Liberalism, Conservatism, and South Africa’s Failed Mass Democracy

This sums up the entire liberal political philosophy quite aptly: Leave people who want to be left alone, alone.

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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

Article 2: Liberal Universalism and the Western Export of Mass Democracy

Article 3: Centralisation of Power: Liberals and Conservatives in South African History

Article 4: Failed Democracy: Can Conservatives Tell Liberals “We Told You So”? 

Article 5: How Both Liberals and Conservatives Failed South Africa

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6 comments

  1. Rory Short Reply

    I’m an evolutionist in that I fully subscribe to the theory of evolution and natural selection.

    Based on this I recognise that consciousness emerged at some point in the distant past and survived until the present because it increased it’s possessors chances of survival, otherwise it would have fallen by the wayside.

    Consciousness gives organisms the choice of how they react to conditions that surround them and with that goes accepting responsibility for the choices that you make.

    Any political philosophy that offers the individual ways of avoiding the above reality is nothing but a confidence trick. Liberalism accommodates the above reality.

  2. Helgard Muller Reply

    This should be interesting. A couple of things I hope to see:

    (1) I better distinction between people that call themself “conservative” and actual “conservative” political thought. Particularly important for me at least is to not confuse conservatism with the alt-right. The alt-right or a lot of the ideas I see get labelled under “conservatism” – on for instance the Morning Shot show – is not conservatism.

    They often contain ideas around idealised and abstracted group identities – very similiar actually to the hyper individualism critics of liberalism point out – that is the very opposite of conservative political thought that deals with the here and now. As things is, not some mythical group identity or future state of affairs…

    There is actually a lot to say about this stuff and how it is at is core still liberal – no wonder it is so popular among ex libertarians, people that have grown up in the age of hyper liberalism and often come across as just another form of identity politics…(the notion that we can imagine whom / what / we want want to be can be centered around hyper individualism or group identity – it suffers from the same social dislocation)

    (2) An acknowledgement that there is a difference between liberal theory and liberal societies / politics. Again, I tend to think of this as a conservative approach, but the reality is that liberalism on paper and in practice is something you need to address. So you are going to have to address why liberal politics looks the way they look in the real world…

    (3) I think both sides of the argument here on Rational Standard tend to deal in extremes and binaries. I would like the for instance point out that (most prominent) communitarians and post-liberals – to name two prominent currents of criticism – is not anti-liberal. In many respects they just want a more restrained liberalism – a more “classic” in practice version by the way…I would also be careful to throw all these people under the label of conservative…

    (4) I already in the context of 1-3 spot some straw man arguments.

    (i) People that argue 1994 was a mistake might have belonged to “conservative” grouping during Apartheid or today, but that doesn’t make it a conservative political argument. I would like to see what exactly is meant by this and it unpacked. (Again I think the nonsense that argue about what could have been or how South Africa could have maintained enclaves etc – is not conservative – it is not dealing with reality as it was on the ground…)

    (ii) In the rest, like I said, I would like to see a hard nosed realism that deals with liberalism the political and institutional program and not liberalism in the abstract / on paper / theory…So not what liberals say the ideal society should look like or be governed – but how liberal politics is playing out…What I am saying, here is I don’t think an effective dodge / argument is going to be to deal with theory or argue “that is not liberalism…”.

  3. Helgard Muller Reply

    For the next article, you are at least going to have to address the conservative positions on:

    (1) political rationalism

    The basic critiques of rationalism:

    (i) a-priori vs experience
    (ii) reason vs prejudice (reasoning vs acting / doing as a driver)

    Hopefully recognizing:

    (iii) conservatism is not anti-modern or anti-enlightenment…nor is it dogmatic (these are popular misunderstandings)
    (iv) better to frame it as generally in favor of cautious change, because knowledge is imperfect and consequences can be unintended / reform should be piecemeal, moderate and based in experience / practice (socially embedded)

    (2) particularist skepticism

    Two quick quotes to stir:

    (i) Circumstances give every political principle its colour
    (ii) “persons’ identities cannot be matters of choice, but are conferred on them by their unchosen histories, so that what is most essential about them is…what is most accidental. The conservative vision is that people will come to value the privileges of choice…when they see how much in their lives must always remain unchosen…

    Then the actual ideas:

    (iii) Distinguish between metaethical claims (if we have universal values / worth pursuing?) and epistemological claims (how do we access / know universal values?)
    (iv) Relativism – difference between substantial and non-substantial notions of conservatism. Simply put in authoritarian or revolutionary societies the political system is no longer “living traditions” with the potential with incremental change and are therefore not conservative…So in the substantive reading conservatism’s particularism doesn’t extend to all societies…
    (v) Ultimately conservatism does have minimal rationalism and universalism but the emphasis is on the particularlism (particular historic, social and economic conditions) – back to the first quote…

  4. Failed Democracy: Can Conservatives Tell Liberals “We Told You So”? Reply

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  5. How Both Liberals and Conservatives Failed South Africa - Rational Standard Reply

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