Pity-Charity Liberalism and Non-Domination

Cover of "Republicanism: A Theory of Free...

Cover via Amazon

Freddie DeBoer — whose blog is an absolutely indispensable critique of the left from the further left — is now blogging over at Balloon Juice. His first post over there summarizes a crucial component of that critique:

There’s a troubling form of liberalism that is increasingly found in the wonky, think-tank-and-establishment-media blogosphere that is so influential these days. I’ve called it, in the past, globalize/grow/give progressivism. Mike Konczal of Rortybomb has referred to it as pity charity liberalism. (I hope you all are turned on to Rortybomb; it’s essential reading.) Whatever you want to call it, this vision of the liberal project defines itself through the social safety net. Its orientation is towards expanding and protecting a redistributive social welfare system. Meanwhile, it is at best uninterested in (and often downright hostile towards) worker organization, unions, regulation, and other attempts to empower workers in relation to capital and poor people in relation to the rich. The idea is that, if you get the economy going well enough, you can redistribute enough money to the poor that they’ll be alright, even while you’ve undermined their ability to collectively bargain, raise the value of their labor, and exercise power.


Even if you could guarantee a certain minimal welfare state, the idea of poor and working people depending on the largesse of the rich and powerful is obscene. Sometimes, people have to live under the charity of others. But nobody wants to in perpetuity, because they then are not in control of their own lives, and because having to do so leaves many feeling robbed of personal dignity. As long as economic security is a gift of those at the top, it can be taken away. And if the last several decades have shown us anything, it’s that for the richest, what they already have will never be enough. No matter how income inequality spirals out of control, no matter how absurd the gap between those on top and everybody else grows, they’ll look to take more. And the more that you make the people on the bottom dependent on charity, the less they’re able to protect their own interests.

Freddie asks us to “forgive the Marxian cant,” but this part sounds less like Marxism to me than republicanism. As I mentioned a couple posts back, I’m currently working my way through Philip Pettit’s Republicanism, a work of political philosophy which imagines a state dedicated to maximizing freedom through non-domination. Domination, Pettit argues is not the same as interference: domination is no less than the capacity to interfere in another’s affairs on an arbitrary basis, which is to say on a basis that has nothing to do with whether the other consents or objects.

Pettit describes the policy implications of his vision as being generally left-leaning, but he would clearly agree with Freddie and Mike about pity-charity liberalism. As long as political power remains concentrated at the top, he would argue, the rich will continue to dominate the poor.

I’m not all the way through Republicanism just yet, but I’m finding a lot to like in it so far. I’d encourage Freddie and other left-wing skeptics pity-charity liberalism to go check it out.

By the way, one last thing about the book that might interest fellow lefties from an organizing/messaging perspective: Marxian cant or no, Pettit identifies his vision of liberty as non-domination very closely with the American founders. I try to stay out of arguments that involve an appeal to authority, but someone more interested in that sort of thing could make the argument that his vision of maximizing non-domination is more in tune with traditional American values than the Tea Party is.

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One Response

  1. […] a term from Yglesias’ left-wing critics. Writers like Freddie deBoer, Mike Konczal, and Ned Resnikoff have faulted Yglesias for being an advocate of “pity-charity liberalism.” I don’t […]

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