Today on Blogcritics
Home » Culture and Society » The Modern-Day Liberal, A Portrait

The Modern-Day Liberal, A Portrait

Please Share...Tweet about this on Twitter0Share on Facebook0Share on Google+0Share on LinkedIn0Pin on Pinterest0Share on TumblrShare on StumbleUpon0Share on Reddit0Email this to someone

I used to detest labels. Still do. They’re shortcut to thinking, given to stereotyping, and generally speaking, demeaning when referencing this individual or that. Some of them, however, I recently found out, are useful, alas, indispensable. One of them is the term “liberal.” Imagine everyday political discourse without recourse to this all-convenient label. You can’t!

Now, what do I mean by a liberal, or more generally, by a liberal mindset? Obviously, the term of old, as defined by John Stuart Mill and followers, no longer applies. One would have to be steeped in those writings in order to preserve a sense of continuity and the integrity of the original conception – a tall order indeed for today’s Everyman. Even a fairly recent usage is not only inaccurate but downright misleading. Our political landscape, if not evolving, is everchanging, which renders the term deliciously vague and ambiguous. What used to be a liberal policy, stance or administration only fifty years ago (Eisenhower, Kennedy, LBJ, even Nixon), nowadays is deemed a conservative, if not ultraconservative, position. Which would seem like a desirable trend, the entire nation becoming as it were, increasingly progressive. Instead of rushing to judgment, however, let me state the obvious: for all these detours and obstacles along the way, liberalism has an uncanny ability of reinventing itself.

What else don’t I mean by it? For reasons which shall soon become apparent, I don’t associate it with the New Left, let alone with the Radical Left such as we’ve witnesssed in the sixties during the height of the antiwar protests, the civil rights struggles, the sit-ins, the flower generation, the counterculture revolution and Joan Baez. Nor do I associate it with the civil rights workers shot down in Mississipi for their valiant efforts to institute the voter-registration program on behalf of the NAACP in the segregated South, or the farmworkers’ movement led by César Chávez. Perhaps I’m wrong, but somehow none of these strike me as anything even remotely connected to, or reflective of, today’s liberal mindset. Indeed, I’d go as far as to say that the recent gains in the area of gay rights or sexual harrasment legislation have nothing to do with today’s liberals (or any other polical affiliation you may think of), though I’m certain they’d like to take credit. These gains were won as a result of a bitter struggle by the oppressed people against a presumably equitable system which denied them basic human rights.

The point really is, the term “liberal” means nothing to an African-American who is forced to sit in the back of the bus or drink from a separate water fountain. It means nothing to a farm worker who works by the sweat of his brow from dawn to dusk under subhuman conditions and for substandard pay. It means nothing to women who fight for equal pay and a workplace that’s free of sexual harassment. It means nothing to gays and lesbians who insist on their consitutional rights to be treated as full-fledged citizens. These are individual struggles by the the oppressed people the world over, in our own society or any other, and we recognize them as such. To assume otherwise is lunacy.

Lastly, I’d hesitate to equate the modern-day version of liberalism with (the platform of, or the affiliation with) the Democratic Party. For one thing, that would be a category mistake. More importantly, however, I should hope there’re still some bright lights out there – Bernie Sanders, Dennis Kucinich, Tom Harkin, the departed Russ Feingold – who are the true champions of the people after the manner of the Roman Tribune of old, the advocate of the plebs. But these are exceptions, I say, the few courageous souls who dare speak out against injustice regardless of political consequences or whither the wind blows. And I certainly wouldn’t want to taint their good name by association.

What do I mean, then, by the modern-day liberal mindset or, to stop beating around the bush, the modern-day liberal? Rather than venturing on a hard-and-fast definition, let the portrait emerge from detailed examination of what I regard as a typical liberal response. Look forward to “Animal Farm revisited” soon to appear, part two of this three-part series.

About Roger Nowosielski

  • troll

    “capitalism is not inherently evil” is a universal statement

  • roger nowosielski


    Perhaps logical analysis (in the Aristotelian sense) is not appropriate here.

    Could a case could be made, from Wittgensteinian perspective, that “capitalism is evil” (or its negation) is nonsense (in the descriptive sense)?

    It mightn’t be nonsense in the emotive sense, but here perhaps different rules apply.

  • troll

    well I do propose that Chris’ argument is a nonsense in the descriptive sense

  • Anarcissie

    Capitalism has certain characteristics which some people might find undesirable, like a class system, privilege, commodity fetishism, and so on. They might express their sense of this undesirability by saying ‘evil’.

    I don’t think comparing capitalism to the steam engine or chemistry is apt, because capitalism is a total system. There are things which are not part of a steam engine, and forms of thought which are not chemistry, but we are all entirely embedded in the political and economic framework of capitalism (and its political system, liberalism). It’s like God, stuck with itself because it has no outside.

    Evil? ‘Wake up in Moloch!’ howled Allen Ginsberg. In my wayward youth that told me someone else felt the way about it I did, although all responsible parties said it was good and that I should get with the program.

  • Christopher Rose

    “”capitalism is not inherently evil” is a universal statement” No, I don’t think it is, troll.

    You appear to be being argumentative for the sake of it, which is at least consistent with your name!

    Can you actually put any substance to your assertion though?

    Anarcissie, I don’t understand your point that capitalism is a total system. There are things which are not part of capitalism. Surely only life is a total system?

  • troll

    so you’ll allow the possibility of a capitalism that is inherently evil — that’s the one Cindy is raging at

    I already gave you substance Chris – my objection to capitalism doesn’t rely on the concept of evil but rather on the devastating results of economic crises that are inherent to capitalism

  • Clavos

    Surely only life is a total system?

    Even that statement is too limited; there are inorganic, nonliving elements which are part of “the system” (which includes life), as well.

    Perhaps the universe is the only “total system.”

    And who knows? Perhaps some day we’ll discover that even the universe (as currently defined) is merely a part of something even larger which encompasses it.

  • troll

    what I want to know Chris is what leads you to the belief that a system of capitalism free of the ‘evils’ of today’s instantiation is possible?

  • roger nowosielski

    “As currently defined” is just the kind of qualification that’s expected of a cultivated speaker of English language.

  • roger nowosielski


    I’m addressing this very question right now, troll, so stay tuned.

  • Igor

    It´s only a paucity of imagination and lack of effort that leads us to think the only alternatives are capitalism and socialism. The two aren´t even a dichotomy, not being exhaustive and exclusive. They´re hardly even antithetical, resembling fraternal twins more than anything else.

    Seems to me we have to abandon more precepts and try harder.

  • Christopher Rose

    troll, as I believe I have said about 41 billion times, it is entirely possible to have evil implementations of capitalism, but Cindy didn’t say that, she said “capitalism is evil”.

    I don’t think it is possible to avoid economic crises or even desirable. Life isn’t a smooth linear process and it is only to be expected that it has its ups and downs, so I don’t share your objection. To me it would be like objecting to the weather or breathing.

    Clavos, that is entirely possible of course!

    troll revisited, you ask “what leads you to the belief that a system of capitalism free of the ‘evils’ of today’s instantiation is possible?”

    I don’t think there is a single system of capitalism as such; surely a better description is that there are many instantiations of it, all interwoven and intermingled, just as people’s lives aren’t single instantiations unless lived in total isolation, which is rare.

  • troll

    I will not argue with you over the ‘desirability’ of economic crises or how ‘natural’ they are any more than I will with Kenn

    needless to say so I’m saying it – I disagree with you both

    and introducing complexity – which I agree is characteristic of modern economies – doesn’t answer my question

  • Christopher Rose

    troll, I didn’t say that economic crises were desirable, I just said they were inevitable, just like there is good weather and bad weather. Would you seek to eliminate hurricanes?

    Life isn’t linear, so why would the economy be?

    About the best answer I can offer you is that just as there are people who do good things and bad things, so is it possible to have instances of good capitalistic systems and bad ones.

  • roger nowosielski


    Just to whet your appetite of a soon-forthcoming analysis, capitalist-like forms of production — not in terms of the organization of production but such elements as pulling together of resources and more or less mass-production capabilities — will definitely continue in the envisaged future, but they won’t be detrimental or contradictory to the ideal of a non-exploitative world. I have no idea how Chris envisages the future of capitalism, but in the limited sense employed here, he may have a larger point.

    Just saying …

  • roger nowosielski

    That’s what we’re laboring on, Igor. Stay tuned.

  • troll

    quite right Chris I should have said “desirability of avoiding” in my #413 though I had did have the nature angle covered

    and geeze – we were having enough trouble with ‘evil’ and you’re bringing in ‘good’ and ‘bad’?

  • troll

    Rog – there is a big difference between you capitalist-like processes and capitalist processes if the former don’t entail exploitation

    in fact you’ve envisaged a future without capitalism

    I suppose we could use ‘capitalism’ in whatever way Chris would like though

  • Anarcissie

    By ‘total system’ I refer to political and economic life, in other words, social processes. If you want to get picky, you can point out hunter-gatherers living in remote forests, I suppose. It seems unlikely that anyone here has lived that way for any length of time, or is likely to.

    The capitalist-socialist dichotomy is the question of who owns and controls (and benefits from) the means of production. There are certainly other possibilities, like absolute monarchy or fascism, but I don’t think most of the people likely to be in this discussion are going to be very interested in them. It is true that capitalism and socialism sometimes appear to be, maybe not twins, but siblings, but I think this has to do with the requirements of industrial life, where most production is social and involves expensive, complicated machinery. The class issue remains to distinguish one from the other.

  • roger nowosielski

    Of course there is, and I believe I make that crystal clear in the subject comment, do I not? I’m referring merely to vestiges of capitalism’s certain features, the things we’ve learned from it and can therefore put to good use in the New World.

    If Chris has anything like that in mind, then he is on the right track; if not, then we part company.

  • troll

    I don’t think that anyone here is arguing that whatever system follows capitalism will not contain features from its past…dialectics dogma 101

    Chris has suggested the approach of gaining control of $ and supporting change through micro-loans – Jordan has seconded this

    I’ve asked before what products he is basing his initial $ accumulation on with no response – perhaps he missed the question or maybe it’s a mystery

    is a no interest loan given by Kiva good capitalism? because it exists in the age of capitalism or why?

  • troll

    …tax advantages?

  • troll

    …blue sky?

  • Jordan Richardson

    I can tell you that I haven’t accumulated anything with my loans to Kiva. The initial donation is repaid and re-loaned to the next entrepreneur.

    I’m not sure how Chris’s model looks or particularly how/if Kiva accumulates anything, so I can’t answer to that.

    As to if it’s “good” capitalism, I’m not sure and I’m not even sure I care. The micro-loans have helped people get off their feet in otherwise impossible circumstances and that, to me, is a pretty nice thing.

    The model of the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, for instance, is interesting.

    There are also cooperative banks, by the way, that can flow into this area. Canada has one, the Desjardins Group, and there are many throughout Europe.

  • roger nowosielski

    The following supplements an earlier account of historical development (#335):

    (1) Prior to the advent of feudalism, (direct) slavery was the main engine of economic growth/development. Which isn’t to say, as per Wolff’s lectures on Class Structure as per Marx (see the link at the end) that other modes of production (in terms of organization of production process, product distribution, etc.) weren’t in abundance as well and made use of. We see the family, for instance, or rather, as in the ancient Rome, pater familias, along with the elaborate system of clientship/patronage — an extended concept, one might like to argue, but in my thinking, the primary one (because of economic considerations) from which what’s now referred to as a “nuclear family” has evolved. So “pater familias (along with the system of clientship)” is in a manner of speaking a precursor of feudalism (but not feudalism yet because it’s not the dominant economic mode).

    Likewise with poets, artists and artisans. I would assume the first two “professions” came first, the third afterwards. I’m speaking in the economic sense as understood today [as contrasted with the ancient use: “From Latin oeconomia from Ancient Greek ????????? (oikonomia, “management of a household, administration”) from ????? (oikos, “house”) + ????? (nomos, “law”). The first recorded sense of the word "economy", found in a work possibly composed in 1440, is "the management of economic affairs", in this case, of a monastery” Wiktionary],not necessarily in terms of absolute chronology. One would think that pots, not vases, were made for (home?) use prior to poems or works of art — but even this claim is doubtful. In any case, poets (Pindar, e.g.) and sculptors ((Phidias) were part of an extensive patronage system first by the state (The Golden Age of Pericles) and further down by wealthy rulers (e.g., the Medicis of Florence). Patronage is still in effect to a limited extent (National Endownment for the Arts), but for all intents and purposes, it ceased to be a dominant mode of relations (involving artist and society) with the advent of the marketplace. (See, for example, Shelley’s protest in A Defense of Poetry: if poets were supposed to be “the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” how can they be censored, subject to profit-making, and the vulgaries of vulgar and uncultivated taste? Source: Raymond Williams, Culture and Society.)

    Without impinging now on Shelley’s romantic vision of poetry and the arts as products of culture, they’re also economic products, I should say, which is the sense under consideration. So here, too, in the patronage of the arts system, going back as far as the antiquity, we see on full display all the elements of feudal relations long before feudalism was even conceived or thought of as an economic system, let alone a dominant economic system.

    The same with artisans who, after the manner of the artists, started making vases (pots with ornamentation), i.e., decorative objects, not for personal or home use this time but for more or less general consumption. Initially, perhaps the artisants may have been subject to the same patronage system as the artists were. In time, however, the artisans were free to sell or barter their wares in the marketplace (agora). They were the prototypes of what we call today “self-employed” persons, or earlier yet, those who engaged in the cottage industries in the pre-Industial England; (The status of the artisan during the Middle Ages had changed, but more on that later); and to the extent that there was no class structure to speak of, and therefore no exploitation with respect to the production process itself (key concept in Marxian analysis of class)– see table — the organization of production was not the little capitalist, as Mr. Christopher Rose would have it, but what Wolff calls “ancient.” It would have been communal if, say, husband and wife, or two artisans, for that matter, embarked on a joint enterprise/venture of making vases and sharing the proceeds (a much more appropriate term in such contexts than “profit”) Also note that the terms “enterprise” or “venture,” though perhaps imported from a typically capitalist setting, need not necessarily entail the existence of capitalist relations (or the usual capitalist connotation) when it comes to the organization of production, as in the above cited example they obviously don’t.

    In any case, feudal, modern, even communal relations, insofar as production processes are concerned, were clearly manifest even in the ancient economies, which economies featured slavery as the main economic engine.

    (2) Feudalism can be regarded as an improvement over (“modification[of]” is a more neutral term) the system of direct slavery. The serf-lord of the manor/tenant-landlord/vassal-overlord relations were considerably less harsh (more humane?). The sef was no longer just an object. He was given a plot of land to produce for the lord, a hut or cottage to sleep it, the tools, in exchange for plowing the land on his own behalf one or two days a week at most. In addition to the purely economic relations, personal relations were introduced to underpin and reinforce the former — feudalism’s central feature (except for isolated instances, house slaves, etc., the relationship between the slave and the master was purely economic; the slave was of value only for what he produced; he or she was but a tool), and loyalty the glue. It was a two-way loyalty, in a way: the lord offered protection, the land (and a place of abode) and the tools to till it, as well as, indirectly, the means of subsistence since the serf could work the land on his own behalf, in exchange for the serf’s (oath?) of loyalty to remain bonded to the lord and the existing arrangements.

    I’d like to think that the main impetus which led to the inauguration of feudalism as a system of social relations consisted of economic considerations primarily; but those relations, we know, weren’t restricted to the economic sphere and (eventually?) permeated and circumscribed the entire fabric of the feudal society. A vassal-overlord network of relations may be regarded as falling outside the strictly economic sphere but even so, only in a sense. Vassals, too, were offered lands (a fief) in exchange for an oath of allegiance to come to the aid of the overlord if and when need be. The question of the origins — what came first, the economic or the sociopolitical — needn’t concern us, however. For all intents and purposes, and regardless of origins, the feudal system of relations pertained mostly to economic relations as their proper object. Even the vassal-overlord relations may be said to be economic in essense, if only by extension. The vassals were part of the overall network designed to keep the feudal economic arrangements in place: they were the guardians.

    As to other forms of economic activity during the feudal era, activities not directly related to agriculture but more so to industry (such a mining, for example) or workmanship, we see that too. So it would be mistake, for example, to argue that feudalism has done away with (direct) slavery. It didn’t. Nor did it completely do away with the artisan acting independently, as it were, whether as “self-employed” or in concert (in the senses spoken of earlier). We also see patronage of the arts, as the Medicis of Florence clearly demonstrate, not to mention commercial activity in the Italian city-states in such areas as ship- building, and trade ventures. One is tempted to argue that those ventures, too, were for the most part, financed and sponsored through a system of patronage. It’s possible, however, to see them as important precursors, if not of capitalism then of mercantilism. So the point again is that although the feudal system of relations forms the dominant set of economic and social relations, other forms of organizing economic activity are in abundance as well (as was the case for what was essentially ancient, slavery-based economies.)

    [The role of the artisan, and this is a side note, undergoes interesting changes. Though I alluded to the possibility of artisans working independently, most of them ended up forming guilds (again, the precursors of modern-day unions.) But the guild is a feudal institution through and through, again based on an oath of loyalty, a quid pro quo, of trading one thing (independence, mainly) for another. We see the same development in the formation of collegia (e.g., a students’ guild vis-à-vis the instructors, the masters). Only with the development of the cottage industries in the pre-industrial England do we begin to see the artisan freeing herself from the shackles of the guild. That was short-lived, and the advent of industrialization had changed that. Once again, and perhaps even more so, the guilds, the modern-day trade unions, were quickly reinstated. They represented the lesser of the two evils to help combat worker’s exploitation. It’s important to recognize, however, that such modern-day , common terms as “workers' solidarity,” “collective bargaining,” etc. -- terms, in short, which appear to bear their full meaning only in the context of capitalism fully-developed and proper -- are in origin, if not in essence, thoroughly feudal in make up.]

    To conclude this analysis, both the ancient (slavery-based) and feudal economies, insofar as the dominant mode of organizing production is concerned, were economies based on exploitation. The “personal” touch, if we can call it that, which feudalism introduced to economic relations may have served to sugarcoat the bitter pill, but it did not eliminate exploitation. Needless to say, the advent and subsequent development of capitalism proper took the idea of exploitation to another level, but more on that later.

    In case it’s not readily apparent, the term “exploitation” is being used here in the Marxian sense, which Marx derived from his Labor Surplus Theory (of value). See “Marxian Class-Analysis, Theory and Practice” for a shorter albeit static analysis. This analysis is meant to alleviate those shortcomings.

  • troll

    …perhaps their impact on the velocity of currency circulation then

  • Cindy

    is a no interest loan given by Kiva good capitalism? because it exists in the age of capitalism or why?

    It is great capitalism. The loan is not actually no interest to the borrower. The no interest only applies to the provider of the funds (that is the provider gets no interest). So, a bank or other institution can gouge the borrower with exorbitant rates based on money provided for free by helpful people.

    I do Kiva, and I only do Kiva because a loan even a a high rate is probably better than starving.

    It is not a just, imo. It is great for capitalists though. Capital-free capitalism.

  • Cindy

    It is not just, imo. (no “a”)

  • troll

    ah – I see how it works…thanks

  • Anarcissie

    So, why not set up an organization that does give small zero-interest loans?

  • troll

    I was thinking the same…

  • Anarcissie

    One might say capital-free capitalism is represented by finance capitalism, where a class of capitalists emerges who are in effect parasitic on other capitalists such as manufacturers — people whose mundane enterprises actually make things or perform generally useful services.

  • Costello

    So the program is not just yet you participate anyway. Might want to take that into consideration when chastising others as you frequently do

  • roger nowosielski

    It’s a perversion, Anarcissie, or to put it more mildly, tongue-in-cheek.

    I really don’t see the point of glorifying finance. I fail to see the humor or the punchline, whichever was intended.

    Apologize for being serious. Can’t help it, I guess.

  • roger nowosielski


    And the complaint is against whom, Costello?
    Understand, I want to keep you as a friend!

  • Jordan Richardson

    why not set up an organization that does give small zero-interest loans?

    Let’s do it.

  • Cindy

    Indeed Costello, I should. And I believe I do.

  • Cindy

    I will give time to such a project. I second (or third or forth the motion).

  • troll

    …just opened a $100 cookie-jar account for this project

    I suggest that we set up an online open venue for the purpose of discussing organization…perhaps as simple as a bc thread

  • Jordan Richardson

    Here is the “How Kiva works” page (longer version). This could be a good start as to what to do and what not to do.

    And here is a page that lists Kiva’s field partners (those who disburse the loans on the ground). Theoretically, as Cindy pointed out, there can be gouging in this regard, but a lot of these microfinance field partners have good reputations and may be worth investigating further in order to discover some of them.

    Finally, here is Kiva’s page on interest rates, microfinance and so forth. This is probably as good a place as any to start determining factors associated to sustainability (that will be a BIG issue with zero-interest loans) and so forth.

    I am prepared to assist in the financial area if the organization appears to be something tangible and practical, so consider my proverbial hat in the ring.

  • troll

    probably should spend some time looking at existing gifting networks for ideas as well

    are we all on the same page that the loans would be used to fund production projects?

  • Jordan Richardson

    What are some examples of gifting networks that I could look into?

  • troll

    I’m only experienced with one small local group that ended to be somewhat fraudulent — I’ll spend some time looking around

  • troll

    a quick google shows problems in the ‘gifting’ world…there must be one or two legit ones — I’ll keep lookin’

    maybe one of the others has more info

  • troll

    let me amend my 441 –

    probably should spend some time looking at existing gifting networks for ideas on what not to do if we want to avoid being discredited by controversy

  • troll

    perhaps beginning very simply –

    everyone who has funds for loans set up his/her lending account keeping funds decentralized

    figure out how to chose a project to lend to

    set up an account with the borrower that participants can send funds to and a repayment account

    end of repayment period – disburse original loan amounts back to lenders

    shouldn’t be too hard to set something like this up with minimal overhead

  • roger nowosielski

    Troll, Cindy, Anarcissie

    Here’s the transcript of the NPR show as per #398 & 399:

    “Can Evolution Breed Better Communities?”

    And here’s a link to a 7 minute audio.

  • Jordan Richardson

    Some hypotheticals:

    How do we cover things if the loan defaults? Because there’s no interest, all payments will be on the principal so how do we absorb that risk?

    If I want to donate money to someone, I can do that a number of different ways. A loan is something different and the idea is that the same money, small amounts chipped in by a large number of people, could continue to be cycled through the organization to help a considerable number of people.

    With several online banking options, it’s not too hard to set up the various accounts – IF we’re lending to a borrower with access. Access is critical, which is where Kiva’s field partners come in. So we need to define our field. What geographical area would we lend to? If we’re loaning to someone in Africa, what oversight would we be capable of as a completely independent and informal organization?

    What kinds of contracts would we draw up with borrowers?

    How would we absorb the overhead, minimal as it may be?

  • Anarcissie

    Note that you can find poor people fairly close to home, wherever your home is. However, whatever your target, it is crucial to do some ‘market research’, that is, find out what exactly is needed and wanted. This is easier when you can get to know the neighborhood directly.

    One of the more hippie/leftie sorts of credit union might be able to help out with the bureaucratic requirements, which are likely to be considerable. Their payoff would be getting to hold the money, getting new people in the store, and doing good.

    Even among the very poor, you may find some existing self-help organizations.

  • roger nowosielski

    Here’s one version of macro-finance, a segment from an old NPR show I listened to a while back — “Helping the Poor for Profit”.

    It’s not a very complimentary picture, interest rates ranging from 25 to 35 percent.