Liberalism gets a very raw deal in South Africa. Conservative whites think it is the reason that an authoritarian socialist government is in power. Conservative blacks think it is irrelevant. And socialists of whatever race think that liberalism is, in fact, “conservative” racism disguised in race-neutral language.
This is the first in a series of five articles addressing common conservative assaults on South African liberalism. The links for all articles in the series appear at the bottom of every article.
Many liberals themselves increasingly distance themselves from liberalism, pivoting either to the left or to the right. The usual reason they do this is because of liberalism’s perceived inability to respond to the challenges of the day. Those who pivot to the right claim liberals have failed to push back effectively against the socialistic authoritarianism that is today engulfing Western civil society – largely the media and academia – and those who pivot to the left claim liberals have failed to appeal to the vulnerable (those who stand to benefit most from liberalism). Both criticisms have some merit that liberals must take seriously.
But much of the intense criticism thrown at liberalism is due to the words “liberal” and “liberalism” being perhaps some of the most misunderstood and misconstrued in political discourse. Mamphela Ramphele, a socialist, for instance, recently wrote in so many words that slavery is a “bedrock” of Western liberalism. Similarly, Chris Waldburger, a conservative, recently wrote, among other things, that Australia is and Napoleon Bonaparte was a liberal – I don’t know which claim is worse!
In reality, liberalism is nothing more or less than the recognition of liberty as the primary political value in society. A poignant meme doing the rounds on social media asks, “What part of liberalism bothers you? The part where you have to make decisions about your own life? Or the part where you don’t get to make my decisions for me?” This sums up the entire liberal political philosophy quite aptly: Leave people who want to be left alone, alone.
Conservatives think that liberalism additionally means encouraging irreligiosity, undermining community, and obsessing over reason. Socialists think it also means trying to keep the poor as poor as possible. Liberalism’s opponents overanalyse and overthink what is in fact a relatively simple value-proposition.
Even some of my colleagues (happily, I wear many different professional hats) have participated in the intellectual assault on liberalism, often as off-the-cuff tweets but also on occasion as well-thought-out articles deserving of attention. These assaults usually come from a so-called “communitarian” or “conservative” perspective.
What is said of liberalism in the context of South African democracy?
These criticisms of liberalism often contains three elements, each corresponding to an article in this series.
The first is that liberalism is criticised for its universalism and ostensible naivety about how Western political institutions can simply work anywhere in the world. With this is associated the idea that mass democracy is a Western political institution closely related to liberalism, and it is this idea in particular that has been exported in the name of liberal universalism.
The second, albeit quite bizarre criticism, is that liberalism is centralist – it seeks to centralise government power so that government may enforce universal liberal values on noncompliant communities. This is quite a jarring charge in light of liberalism’s very fabric being about the limitation of political power.
The third criticism is that conservatives had been warning South Africans for years about the dangers of democracy in South Africa and that liberals failed to listen. This is a largely historical question that must be addressed factually instead of conceptually.
One colleague even recently argued that all liberals – implying even so-called “classical liberals” – in South Africa are centralist democrats who refuse today to acknowledge that South Africa’s mass democracy has failed. Conservatives have predicted the corruption and authoritarianism that would be the result of transitioning South Africa into a mass democracy, they argue, and liberals ought to admit that they were wrong.
The criticism of liberalism is, in other words, both conceptual and historical.
The opportunity to constructively comment on these kinds of sentiments from conservative quarters must be welcomed, particularly in light of the view that liberals and conservatives, in the current South African context have the same policy objectives and as such should work closely together.
The only way to achieve this is to rectify conservative misconceptions of liberalism that liberals over the years have negligently allowed to become entrenched. Conservative South Africans, who have been lambasting liberalism since at least the 1940s, have grown accustomed to liberals not setting the record straight or engaging their criticism, and as such have concluded that they must, as a result, be correct.
I embrace any opportunity to defend and advance liberalism in general and South African liberalism in particular, and do so in this series, which answers some of both the conceptual and historical dimensions of conservative criticism.
Article 1: Liberalism, Conservatism, and South Africa’s Failed Mass Democracy