Run, it’s the rising tide of illiberalism!

If you have been a Serious Political Commentator over the last four years or so, you have been worried and anxious and even unsettled about the rising tide of “illiberalism.” The word has always annoyed me because it sounds so pompous–something about the -il prefix, so rare in spoken English other than in the word “illiterate”–and is so non-descriptive. As a negation of an already poorly defined concept, illiberalism doesn’t communicate much of substance, but it does signal that one is a learned person with respect for “institutions” and a hard-earned knowledge that the world is complex. Like a lot of related hyperventilating about “free speech” on campus, much discussion about illiberalism focuses on surface-level stuff–tone, mode of address, style, things happening only online or in the media. Students yelling at someone they despise = illiberalism, students sitting at a table outside a hall where someone they despise is talking = liberalism. So, as a superficial concept used to telegraph depth, its currency tracks with Trump, not just because of his authoritarian desires or allegiances but because of the challenge, mostly rhetorical, to various sorts of “norms” and institutions.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, since the eighteenth century “liberal” has connoted “open-minded” and “tolerant,” a characteristic of an individual personality. This obviously informs its political uses, especially by self-described liberals: a liberal is someone appreciative of racial, ethnic, and religious diversity. Along these lines, we find that the liberal favors “social reform and a degree of state intervention in matters of economics and social justice,” a meaning that accords with the use of “liberal” in US politics. But the next political definition, “supporting or advocating individual rights, civil liberties, and political and social reform tending towards individual freedom or democracy with little state intervention,” complicates matters by invoking a parallel, and in some ways antagonistic, political tradition. This is what we might call the “libertarian” definition of the term. While sharing the concept’s basic orientation towards the individual as the basis of political life, their implications, especially in economic affairs, can be quite different.

But the designation “liberal” is really more a value judgment than a coherent political tradition. Its connotation of generosity (“princes are munificent, friends are generous, a patron liberal,” explains a nineteenth-century thesaurus) is used negatively in right-wing caricatures of the profligate liberal politician, but it is embraced by “bleeding-heart liberals.” Meanwhile, liberal in the sense of “unrestrained”—when we describe a libertine’s loose behavior or a trade agreement’s rules on capital movement—shadows the second, libertarian meaning, and lends itself to “classical liberal” or neoliberal. At the same time, liberal as “unrestrained” can be negatively repurposed as “undisciplined”—as in left- and right-wing mockery of the liberal as sentimental and soft-headed.

On the subject of soft-headed. All this imprecision is compounded by the fashionable adjective, “illiberal.” Whether one is describing campus radicals demonstrating too noisily against university policies, nationalist politicians mass-arresting their critics, left-wing politicians threatening to hold too many referendums, or people online being mean, “illiberal” is usually a useful pundit’s term for “that shit I don’t like.” The negative prefix, “il-,” calls to mind one of its definitions, “ill-bred,” an echo that, to my ear, heightens the anachronistic sound of the word and underscores the elitism its use covers for in the sorts of places (the Financial Times, The New York Review of Books, Foreign Affairs, the Atlantic, etc.) where one encounters it most often. But it’s not just my ear: derived from the Latin illiberalis, “sordid,” illiberalism’s snobbery is built into its etymology.

“Owning the libs”

As I work through the new material for the new edition of Keywords, I’m going to occasionally post here some excerpts, outtakes, and other material that comes up.

Liberalism, writes Raymond Williams, is a “doctrine of possessive individualism.”

“Possessive individualism” was coined in 1964 by C.B. Macpherson, a Canadian socialist and political theorist who described it as a “unifying idea” of the political thought of the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries, during the long struggle for a more liberal state in England. To cut a long story short, he argues that human freedom came to be seen as self-possession: a free man was “the proprietor of his own person,” Macpherson put it (in more contemporary terms, this might be something like “your own boss”). This self-proprietorship is what makes us “free and human,” and politics is the medium by which individual proprietors peacefully regulate their claims with other self-proprietors.

Possessive individualism understands the freedom of the individual along the lines of the market—the freedom and humanity of a person depends on his freedom to pursue their own self interest through relations with others, and without dependence upon others. As Macpherson argues, this takes a relatively recent European contrivance—private property and ownership—and treats it as a natural, universal trait, the basis of what it is to be human. This is a conceptual  problem that becomes a serious political crisis, he writes, in the twentieth century, as the rise of class societies and a working-class political movement throw into sharp relief the gap between metaphorical and literal “ownership.” If we are all proprietors of ourselves, in a class-stratified market society some people own more of themselves than others.

Which brings us to owning the libs, a metaphorical treatment of ownership of another as domination. In most contexts, this use of “own” is obviously ironic and even self-deprecating, without any trace of literal subjugation or anything: one declares oneself “owned” when you’re a good sport about another’s joke. But when used in earnest (as, incredibly, it still sometimes is) on the right, “own the libs” comes all the way back to the concept of possessive individualism. Here, as in “possessive individualism,” ownership is used figuratively, but it derives from a property relationship that is taken as a natural fact—that is, that there is something eternal and natural about the individual ownership of and trade in land, goods, and human labor as commodities.

Video game conventions, where the verb “to own” comes from, make an excellent example of this doctrine of individuality. Players typically play as discrete individual characters, who they customize in various ways as a surrogate self: a unique name, hair color, a set of skills, weapons, or other attributes. Even games in which users participate together still operate as a loose collection of individuals. (When I briefly ventured into online gaming, I was regularly berated by my supposed “teammates,” with whom I was ostensibly an equal but who were the proprietors of better endowed selves, an experience uncannily similar to everyday political life.) To own another player is to dominate them. If “man is free and human by virtue of his sole proprietorship of his own person,” and if political society is a contrivance to regulate the interaction of these proprietors, then the greatest political coup would be to disrupt the self-proprietorship of one’s enemies. They, who cannot properly own themselves, must therefore be owned.