Growing up in the United States public education system, one is taught to revere the philosophies and days of old. In every classroom, the walls are decorated with pictures of the founding fathers and with posters of the “core democratic values”. Children sing songs commemorating the ideology of liberalism and patriotism. We were taught the importance of the constitution and looked at its writers as almost god-like figures; held to a standard above reproach.
Even in the adult realm of social theory and political economy, it seems as though the Enlightenment principles and philosophies, to which we broadly consider as becoming Liberalism, dominate every aspect of our socio-politics.
Certainly, there are many things about the Enlightenment that we can all feel warm and fuzzy about. The Enlightenment gave birth to ideas of a representative government, of freedom of speech and religion, and of the right to assembly and petition. Enlightenment philosophers also developed the epistemology of rationalism and empiricism, which have grown to encompass all of our scientific and academic advancement.
More importantly, the Enlightenment took a unique class character, one of the early bourgeoisie. It was this class character which, at the time, was termed by the landed aristocracy as “new money” that would in the next century swallow Europe in a period of industrialization and rapid economic growth never before imagined. This bourgeois thought also challenged the existing institutions of class suppression such as the Catholic Church; and would eventually destroy absolutist monarchy and feudalism in its quest for social domination.
So what about the Enlightenment is not properly understood or applied in the West particularly?
First a quick lesson in Marxism: Through Dialectical Materialism we understand the nature of how social forces moving and conflicting develop new social orders. Through Historical Materialism we understand the sum of history can be understood as a class struggle. With these understandings, we can view the Enlightenment as taking a specifically bourgeois class character. The West would like to paint the Enlightenment as a fixture of human advancement, owning no character but instead representing the timeless virtue of a liberal state. This, as we have come to understand, is completely fictitious and contradicts what we understand as Dialectical Materialism.
All of this begs the question: why is this important?
Well, similar to how the bourgeois dominate the legal interpretations of property and more importantly, physical property relations; bourgeois thought also dominates social discourse. We have allowed Enlightenment principles to impede our own judgement and prevent the development of new and revolutionary thought systems based on an ever-changing material condition. Rather than analyze a situation freely we have trapped ourselves in the intellectual stalemate of identifying the proper Liberal analysis and then applying it as if it was our own.
Let us take a rather simple example, study this photo for a moment:
What are some of the first things that come to your head? If you were raised anything like me, then you would first jump to criticize this picture as implying there is something wrong with income inequality (and we all know the importance of social inequality!). But why would we do this? The reason is we have been educated into a fixation with the idea of “individual liberty”, whether or not this concept makes sense, whether or not it applies to the hedge fund manager making billions of dollars, we immediately assume this must be an attack on his individual liberty; and then we make the even more peculiar conclusion that this is “bad”.
A very interesting question to ask would be, why should I care about his “individual liberty”? Why would it be “bad” if we were to seize all of his assets? If the ethics of capitalism produce a system where one man can hoard enough wealth to feed millions, then that interpretation of “individual liberty” is essentially useless to me; and until anyone proves otherwise, it should be considered useless as a priori ethics should have no weight without good reason.
Also, note how the picture ends with a very petty bourgeois punchline. It begins with what seems to be a critical inquiry into the ethics of inequality, and ends with a DNC slogan about capital gains tax. This is another example with our contemporary fixation with the Liberal principles of the Enlightenment, one of them being the nature of taxation in a republic. Why can we not criticize the system that allows him to pile up so much wealth without acting within that system’s framework?
If we truly want to find solutions, we must ask tough questions. Perhaps ”individual liberty” can be founded on something other than private property and the right of increase? Perhaps “individual liberty” can adopt a revolutionary and proletarian character; one that adopts an interpretation of “liberty” that does not encompass the freedom to exploit? Perhaps we could have a discussion about the nature of inequality itself without having to end that discussion with a Liberal punchline?
Essentially, the Western fixation with Liberalism (in the classical sense) has destroyed the audacity we need to develop truly powerful answers to our toughest questions. Answers that may go outside what is deemed “acceptable” by the establishment politics. If we do not crush these sentiments towards Liberalism then we cannot ever hope to have an honest discourse with any fruitful results.
Debunking Liberal Ethics
Locke’s Austrian bastard child
Back on the issue of the picture above, what would be a genuine liberal (right-libertarian in the US) response to that image?
While we do not have a case-specific response, we can deduce an answer by examining the following*:
“The key to the theory of liberty is the establishment of the rights of private property…”Crime” can then be defined and properly analyzed as a violent invasion or aggression against the just property of another individual.” – Murray Rothbard, The Ethics of Liberty
In a phrase, more of the same. It is wrong to talk about action against income inequality because that means violating a person’s property, which is a violation of self-ownership etc. etc.
Allow me to dispel a Liberal myth for a moment, one that is vaguely implied by the excerpt above. This myth is that “liberty” gave birth to capitalism. That, essentially, an ethical framework that protects “liberty” produced what we now consider capitalist social relations and this is why current property relations are A) inevitable and/or B) justified in someway. Think back, even to your schooling, if you were raised in the United States this most likely resonates strongly as this is what is drilled into children. That “liberty”, as a principle, will produce what we now call capitalism.
This is entirely false and hinges on some non-materialist almost quasi-spiritual interpretation of the word “liberty” as if it were the one ethical principle to rule them all.
The truth is that capitalism has no ethics, it has no morals, it has no reason or judgement. It is a system. A system defined by exploitation of the inequality of exchange and perpetuation through capitalist property norms. A system where half the world anguishes in unimaginable deprivation to create market value for a select few. What we now consider “capitalist ethics” is merely an attempt to morally justify what was already taking place at an alarming rate in the late 18th century.
Thus there should be no intellectual qualms about discussing “unethical” remedies to the situation when the ethics in violation are about as redeemable as any other ethics.
What we must understand is that there is no objective definition of “freedom”. There is no right or wrong way to interpret “individual liberty”. There is nothing wrong with strongly criticizing the idea of bourgeois democracy in a “republic” and analyzing a contemporary situation outside of the intellectual box invented two centuries ago. In fact, we must struggle against bourgeois thought; it is an inevitable and incredibly important component to the class struggle.
In the same way that the capitalist transformation of the means of production produced bourgeois thought, socialist transformation of the means of production will produce proletarian thought. Socialist thought that will provide an answer to the questions I asked earlier; and every person dedicated to a new social order must become a catalyst for this new thought. What we cannot be is enslaved to the Enlightenment, we must realize that Liberal intellectual conceptions are not timeless tools of socio-political measurement, but a bourgeois tool of dominance; a tool we must resist.
Liberation begins when you realize you’re a slave.