Liberalism and cruelty
It's a strange irony that part of what makes liberal politics appealing to people with basically egalitarian, and democratic instincts, is also what runs counter to egalitarian and democratic politics. 

Liberalism is, at its best, anti-populist, anti-majoritarian, against what Michael Mann calls the 'dark side of democracy', in favour of a regime of rules, procedures, limits and so on. It is against arbitrary power, for a predictable framework of government action. It distrusts massifications, suspects causes, and sees nothing holy in majorities. It says, with Forster, if I had to choose between betraying my country, and my friend, I hope I have the guts to betray my country. Of course, this is also liberalism at its worst. It is the liberalism of condescending technocrats, oblivious of their own dark side.

Judith Shklar's "liberalism of fear" is a meet exemplar of liberalism's very best/very worst side. A Jewish refugee from the Nazis, her writing concentrated on limiting the human potential for cruelty and humiliation. Cruelty, she suggested, was worse than many of the things we tend to hate more in politics, such as hypocrisy. In that cause, she recommended an anti-revolutionary, anti-utopian conservative liberalism. Revolutions, and ideals, create contexts in which cruelties are often vindicated. But the conservatism was also predicated on a form of misanthropy grounded in the very "density of evil" of which human beings are capable, and in a "universal disgust" which views all schemes for fixing things as in essence no better. 

This misanthropy, however, was itself to be acknowledged and resisted. Indeed, Shklar could be most biting about precisely the kinds of misanthropy entailed in Forster's apparently bold dictum. It said something, she suggested, about the class and exclusionary solidarities of his circle, that he could entertain such an indiscriminate personal loyalty against "the state". After all, to an upper class Victorian liberal of Forster's background, "the state" was consubstantial with democratic government. Moreover, the liberalism of fear regarded class inequality as a problem since such inequalities would tend to generate the principles supporting cruelty. Nonetheless, its basic orientation toward combatting the universal potential for cruelty means that it prioritises the minimal liberal framework of adversarial government institutions and strong civil society, to control high-handed officialdom.

There are several ways of criticising this view. One might be to unpick Shklar's historical view of liberalism as being fundamentally rooted in the discourse of 'toleration', in the context of seventeenth century religious wars. If you're the marxist political scientist C B Macpherson, for example, liberalism is far more centrally grounded in the ideology and political economy of property rights than in toleration. In this sense, a liberalism that 'puts cruelty first' neatly glosses over the political-economic preconditions for doing so, thus acting as a negative defence of capitalist accumulation. 

If you're the left-liberal political theorist Corey Robin, this negative liberalism misunderstands how political fear works, underestimating the role of adversarial institutions and civil society in organising and distributing political fear -- for example, in the context of McCarthyism. In that misunderstanding, the liberalism of fear both disarms itself in the face of far more subtle opponents than it recognises, and deprives itself of resources, in the form of the sorts of popular mobilisations that it is apt to distrust.

Or, you could look at how this liberalism has been deployed by some of Shklar's students and supporters, from Kanan Makiya to Michael Ignatieff. As Wendy Brown has pointed out, the supposed minimalism and pragmatism of Shklarite liberalism has been the ideological foundation of some quite violent, adventurist imperialist ideologies. How odd that liberalism-of-fear so often became the liberalism-of-blow-the-shit-out-of-them. It would be merely tendentious to blame Shklar for Ignatieff, for whom "putting cruelty first" meant, putting the cruelty of benighted barbarians first, and then bombing it. Certainly, it is hard to imagine Shklar, who was so unkind about the Kennedy cult, signing up for that level of hubris.

Nonetheless, an ideology is not innocent of its effects, and however minimal it may claim to be, it must perforce be subtended by some sort of theory of history and politics, which in Shklar's case is arguably deeply Eurocentric and conservative. It must have unconscious conditions, which might include powerful unconscious identifications with, say, 'whiteness', or colonial omnipotence. Ultimately, in seeking to banish humiliation from public life in Euro-American states, it might be tacitly more than tolerant of a degree of cruelty in dealing with barbarians.

Yet, even granting all of this for the sake of argument, one might still think there is something to be said for a liberalism that puts cruelty first. After all, if the emerging forms of power are dependent on new and more aggressive types of social sadism, energised in part by the vicissitudes of platform capitalism and its massifications, then cruelty abruptly becomes a more intractable type of problem. 

I'm particularly interested in the fact that cruelty is becoming, both more detached, and more diffuse. In the traditional spectacles of cruelty, the sadomasochism between rulers and ruled is moralised. The state presents the public with an example of an utterly wretched, degraded specimen of humanity, someone whose whole way of being is parasitic, immoral, a drain on the productive majority, and enacts an exemplary punishment. Whether the punished is a migrant, or a single mother, or a political combatant, the theatrics of such national pantomimes are intended to excite moral passions, as a form of sadomasochistic investment.

We have seen, however, that the platforms offer us other opportunities for exploring cruelty, which are quite different. I have written elsewhere about the cultures of trolling, but if that category is still meaningful, it is as an ideal-type to which all of using the platforms might tend. And its basic characteristics are subjective detachment, and diffusion of responsibility. No longer need there be a centralised agent enacting a punishment or demonstrating a moral claim.

Part of what is involved in online detachment is the tendency anticipated by Baudrillard as a collapse of the 'reality principle'. It has been argued, somewhat plausibly I think, that the ideology of authenticity is disintegrating in the era of the platforms, and arguably that is in part because one of the subjective effects of platform capitalism is to dissolve the idea of a 'true' self. Faithful to the spirit of neoliberalism, rather than classical liberalism, platform capitalism doesn't really believe in a 'self' in any real sense: only many enterprises, many accounts, many avatars, many investments of one's cognitive, affective, moral or erotic capital.

In this context, online spectacles of cruelty have a very different relationship to moral passions. It is not so much a case, any longer, of subcultures of people who delude themselves into thinking they are not acting morally when they punish people for their vulnerabilities. Rather, a participant in an online frenzy of persecution can have the same relationship to the morality at stake as a stock market trader might have to pork belly futures. They can be passionate about it for five minutes, before getting cold feet alighting on something else. It's an investment, in other words, in which believing or not believing in it is rather quaint and beside the point. So that, on the turn of a dime, the same investor might switch their attentions from attacking Taylor Swift for saying something bad five years ago, to cyberbullying some kid who is threatening to kill himself -- and not experience any cognitive dissonance in so doing.

Now if more and more of our lives are going to be lived in and through these media, as opposed to television or literature, this surely is a challenge to liberal political theory. Because, certainly, it would not be the worst thing in the world if liberals decide that cruelty is the summum malum, for which no excuses can be made. However, the infrastructures, the scaffolds, the gallows of cruelty and humiliation currently being developed, both inside and outside the field of the state, are unlike any object that liberal theory has hitherto encountered. 

The platforms are not democracies, they are not markets, they are not states, and they are much more than media companies. They have the potential to exercise enormous political power, indeed they are already beginning to do so, and they will play a critical role in the elaboration of new types of hegemony as the old systems break down. They are destroying already provisional forms of privacy, facilitating new operations of arbitrary power of which both state and non-state actors can avail themselves, and giving rise to new fusions of state and capital. The kinds of almost randomised cruelty and humiliation made possible within, and even encouraged by, this framework are surely unprecedented.

What would a 21st century liberalism of fear, cognisant of this sort of terrain, look like? What would a sophisticated liberalism, putting cruelty first, have to say about the new forms of mass politics that are coming? What, concretely, would a negative liberalism recommend one do about the platforms? Unfortunately, thus far, we don't and can't know. We know that official liberalism is concerned about 'fake news', and the 'abuse' of MPs, and 'post-truth politics', which of course isn't remotely addressing the subject at any serious level. So it remains to be seen whether liberalism, which has historically been sensitive to the dark sides of mass politics, has the resources to confront this type of problem.

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