, interprets this principle as requiring

...that in order to treat its citizens as equals - respecting them equally and displaying genuinely equal concern for them - a government must remain neutral on what might be called questions of the good life.

Dworkin then goes on to say that, according to the conservative understanding of this principle of equality,

...the content of equal treatment cannot be independent of some theory about the good for man or the good of life, because treating a person as an equal means treating him the way the good or truly wise person would wish to be treated.

After reading this, and going on with another project for a while, I wrote the following:


I'm a Tibetan Buddhist who applies Marxist principles to the political questions of daily life. What this means is that, on the one hand, I try to understand the Buddhist teachings about relative and absolute truth and, perhaps on the other hand, I try to understand the theory of dialectical materialism. The latter tells me that the objective conditions I've experienced condition who I am, and how I know myself, while the former tell me that how I know myself conditions how I experience the world. Combined, all of this may just be messing me around but, more than this, I think the result is that I manage to avoid the trap of conveniently plausible false beliefs.

Pondering the workshop I'm organizing on alternative media, it occurred to me that culture is the way we have of expressing who we see ourselves to be, how we experience ourselves and others in our world, what we hope for, dream of, and fear. And it occurred to me that having that set of powerful social phenomena taken over by commercial interests and concentrated political power would result in influences that would mute the community by confusing the invidivual: are we producers of our lives, or passive recepients of it? Do we produce our world, or are we tool-pieces being used by others? Do we experience ourselves, or are we the raw material manipulated by others as they experience themselves?

There can't be any true, real, actual democracy without actual, real, true community expression. And there is no community expression apart from and without individual expression; in as much as individuals confound consumption with celebration, there can be nothing like self-knowledge and so expression at a political level will be, at best, directed by interested combinations of elites or, at worst, catastrophically incoherent.

Expressions of neuroses are not evidence of the worst possible situation; if I groan, at least I can experience my deep pain, however inarticulate might be that moment. But to find myself struggling in an effort to accept some manipulative fiction as a valid expression of my own experience is to find myself torn between a lost familiarity and an alien invasion: the first is empty (rather than being a rich and secure source of affection and esteem) and the other is ubiquitous (rather than being clearly other and subject to my control).

I cannot know myself except through my expression in the world, through the manifestation of my many mundane choices and decisions. The more those are dictated by outside authority, the less I see of my self; the more they arise in response to interests other than my own, the less I experience myself. If I neither see my actions nor experience my interests, then I am incapable of acting politically in any way that conforms to the democratic ideal, then I am capable of acting only as a droid in a situation that is entirely artifical, democratic in name and form only. Without the dynamics of self-creation and self-experience, individuals cannot be empowered by the self-knowledge that validates democratic action; when individuals are devoid of the dynamism that comes from those twin tensions, the community as a whole is lifeless and the body politic becomes a drone. Confounded and neurotic individuals, without the means and methods of self-expression and self-discovery, can comprise only a community that is mechanical and unresponsive to the complex challenges of life itself. Without self-discovery as an ongoing project and self-knowledge as a ever-changing product, there can only be self-destruction and decay.