"...but then I grew up." This frustrating sentence oft comes off the lips of some smug older conservatives telling the little liberal children to put away their toys and enter what they enjoy calling the Real World. The Real World, obviously, just being the conservative viewpoint that validates monied domineering and might-is-right as The Way.
This is a vignette of a stereotypically but rather common conservative v. liberal American dialogue; one that I would like to complicate, as I find myself getting it all wrong these days. You see, I continue to catch myself uttering that phrase while at the same time Liberals more and more are fallaciously appealing to the Real World no different than the most irksome suit-and-tie white man objectivist. It's not supposed to work like that, is it?
Yet it is, but I do not believe that my disenchantment with the mainstream 'center-left' ideology of USAmerica, (or European states, even) directly registers with the recent Third Way-style dilution of political sects who'd once, or more likely still might even rightfully disparage the DLC and its ilk. It just makes it more damning, as I'm getting it all wrong these days, confusing my conservatives and my liberals and their Real World. To get right down to it, liberalism is not only perpetually obsolete but dangerous to boot, and recent events have not aided in this conclusion.
Let's Have a "National Dialogue"
In a current edition of The Nation, there was an article entitled Letter to 'The Nation' From a Young Radical by Bhaskar Sunkara, which highlights quite succinctly a rudimentary flaw of the liberal ideology.
Liberalism’s original sin lies in its lack of a dynamic theory of power. Much of its discourse is still fixated on an eighteenth-century Enlightenment fantasy of the “Republic of Letters,” which paints politics as a salon discussion between polite people with competing ideas. The best program, when well argued by the wise and well-intentioned, is assumed to prevail in the end. Political action is disconnected, in this worldview, from the bloody entanglement of interests and passions that mark our lived existence.Salon, being a typically French phenomenon of the bourgeoisie hosting intellectual gatherings. Much of the modern fixation on bipartisanship can be easily tied to this. It's not difficult to imagine romantic historic accounts of Congress or the ideal future of Congress as a 19th century salon wherein participants have their sides, deliberate thoroughly -- sometimes passionately, and come to an amicable compromise that leaves everyone a bit enthused and a bit hurt but at the end of the day everyone can say "Yes, we're quite agreed on this." In fact, it is the cornerstone of the Enlightenment-based viewpoint about what democracy is. It permeates near every model of democratic structure (like aforementioned) and, too, the culture of democracy (read on).
Within our system, one must dedicate their political energies to propelling the proper kind of representative to Congress. We must be tactical in doing this, certain people can entertain only certain kinds of representatives. In fact, sometimes only certain people are worth even caring about in the grand strategy to take back majority in the Congress. How? We'll be rewarded for our righteous ideas, our well-meaningness -- the arc of history will bend us towards electoral victory. The only thing that is needed is the persuasion we have the best proposals to reduce human suffering and to boost functional governing.
Our electoral victory will bring us the economic, social, or otherwise justice that we deserve when persuaded people and a majority hold of the legislature intersect. They can craft more leftward compromises and within a few renditions of Congress, our ideas will be agreed upon in full. We'll one day arrive at universal healthcare from the Affordable Care Act, we'll achieve a clean environment building on the various policies of the Nixon era, we'll end worker abuses...starting with the National Labor Relations Act. Our ideas will win and society itself will be more liberal, like in Europe with their sparkling welfare states and social democratic political parties. All because we won some elections and some 'national dialogues'.
This narrative obscures how the salon works, and its perils. Salons are reactionary, not militantly right-wing, rather they literally react to events in the world. The polite conversation within is in reaction to those disconnected "bloody entanglement[s] of interests and passions that mark our lived existence." There are only so many discussions that can be held at once and those are the ones that: i) most demand a reaction and ii) are comprehensible, non-threatening, or otherwise digestible to the salon participants.
And keep in mind salon participants are not going to be those in everyday struggle, it's privileged people with their own vested interests and to some degree a mentality of "speaking for the voiceless." So discussions are hosted about marriage equality rather than queer homelessness and suicide rates, food stamps rather than the very origins of starvation, the latest Koch Brothers propaganda rather than the immorality of wealth hoarding (or how wealth hoarding is even possible). The most pressing, unsettling, and transgressive-if-addressed problems are deferred for more palatable issues.
We dub these discussions as 'national dialogues' and other euphemisms; as if any of the above are worth having a conversation about with the other side of the room. We idealize the supposed self-evident fairness of two sides or more talking about lived suffering happening (at this very moment even!) -- without ever truly letting the relevant party into the discussion (example: sex work politics) -- and we're expected to respect the other side even if we vehemently disagree with them. Things ought be balanced, apparently, and it's all in a day's work having polite conversation on daily matters at the salon. This mentality quickly unravels to ludicrous happenings like CNN discussing cracker in the same light as actual racist language.
This ridiculousness can only be being because we as a progressive movement lack better power dynamics to analyze that no, there is absolutely not two equal sides to every story that need to be hashed out in dialogue. There is human suffering and there is the implicit or explicit cause of human suffering to which other humans -- wittingly or unwittingly -- contribute. There is an oppressed party or an oppressing party. It's not to say that you can't be in both parties simultaneously, in fact most everyone is their own special blend of oppression and advantages.
One reaches this conclusion by analyzing sociopolitical human relations through kyriarchical power dynamics, in lieu of imagining sociopolitical human relations like a salon full of enlightenment thinkers blathering on about 'whatever shall we do with the trade unionist' or some such palpable disconnection. Now, kyriarchal power dynamics...what in the fresh hell does that entail? It is born out of an important concept of feminist theory: intersectionality.
Intersectionality declares that oppression is pluralistic and interlocking, rather than the simple narrative of women versus the patriarchy. A middle class white woman will experience woman-based oppression and middle class-based advantages differently than a middle class black woman based on the axis of racism; an impoverished white man with a physical disability will experience white-advantages, male-advantages and class-oppressions differently than an impoverished white man who is able-bodied based on the axis of ableism, etc.
Contingent to intersectionality is kyriarchy, coined by feminist theologist Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza. Kyriarchy, a combination of kyrios (lord) and arche (authority) is a major expansion of the conceptual framework of hierarchy that patriarchy currently fulfills. One that, due to its expansive and inclusive nature, is a tool that can be applied to leftist politics in general rather than the now-compartmentalized feminism. In essence, it is a central and flexible tenet for viewing power dynamics that does not presently exist in liberalism and, for the most part, the wider progressive movement (where any existing ones are probably outmoded in the face kyriarchal power dynamics).
Entertaining single-issue viewpoints of oppression, e.g. ending just class-oppression or just transgender-oppression becomes gibberish after recognizing intersectionality. To end transgender-oppression is to end all other oppressions that transgender folk face, how they experience transgender-oppressed is intermingled and interlocked with other oppressions after all. Same goes for class, same goes for everything else. Essentially, all sociopolitical hierarchies must be flattened or none will. They appeal on one another to sustain, and privilege those who best embody the kyriarchal ideal. As a result of the advantages donned to them for being kyriarchal, they have vested interests to maintain kyriarchy.
What is being kyriarchal? It is meeting as many dominant positions in the various axes of oppression in kyriarchy, including but not limited to: i) male, ii) white, iii) wealthy, iv) able-bodied, v) able-minded, vi) heterosexual, vii) cisgender, viii) of colonialist descent (vs. colonized descent), ix) age-appropriate (google adultism, gerontocracy) , x) size-appropriate, etc. As said previously, we're all our own special mix of advantages and oppressions and this impacts us in incredibly real ways. It imposes itself within the "bloody entanglement[s] of interests and passions that mark our lived existence." We feel shame, are unable to donate blood, eat only once a day, fear hate crimes, go homeless, etc. due to this sociopolitical network of power.
Furthermore, the structural advantages that one has from being kyriarchal translate into having a wider range of privileges. This includes being a so-called 'salon participant' who are not speaking for the voiceless so much as they are muting, disconnecting those below them in the hierarchy because they do not want their location within kyriarchy's vertical relations to be truly challenged. They want the impossible task of those in lower hierarchies to catch up while staying put at the same time. Liberals within the salon look out the window and feel sympathies for those outside -- reflective of the difference between themselves and those outsiders, conservatives look out in disgust of the outside -- in celebration of themselves and of how they are nothing like that.
This is why I am so bold as to call liberalism perpetually obsolete. Liberation movements of all kinds protest and cause loud disturbances outside the windows of the salon, and liberals dole out necessary things that do indeed save lives and reduces the suffering of others in a very concrete way when have control. However, it is in their own flawed, kyriarchal way of these demands should be met, and in compromise with others who have much less sympathy for those outside -- and it is also from within the salon proper. It continues the Enlightment-based framework of politics working with this political viewpoint of disconnected conversation.
At any time, with a division of those within the salon and those outside the salon bound by both viewpoint and concrete disparities, any measures of welfare and good spirit can be retracted and voided. Liberalism does not intend to fundamentally change the relations between those in higher postions within the hierarchy and those in lower positions; it is, even in the most romantic New Deal sense, an ideology: of hierarchy, from the upper strata of kyriarchal hierarchy, for kyriarchy. If the intention is to be progressive, and if the intention is to liberate people from oppression in a sustainable, long-term way...liberalism, and social democracy, is a perpetually obsolete manner with which to approach these intentions.
But Dangerous, Really?
It does seem a rather rash, sensationalist thing to say that something like social democracy is dangerous. I mean, welfare or no welfare, healthcare or no healthcare, etc., etc. -- isn't the other side the real dangerous one? Couldn't I leave it at liberalism is negatively flawed, if still well-meaning? And really, it's all about taking a step back and reflecting. These kyriarchal power dynamics certainly are dangerous, they promote atrocities in everyday life in the forms of poverty, internalized self-hatred, and so on. Liberalism does not seek to fundamentally disturb kyriarchy, it is kyriarchal.
So while indeed it is a kind ideology at its heart, it is kindness that is apologetic of oppression. It's the friend of ravenous bully who sincerely tries for your sake to calm the bully down but ultimately will still allow you to be locked in your own locker. It's the good cop who is reassuring you in earnest while the bad cop shakes you down in an undue racist stop-and-frisk. It still ultimately partners with those real dangerous ideologies that it detests, it lives in the higher strata of kyriarchy and won't come down.
By viewing treatment of the symptoms as a cure and by remaining guarded in the salon, it is dangerous as all kyriarchy-sustaining ideologies are dangerous. This danger can be seen in the vulnerable nature of welfare states, abortion rights, the existence and the form of labor unions, and other demands from liberation groups that have been met by liberals and social democrats. The retraction of these rights performed in times of conservative dominance can actually put people's lives in danger as much donning them can save lives. And it obscures the oppressed to strive and focus their attentions on alleviating the suffering rather than alleviating the oppression and thus, also the suffering itself. It makes liberation groups embody liberalism and kyriarchy.
Kyriarchal advantages intersect and that plays into who participates in the salon and thus the ideas and proposals of liberalism. Liberation groups fold into liberal models to appeal to power structure that can offer them mitigation of the symptoms of oppression -- the more "pragmatic" strategy. As such, liberalism disrupts and confuses the politically active of the lower hierarchies of kyriarchy and turns them all against themselves due to liberalism's latent desire to sustain kyriarchy. The one organization I'd point to most readily is the Human Rights Campaign which is decidedly celebratory of the higher strata of kyriarchy and does not challenge it, Rather it "cleaned up" from the 1970s and won a ticket into the salon to appeal politely to kyriarchs, even willing to barter the rights of transgender people.
This is a division of cisgender people and transgender people on the axis of queer sexuality fostered out of liberalism's kyriarchal nature, and out of how it embodies itself in individuals and collectives. Another example of kyriarchal traces is the axis of race that touches liberation groups and has brought rise to such timely things as Tim Wise's levels authority in the anti-racist movement, the White Feminism in the mold of Caitlin Moran or Eve Ensler that postures itself as feminism, and current controversies of civil liberties and privacy in anti-authoritarian movements, encroachments of which have perpetually plagued communities of color.
All axes are touched differently by kyriarchy within liberation movements and listing those could be a blog entry this long unto itself. In any case, this relationship between liberation groups and liberalist framework I would consider dangerous. The most marginalized are made to rely on towering liberal groups like the Human Rights Campaign for liberation from oppression -- rely on them to make their concerns and struggle central rather than marginal.
These concerns and struggles are "the pressing, unsettling, and transgressive-if-addressed problems" that get deferred. They are not only deferred because they are not palatable within salon politics, but equally because they are not directly relevant to anyone who has made it to this high a level of the political hierarchy. Liberation movements and its leadership at this level are kyriarchy-affirming except for one or two issues, like marriage equality and work protections. The agenda isn't ending oppression anymore, it is receiving as many liberal mitigations as possible. It warps anti-oppression collectives to employ oppression-sustaining tactics and ideologies, and to misaligning who its actual allies are.
Anti-authoritarianists, or white liberal ones at least, increasing have learnt the confusing misalignments and how groups can exist in cooperation with liberalism only to be expendable and adversarial once things become too transgressive and vested interests are tackled, challenged. Colonialist v. colonized narratives on how democracy, liberalism, and authoritarianism exist in geopolitics have been fundamentally disturbed. Global north liberalism, as a kyriarchy-sustaining ideology, justifies itself by being the polite salon, with freedoms and civilization abound versus the global south which runs corollary and opposite to the global north. When this dichotomy is blurred and liberalism's narratives are outted as oppressive, and kyriarchy is made more vulnerable, liberals make their true alliances to kyriarchy clear.
You have liberals who begin to appeal to the Real World and Pragmatism much like conservatism. What they are really saying with appeals like this is that their place in kyriarchy (the Real World) is absolutely not to be threatened, the might-is-right way of colonialism and its consequences of severely unequal and oppressive international relations are inevitable as the global north is not culpable for the actions of the global south.
They openly cheerlead the power dynamics of kyriarchy and then argue authoritarianism must remain so these "necessary" power dynamics can't even be put into question. And to put them into question is to be unserious, child-like, idealistic, etc. much how conservatives constantly appeal to the Real World as well. As always, the good cop will get back into the car with the bad cop to drive away to police more "ne'er-do-wells." That's why it can be difficult to tell them apart sometimes.
I'm not comfortable whatsoever with saying I grew up and got "reasonable" and learned how the Real World works like conservatives do when they say "I was liberal, but I grew up." No, I was liberal and still yet all my life I've been left wanting for explanations for why oppression is so readily available in every corner of the world, why it so barely tackled at its roots, and how to approach it. These were constant curiosities that liberalism could not possibly satisfy. In the search to answer these questions, something I embark on everyday reading the lived experiences and theories of others, I have simply grew out of liberalism as a way to address the human suffering that I have seen and felt and read and hear and I simply know is out there.
This isn't to say I'm not a progressive anymore; I view the progressive movement to be an umbrella that mistakenly invites liberalism and social democracy (the 'center-left') within it -- and also that progressivism and liberalism are not interchangeable. The progressive movement should be definitively anti-oppression and definitively anti-kyriarchy, that is to progress from hierarchies and inequities rather than to create mitigations that are ever vulnerable while keeping hierarchies the same and universalizing them in new individual and collectives. That is not a left ideal, that is at best a centrist one. Even in its New Deal form, liberalism has been a kyriarchal third way project that has been perpetually obsolete and problematic.