A black liberal is not an oxymoron

'Liberalism, or, more precisely, some liberal thought, is not the enemy of justice,' says the writer (John McCann)

'Liberalism, or, more precisely, some liberal thought, is not the enemy of justice,' says the writer (John McCann)

Sometimes there is less disagreement between us than meets the eye.

Rhetorical stand-offs between political ideologies that are grounded in the idea of individual liberty on the one hand and political ideologies that proceed centrally from a method of structural analysis on the other have bothered me for many years.

It is a tired non-joke between me and some of my journalist friends that they identify themselves as Marxists and I identify myself as their lone liberal friend. I have a standard greeting with communist politician Blade Nzimande. He calls me his “favourite liberal” and I call him my “favourite communist”.

These identity markers are an annoyingly unhelpful distraction because they are vague and often obscure more than they illuminate.

The effect of this linguistic vagueness is that we often find ourselves having unnecessary debates about what really should be called out as verbal disagreements that are mistakenly elevated to the status of genuine dis-agreement. A simple check-in about definitions at the outset of a discussion can often show up these misdirected debates for what they are.

Take for example my proud self-identification as a black liberal. The very words “black liberal” are oxymoronic, someone recently told me online — you cannot be genuinely committed to radical black thought and to the elimination of anti-black racism and white supremacy and simultaneously be committed to liberalism.

This claim piggybacks on a bizarre implicit premise: liberalism is necessarily in opposition to all racial politics.

But this is hogwash. It fails to take seriously the taxonomy of liberal ideologies that have arisen in the history of political philosophy and realpolitik the world over.

More specifically, this false view about liberalism’s scope and content, in the South African context, stems from the mistaken belief that parties such as the Democratic Alliance and its predecessors have a monopoly on defining liberalism.

In other words, because many critics of liberalism have encountered some (putative) liberals who are colour-blind and ahistorical in their analyses of the material conditions of our unjust society, these critics infer that it is intrinsic to liberalism to reject structural analyses, group identities and historicism.

This is the ultimate straw person of what is a complex label. Liberalism, like all political terms, should really be thought of as an umbrella concept that has spawned a great variety of more specific offshoots from its essential elements.

What unites all liberals is a basic commitment to the idea that every individual should have maximum freedom to pursue their own individual projects that are an expression of their autonomy.

This is a powerful animating political principle, which then guides our normative construction of the state and the relationship between the state and citizens. The moral limit on the coercive power of the state is the point at which such power, when exercised, impinges on individual liberty.

A subtle related consequence of this animating political principle is that the burden always rests on the state to justify limitations on our freedoms. There is a presumption in favour of maximising freedom. There is a corresponding presumption in favour of limiting coercion.

However, that is both voluminous as a political principle and yet also not adequately detailed. When we try to drag this political philosophical description of the essence of liberalism into the practical world, it is not clear how we as liberals might settle debates about, say, expropriation of land without compensation, the feelings of aggrieved groups who are offended by certain artworks, or race-based affirmative action policies.

This is where liberals present themselves in many different forms.

In the South African context, we tend to associate liberalism with the likes of Helen Suzman, Tony Leon or even Helen Zille. We then define liberalism from our observations about the politics of these South African liberals and the parties they have belonged to.

But many of them are not even liberal in the minimum sense of the term I have sketched above. When you examine the attitudes of some members of the DA to, for example, sex work, homosexuality or gay marriage, you cannot but conclude that the party has some famous moral conservatives whose political ideologies, on closer examination, are co-extensive with those of many members of the ANC, Economic Freedom Fighters and other parties.

There are very few genuine liberals in our body politic, which is why it is not very helpful to develop an account of liberalism by taking your cue from DA politicians. They do not have a divine political right to define what liberalism is.

Those DA members who are genuine liberals — and there are many — are mostly classic liberals who, besides a commitment to the animating idea of liberalism, also believe that freedom is best affirmed and promoted by having a small state that neither interferes in the personal lives of individuals nor in the economic activities between individuals in the market.

They are typically also suspicious of any ontological claims about racial categories and consequently eschew group identities, as well as policy prescriptions for contemporary and historical injustices that insist on addressing our ills in the language of social categories and identity politics.

But we are not all colour-blind liberals. Some liberals are deeply committed to egalitarianism. I place myself in that category. We think we can marry a commitment to an egalitarian society (which is a precondition for justice) with a concomitant insistence that society should aim to maximise the freedom of individuals to give expression to their autonomy.

Why do we marry these aims? Not because we are muddied in our thinking. Anything but. It stems from a recognition that no one in the real world can meaningfully exercise their agency if they do not, through no fault of their own, have the building blocks with which to pursue the projects that define their individual selves.

In other words, the interrelated histories of colonialism, white supremacy and apartheid have robbed black people of the material conditions with which to give expression to our individual agencies.

As philosopher Charles Mills has rightly argued, this means that we must modify liberal theories such as those of John Rawls that proceed from the familiar search in academic philosophy for an ideal theory.

Our societies are non-ideal, and the most sensible kind of liberalism must be responsive to the historical realities we live with rather than de-emphasising history and empiricism in the articulation of what liberalism is. History itself must inform liberalism’s architecture from the onset.

Mills, in fact, goes further than I have done here by also insisting that black radicalism and liberalism are not incompatible. In the South African context, that amounts to saying that one could identify with much of the radical thought of the left and still be committed to liberalism. You could, according to Mills’s analysis, be a black nationalist and a black liberal.

I think that is right. I know poverty. I know the effects of colonialism and apartheid on black South Africans. I have seen it. Experienced it. It is not pretty. It is dehumanising. It has trapped black people in cycles of deprivation long after democracy’s famous dawn in 1994.

I would have to be the most self-hating, black middle-class, degreed professional to embrace a political ideology that cannot help us in our activism and political thought to achieve a more just society to redress the evil structural effects of colonial and apartheid histories.

But I am still committed to liberalism, because I have seen how social structures and hegemonies such as misogyny, religion, conservative cultural tropes and even market capitalism can subvert the most precious core of our personal identity, which is our individual selves. White supremacy isn’t the only obstacle to freedom. Conservative and even fascist blacks can be a danger to our individuality.

Liberalism, or, more precisely, some liberal thought, is not the enemy of justice. Oppression is the enemy and oppressive forces can emerge within liberalism as easily as they can emerge in Marxist, communist or socialist movements.

Some whites are embarrassed to be called liberal because they fear that would mean they are in the same WhatsApp group as Leon. Some blacks are embarrassed to be called liberal because they fear that would mean that they are in the same WhatsApp group as Zille.

Liberate yourself from such reductionist analysis. If you pay proper attention to the complex literature about all political ideologies, you will begin to appreciate that liberalism can yet be in the service of a just and egalitarian South Africa.

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