Andy Blunden. August 2008

Getting under the skin of liberalism

“The Radical Critique of Liberalism. in memory of a vision.” The first of 2 volumes, by Toula Nicolacopoulos, published by Melbourne 2008. $35 paperback.

The great philosophical debate between ‘communitarianism’ and liberalism of the 1980s and ‘90s is over and liberalism has only strengthened itself out of the encounter. Indeed, no longer is there a debate between rival visions of society, but everyone must now position themself in relation to a triumphant liberalism, with its remaining opponents cast as advocates of a memory.

Toula Nicolacopoulos claims that previous radical critics of liberalism failed because they only criticised what she calls the ‘surface level’ claims of liberalism, criticisms which the liberals were able to respond to and indeed absorb. According to Toula, this is because not only was their criticism of liberalism at the surface level, but was made from the outside, simply making counter-assertions to liberal assertions. As a radical Hegelian, she applies the method of immanent critique so that the internal dynamics of liberalism can be disclosed, pointing to the shape of a crisis towards which liberalism is driven by the force of its own internal contradictions.

Nicolacopoulos applies the method of immanent critique not to the political or ethical claims of liberal theory, but to the ‘deep structure’ which underlies it, and she applies this method, not to ‘liberalism in general’, but to a series of specific archetypal liberal theories.

Her immanent critique rests on the hypothesis that every justification of liberalism has at its heart a public-private dichotomy, a dichotomy of mutually exclusive and exhaustive categories in which one or the other category will play the defining role according to circumstances. This hierarchical public-private dichotomy is the characteristic feature of liberalism, but another feature of liberalism is that liberal theorists are unaware of their own metaphysical assumptions, so the determining power that this structural dichotomy has in the theory remains hidden from criticism.

This, the first of two volumes, deals with what Nicolacopoulos calls the ‘minimal political morality’ model of justification for liberalism. This genre includes Will Kymlicka and John Rawls. The forthcoming volume 2, due in March 2009, deals with Ronald Dworkin’s ‘comprehensive’ defence of liberalism, the critique of which amounts to a critique of liberalism as such.

The minimal political morality model of liberalism seeks to establish moral grounds for liberal political principles, principles with categorical force concerning the morally appropriate treatment of persons. The comprehensive approach, on the other hand, does not limit itself to the moral rights of individuals but makes a comprehensive ethical and political argument for liberalism as a way of life which can be justified on indefinitely broad grounds.

Toula Nicolacopoulos shows that each of three models for the justification of liberalism which she takes up in turn, construct the public-private dichotomy differently. For example, one model defines what is public, private being what is not public and not the concern of liberal political morality, while another model defines both public and private and applies the categories dichotomously. Toula begins with a ‘critical reconstruction’ of the model explicitly reconstructing the surface form of the theory making explicit the deep structural dichotomy on which the model rests.

Toula then works through how the public-private dichotomy is rendered in the theory in each of the steps in the writer’s argument, and by an exhaustive and meticulous logical investigation demonstrates that the very public-private relationship which lay at the base of the structure, is necessarily inverted at a certain point thus undermining the foundation of the theory. Thus each model is shown to fall into self-contradiction with respect to its fundamental but unstated premise of the public-private dichotomy, and if consistently carried through, will fall into crisis.

The fourth model taken up is that of John Rawls. Although historically the first, Nicolacopoulos finds Rawls’ model to be superior to the more recent models in that Rawls takes each of the forms of the public-private dichotomy in turn and incorporates into his theory the necessary transition from one form of pubic-private dichotomy to the next. Thus Rawls is shown to have already transcended what proved to be fatal flaws in the later systems of liberal theory.

Nicolacopoulos shows however that Rawls’ very complex, step-by-step construction of a minimal political morality which can justify a liberal political order, itself ultimately leads to an epistemological crisis. It seems then that any minimal political morality model for the justification of liberalism must fail, and only a comprehensive defence of liberalism can avoid the contradictions into which even Rawls has fallen.

This comprehensive model of liberalism, for whom Ronald Dworkin is to be the archetype, is the subject of the forthcoming Volume 2. If this model is also shown to fall into an epistemological crisis when consistently carried through, then this ought to point the way to a critique of liberalism which takes liberalism ‘beyond itself’, negates it. If successful, this approach should prove that the moral or ethical justification of a political order cannot rest on a public-private dichotomy without falling into epistemological crisis and consequently that there can be no political, moral or ethical justification for liberalism. For what happens to the notions of publicness and privateness, we will have to wait for volume 2.

If the extended and complex lines of logical argument in Toula’s analysis can withstand scrutiny, then she can claim to have produced an extremely important work in a genre which seemed to have led itself into a dead end. Indeed, she explains why the critique of liberal models of minimal political morality have led to a dead end. It deserves to be subject to that scrutiny.

Toula Nicolacopoulos’s exposition is clear, precise and self-explanatory; but it needs to be, because the lines of reasoning are extremely protracted and challenging and you may need a stiff cup of coffee before sitting down with this book. It is in fact a kind of meta-theory of liberalism, and readers who are not already familiar with the work of people like Will Kymlicka and John Rawls are advised to read one or both of these writer before tackling “The Radical Critique of Liberalism.” But a glance at the political landscape should be enough to convince us of the importance of taking the critique of liberalism to the next step, and Toula’s book does this.