Why I Am Not A Liberal

Read in your language:

Liam Kofi Bright at The Sooty Empiric: Those of us in the contemporary academy who are not liberals ought give an account of why not. This asymmetric burden falls on us, I believe, because the presumption is so strongly that one does fit within the broad confines of liberalism that if one does not explicitly identify out and explain why one has done so then two things may occur. First, people may reasonably presume on statistical grounds that your politics are as such and engage with you with this in mind. This will make intellectual back and forth, the lifeblood of our profession, frustratingly congealed — always having to go back and check unstated presuppositions half way through a conversation, never getting to the meat of things. Second, one allows whatever thinking one does to accrue to the greater glory of an ideology you reject. Since the natural presupposition is that whatever insights you achieve have been achieved through the lens of liberal ideology, it will seem that whatever is good in your work is evidence that liberalism can support and sustain that good.

I think it’s fair to say that in one form or another liberalism is the dominant ideology among contemporary academic philosophers. However, it’s actually slightly harder than one might think to provide straightforward targeted evidence for the claim. It is not, for instance, easy to find evidence of this as the explicit self conception of philosophers. The best evidence I know of on contemporary philosophers political views is this survey which was largely (but not entirely) carried out on European and North American philosophers. It found that a plurality of philosophers identify as “left leaning”. Given that most of the left parties of Europe and North America are very much in the liberal tradition this is a sort of evidence of that they are liberal. But only weakly so, and the paper itself discusses the problems with that inference. And in fact the next best source is this Phil-Papers survey which found that a plurality of the faculty at prestigious Anglophone institutions preferred socialism to capitalism. Now no follow up questions were available on how people understand “socialism” so this is perhaps compatible with identifying as a liberal. But it is not obviously so; caution is required. Another purpose in writing this blog post then is to explain the sense in which I think liberalism is dominant — it is not necessarily so in terms of self-identification.

Finally this blog post has a couple of issues specific to the left I wish to address. First, at some level it is clear that identifying as a liberal is just to identify as uncool and mainstream-in-a-boring-clueless-way among left cohorts. I don’t mind liberalism having a bad name, why would I?, but a result of this is I think people often miss the affinities of their thought with the liberal tradition and neglect its insights. A proper rejection of liberalism ought to involve understanding it as more than just a loser thing boring normies do — there is a reason it has won out in modernity. That reason may not (indeed I think should not) lead you to endorse liberalism; but you will get nowhere if you do not understand it, what liberalism responds to and addresses, and what of it one may wish to carry forward. Second, I think if we are being real with ourselves, a great many leftists in the academy who consider ourselves left of the Overton window should admit that we are de facto small-c conservatives — and in at least my society, to uphold the status quo just is to uphold a liberal social order. We are de facto conservatives in the sense that the modern university has clearly slotted into an important credentialing role for the approximation to meritocracy that dominates our economic, political, and ideological order. Materially speaking then just by going in to work and doing our job, however we may feel about it, we are playing the role of functionaries helping this system perpetuate itself. I think we ought be precise about the sense in which we are not liberals if only to self-acknowledge the many senses in which we are, and thereby cut out the bad faith pretenses of pseudo-radicalism that so tiresomely dominate many academic spaces.

More here.  And see a response from Eric Schliesser, “Why I am not a Conservative”, here.