Beyond the Liberalism of Left and Right – the Politics of Paradox

Dr Adrian Pabst, Senior Lecturer in Politics, School of Politics and IR, University of Kent; Visiting Professor, Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Lille (Sciences Po), specially for

In my previous essay, I argued that the French Revolution bequeathed us the politics of left and right – a spatialised rationalist construct that privileges formal and impersonal connections such as individual rights or commercial contracts over interpersonal relations of reciprocity. While the former rest on mutual suspicion and conflict, the latter tend to be based on trust and cooperation.

I also argued that left vs. right – and cognate concepts such as state vs. market, the collective vs. the individual, etc. – tend to converge and even collude at the expense of the ‘radical centre’. Far from representing a false compromise or muddled middle, the ‘radical centre’ marks the rule of interpersonal relationships over the impersonal rule of central state bureaucracy and market commodification.

‘Inter-personalism’ is paradoxical insofar as it blends greater economic justice with a renewed emphasis on social (as opposed to political or economic) ties. For example, the idea of a ‘living wage’ (by contrast with a simple minimum wage) has overtures of a ‘family wage’ without imposing a single conception of the nature of ‘family’.

As such, the politics of paradox is more traditional than the political right (which privatises the public square and extends market forces into the private sphere) and more progressive than the political left (which elevates the state into the ultimate arbiter of relationships, including marriage and parenthood).

Against the liberalism of both left and right, the new post-liberal, paradoxical politics offers a different narrative and fresh policy ideas.

1. Beyond the liberalism of left and right

It is common to distinguish economic-political from social-cultural liberalism. The former champions free market individualism and a visceral opposition to strong state regulation, while the latter uses the central state to promote equality and social permissiveness. But far from representing diametric opposites, these two faces of liberalism are but different sides of the same coin. For liberalism has always combined the free market with the strong state and advanced a form of libertarianism that fuses individualism with collectivism – commercial commodification and bureaucratic diktat that hollow out real democracy, a genuine market economy and a lively civil society.

As Slavoy Zizek has rightly remarked, this leads to a number of paradoxical, even perverse positions:

Traditionally, each "face" of liberalism necessarily appears as the opposite of the other face: liberal advocates of multiculturalist tolerance, as a rule, fight against economic liberalism and try to protect the vulnerable from the ravages of unencumbered market forces, while free-market liberals, as a rule, advocate conservative family values. We thus get a kind of double paradox: the traditionalist Right supports the market economy while ferociously fighting the culture and mores it engenders; while its counterpoint, the multiculturalist Left, fights against the market (though less and less these days, as Michea notes) while enthusiastically enforcing the ideology it engenders. (Today, it should be said, we seem to be entering a new era in which both aspects can be combined: figures like Bill Gates pose as market radicals and as multiculturalist humanitarians.) [1]

What underpins both strands of the liberal tradition is a voluntarist logic – the idea that the will of the sovereign individual and the will of the sovereign ruler (representing the collectivity of state or nation) hold supreme sway. Bound up with this is the claim that individual rights and contracts (whether the social contract or commercial contracts) are more primary than the common good and mutual obligation because there can be no free consensus about the nature of the good or reciprocal responsibility.

2. The illiberal legacy of liberalism

In turn, this claim is grounded in a fundamentally pessimistic anthropology whose roots we can trace to the thought of Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau. Machiavelli rejected the Ancient and medieval primacy of the good over evil in favour of their ontological equivalence, meaning that evil now has a reality independently of the good and that the search for the good is a matter of the emotive will rather than intellect and habit. That translates into a vision of the city that, contrary to Plato and Aristotle or Augustine and Aquinas, is not governed by a hierarchy of goods and ends but instead by a competition for survival and power. In Machiavelli’s The Prince, it is the exercise of violence and the use of fear that regulate civic life, not the pursuit of peace or the practice of virtuous behaviour.

Hobbes’ state of nature in which ‘man is a wolf to man’ and there is a ‘war of all against all’ is not so much an imagined a-historical condition as a natural condition of anarchy that is based upon greed, selfishness and a predisposition towards violent conflict. Ultimately, the Leviathan is less a resolution of this violence than a mere regulation which perpetuates mutual suspicion and a climate of fear among citizens, justifying the coercive powers of the central sovereign.

Locke’s case for toleration and individual rights appears to be answer to the absolutism of Machiavelli’s Prince and Hobbes’ Leviathan but it merely represents the other side of the liberal coin. Since the individual is grounded in the notion of self-possession, apparently inalienable rights can be alienated precisely because they are now a matter of subjective will: it is only because I own myself that I can voluntarily dispose of myself and my own autonomy – whether vis-à-vis the state or the market. Hence Locke’s defence of slavery in terms of indentured labour, as Domenico Losurdo has documented in his fascinating book Liberalism: A Counter-History.

Finally, Rousseau argues for the universal freedom of all and denounces our condition of bondage but the reasons for the latter are to do with the nature of society where comparison with others breeds competition and (to anticipate Nietzsche) a will-to-power.

So we find that liberalism brings about the very condition that is its own presupposition – whether the Machiavellian pursuit of power, not virtue, or Hobbesian ‘war of all against all’ or the Lockean ‘possessive individualism’ or again the Rousseauian loss of original freedom within the social contract.

Crucially, all these liberal thinkers exhibit a shared pessimism of human nature (whether individually or in association with others). But this does not thereby prove that presupposition, because it is only the practice of liberalism that has produced the circumstances which it originally assumed and asserted to be true.

The context in which each of these founding fathers of the liberal tradition wrote did of course shape their respective thinking and helps explain their gloomy outlook – the infighting among the plutocratic families ruling the Italian city-states in case of Machiavelli; civil strife and religious wars in the case of Hobbes and Locke and the ancien régime in the case of Rousseau.

But once again context does not justify the original presupposition. If anything, it calls for a more radical response – the pursuit of virtue, not Machiavellian power; reconciliation and peace, not Hobbes’ perpetual war; a distribution of property and mutual obligations, not Locke’s ‘possessive individualism’; an autonomous and robust civil society in which people trust and cooperate with each other, not the ties of bondage that Rousseau feared.

3. The Logic of Paradox

All the modern binary opposites such as state versus market or left versus right are grounded in a modern logic of dualism – the aporia between unalterable nature (the originally violent ‘state of nature’) and human artifice (the social contract). This logic of dualism reduces real relations among people or between humanity and the natural world to nominal connections that take the form of constitutional-legal rights or economic-contractual ties. Such nominal connections undermine the social bonds of reciprocity and mutuality and the intermediary institutions of civil society upon which vibrant democracies and market economies depend.

By contrast, the alternative logic of paradox eschews the dualistic categories such as the ‘left’ linked to the central state versus the ‘right’ allied with the free market in favour of a ‘radical centre’. This ‘radical centre’ is the realm of real relations and the common good in which all can share. This translates into social bonds of reciprocal trust and mutual giving underpinning diverse forms of human association. Such bonds are – paradoxically – more particular than commercial ties based on abstract standards of monetary value and also more universal than supposedly inalienable individual rights to life or to property that can be alienated by the state or the market.

By combining a focus on civic and ethical limits to both central state and free market power with an emphasis on greater economic equality and political participation, the logic of paradox is more progressive than leftwing centralized statism and more conservative than rightwing, ‘free-market’ liberalism. As such, it outflanks the ‘old left’ and the ‘new right’ in the direction of a paradoxical politics.

4. Paradoxical politics

Politically and economically, the logic of paradox upholds real relations by accentuating social bonds of reciprocity and solidarity that are based on universal sympathy and are more mutualist in outlook (as in the modern thought of figures as diverse as David Hume, Edmund Burke or Pierre-Joseph Proudhon). Thus, the logic of paradox views groups and association as more primary than the individual and the collective.

Across different societies and cultures, social bonds and intermediary institutions have traditionally been more fundamental than either constitutional-legal rights or economic-contractual ties. The activities of autonomous and democratically self-governing groups and associations are for social purposes and reasons of mutual recognition that – paradoxically – can serve both private and public interests. They do so by helping to bring about local regeneration, communal cohesion and other conditions for the ‘good life’ in which all can share.

Here it is instructive combine the political theory of Karl Polanyi and Paul Hirst with the political economy of Luigino Bruni and Stefano Zamagni in order to develop the idea of a ‘civil state’ and a moral market that can democratize politics and the economy and re-embed them in the social relations of civil society.

Common to the work of Polanyi, Hirst, Bruni and Zamagni are three closely connected arguments. First of all, the modern emphasis on the individual and the collective neglects the importance of autonomous, democratically self-governing groups and associations that mediate between the citizen and the state.

Second, the active participation of groups and associations is indispensable to a properly functioning democracy and market economy.

Third, the social bonds and civic virtues that provide the glue for civil society are needed to make constitutional-legal rights and economic-contractual ties work. The fundamental point that underpins these three arguments is that the practice of virtue is not limited to predominantly non-instrumental relationships such as family, friends or activity in the ‘voluntary sector’ but extends to the largely instrumental relations in the realm of politics and the economy.

The shared intellectual roots of Polanyi and Hirst go back to 19th- and early 20th-century critiques of liberalism and alternatives theories of pluralism that draw on the tradition of realist metaphysics. Broadly speaking, the critique is that liberalism combines some of the worst aspects of individualism and collectivism. Laissez-faire capitalism reduces not only goods and labour but also land and social relations to commodities that can be freely exchanged according to their monetary market value. Linked to this is the primacy of subjective, individual rights over mutual duties and reciprocal responsibilities within groups and associations.

Since unbridled commercial exchange requires a force to eliminate resistance to it and compensate for any failures (or ‘negative externalities’), laissez-faire capitalism combines the ‘free’ market with the strong state. For example, statist welfare that is run centrally and based on uniform standards and targets is subservient to capitalism because it compensates for market failure but does not change the fundamental relation between capital owners and wage labourers. As such, much of economic and political liberalism combines market atomism with state corporatism.

The pluralist alternative is, first of all, to reject both capitalist markets and collectivist states in favour of voluntary and democratically self-governing associations that cut across the false liberal divide between the purely private and the exclusively public sector by cooperating with state authorities and market actors in the delivery of services such as health, education or welfare. As Paul Hirst puts it, this approach “aims to strengthen government in and through civil society; thus civil society takes on many of the attributes of the public sphere” [2].  

Second, political authority is more effective, efficient and democratic if it is decentralized in line with the Christian Catholic-Orthodox principle of subsidiarity, i.e. devolving power to the most appropriate level that promotes democratic participation and protects the dignity of citizens. By contrast with centralization and exclusive central state power, pluralism shifts the emphasis to an association of agencies that share power through cooperative links according to necessity and contingency.

Third, the economy is not run according to the logic of ‘free-market’ competition or bureaucratic state planning but instead along more mutualist lines where firms are governed jointly by investor, managers and workers and financial investment includes a social purpose. Thus, the work of Polanyi can extend Hirst’s idea of ‘associative democracy’ by democratizing the market and mutualizing the economy. Maurice Glasman puts this well:

The paradoxical idea here is that the greater the diversity of democratic institutions that entangle capitalism in relationships based on knowledge and mutuality, the better the chances of releasing the energies of the workforce and generating growth. The more workers have power, the more efficient it is; the more that local communities engage in banking, the more sustainable the returns. This is about breaking the logic of short-term returns, which undermines long-term development. I think that associative democracy has therefore to be complemented by a much more explicit notion of the possibilities and threats of capitalism, the logic of the market, and how to domesticate it [3].

The idea of more mutuals or cooperatives instead of state-owned enterprise or private cartels/monopolies provides the link to Bruni’s and Zamagni’s ‘civil economy’. Indeed, this notion is based on the argument that the market can use resources efficiently and promote the common good effectively only if it is disciplined by the habit of practicing reciprocal and mutual virtues.

If, by contrast, the market is equated with pure instrumentality, then human and social relationships are reduced to means that maximize individual utility and private profit. Since the state enforces rights and contracts, it is an integral part of the liberal market logic. Here Bruni and Zamagni show that the principle of contract that underpins the modern market needs to be supplemented by the principle of reciprocity because otherwise self-interest overrides and ultimately undermines the common good.

Linked to this is the tendency of modern markets to ‘financialize the real economy,’ a process that also cuts off production and trade from the common good that enhances rather than diminishes real utility and happiness.


After decades of neo-liberal ideology and the policies of limitless liberalisation, the failure of economic-political and social-cultural liberalism is plain for everyone to see. The politics of paradox emphasises the need to re-embed both the state and the market within a wider network of social relations that are governed by reciprocal virtues such as justice, solidarity, fraternity and responsibility. Such a politics is more economically just than the social-democratic left, more committed to a culture of virtue than the neo-conservative right and more tolerant than the illiberal liberalism of both.
[1] Slavoy Zizek, ‘Liberalism and its Discontents’, ABC Religion & Ethics
[2] Paul Hirst, From Statism to Pluralism. Democracy, civil society and global politics (London: Routledge, 1997), p. 32.
[3] Maurice Glasman, ‘How to combine Hirst and Polanyi to create a strong argument for an embedded and democratic economy’, in Andrea Westall (ed.), Revisiting Associative Democracy (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 2011), pp. 64-70 (quote at p. 69).