liberalism beyond the enlightenment
June 6, 2016
It shouldn’t be a surprise to most ppl at this point that I’ve been revisiting liberalism and its philosophy. I mean… I’ve said for years that what I want is freedom, that this is my primary value and goal. Things being what they are, holding such a value (and being a philosopher) means that I’m immediately thrust within a pre-existing liberal discourse. Regardless of how distasteful I find most liberals, I can’t deny that we share that primary value. I want freedom and so do they. But that’s pretty much about the only thing we can agree on (ok, well pluralism too). My main issue with ‘liberalism’ as a white/western philosophy is the fact that it inherits a great deal of stuff from the white enlightenment. And I hate a lot of what the white enlightenment is and was about. So my recent philosophical explorations could be seen as attempting to conceptualize a post-enlightenment liberalism.
What’s wrong with the enlightenment you say? Well. Pretty much everything. This is a period of time where white ppl were colonizing, oppressing, and killing huge portions of the globe (pretty much all of it). Enlightenment philosophy is the philosophy of imperialism. Empires were built upon a premise of ‘freedom’ and ‘rationality’ and other enlightenment values.
The perennial best example of this is thomas jefferson, who is often held as one of the important american enlightenment thinkers. I mean. He wrote the declaration of independence ffs. He obviously cares about freedom and resisting colonial rule (lmao). But at the same moment wherein he’s writing about how white americans should be free of white british ppl, he owns people. Black people. People who’re literally property and, as such, the anti-thesis of ‘free’.
Now. Can a man who owned human beings contribute to a discourse on freedom? No. Not even a little. If he had any true understanding (even an inkling) of liberty, he wouldn’t have owned Black people.
And I’ve been around this block before, so I know that enlightenment apologists like to respond “hey, just because his actual life contradicted his philosophy, it doesn’t mean that his philosophy has no value”. In other words, I’m supposed to make a distinction between his philosophical work and his actual life. Such that contradictions between the two fall away because one doesn’t poison the other. Similarly, just bc most of the enlightenment thinkers advocated for colonialism, genocide, and cultural death this doesn’t mean that their collective intellectual contributions are garbage.
Which. Just. No. I refuse.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that most of the ppl I’ve seen defending the enlightenment are white men. The exact people, coincidentally, that the enlightenment sets up as the most rational, most civilized, most important people in the universe. Forgive me if I see more than a little self-interested bias in their defense. Its easy to defend the enlightenment (and the ideology and institutions built upon it) when you are the primary recipient of its riches.
Interestingly enough, I don’t think I’ve seen a single one of these white men claim that hitler’s ideology ought to be considered on its own merits, unrelated to the man and the consequences of his ideas. There’s a reason for this… hitler’s ideology directly led to the genocide of Jewish people. This is quite obviously a Bad thing.
And yet cannot understand why its an ideological problem that a man who thought an entire race of people (a race white ppl invented btw), weren’t actually people but property, helped to create a government based on a notion of freedom that precludes the humanity of enslaved Africans. Or cannot understand why its a problem that these white men declare themselves free of colonial ‘oppression’ on land that they stole and whose Indigenous peoples they are systematically attempting to wipe off the face of the planet. Jefferson’s conceptualization of ‘freedom’ helped created the material conditions of slavery and Indigenous genocide in america.
But white liberals are continuously surprised that the institutions built upon this notion of ‘freedom’ and the rest of enlightenment ideology just happen to, um, remain virulently anti-Black and are still attempting to remove/destroy the Indigenous peoples. The problem, they think, is that we need to find a way to sufficiently expand the enlightenment’s concepion of ‘freedom’ so that it can include Black and/or Indigenous people and/or all people of colour. Its an impossible solution. In much the same way that I doubt hitler’s ideology could be reformed into something that recognizes the humanity of Jewish people (and all the others caught up in their genocide).
Even if such a thing were possible… I’m unclear as to why we should even try. Wouldn’t it be better to try and conceptualize a notion of ‘freedom’ that fundamentally recognizes the humanity of everyone?
For me, this is what I’m interested in. In exploring a notion of ‘freedom’ or ‘liberty’ that is not constrained by the white supremacist, cishet patriarchal enlightenment. Essentially in exploring what a post-enlightenment liberalism would be like. Or maybe an anti-enlightenment liberalism. I’m not sure about the name (nor do I really care all that much). Google tells me that ‘post-enlightenment liberalism’ is kind of already a thing. And I’m not sure I agree with what I’ve seen (I do to a certain extent but what I see is too mild for me since what I can see mainly focuses on the enlightenment’s conception of ‘reason’, not its mis-conception of freedom).
Perhaps ‘post-colonial liberalism’ or ‘decolonial liberalism’ are good options. Post-colonial liberalism already exists and there’s a book by some white guy, so I’m kind of dubious about this (even though, yes, he mentions how liberalism has been used for colonialism). I’m not a fan of ‘decolonial liberalism’ mainly because I don’t think that ‘decolonization’ is an ideology and nor should it become one.
Anyway. This part isn’t important. Whats important is that I’d only be willing to call myself ‘liberal’ insofar as I share a primary, fundamental value with liberals as a whole. Whether or not you can actually be a liberal if you essentially oppose pretty much everything else liberalism is about and its entire foundation (well, ok, I also agree with them wrt pluralism).
In some ways, this is also about providing some sort of alternative to the radicalism that’s super popular in ‘sj’ or ‘activist’ type circles these days. Since the price of admission is playing purity politics and espousing some variety of radicalism (that usually bleeds into extremism). Normally I don’t care much about assigning labels like ‘liberal’ to myself, but I’m perversly interested in it precisely because it is used as a pejorative in my ‘sj’ and/or ‘activist’ and/or ‘left’ type circles and communities. So it amuses me to locate myself within liberal discourse as a person who has somewhat of a reputation of espousing radical positions.
Essentially: I want a kind of liberalism that states the the US – all of it – must be dismantled. That its very existence is predicated on violence and genocide. That in a free world it cannot exist (same with all settler states). A kind of liberalism that strives towards the decolonial moment where the enlightenment ideology and its institutions are all dismantled. A liberalism that understands thata because there are many different peoples with different worldviews, that what happens after the decolonial moment will vary widely from group to group. That this is no, one universal solution that will fit all. So that what happens after can’t be pre-determined. I want a kind of liberalism that is fundamentally grounded in a notion of freedom wherein everyone’s humanity and dignity is recognized. From what I’ve seen, no currently existing brand of liberalism is about all of this (mainly because most, if not all, have some kind of commitment to ‘democracy’ which I don’t think it necessary for a free world).