The way liberal-egalitarian views develop, part 2

In my last post, I went over a few moments from the history of feminism and argued that they demonstrated ways in which our concepts of freedom and equality legitimately develop over time, in ways that can’t be predicted in advance. Now this is a very familiar philosophical theme, going back to Hegel. But the Hegelian picture has ideas advancing towards a goal of history, a final point at which the development is complete. In this post, I’m going to argue (on the side of the postmodernists) that it probably never can be – meaning that a free society needs to allow it to develop indefinitely, or cease to be free.

My fundamental argument is this: circumstances change constantly, for all sorts of reasons, and the best available answers to the key question are liable to change with them. Sometimes this comes from the development of our ideas of freedom themselves – my previous post provides some examples. These kinds of developments would not pose a problem for a roughly Hegelian worldview that thought utopia was in sight. But sometimes the change is external – for example, the advent of effective medicine gave rise to new questions of justice surrounding it. Likewise, more recently, the invention of social media has given rise to unforeseen new kinds of harrassment, problems about how systems of interaction should be structured in order to enable good citizenship, and so forth. Developments of this kind are less amenable to utopian theorising. It’s impossible to predict how society will be shaken up by future events, and as a result, it’s incumbent on us to stay humble about the perfection of our current conceptions of freedom and equality. They may be all we need today, but unexpected developments may render them obsolete tomorrow.

Now to bring this point out, I’m going to take a brief foray into film criticism, because a really clear look at why it holds can be found in an analysis of the flaws of Fritz Lang’s sci-fi classic, Metropolis.

In this film, the protagonist – son of the city’s premier capitalist – falls in love with a moral leader of the proletariat, Maria. His father schemes with an eccentric scientist, Rotwang, to create an android duplicate of Maria, in order to control the masses. Rotwang, though – resentful of the father because he married the woman he loved, who then died giving birth to the protagonist – makes the robot Maria become a magical-realist stripper and provoke a worker uprising instead of keeping the proles docile. In the dénouement, the protagonist and the real Maria defeat the robot Maria, kill Rotwang, and resolve the conflict of the classes through the power of their love, in a fairly execrable Aesop-style ending in which a title card declares ‘The mediator between Head and Hands must be the Heart!’

This film’s flaws are a handy illustration of the failings of a view of freedom and equality that thinks itself complete, and tries to wrap everything up with a neat little bow. First of all, there is precisely one actual human character in the film, namely Rotwang. Everyone else just plays their assigned role in writer Thea von Harbou’s fashy class cosmology. Likewise, the belief that classes, rather than individuals, are the agents of history led Marx to dismiss Bakunin’s warning that the Communist ‘leaders of the proletariat’ could have interests at odds with their class’, leading to exactly the effects that Bakunin predicted – a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ that was in truth a dictatorship of the Party [i]. A broadly postmodernist approach (such as that taken by Jacques Rancière in his ‘Ten Theses on Politics [ii], though he himself would object strenuously to being called a ‘postmodernist’) easily fits this kind of blindness into a larger and more illuminating category of mistake: by treating predefined class divisions as natural and developing in a fixed pattern, rather than artificial, contestable, and unpredictably subvertible, Marx was unable to see the danger to freedom that would emerge when they broke his mould.

Metropolis’ second relevant flaw is that it ends by putting the new technological toothpaste back in the tube. Robot Maria is destroyed, Rotwang is killed, and nobody mentions or appears to care that now people can be replaced by robot doppelgangers. What’s the moral status of these machines? Are they vulnerable to oppression? What roles should they play in society? How should those roles affect the ways we relate to them and to one another? None of these questions can arise, because Rotwang and his creation are simply gone, removed from the stage of history. In reality, these unforeseen problems are not so easy to escape; by ignoring that fact, a theory dooms itself to become a millstone around the neck of the society that implements it, regardless of its merits for the context in which it was initially conceived.

(It should be noted that Boots Riley’s Sorry To Bother You makes neither of these mistakes, and is also much funnier.)

Consider, to take a more contemporary example, the kind of technocratic, free-market neoliberalism declared by Francis Fukuyama to be the last ideology we would ever need – ‘the end of history’, in his famous phrase [iii]. In 1992, this was a broadly plausible proposition for many people, including many intellectuals. Today, however, its failings are much more obvious. Even Fukuyama himself has recanted [iv]. And the reasons those failings have become obvious, in the West at least, are linked to a range of historical developments that very few people could have predicted twenty-eight years ago: the resurgence of the far right in both its Islamist and nationalist forms, the advent of widespread precarious labour via bogus self-employment under self-styled ‘tech firms’, the 2008 housing crash, and the still-unpredictable political ramifications of the coronavirus.

The lesson here is that to ignore the likelihood that one’s own particular vision of freedom and equality will be superseded is to bury one’s head in the sand. The transience of our answers is not incidental – it’s vital to the health of a free society that it be acknowledged and accounted for, in the public consciousness and in institutional frameworks that serve to accommodate it.

But there’s one final reason it’s important to accommodate the endless development of our ideas of freedom. The point is made by Evans and Chamberlain, in the context of the practical and political benefits of the ‘wave’ narrative in feminism:

[For a young generation,] ‘embracing feminism can be tied closely to the emergence of a new wave […] each new feminist wave or generation does, at least in part, struggle with the tension between claiming the feminist legacy while not necessarily feeling connected to that history […] In many respects, the wave narrative is liberating for emerging feminists, allowing them to ‘place’ themselves in an on-going women’s movement whilst also exhilarating in the challenges and struggles that collective action requires. The act of discovery is an important part of an emerging feminist consciousness, an act that should not be denied to either an individual or a generation […] heralding a new wave is a political call to arms.’[v]

By distinguishing themselves from previous generations, in other words, each new generation of freedom and equality’s partisans can motivate themselves and one another, keep public attention on the discourse, and propel activism that puts its current best conclusions into practice. But this process of distinction inherently involves revisiting and reevaluating previous generations’ values and formulations of the basic principles of freedom and equality. If the discourse and practice of feminism (and, by extension, of freedom and equality in general) is to continue healthily, they imply, each new generation must be able to ‘own’ it – and that means reproducing it on their own terms. It’s impossible to specify a comprehensive ethical and political scheme to be preserved eternally without treading on those future generations’ toes in this regard, and so the transience of our answers is not incidental – it’s vital to the health of a free society that it be acknowledged and accounted for, in the public consciousness and in institutional frameworks that serve to accommodate it.

My original plan was for my next post to move on from the ideas and ideals of freedom and equality to the things that get in their way, making the case that a particular way of thinking about those obstacles, how they operate, and how they’re connected is exceptionally revealing. In other words, I would be setting out the idea of corruption in the (relatively) abstract. Given recent developments in the United States, however, I’ve decided to begin with a relatively stand-alone argument concerning abuses of power within institutions.


[i] Donald Clark Hodges, ‘Bakunin’s Controversy with Marx: An Analysis of the Tensions within Modern Socialism’, The American Journal of Economics and Sociology 19, no. 3 (April 1960): 259–74.

[ii] Jacques Rancière, ‘Ten Theses on Politics’, Theory & Event 5, no. 3 (2001).

[iii] Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (Free Press, 1992).

[iv] Francis Fukuyama, Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018).

[v] Evans and Chamberlain, ‘Critical Waves: Exploring Feminist Identity, Discourse and Praxis in Western Feminism’, p. 404.

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