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In discussing classical liberalism, the Oxford University Press Introduction to Politics (Second Canadian Edition) writes that “the liberal critique of fascism as ideologies is a reflection of a tendency among some liberals to regard liberalism as somehow above the ideological fray” and quotes Barbara Goodwin’s Using Political Ideas. The full quotation from Goodwin runs:

In Britain we imbibe liberal ideas effortlessly from an early age, with the result that liberalism appears as a necessary truth, the basis of reality, rather than as one political ideology among many. (35).

In thinking about this question of “neutrality” that plagues librarianship (and many other “liberal professions”), it occurred to me that the concept of neutrality could only apply to a phenomenon that is (or thinks it is) “above the fray”. The State, for example, in liberal terms, is seen as neutral, as moderating between a plurality of views, standing above competing classes, rather than maintaining (through force) the hegemony of the ruling class (see, for example, Lenin’s discussion of the state at the beginning of The State and Revolution). In terms of ideologies, “neutrality” can only belong to something that sees itself as non-ideological. The argument is circular: liberalism is neutral because it is not an ideology, and it is not an ideology because it is neutral. The pluralism of views that liberalism maintains is seen as proving its non-ideological nature.

David Harvey, in his first important work of theory, introduces two definitions of “ideology”, one Marxist, the other liberal:

Marx gives a specific meaning to ideology - he regards it as an unaware expression of the underlying ideas and beliefs which attach to a particular social situation, in contrast to the aware and critical exposition of ideas in their social context which is frequently called ideology in the west. (Social Justice and the City, 18).

This fits with Goodwin’s characterization of liberalism appearing as a “necessary truth”, something of which we might not even be conscious. Perversely, for liberalism, it is precisely the unconscious nature of its values and priorities that, in contrast to the all-too-conscious ideologies of both right and left, make liberalism central, neutral, equivocal, moderating. It seems to me that the question of library neutrality comes down to this unconscious presumption of liberal values.

The problem with liberalism - as we are currently seeing - is that by being unaware or unconscious, it prevents questions being asked about it, it suppresses alternative voices, words, and ideas, precisely because those voices have nothing to speak against: liberalism is silent in its automatic presumption of the truth of the world. Not the least debt we owe to Marx is that he made the ideology of liberalism explicit, allowing all those who came after to challenge and question, to interrogate and cross-examine the presumptions of liberalism, including the presumption of neutrality.

In my recent posts on Franklin’s The Real World of Technology and Pateman & Pateman’s “Managing Cultural Change in Public Libraries” I challenged, on the one hand, the unaware ideology of Ursula Franklin and the aware but mistaken ideology of John Pateman.

Franklin epitomizes the unconscious, unaware ideology of Canadian liberalism. For her, the liberal values of individualism, reason, private-property, and self-improvement are so self-evident that she never needs to enunciate them - she can simply presume that her audience shares them. In Canada, where the Liberal Party has been called “Canada’s natural governing party”, perhaps this was a valid assumption, especially at Massey Hall to an audience of Ideas listeners in 1987. Franklin is very good at describing the pernicious effects of technology on society, but her liberalism prevents her from explaining why such effects take place, which make it impossible for her to explain how we might go about changing things. For Franklin, the social contract (another liberal idea) has become worn down through the effects of technology and must be renewed. For her, we must simply decide to do better, and we can change our world. The problems of “the real world of technology” are simply due to mistakes; if we make the right decisions now, all will be well again. There is no room in her analysis for anything beyond the liberal constellation of individual-social contract-private property. She admits to no domination, no exploitation, no rapaciousness, and she certainly would not admit that, for example, capitalists and workers might not share a set of values.

For Pateman, the problem is a little different. He believes he is a Marxist, and he is conscious of this ideology. However, he is unable to really connect the Marxist theory he espouses with the material existence of the organizations he is trying to critique. His models aren’t founded in anything real, so his proposals for libraries are utopian more than anything else. He states things about libraries (both traditional and progressive) as if they are facts; whether they are or not is immaterial - they are not useful to actually existing libraries. This is mainly because for Pateman, as for Franklin, everything comes down to the rational decisions of a group of individuals with power*. For Pateman, the structure of the “needs-based” library involves a “reforging of the social contract” just as much as for Franklin. The problem with traditional libraries doesn’t lie in the commodity form, exploitation, structures of domination, or systems of inequality - it’s just a mistake. Neoliberalism is a mistake, easily corrected as long as we resubscribe to liberal values. Pateman can dress his (utopian) proposals for libraries up in Marxist terms, but in the end he thinks that a rational reforging of the social contract will solve our problems. In the meantime, capitalism will get on with the job of exploiting people and destroying the planet.

Because what “reforging the social contract” means is neutrality - it means respecting pluralist views (which ensures that nothing gets accomplished), it ensures the rule of law that protects that pluralism (ensuring that nothing gets challenged) and it ensures the protection of private property, as the institution that guarantees the self-improvement of the individual by means of the free market. This is the “neutrality” of liberalism, that is, no neutrality at all. Neutrality doesn’t exist, it is a fiction invented by the liberal ideology with an end to hiding the ideological nature of liberalism itself.

* It’s ironic that, while Franklin denies being a technological determinist, she really is, and Pateman claims to be a determinist when he is not!


Sam Popowich

Discovery and Web Services Librarian, University of Alberta

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