13 July 2022

What, if not liberal democracy?

I have long kept intellectual and personal company with radical leftists, and in the last several years I have radicalized enough that I no longer count as a progressive — I am a leftist now, too.

But I have a long-standing impasse in talking with many of my leftist comrades, because I also I have a deep commitment to liberal democracy: universal human rights, rule of law, democratically accountable institutions, et cetera. Many leftists see that as hopelessly confused. I have some questions for them.

First, though, a little clarity about what I mean.

I grant how the history of liberal democracy suggests something fundamentally wrong with it. The Enlightenment thinkers who originally shaped the body of libdem ideas and institutions named private property ownership as a primary human right on a par with free speech and freedom of religion. The emergence of libdem governments from that was entangled with the grave injustices of colonialism, slavery, genocide, and the birth of capitalism. Plus, of course, realworld liberal democracies today are capitalist societies exhibiting countless social injustices. “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”

But libdem principle and left ideals are woven together in my heart and mind.

Where history shows libdem principle & institutions delivering injustices in practice, it also suggests that libdemming harder helps. More commitment to rights & democracy makes societies more just.

The Civil Rights Movement provides a familiar example. I am not a fool who thinks that the CRM fixed racist injustice in these United States by improving rights protections and access to the the ballot box for Black people. Obviously racist injustices remain. But it would be both dismal and absurd to deny that the CRM corrected injustices at all. And though we must understand power politics to understand how the CRM forced institutional changes, that offers an incomplete understanding. The CRM used not just power politics; it also stood heavily on an insistence on libdem principles, to drive institutions not only to better serve Black people but to become more consistent with those libdem principles. Grounding political claims in libdem ideas about universal rights stood literally at the center of the name of the Civil Rights Movement.

Not that we can rely on Libdemming Harder as our sole instrument to bring justice. Injustices persisting in the wake of the CRM exemplify how history demonstrates a need for adjuncts and counterweights for the limitations of libdem principles & institutions. And I believe that we have plenty of headroom for very different liberal democracies which are much more liberally democratic and deliver much better justice than we have now.

That includes me finding socialism not just compatible with libdem principle but implied in it ... or at least in the democratic half. Surely capitalism’s private ownership of the means of production is un-democratic? Surely we can at least conceive of a body of libdem principle which does not count private property among our basic rights but does find a right to the material necessities for a dignified life? I am hardly the only person to suggest this. Point 10 in the Black Panther Party’s Ten-Point Program demands “land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice, peace and people’s community control of modern technology” and explains itself with nothing other than a direct quote of the statement of libdem principle from the top of the United States’ Declaration of Independence.

This pairing of libdem and socialist principle addresses the worrisome history of the socialist project. Lenin, Stalin, and Mao do not prove anti-leftists’ claim that socialism inevitably leads to horror, but they should inspire some wariness. That all three rejected libdem principle suggests that we should think twice before doing the same.

If we believe that socialism holds more promise than history has yet proved, can we not respect that same hope for liberal democracy?

So I have these questions for leftists who reject a marriage of liberal democracy with leftist ideals:

  • If “liberal democracy” by definition includes capitalism, what is the name for a socialist society with governance grounded in universal rights, democratically accountable institutions, rule of law, and all that other libdem jazz? You need not accept this as a good idea or even plausible to attempt. I just want to know what to call it to avoid confusion.
  • If “liberal democracy” by definition includes the Westphalian nation-state, what is the name for universal rights, democratically accountable institutions, rule of law, and all that other libdem jazz when expressed through a social or political order other than the state? Again, I just ask what I should call that thing.
  • If you reject libdem universal rights, democratically accountable institutions, rule of law, et cetera as cursed to inevitably produce injustice, what governance principles & forms do you propose instead? I do not demand every detail, but I need at least as much clarity as those 200-odd words in the Declaration.

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