Don’t be distracted by liberalism debate

I used to enjoy a good ideological sparring. You could almost wake me up in the middle of the night for a fight about ethical theory or big ideas in political philosophy.

These days, I flip between that keenness and deciding which debates to prioritise.
It’s not because I now lack curiosity about ethical and political theory, but because I do not have a student’s penchant to ignore the question of how best to divvy up increasingly limited time.

In my first book, A Bantu In My Bathroom, I argued that black people are as capable of racism as white people are.
I did so because, first, it is a view I hold and, second, I was and still am of the view that there are seriously flawed psychological and normative errors embedded in the counterview that denies my position.

Nowadays, I have almost no appetite, unless I am pushed very hard, to explain and defend my view. I decline most invitations to discuss with fellow black people whether we can be racist. This is because my priorities have shifted.

I think the elimination of white supremacy in the world is a far more urgent goal to work towards than a footnoted definitional debate between black interlocutors on an interesting theoretical question about the elasticity of the terms “racism” and “racist”.

What it means to live in an anti-racist society and how we will achieve that end-goal are questions of more important political and intellectual inquiry at this point in my life. The contingent world history of racism is a history of anti-black racism and white supremacy, undeniably so, and we had better get on with the intellectual and activist labour to focus on fighting white supremacy. That is why I have semi-retired myself from the debate on whether black people can be racist.

I am beginning to feel the same about debates on liberalism — although I’m not quite as jaded about this subject. But I am quickly heading in that direction.

Here is why. We need to ask whether any political party has the ideas, concrete plans, leadership and other skills to rescue this country from the perpetual brink of disaster. Who can ensure that millions of poor black people have opportunities to become economically self-sufficient and to live with dignity, and perhaps even to flourish?

I think the theoretical debate about liberalism is becoming a useful and intentional distraction by those who do not want to come out as anti-poor and anti-black.

Let’s be honest about “the liberalism debate” in the South African context. What we really want to know is whether the Democratic Alliance should be a liberal party (still) and, if so, what kind of liberalism it should punt? Much of the criticism levelled against former party leader Mmusi Maimane is that he moved the party away from its “traditional roots”.

This whole debate is dishonest. First, we should not give Maimane credit he doesn’t deserve. He is a very nice guy, but he couldn’t write anything near an impressive undergraduate exam paper on liberalism or political philosophy more generally. To accuse him of moving the DA intentionally away from its “traditional roots” is to impute to him a grand ideological project he never had. He was weak in part because he was ideologically inchoate. Maimane enjoyed political titles and nominal power. This is what drove him, not deep political thought.

Second, there is a more fundamental dishonesty by those who clamour for the DA to “return” to its imagined classical liberal roots. This is all word play deployed by mostly a bunch of conservative and libertarian men who don’t have the guts to say they don’t care much for an interventionist state that takes social security seriously, and redistributive race-based policies aimed at redressing past injustices. They end up writing endlessly obscure thought pieces on platforms the average voter doesn’t go to or care for, navel gazing about well-established political philosophy debates on liberalism.

We should not let them get away with drawing us into a false public debate about political philosophy. A more useful debate would be about specific policies and issues such as land, inequality, poverty, affirmative action and, yes, identity.

As a voter, I want to know from any politician answers to such questions as: “How would you grow the economy? How would you stem job losses? How would you help us become less unequal? What is your position on the land question? Does race matter? Why or why not? How would you go about dismantling the remnants of apartheid spatial planning? How would you mend state-owned enterprises? What, if any, should the future role of state-owned enterprises be in our political economy? What is your view on the welfare state? To what extent, if any, should we trust markets to help us ensure access to education, healthcare and other primary social goods? How do we reduce the gap between constitutional normativity and daily battles along the legal value chain that suggest we have not yet entrenched the rule of law, and constitutional values, firmly enough?”

I appreciate that ideological commitments can guide one in answering these more specific questions. That is partly why I’m not yet completely disinterested in a debate about the future of liberalism. I have argued before that one can be both liberal and black, and defended my preferred view of liberalism, which is one that centres egalitarianism.

As I get older I no longer have time for humouring false debates. The bull in this debate is the dishonest motive of way too many people who enter the liberalism debate not so much to rehearse their theoretical convictions (which would be fine) but to avoid revealing their views on the practical issues that are of material and immediate concern to millions of South Africans still living on the margins of society.

This leaves me somewhat discombobulated. I do think liberalism can serve us. But only liberal egalitarianism can do so. As a student of philosophy, I am also annoyed by non-experts, of all backgrounds, who fail to appreciate the complex taxonomy of liberal positions, often arguing as if there is one way of being liberal when liberals routinely and richly disagree with one another. If I was a DA politician (which I do not, nor ever desired to be), I would push for a kind of liberal egalitarianism that is rooted in the specific experiences of black people, the survivors of white supremacist and apartheid economics and politics.

Why would that make me liberal? Because freedom and individualism matter to me as fundamental values worth foregrounding, and social structures such as family, church and other group-level entities, can be oppressive when autonomy isn’t cherished, and protected by a liberal state.

But our individualism can only flourish when we have the goods with which to develop and express our individual selves. That is why I’m still convinced a liberal defence of a strong state is coherent. Liberalism must be in service of egalitarianism and the state should be arranged to achieve these outcomes.

The political left in this country are wrong to assume they alone have the political tools with which to articulate a caring and responsive state that pays attention to the history of anti-black racism and the phenomenology of still miserable contemporary black life.

But, when all is said and done, this theoretical battle must not be entered into with people who want to pull wool over our eyes. The salient question right now for South Africa isn’t whether there is a future for liberalism but whether those who call themselves liberals are willing to sign up for a political programme of action that aims to get us to an anti-racist society in which black people in particular can enjoy living meaningful lives just as our white brothers and sisters have always enjoyed. That, and that question alone, should be the one we should wake each other up to debate.

Debating liberalism at the theoretical level is as distracting as an endless footnoted debate about whether the label racism can apply to Andile as well as to Steve.



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