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As part of my PhD research into the philosophical assumptions in LIS, especially around intellectual freedom, I’ve come to realize that what I initially thought was a left-wing insight - that liberalism is the hegemonic ideology of capitalism - is in fact not denied by many mainstream political theorists. In her 2019 book In the Shadow of Justice, on the origins and reception of John Rawls’ Theory of Justice (1971), Katrina Forrester writes that

in his wake, political philosophy was remade. Philosophical liberalism became synonymous with Rawls, and political philosophy synonymous with a kind of liberalism born of postwar America.

In September, Donald Trump leveled an attack on Critical Race Theory that made me think of earlier attacks on Marxism (not just in the McCarthyite 1950s, but in the post-Soviet 1990s when I started university). The privileged position of Rawlsian liberalism means that any non-liberal political philosophy - Marxisms, feminisms, Critical Race Theory - are automatically excluded from mainstream discourse. It is in this sense that “critical theory” has been expanded from its original, Frankfurt School definition, to cover pretty much any theoretical position that does not derive from liberalism or subscribe to a Rawlsian framework.

Perhaps most importantly in the current conjuncture, critical theory tends to describe philosophical positions that take social structures (of power, of oppression) as real and efficacious just as much (and sometimes more than) individual agency. The inability to recognize or admit structural racism, structural sexism, or structural concentrations of power is a cornerstone of the liberal political perspective. Sadly, this inability was on display again this week with Quebec premier François Legault’s unwillingness to recognize structural racism as a causal factor in the death of Joyce Echaquan.

The inability to understand or recognize structures is not a mistake or a failure of knowledge to be corrected through education. It is baked into the individualized, atomistic worldview of capitalism that produces liberal political thought itself. In Reclaiming Reality, Roy Bhaskar connects scientific (and social scientific) points of view with the working of the capitalist mode of production. For example, he equates the “wage form” of value, which mistakes money exchanged for labour power with money exchange for labour and the “fact form” of scientific knowledge which mistakes the constant conjunction of events for the workings of physical structures not reducible to them. Bhaskar writes that

In the ideology of empiricism the world is regarded as flat, uniform, unstructured and undifferentiated: it consists essentially of atomistic events or states of affairs which are constantly conjoined… Such events and their constant conjunctions are known by asocial, atomistic individuals who passively sense (or apprehend) these given facts and register their constant conjunctions. Underpinning and necessary for the reified facts and fetishized systems of empiricism are thus dehumanized beings in desocialized relationships.

It follows that a social ontology of individuals, of their choices, and their personal ethics occupies the central concern of liberal political thought. This is why, for example, liberal politicians insist that police brutality is a matter of “a few bad apples” - fault is individualized and destructured. Contrary to this view, the structures of racism, sexism, and social class which are invisible except through their effects, are easily explained away by liberalism as nothing but the (surprisingly! inexplicably!) constant conjunctures of individual choices.

In terms of critical librarianship, this way of understanding the difference between hegemonic and critical theory demonstrates that we are right to focus on structures. In the context of his own (structural) philosophy of critical realism, Bhaskar writes that “emancipation depends on the transformation of structures, not the amelioration of states of affairs”. (This has grave implications for political strategies of harm-reduction, but that is too much to get into here.) This plays into a problem I have previously discussed about a lack of theoretical self-awareness in LIS

But taking up a critical position against a hegemonic philosophy is exhausting. The author of one political science textbook has described liberalism as “the air that we breathe”, and its monopoly on education, advertising, and political discourse ensures that its presumptions and prejudices are taken for granted, made natural, common-sense, and intuitive (i.e. ideological). For the Marxist, the feminist, or the Critical Race Theorist, simply to climb onto the playing field of debate and discussion means overcoming a whole slate of “common sense” terms, definitions, and ways of understanding the world. This is why, for example, we constantly have to fight against the non-structural definition of racism we are all taught in school, in order to finally get past the questions of definitions and actually argue substantively with one another.

But having to argue these points and definitions, when liberals can simply take their own view for granted, is demoralizing and exhausting. This, too, is not accidental. Toni Morrison, in a speech at Portland State University in 1975, made exactly this point when she said that

It’s important, therefore, to know who the real enemy is, and to know the function, the very serious function of racism, which is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being.

The point of the attack on Critical Race Theory, like earlier attacks on Marxisms and feminisms, is to make it that much harder to constantly explain our starting points, terms, definitions. We can see this in the cross-purposes around trans rights and intellectual freedom, we can see it in the problems with our professional organizations (e.g. structural racism in ALA), we can see it in the difficulties we have making EDI anything but rhetorical in our institutions. But our non-liberal perspectives are not arbitrary: they are - as Michael Oakeshott described conservatism - dispositions borne out of our relationships to each other and to the world. A Critical Race Theorist cannot suddenly switch to liberalism (though liberals have no qualms about eclectic cherry-picking or raiding of non-liberal philosophies). Perhaps in this sense, then, critical theories are not philosophies, but embodied, situated worldviews, and so the idea that Rawlsian liberalism is synonymous with political philosophy is not far off the mark. But that’s all the more reason for it to be challenged and faught.


Sam Popowich

Discovery and Web Services Librarian, University of Alberta

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