Arguing with liberals

This is a post from my old blog about how liberals suck and make the same bad arguments over and over.

Thought-Terminating Clichés

Arguing with liberals, while often mind-numbingly tedious and frustrating, is an inevitability for most people on the left. In this piece, I’ll be dealing with some of the more trite and clichéd arguments that liberals fall back on when they’re losing the argument, from the point of view of someone who spends more time than most arguing politics with liberals. This is an ongoing project, and I’ll be adding more bad arguments as I come across them. [I’ll probably actually do that at some stage]

Liberal democratic capitalism is the worst system except for all the other one’s we’ve tried.

A.k.a. If capitalism is so bad, why don’t you move to one of the many successful socialist countries?

This argument is essentially a way of conceding that your critique of capitalism and/or liberal democracy is basically correct without appearing to back down, allowing them to accept that the entire political economy of the world is inherently flawed, without the accompanying responsibility to do something about it. That way lie gulags.

The flaw in this line of thinking is a combination of three faulty premises:

  1. The present system is the best system that there will ever be. The idea that we’ll ever be able to have iPods and Happy Meals and freedom of expression and the like without the requirement for a massive global underclass is hopelessly utopian.
  2. The fact that the Russian Revolution et al ended in butchery and totalitarianism is an inherent flaw in the idea of communism, and not a product of the unique historical circumstances in which the revolution took place, nor of flaws in the form of revolutionary organisation practised by the Bolsheviks. All future revolutions are doomed to repeat this pattern.
  3. The history of communist revolutions that ran up against the restraints of a predominantly capitalist world can be used to predict what would happen in a communist world.

You protested against X, why didn’t you also protest against A, B, C… Y and Z?

Rather than deal with the actual point of a protest, a common tactic is to think of (or usually Google) another analogous thing that the left didn’t mobilise for, in order to imply some kind of hypocrisy or ulterior motive.

Implicitly, this argument assumes that it’s actually really easy to organise a mass protest – that getting thousands of people onto the streets is just matter of sending a text round – and thus the only reason why the left doesn’t protest every injustice equally is because we’re hypocrites, and probably racist, rather than because we have finite time, energy and resources and have to pick our battles.

This argument also misunderstands the purpose of political protest. It’s not supposed to be some kind of box-ticking exercise to demonstrate some kind of intellectual consistency in some future debate. It’s not about being able to say you’ve made your point. It’s about trying to make some kind of concrete difference in the lives of real people, and encouraging people to take action for themselves in resisting the particular oppressions they live under.

Your ideas are great, but I’m a realist.

I’m sure slavery abolitionists heard this one a lot. Since no-one can predict the future, determining what’s realistic is based entirely on certain subjective and utterly unscientific judgements. Given that so much of our picture of reality is generated by media outlets owned and run by the wealthy, one can hardly be surprised that what people tend to perceive as realistic just happens to coincide with the system that keeps those wealthy people at the top.

I want what you want, but through parliamentary reform.

A.k.a. If people agreed with you, they would vote you into power and there would be no need for a revolution.

This argument requires a leap of logic that would be incredible were it not so mundanely widespread: seemingly, the ultra-wealthy capitalists who control the vast majority of the worlds economic power, who are able to determine, through the movement of capital the fate of entire countries, who are able to collapse economies through capital flight etc. have allowed a situation to exist where their power and class privilege could simply be voted out of existence.

Of course, in reality, this is untrue. The capitalist class in fact have a whole range of mechanisms to prevent precisely this from happening. Through their ownership of the organs of popular opinion (the mass media), their funding of pro-business parties and lobby groups, through corruption, and the ability to influence markets through the movement of capital, the wealthy are in practice able to prevent any threat to their power manifesting itself through parliamentary means, all the while maintaining the semblance of democracy.

Yeah, but under your system how would we decide how to distribute almonds in mountainous regions during light hail?

This one is particularly annoying. Under the guise of open-minded ‘hearing out’ of your alternative, the liberal will then proceed to delve deeper and deeper into the minutiae of everyday activity in your imagined post-revolutionary society, until they find something that you haven’t thought about before and suddenly the whole system collapses because you don’t know whether a non-capitalist society would continue to produce tricycles*. This is usually an improvisational process, where every plausible answer you give opens up a thousand new avenues of questioning to be stumbled down randomly like a drunk in a hedge maze until you eventually admit you don’t know.

Of course, from the outset, you’re accepting an unfair burden. The shaping of a post-revolutionary society is the collective action of all of society, and will require the creativity and intelligence of everyone to develop modes of organisation that create the best possible living standards for everyone without recreating the exploitation and hierarchy of capitalism. The fact that you can’t do that after a few pints in the pub no more undermines communism/anarchism than the fact that a twelve-year-old science student doesn’t know Schroedinger’s equation undermines quantum mechanics.

* They probably would.

You can read words and write coherent sentences. You’re obviously some middle-class intellectual in an ivory tower. The working-class will never listen to you.

In other words: it doesn’t matter how right or wrong you are, the working-class are too stupid and ignorant to understand you.

Of course, it’s true that the left has trouble expressing its ideas in forms that are understandable to those less well-versed in left-wing theory, or to those with less education, with simple ideas often obscured by esoteric academic-speak. But the idea that working-class people are incapable of understanding the reality of their own lived-experiences of oppression is ridiculously classist and patronising.


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