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The limits of liberalism


January11,2015

WrittenbyJohnRees

PublishedinAnalysis

'CharlieHebdo'solidarityprotestinNewYork'sUnionSquare.PhotobyPeteVoelker

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Liberal responses to the Paris killings are fuelling a cycle from


which both the right and the terrorists will gain, argues John Rees
Therecanrarelyhavebeenatimewhenfreedomofspeechhasbeensowidelyproclaimedandso
littleunderstood.Ofcourseeveryoneclaims,andnonemorehonestlythantheleft,todefend
freedomofspeech.Butinfact,oncloserexamination,almostnoonebelievesinunlimitedfree
speech,certainlynotthoseestablishmentvoicesmostloudlyproclaimingitrightnow.
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Thegovernmentdonotbelieve,forinstance,infreespeechfor'hatepreachers'.Indeedtheydonot
evenbelievethatthedueprocessoflawshouldbeappliedtothem.Thegovernmentbelievesin
deportationandtrialswithnojury.PreviousgovernmentsinternedIrishRepublicanswithouttrialand
bannedGerryAdamsfromspeakingontheBBC.NoristheFrenchgovernmentinfavourofa
women'srighttoexpressherselfbywearingaburka,illegalinFrance.Nordoesitsupporttheright
toprotestinfavourofPalestine,bannedforaperiodlastsummerinFrance.OrtherightofMuslims
toprayinthestreet,nowillegalinFrance.TheTorygovernmentheredoesnotevenbelievethat
tradeunionsshouldbeallowedtheunfetteredrighttostrike.
Butneitherdoestheleftbelieveintheunlimitedrighttofreespeech.Manyontheleftdonotbelieve
thatfascistshavetherighttofreespeech,forinstance.Thisparadoxpointstothefactthatthe
defenceoffreedomofspeechhasalwaystobeaccompaniedbythesequestions:whosefreedom
ofspeech?Tosaywhat?Inwhatcontext?Andforwhatpurpose?
Thisthoughtisembodiedintheoldrhetoriciansdevice:whenisitpermissibletoshout'Fire!'.Todo
sointhemiddleofSalisburyplainmaybeeccentric,butitisharmless.Todosoinahousewhere
thereisafiremaysavelives.Todosoinacrowdedcinemawhenthereisnofiremaycausethe
lossoflife.Thefirsttwoexamplesaredefensible,thethirdshouldbeimpermissible.

A little historical context


Historicalcontextisjustasimportant.Freedomofspeech(andprintingandorganisation,without
whichfreedomofspeechisneutered)effectivelyenteredhistoryintheEnglishandFrench
revolutionsin,respectively,the17thand18thcenturies.Importantly,intheEnglishRevolution,itwas
establishedtoanimportantdegreetoachievereligioustoleration(thoughnotforCatholic
supportersofRoyalism).Freedomofspeechwerethewatchwordsoftheoppressedandexcluded,
oftherevolutionaries,againstthearistocraticelite.Itwasestablishedbytheuseofrevolutionary
forceandthesubsequentsuppressionofcounterrevolution~notafactbeingrecalledbytoday's
advocatesoflibert,galit,fraternit.
Thosewhoclaimthattherevolutionestablishedunlimitedfreedomofspeechandmilitant
secularismsimplydontknowtheirhistory.Articles10and11oftheDeclarationoftheRightsofMan
andoftheCitizenread:Nooneshallbedisquietedonaccountofhisopinions,includinghis
religiousviews,providedtheirmanifestationdoesnotdisturbthepublicorderestablishedbylaw
andthatthefreecommunicationofideasandopinionstobeoneofthemostpreciousoftherights
ofman.Everycitizenmaythereforespeak,write,andprintwithfreedom,butshallberesponsible
forsuchabusesofthisfreedomasshallbedefinedbylaw.SoinfacttheDeclarationdefended
religioustolerationandlimitedtheabuseoffreedomofspeechbylaw.
Sincetheirrevolutionarypointoforiginin1789thenewrulersofthemodernworldhaveusedthe
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sloganoffreedomofspeechbut,insofarastheywereable,deniedittothenewclassofthe
excluded,theworkingclass,andtheoppressedandtonewgenerationsofradicals.
That'swhythereisnostraightlineofdescentfromtheFrenchRevolutiontotheFrenchstatetoday.
Today'sFrenchstateisasmuchtheproductofthecounterrevolutionasoftherevolution,ofthe
crushingoftheParisCommune,ofthefilthyandcontinuinghistoryofFrenchcolonialism,ofthe
Dreyfusaffair,ofVichycollaborationwiththeNazis,ofthebarelydemocraticstateofDeGaulle,and
ofmodernpersecutionofMuslims.ItisagainstallthisthattheFrenchlefthashadtofightthe
'inheritorsoftheFrenchrevolution'todefendthefreedomsproclaimedin1789.
Sowhoinourworldreallystandsinneedoffreedomofspeechandwhoisabusingthesloganof
freedomofspeechinordertodefendtheirownpowerandwealth?Whohaspowerandwhodoes
not?
CertainlyEurope'sMuslimcommunitiesareamongtheleastpowerful.Theyare,ofcourse,some
Muslimswhoarebothwhiteandwealthy.Someevenhavetokenpositionsingovernment.Butthe
vastmajorityarepoor,frequentlythepoorest,brownskinnedanddiscriminatedagainst.
ThestockneoracistargumentisthatMuslimscannotbevictimsofracismbecauseIslamisa
religionnotanethniccategory.Andmanyliberalsgoalongwiththis,claimingtheyarecriticalof
religiousviewsnotofaperson'srace.Butinfactreligionactsasaproxyforraceinthiscasesince
mostMuslimsinEuropearenonwhite.Ofcourse,inothercountrieswheretheMuslim'sarein
powerandhavetheleversofthestateintheirhandsitisadifferentmatter.CopticChristiansare
theoppressedminorityinEgypt,KurdsinTurkey,andsoon.InSunniSaudiArabiaShiasare
oppressed,justas,firstProtestantsthenCatholics,wereoncediscriminatedagainstinEngland.
AndontopofthedomesticdiscriminationandpovertyMuslimsinEuropehaveseentheirrelatives
andfriends,theircoreligionistsandfellownationalsmurderedinindustrialquantitiesbyWestern
militaryinterventioninAfghanistan,Iraq,Libya,Syria,Yemen,Somaliaandothersplaces.Andthose
arejustthecountriesmostaffectedbythewaronterror,nevermindthelongerandevenbloodier
historyofWesterncolonialism.Andwhilethekillinggoeson,thereligionoftheseverysamepeople
isthenblamedasthecauseofconflictsinwhichtheyaremostnumerousvictims.
AndhowcouldanyoneinthesecommunitieshavethepowertoanswerRupertMurdochrecent
statementthatallMuslimsaretoblameforthe'cancer'ofterrorism?Whatglobalnewsnetworkcan
theysetinmotiontoreply?Thetruthisthat'freedomofspeech'isnotalevelplayingfield,itis
muchmoreavailabletothestateandtherichthantothepoorandtheoppressed.
Liberalsneverseemtogetthis.Theyneverseemtoseethatallabstractequalrightsare
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underminedbyeconomicandsocialinequality.AsAnatoleFranceputit:'Initsmajesticequality,the
lawforbidsrichandpooraliketosleepunderbridges,beginthestreetsandstealloavesofbread'.
Andsothisishowweshouldevaluateclaimstobeservingfreedomofspeech:arethoseclaiming
thisrightactingtomagnifythevoiceofthevoiceless...ortoservethosewhowishtokeepthem
silent.CharlieHebdo'sracistcaricaturesofMuslims,nomatterwhattheythoughttheyweredoing,
servedthosewhowishtokeeptheoppressedmarginalised.
InresponsetothekillingsatCharlieHebdosomeonthelefthavegoneontocrossthelinebetween
absolutecondemnationofthekillingstosupportthecontentofthemagazine,arguingthattheyare
partofthesecularisttraditionsinFrance.
ButthissecularistLaiciteview,althoughitmayhaveitsrootsinthebourgeoisrevolutions'opposition
toreligion,hasacompletelyothermeaninginmodernFrance.Itispartoftheideologythatseeksto
suppressreligiousbeliefamongMuslimsandotherimmigrants.Itservestobindthepopulation
ideologicallytotheFrenchstate.
But,replysomeontheleft,especiallywouldbeMarxists,weareatheistsand,liketheliberal
secularists,enemiesofreligion.NothingcouldbeacrudercaricatureofMarxism.Itistruethata
Marxist,likeLaplacewhenaskedbyNapoleonwhyhedidnothaveaplaceforGodinhissystem,
canreply'Ihavenoneedforthathypothesis.'Butthatisonlythestartoftheproblembecause
Marxistsarematerialistsbeforeweareatheists.Weunderstandthatreligionwillnotbeabolishedby
rationalistargumentorsecularistrantsagainstreligion,alaRichardDawkins.

Marx and religion


ForMarxreligiousbeliefwasareactiontooppressionandalienation:Religioussufferingis,atone
andthesametime,theexpressionofrealsufferingandaprotestagainstrealsuffering.Religionis
thesighoftheoppressedcreature,theheartofaheartlessworld,andthesoulofsoulless
conditions.Forthisreason,asJamesMeadwayhasargued,therewillbenomomentofsecularist
conversionbeforetherevolutionafterwhichthemassesgomarchingforwardtovictory.Itwasfor
preciselythisillusionthatMarxattackedtheYoungHegelians.Therevolution,andeverystruggle
beforeit,willbemadebyaworkersfrommanydifferentfaithsandnone.
But,ifthisistrue,thenwemustaskanotherevenmoreconcretequestion,onethatneverseemsto
occurtotheabstract'Marxist'secularists:whichreligiousgroups,underwhichcircumstances,can
bedrawnintoprogressivepoliticsandwhichreligiousgroupsstandforreactionarypolitics?
Amomentsthoughtrevealsthatamoresophisticatedanalysisisneededthanmeresecularismin
ordertoanswerthisquestion.Atdifferenttimesindifferentconditionsreligionscanplaydifferent
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rolespolitically.PuritanismwasarevolutionaryforceintheEnglishrevolutionofthe17thcentury,but
nottoday.Eventhesamereligioncanplaydifferentrolesindifferentconditions.CatholicLiberation
theologyhasrecentlyplayedaprogressiveroleinLatinAmerica,buttheCatholicchurchisa
reactionaryforceinItaly.InIrelandthatCatholicChurchingeneralhasbeenareactionaryforce,
butCatholicismhaslongbeenassociatedwithIrishRepublicanism.
ThiskindofdifferentiationneedstobeappliedtoMuslims.TheSaudiregimeisentirelyreactionary,
andoneofthekeyresourcesforboththeideologyandorganisationoftheIslamicState.Itisalsoa
longstandingallyoftheWesterngovernments.TheIslamicStateisareactionarycounter
revolutionaryforcewhichhasrisentoprominencebecauseofthefailureofboththewaronterror
andtheArabrevolutions.
ButtheoverwhelmingmajorityofMuslimsinEuropehavenothingtodowiththisideology.Formost
MuslimsintheWesttheirreligiongenerallystressespeaceandsocialjustice.Theyare
overwhelminglypoorandworkingclass.EvenmanyofMuslimsmallbusinesspeoplearepoor,
runningconcernsthatdependonthecustomoftheworkingclassMuslimsintheareaswherethey
operate.Andtheyhavebeenopentoinvolvementinprogressivemovements,especiallytheanti
warmovement.Ofcourse,wheretheleftturnsitsbackontheminthenameofrejectingreligion,
otherforces,fromthepoliticalestablishmentthroughtotheextremeIslamicists,willgainahearing.
TheKouachibrotherswhocarriedouttheattackonCharlieHebdoareaclassicexampleofthis.
Theywereorphans,poor,andfromanAlgerianbackground(withallthatmeansintermsofracism
inFrance,explainedbrilliantlybyRobertFisk).Theyworkedinlowpaidjobsand,oneofthem,
dreamtofbecomingarapper.Theywereinvolvedincrimeanddidprisontime.Eventuallythey
found,asmanydo,meaninginreligion.ThebrutalitiesofAbuGhraibandtheIraqwarturnedthem
intoterrorists,thetoolsofareactionaryformofIslam.
Theright(andthesecularistLiberals)arekeentoblameIslamforthis.Theymistaketheformof
expressionwiththecause.MostMuslimsaren'tterroristsanddonotsupportterrorists.Butsome
do.Why?
Itsratherlikethis:imagineacrowded,lockedroom.Imaginethatsomeoneoutsidetheroomis
constantlyincreasingthetemperatureintheroom.Sometrappedintheroomwillfaintbefore
others.Somewillpanic.Somewillremaincalm.Inoursocietythetemperaturerisesbecauseof
racism,povertyandimperialwar.Somelashoutinreactionaryways,othersdonot.Butthefirst
faultlieswiththoserampingupthetemperature.Thesecondfaultlieswiththosewhocondemnall
thoseintheroomratherthanformulateastrategytobreakoutoftheroom.
SlavojZizekhas,inpart,capturedthismutuallyreenforcingdynamicbetweenIslamicterrorismand
liberalism:
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'Fundamentalismisareactionafalse,mystifying,reaction,ofcourseagainstareal
flawofliberalism,andthisiswhyitisagainandagaingeneratedbyliberalism...Tothinkin
responsetothePariskillingsmeanstodropthesmugselfsatisfactionofapermissive
liberalandtoacceptthattheconflictbetweenliberalpermissivenessandfundamentalism
isultimatelyafalseconflictaviciouscycleoftwopolesgeneratingandpresupposing
eachother'.

Thisistrue...butonlyatthelevelofideology.Thematerialforcesthatembodythesetwoideologies
arebynomeansequal.TotheextentthatIslamicextremismistheideologyoftinynumbersof
MuslimsinEuropeithasnothingoftheforceoftheentiremedia,educationalandstateapparatuses
thatsustainliberalismandtheright.Evenifweincludeentirestatesandnonstateactorsinthe
MiddleEast,theGulfstatesandISIS,theyareeconomicallyandmilitarilymuchweakerelementsin
theworldsystemcomparedtotheUSstatemachineanditsallies.
AndZizek'ssolutionisalsoonlyabstractlycorrect:

'Lefttoitself,liberalismwillslowlyundermineitselftheonlythingthatcansaveitscore
valuesisarenewedLeft.Inorderforthiskeylegacytosurvive,liberalismneedsthe
brotherlyhelpoftheradicalLeft.THISistheonlywaytodefeatfundamentalism,to
sweepthegroundunderitsfeet'...'WhatMaxHorkheimerhadsaidaboutFascismand
capitalismalreadybackin1930sthosewhodonotwanttotalkcriticallyaboutcapitalism
shouldalsokeepquietaboutFascismshouldalsobeappliedtotodays
fundamentalism:thosewhodonotwanttotalkcriticallyaboutliberaldemocracyshould
alsokeepquietaboutreligiousfundamentalism.'

Butiftheleftistowinthisbattleonethingthatithastodoisconstructanalternativeformofradical
politicswiththoseintheMuslimcommunitywhorejectracism,povertyandwar.Thereisnosense
thatZizekunderstandsthis.TheonlyMuslimstowhichherefersaretheextremists.Indeedwhathe
hastosayonthissubjectisimbuedwithjusttheliberalattitudeshedenounces.Hearguesthatour
thinkingshouldhave'nothingwhatsoevertodowiththecheaprelativisationofthecrime(themantra
of"whoareweintheWest,perpetratorsofterriblemassacresintheThirdWorld,tocondemnsuch
acts").IthasevenlesstodowiththepathologicalfearofmanyWesternliberalLeftiststobeguiltyof
Islamophobia.ForthesefalseLeftists,anycritiqueofIslamisdenouncedasanexpressionof
'WesternIslamophobia.'
ButdenouncingthosewhopointtotheculpabilityofimperialismandthedangersofIslamophobiais
actuallytherightliberalposition(ofIanMcEwanandDavidAaronovitch)againstleftliberals,nota
Marxistcritiqueofboth.StuckwithhisabstractionsZizekfailstoseethatconcretely,inthelives
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whosefamiliesandfriendsdiethereisindeednoequivalencebetweenthenumberskilledby
terrorismandthosewhodiefromimperialistwar.Neitheristhereanyequivalencebetweenthe
stateandmediasponsoredwaveofIslamophobiaandoppositiontoIslamophobia.
ThereistoomuchrelianceonidealistoppositionofconceptualformsandtoolittleMarxist
materialistdialectic,letaloneMarxistpoliticalactivism,inZizek'sanalysis.Thisisnosurprise.Zizek
isafterallmerelyaphilosopherandnotapoliticalactivist,whereasitisdefinitionalofbeinga
Marxistthatoneisboth.InshortZizekmerelycounterposesideallytherevivalofthelefttothe
mutuallyreenforcingfailuresofliberalismandterrorism.Buthehasnoideawhatpracticalalliances
andformsofpoliticalactivityarenecessaryinordertodothis.
Infact,aswestandtoday,thesearenotdifficulttosee.Theleftmustseekallianceswithallthose,
includingliberalsandMuslimswithwhomwehavedifferencesofanalysis,againstracism,warand
poverty.Thesemustbeactive,practicalmovements,nottalkingshops.Wemustsayclearlythatthe
majorforcesthatareraisingthesocialtemperaturearethestate,thecorporationsandthepolitical
elite.TheIslamicextremists(andthefarright)areareactionaryproductofthiscrisis,aproduct
whichworsensthecrisis,mostofallforMuslims.Westandagainstboth.Butoneoftheseenemies
ismuchmorepowerful,andthereforemoreculpable,thantheother.Thatenemyistheglobal
capitalistsystemanditsstateapparatuses.

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John Rees
JohnReesisawriter,broadcasterandactivist,andisoneoftheorganisersofthe
PeoplesAssembly.HisbooksincludeTheAlgebraofRevolution,Imperialism
andResistance,Timelines,APoliticalHistoryoftheModernWorld,ThePeople
Demand,AShortHistoryoftheArabRevolutions(withJosephDaher)andAPeoplesHistoryof
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Jointhediscussion
DanielFactor 17hoursago

"Andmanyliberalsgoalongwiththis,claimingtheyarecriticalofreligiousviewsnotofa
person'srace.Butinfactreligionactsasaproxyforraceinthiscasesincemost
MuslimsinEuropearenonwhite"
Soiscriticismofreligiousviewracist?Evenreligiousviewswhicharedangerous?
2

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PaulLawrenceHayes>DanielFactor 2hoursago

Obviouslynotbuttheauthordidn'tclaimitisandsincethehighMuslimnonwhite
correlationisrealandthepotentialforusingreligionasaproxyisthere,itisat
leastplausiblethatmanyliberals[have]insincerelyorinaccuratelyclaim[ed]not
tobemotivatedbyracismwhencriticisingreligiousviews,isitnot?

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