For Liberal Socialism

While we have once again embarked on “constitutional reform”, most interlocutors have steered clear of articulating the political philosophical premises that would undergird the Constitution to, at a minimum, give it institutional coherence. We propose one such adumbration by political scientist Matthew McManus, which he defines as “Liberal Socialism”. He suggests that three overarching goals have to be given authoritative institutional legitimacy.
“First,” he asserts, “liberal socialists are committed to methodological collectivism and normative individualism. They believe that the well-being and free development of individual persons is the highest moral priority.” For a society that emerged from slavery and indentureship and treated its people as objects for labour rather than subjects with autonomy, this has to be a sine qua non of any constitutional arrangement. “However, they disagree with many classical liberals’ insular and competitive conception of human nature and their individualist approach to conceiving social relations.” This, of course, is the dominant view of the present global neo-liberal dispensation that permeates most societies – even communist China. “Liberal socialists hold that, to properly think through how individuals will best thrive, one must recognise their embeddedness in society, and how it can improve or disrupt their capacity to lead a good life.”
Taking seriously commitments to liberty, equality and solidarity requires going beyond the social hierarchies established under the economic and social imperatives of colonialism and capitalism which have served to justify relations of exploitation among our ethnic groups.
“Secondly,” McManus continues, “liberal socialists are committed to each person having as equal an opportunity to lead as good a life as possible through the provision of shared resources for the development and expression of their human powers. To put it another way, liberal socialists focus on the free development of human powers or capabilities along a wide array of metrics. What Macpherson calls this developmental ethic can be contrasted with the extractive and possessive ethic characteristic of classical liberalism and hedonistic forms of utilitarianism. Where the extractive/possessive ethic holds that the good life comes from production and consumption, the developmental ethic of liberal socialism emphasises the equal development and application of each individual’s powers as a condition for their flourishing.” What is to be highlighted in Guyana from this is the emphasis on “equal opportunity” rather than “equal results”, with the latter dependent very significantly on individual effort.
“Thirdly, liberal socialists are committed to instituting a basic social structure characterised by highly participatory liberal-democratic political institutions and protections for liberal rights concurrent with the extension of liberal democratic principles into the economy and family to establish more egalitarian economic arrangements free of domination and exploitation. This also means that liberal socialists do not ascribe the same weight of private property rights to the means of production that many classical liberals do. While all liberal socialists believe in rights to personal property, this doesn’t extend to rights to acquire forms of property that would enable forms of workplace domination or political plutocracy to develop. In these instances, what impacts all should, in part, be decided upon by all.
“Liberal socialist authors will defend and articulate these principles in various idioms, and emphasise one or another to various degrees. This testifies to the internal diversity of the tradition, if nothing else. Macpherson was very critical of atomistic ‘possessive individualism’ ,but supported a liberal humanist ethic of developing people’s capacities or powers. Nevertheless, he had comparatively little to say about what kind of social structure could realise this ethic. In The Socialist Decision (1933), Paul Tillich offers a theological defence of liberal democratic socialism, which obviously runs counter to the secular approaches of Mill and Rawls. Mouffe’s agonistic liberal socialism foregrounds the importance of political contestation far more than Rawls’s temperate insistence that a pluralistic society needs to unite around an ‘overlapping consensus’. But behind this variety is a core conviction that taking seriously commitments to liberty, equality and solidarity requires going beyond the social hierarchies established under capitalism.”