Revisiting Tony Smith's "Beyond Liberal Egalitarianism"

Revisiting Tony Smith's "Beyond Liberal Egalitarianism"

Recent decades have been kind to liberal and Marxist attempts at dialogue. But old animosities are like Henry Kissinger; they die slowly. Of course there are still considerable disagreements between liberals and Marxists on a wide variety of issues. This is especially true of classical liberals and libertarians, who still tend to treat Marxism as the mortal enemy of property rights and market freedoms. 

Relations between Marxism and liberal egalitarianism are more complicated. Dating back to Thomas Paine and Mary Wollstonecraft, through the liberal socialism of John Stuart Mill, and the more recent black radcial liberalism of Charles Mills, there has long been a stream of liberal thought which takes seriously the inequalities and domination produced under conditions of economic inequality. These thinkers have regarded inequality and domination as problematic and potentially even incompatible with liberal justice. Indeed this anxiety is so deeply rooted in the liberal tradition that the two most important liberal philosophers of the 19th and 20th century, John Stuart Mill and John Rawls, sympathized with socialism (Mill even overtly identified with socialism).

The Marxist side of the relationship is equally fraught. Marx himself is sometimes crudely painted, including by some vulgar Marxists, as a stridently anti-liberal thinker. For many, he exposed liberalism as nothing more than an ideological gloss intended to defend capitalist domination and private property (a caricature of liberalism some followers of Mises seem determined to live down to). In fact Marx regarded liberalism and capitalism as a clear advance on the old feudal system and the highest form of society yet achieved. Throughout his life Marx supported a variety of liberal causes, from freedom of the press to universal suffrage, and he engaged respectfully with the writings of Smith, Ricardo, Hegel, and sometimes even Mill. Nevertheless for a long time even the more sophisticated Marxist treatments of liberalism tended to see it as irrevocably flawed and fated to be superseded by a higher form of society. Even as perceptive a critic as Fredric Jameson, in Valences of the Dialectic, could describe any concession to liberal normative theory as a retreat for committed Marxists.

Tony Smith’s defense of liberal egalitarianism 

All this makes Tony Smith’s seminal Beyond Liberal Egalitarianism: Marx and Normative Social Theory in the Twenty-First Century a delight. I would even call it the most important contribution to a dialogue between liberals and Marxists since C. B. MacPherson’s analysis of possessive individualism. First published in 2017, Smith’s book made waves amongst critical theorists for its highly sympathetic and textured criticisms of liberal egalitarianism. Unfortunately the book has yet to find a significant liberal audience. Beyond Liberal Egalitarianism sets the platinum standard for sophisticated and respectful dialogue between liberals and Marxists without simplifying or avoiding hard truths. 

Smith opens the book by chastising his fellow Marxists for their reductive and knee-jerk dismissals of liberal egalitarianism, which they characterize as little more than classical liberalism with a few welfarist flourishes. To these critics, liberal egalitarianism remains committed to the same hyper-individualistic and classist apologias for capitalist domination. Smith highlights three points where he thinks Marxists get liberal egalitarianism wrong. 

The first is the Marxist claim that liberal egalitarians hold to the same atomistic individualism of Locke and Hobbes, wherein the “individual is conceptualized as the basic unit of the social world, and the pursuit of private self-interest is taken to be the basis of decision-making and action.” Marxists maintain in contrast that the individual self is “inseparable from our place in a particular society at a particular time that has reached a particular historical level of material and cultural development and that reproduces itself through a particular set of social relations.” Smith rightly points out that this stream of liberal thought is alive and well; especially within libertarianism. 

But this objection falls flat against liberal egalitarians like Rawls or Martha Nussbaum, who are committed to “normative” but not “metaphysical” individualism. Liberal egalitarians think that “individuals are the ultimate units of moral concern” but can be very open to the observation that any individual is very much constituted through her broader set of social relations, and that having the right social relations is integral to her wellbeing. Indeed Rawls held that the primary subject of justice was not the individual, but the “basic structure of society”—a point he claimed was inspired by a reading of Hegel and Marx. The capabilities approach of Nussbaum and Amartya Sen carries forward Aristotle’s observation that we are social creatures, and the conditions of our individual flourishing are consequently also very much social and deeply interpersonal.

The second, related objection is that liberal egalitarianism is too morally focused on rights. Over the classical liberal support for rights to life, liberty, and property, liberal egalitarians endorse rights to “resources, capabilities, opportunities, and so on.” While the greater scope of these rights claims is admirable, they are still rights claims, and this formulation, Marxists insist, precludes the necessary work of politicizing power relations. But Smith points out that liberal egalitarians were always aware that “rights are not constitutive properties possessed by individuals prior to entering into social and political relations.” This means that in fact liberal egalitarians would usually be disposed to orient their arguments for rights in ways that would confront forms of domination. For instance, Ronald Dworkin was very critical of the Citizens United decision because it siphons excessive power to legal fictions like corporations in the name of “rights” to expression and speech. Smith also smartly points out that Marx’s own view of rights is more complex than his usual critical disposition would suggest. Throughout his life Marx continued to argue for an expansion of liberal rights, particularly to suffrage, in no small part because he agreed with the liberal egalitarian conviction that winning certain kinds of rights do more than just secure individual autonomy. They can be politically and socially empowering. 

Lastly, Smith points out that standard Marxist objections that liberals crudely appeal to “nature” don’t apply to liberal egalitarians. Once again, classical liberals like Locke and Hobbes would often appeal to fictional “states of nature” to justify their anthropological and political assumptions. One of the most pernicious impacts of this which has endured has been to reify property as a natural institution, in the sense of being divorced from considerations of coercion and power. In fact, as many Marxists have pointed out, property entitlements often emerge as legal relations backed by state force imposed without deliberation by the population. But the appeal to nature objection doesn’t apply to liberal egalitarians. As Smith observes, “liberal egalitarians … explicitly acknowledge the historicity of both society and social theory.” They acknowledge that material and power equality has never been the “natural” boon of humankind, and that property rights aren’t natural human accessories but always political. All liberal egalitarians admire the history of political struggle for equality, and insist that inequalities that do persist in society need to serve some demonstrable good that outweighs the negative consequences. 

Smith not only does a great job making clear to his fellow Marxists why liberal egalitarianism isn’t just classical liberalism with a few modest innovations. He provides a very useful guide to liberal egalitarianism even for those within the tradition, surveying it with charity and economy.

The critique of liberal egalitarianism 

After steel-manning liberal egalitarianism against its Marxist critics Smith goes on to ask whether it remains vulnerable to Marxist objections. He concludes that it does. Smith’s main objection is that, for as many advances as liberal egalitarians have made, they still lack an adequate understanding of power relations created by capital and the state. One of the core Marxist insights is how human beings both create, and in turn are molded by, their social reality.  Marx hoped that by exposing this recursive process through a “critique” of political economy, he would enable individuals—especially in the working classes—to become aware of it. But very often we instead become dominated by and alienated from the very social world we establish. 

In capitalist societies, the emergent properties of capital eventually coalesce into something rather like an “Absolute Subject” that acts like an agent above and beyond the individual actions that make it up. This can be seen in how even powerful figures in the dominant classes retain their status and amplify economic power only through subordination to the imperatives of the market. This necessity of obeying market imperatives is, in Marx’s view, a form of “tyranny” and it is made worse by the way we naturalize it and the forms of domination associated with it.

For instance, Marx highlights how the transition from feudal peasant labor to capitalist wage labor catalyzed and reflected a change in our ideological thinking. The loyal and dutiful peasant was replaced by the thrifty and hardworking laborer. Over time these comparatively small scale historical transitions led to world changing qualitative transitions as feudal society gave way to the world of Bill Gates, Elon Musk, and Kylie Jenner. Still defined by inequality, capitalists remain compelled by the same kinds of social imperatives as their feudal ancestors. Worse still, the world of capitalism appears as immutable as its predecessors. Capital stands 

over the social world so long as the social forms of dissociated sociality remain in place, that is, so long as the individual in capitalism is ‘naked’; cut off from access to the material preconditions of human life, dependent on capital’s permission to gain access to these preconditions. If, however, that particular form of social organization were to dissipate, capital, despite all its supposed powers, would dissipate immediately.

This leads individuals to develop a highly abstract, and even theological, way of reasoning and discussing their own social reality—discussing market “laws” and “imperatives” as though they operate on and through human beings rather than as a result of their willed decisions. 

But far from a benign social tendency, Smith points out how this narrows the parameters of human understanding and blinds us to how the forms of exploitation and inequality engendered by capitalism inhibit human flourishing. This most severely impacts those who are most dominated by capitalism, those relegated to permanent disadvantage and precarity. But it also applies to privileged classes, who are subject to the same “tyranny of necessity” as poorer classes. It is not ultimately the ruling class of capitalists which is the target of Marxist animosity, since capitalists are as subject to the coercive imperatives of the market as anyone. For instance the comparatively low wages paid to workers isn’t a consequence of capitalist greed, since many bosses may well be inclined to be generous. Instead it is a consequence of the market for labor, which can drive prices for work down even when individual capitalists may wish to offer a higher or living wage. 

Smith allows that liberal egalitarians often are sensitive to the ways capital inhibits human flourishing, but lacking a sufficient understanding of it, their approaches to mitigating the damage are inadequate. Liberal egalitarian approaches often take the form of demanding redistribution by the state, while holding that “capitalist market societies can further human agency and flourishing when the proper background conditions are in place.” These background conditions include providing extensive rights to a relative equality of resources or capabilities for all, not to mention rights to basic social services. Smith acknowledges that this would naturally be an improvement on our neoliberal status quo, but he argues it is insufficient, since by keeping the power of capital intact the basic forces of coercion, global injustice, and economic instability will persist. Consequently, Smith thinks we should still want to move “beyond liberal egalitarianism.” 

This echoes Marx’s own critique of liberal socialists like John Stuart Mill. On Marx’s interpretation, Mill thought how production was carried out under capitalism wasn’t up for debate; it was subject to the laws of economics. We can only pose questions of distribution and redistribution. As he put it in the Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy “[for Mill]… production, as distinct from distribution, etc., is to be presented as governed by eternal natural laws which are independent of history, and at the same time bourgeois relations are clandestinely passed off as irrefutable natural laws of society in abstracto.” But Marx felt that by retaining relations of production as they were, any effort to redistribute wealth would retain all the domination that came with capitalism. Mill’s efforts—and liberal egalitarian efforts more broadly—to redistribute resources without addressing disparities in power that came from private ownership of the means of production would inevitably fail. 

We can concede the partial truth of Marx’s objection while stressing how it doesn’t seem to have been empirically borne out. Welfarist efforts to humanize capitalism left many disparities of power intact, leaving the door open for the neoliberal turn of the 1970s-80s and then the reactionary backlash of the 2010s. But a lot was also achieved in terms of securing higher standards of living, regulating dangers in the workplace, and even (for a time) setting up genuinely powerful labor movements. It strikes me that a sufficient quantity of major reforms could lead over time to a qualitative transformation. And this is where the argument for liberal egalitarianism comes in.  

Conclusion: A liberal egalitarian response of Marxism 

In fact, the realm of freedom actually begins only where labour which is determined by necessity and mundane considerations ceases; thus in the very nature of things it lies beyond the sphere of actual material production. Just as the savage must wrestle with Nature to satisfy his wants, to maintain and reproduce life, so must civilised man, and he must do so in all social formations and under all possible modes of production. With his development this realm of physical necessity expands as a result of his wants; but, at the same time, the forces of production which satisfy these wants also increase. Freedom in this field can only consist in socialised man, the associated producers, rationally regulating their interchange with Nature, bringing it under their common control, instead of being ruled by it as by the blind forces of Nature; and achieving this with the least expenditure of energy and under conditions most favourable to, and worthy of, their human nature. But it nonetheless still remains a realm of necessity. Beyond it begins that development of human energy which is an end in itself, the true realm of freedom, which, however, can blossom forth only with this realm of necessity as its basis. The shortening of the working-day is its basic prerequisite.

Karl Marx, Capital Vol III

Smith is absolutely right to criticize liberal egalitarians for having too narrow an understanding of capital, the state, and power generally. This cuts the other way too; Irving Howe rightly chastised socialists for being blasé about the kinds of state power liberals had very effectively analyzed and criticized for generations. But it’d be hard to deny that critical theorists from Marx onwards have developed far more interesting and sophisticated accounts of history, power, and capital than many liberals. 

Liberals have always had a leg up on Marxists in normative social theorizing, and it is here that a partial response to Smith’s challenge can be formulated. I’ve used the republican term “domination” at several points in this essay to preface how it can be useful in helping liberals think through these issues. The republican tradition of non-domination was a deep influence on liberals and Marxists, and anticipates the core commitment to freedom and human flourishing common to both traditions at their best. Non-domination refers to the importance of being free from the arbitrary will of another. In contexts where, even if I’m routinely left to my own devices and earn enough to keep a roof over my head, most of the decisions in my life are set by an “Absolute subject” like capital and its laws it is hard to say I am meaningfully free. 

This can take on very tangible forms that are transparently noxious. Consider some of the examples given in Elizabeth Anderson’s Private Government. When employees enter a 21st century workplace, they’re essentially subject to private dictatorships. Companies can decide when they go to the bathroom, what kinds of clothes they wear, what kinds of material they post on social media, the language they use, whether they choose to reproduce or not, where they commit their labor and how, and of course how profits are distributed. For far too long liberals have assumed that since all this takes place in the “private” sphere and is voluntarily contracted into by employees and employers, the forms of domination aren’t of serious concern. But as Anderson points out, if domination by state government is wrong because it constrains the freedom of individuals, liberals should at least be sensitive to the vulgarities inflicted by democratically unaccountable private government, especially since many of us spend most of our adult waking lives at work. 

Take Rawls’ point about how economic inequality tends to lead to political inequality. In his last book Justice as Fairness: A Restatement, Rawls expressed an interest in moving towards “property owning democracy” or “liberal socialism.” This was in part because he thought welfare statism didn’t do enough to care for the least well off to count as a just society. But it was also because he recognized how inequalities in economic power lead to people getting unequal value from their basic political liberties. This undermined the view that all of us are equal citizens of a democratic society, especially when legal fictions like corporations are effectively granted rights to spend on electioneering at the behest of their billionaire owners. Far from leading to workplace plutocracy, what we’re faced with here is old fashioned aristocracy rearing its head by any other name—something liberals historically prided themselves on rebelling against. 

My point in bringing up these examples isn’t to provide a full response to Smith. It is instead to mobilize the resources of liberal egalitarianism to answer his challenge by modifying them with certain republican arguments that should be palatable to liberals and Marxists alike. And to do so in a way that doesn’t require abandoning a commitment to many of the basic liberal rights which I think are so integral to any good society; which to be clear should include an unqualified right to personal property. But beyond that I think liberal egalitarians and Marxists would agree that there is no need to make a fetish of expansive property or capital where that precludes interrogating the very real ways economic power leads to domination. We don’t need to go beyond liberal egalitarianism. What we need to do is extend the principles liberal egalitarianism to places where liberals have historically fallen silent. 

Featured image is Anti-Austerity Protest In Dublin (Ireland), by William Murphy