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The Liberal Utopia

No people are born free
Above all, it is we who do not blame liberalism for everything that is wrong here in the world, which should dwell on this book. 


This does not happen very often, but in recent times a book achieves status as a turning point in the public debate. In the fall of 2017 this happened to the anthology No people are born free, with reception along predictable tracks. The class struggle's review was largely positive, while Minerva's reviewer stated that the articles are "to yawn for us who do not all share the author's eccentric view of reality".

Now, it is often the case that we humans like to be confirmed what we have thought, and most easily accept criticism of what we dislike. But shouldn't it be the opposite? Aren't readers like me who believe that the rise of right-wing populism means that we should stand up for our liberal social order, and who think it is just as well to blame liberalism for all that is wrong, that should dwell on this book?

I choose to answer yes to that question, thus rejecting the claim that the anthology only makes sense to "red" readers. Well then, both the introduction and some of the texts become overly polemical and "straight forward" in their reasoning. But still: It is hard to deny that after the 1960 and 70 numbers between different ideas, liberalism has had to dominate our collective drawing over the last three decades. Time is overpowering for criticism and new nuances, which makes it understandable why the book was able to create debate.

That we should prioritizing the social, feels like being forced into something I don't even want.

Red inclination. Does the book's rhetoric have a red punch? Yes, of course. "The self-sufficient individual is the center of the universe of liberalism," we are told. The impression will be different if, for example, we say that the positive vision of liberalism is that when the individual makes what is the best choice for her, she also contributes to the best for the whole. There is no doubt that the freedom we face here is basically a negatively defined freedom, where the power of the state and the community over our lives should be limited as much as possible. But in the very respect for everyone's freedom there is a social thought, where one recognizes the importance of the free individuals being part of a balanced living environment. If we look at it this way, it is not difficult to prove that at least one social liberal position is about more than the self-sufficient individual.

Several texts have important, in part, powerful points – for example, Mímir Kristjánsson's criticism of effective altruism (the requirement that everything we do should be calculated based on its direct benefit), Ellen Engelstad's challenge of meritocracy (how emphasis on opportunity equality legitimizes new forms of inequality) as well as Linn Stalsberg's text on neoliberalism (understood as a way of thinking that permeates the entire body of society). In every way, these say something worth dwelling on. The problem is that the arguments tend to be too straightforward and give themselves too little resistance.

Also shades. The rhetoric is partially offset by a handful of more dimmed texts. An example is Sigurd Hverven's contribution to human freedom. Here we encounter a more varied landscape, including a nice reflection on why spatial boundaries (an area where I am completely free) should be supplemented with a temporal understanding of freedom (something we develop and shape through the life process). An important point is that the liberals 'freedom from' should be supplemented by a more positive 'freedom to'. Through the term recognition it is made clear how developing in fellowship with others, being in the social, gives us a more positively charged impetus for freedom.

In the encounter with these fine, nuanced words, however, a stance for resistance is aroused. I have made active choices over the years to spend more time alone, because it suits me. A reasoning which indicates that we should prioritizing the social, because it gives access to a more real freedom, therefore feels like being forced into something I don't want. Do we touch here on the shadow side of the socialist thought: an eternal desire to tell me and everyone else how we should live?

Liberalist art of governance. Roman Eliassen contributes to the anthology with a sparkling text on the political side of economics. My only addition is that the notion that the world is too complex and uncertain to be controllable is not new: the belief in total rational governance has a long history in our culture, and Adam Smith's invisible hand can be read as a liberal reaction to this. The assertion that no one can see or control the whole, and that total governance is therefore impossible, provided the basis for the argument that the state should allow the market to function freely.

The new thing about neoliberalism is the addition that while the mechanisms of the economy must remain free, this does not prevent the development of subtle techniques for managing indirectly and remotely – so that the behavior of competition in particular is spread throughout the body of society.

Liberalism is regarded as a definable, unambiguous cause of all that is wrong with today's society.

Such a thought opens the door for those who want to shed light on liberalism embedded in a comprehensive discourse of governance. This was done by Michel Foucault as early as in 1978 – 79 (which is a good place in my recent introduction to the authorship). His analyzes of neo-liberalist control techniques should prove to anticipate a flow that won hegemony throughout the 1980 and -90 century. Still, the perspective seems to be poorly understood – perhaps because it deviates from both the stories of the right and left sides? I was excited about whether No people are born free would have references to Foucault. It has not, but Ola Inset's nuanced account of the rise of neoliberalism has clear links to French's soon-to-be 40 year-old analysis. That's good, because this perspective gives crucial insights to our time.

Liberalism vs. økologisme. One question the book should devote a few sentences to is whether ideologies such as liberalism, socialism and anarchism really exist. Isn't it more accurate to say that reality consists of a vast array of changeable, overlapping streams of ideas, which we try to tame by means of name tags à la "liberalism"?

In the ideology discussion in the book From everlasting growth to green politics I give a both / and answer to this question. It is plausible to say that ideologies exist and that they help us to organize the world, define the important, shape strategies and take action. At the same time, it is wrong to present different ideologies as if there are waterproof bulkheads between them. It is better to think of soft cores and an outer layer of interchangeable components. If we look at it like this, we realize that the various idea packages are constantly intertwined (the inside of one is part of the other's outside), and that any ideology will be shaped and reformed through the historical, cultural and social context it is part of. .

On this basis, I discuss the relationship between liberalism and ecology. Ragnhild Freng Dale moves into the same landscape, but rather than illuminating the intersections of ideologies, we encounter with her a more one-dimensional criticism. In short: Market forces become the big ugly wolf, while the state and "most people" become the sources of greener social development. From my point of view, this becomes a too easy analysis.

It seems more apt to see the mechanism of growth as a symbiosis between economic forces, political mechanisms and our expectation of everyone to get better. This is the key to the growth compromise, created in an association between red and blue politics, between socialism and liberalism. Only when we take such reservations seriously can we say that yes, in the last 20 – 30 years, neoliberal currents have been the driving force of growth policy, but this must be understood as a governing technological continuation of social democratic policy.

The neoliberal currents that have driven growth policy must be understood as a management-technological continuation of social-democratic politics. 

Splayed. Even non-dominant ideas flows exist in a vacuum; this insight will be my main input to the debate. Now it is possible to see the contours of a dynamic ideology concept in some of the anthology's texts, but the main trend is that liberalism is regarded as a definable, unambiguous cause of all that is wrong with today's society. The challenge with such a writing strategy is that one gets applause among their own, but does not reach the moderate center – that is, the readers who can help the criticism to follow.

In a Review in the Future, it points out that the book serves as a martial art for those who regard liberalism as an enemy, but hardly manage to invite liberalists into ideological debate. Certainly, tendencies to radical caustic tone in the introductory chapter probably mean that many are unable to read the rest of the anthology with an open mind. Here, the class struggle's review adds an important point: The fact that the articles spread in different directions means that we can safely read each text on its own terms, and not see them as part of an overall front.

A problem with the book is all the utterances taken from here and there, occasionally with an implicit hint that the quotations do not need to be interpreted in their context, but rather can be seen as a revelation of the true truth of liberalism. For the undersigned, this creates a need for a more nuanced critique, which recognizes that the distance between social-liberal values ​​and neoliberal management techniques is too great for us to simply write them on a common line. Nevertheless, the book provided input for valuable thinking, and I maintain that people on the right and far left should also take it seriously and see it as an opening for exciting debates.

Svein Hammer
Svein Hammer
Hammer is a dr.polit. in sociology and regular reviewer in Ny Tid.

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