John_Stuart_Mill_by_London_Stereoscopic_Company,_c1870The word “liberal” is a pretty complicated one. Living in this country it gets associated with the Liberal Democrats, and I hope it should be obvious why I’m not a Lib Dem. In a US context it means anyone to the left of the Republican Party mainstream.

More generally, if you’ll forgive being told how to suck eggs, it’s associated with freedom, the philosophy of John Stuart Mill (left), and the like. And in modern political analysis, it tends to be divided into two sections: social liberalism and economic liberalism. The combination of these two, in a slightly caveated way, is loosely the position of the Orange Book Lib Dems.

The latter is pretty straightforward: should companies and individuals be free to act economically largely without constraint, except where a direct harm can be demonstrated? This part has never had much appeal to me. It seemed clear to me that such an idealised system would essentially see those with money acquire more of it, and those without continue to be squeezed.

The Tory/Lib Dem/Labour consensus position on markets isn’t pure economic liberalism, but even the version I’ve lived under all my life clearly has those undesirable feedback characteristics.

The advantages under capitalism of starting with assets are so strong that a safe Piketty-ish bet is that inequalities will not just be protected but will grow. No thanks. I’m in favour of innovation, I’m in favour of a role for business – but within a clear framework that puts society’s needs first.

The former I find a bit more complicated, though. I have in the past described myself as economically socialist and socially liberal.

My use of “socially liberal” as a description of myself was a result of seeing social liberalism regularly in the same space as me on policy issues like equal marriage, drug legalisation, the New Zealand model for sex work laws, ID cards, etc. It seems like a tempting team to back, especially when you see it as a binary with intolerant “social conservatism”. And who on the left wants to be called illiberal?

However, it became increasingly clear to me that social liberalism has more in common with economic liberalism than I’d realised: that they have similar flaws, just as they have a similar theoretical underpinning.

Most obviously, neither social nor economic liberalism take account of power dynamics. In both cases, classically liberal positions risk favouring those with existing money or or social power. It leads to intellectual clusterfucks like today’s Tim Lott piece in the Guardian, a defence of privilege from someone who’s so liberal that he can’t even say whether or not the EDL is racist or right-wing.

To take another topical example, just look at the way “freedom of speech” is used and misused by social liberals. It’s a stopping point for too many people: an end to discussions. Social liberals seem determined not to analyse who has the power and who has the platform. It’s also off limits to consider what they’re saying or what impact it might have. It’s hard to persuade social liberals to look at whose voices are being systematically excluded, mocked, or ignored, especially when they have some technical freedoms of speech (i.e. where we don’t live under Stalinism or similar). Decisions not to invite discriminatory speakers becomes censorship (as argued against in this letter to the Observer, to which I was a signatory), neglecting the radical and worthwhile idea in human rights discourse, which is to protect individuals against oppressive restrictions at the hands of the state, not to restrict the organising of those individuals.

Some of this is simply naive on the part of liberals, but it’s hard not to read some of it as defiant protectionism for those who already get heard a lot, a close ideological parallel with the cartels or oligopolies which economic liberalism has consistently facilitated. Money accrues to those who have it: liberal platforms accrue to those who have them. The poor stay poor: the marginalised continue not to be heard. Liberal assessments do nothing to identify power inequalities, and liberal policy framings do nothing to redress them.

Now, clearly I still support policy positions where I happen to share them with social liberals, but for me they are part of an anti-authoritarian value set, closer to anarchism than to liberalism. I’m done with liberalism: all of it.