Neither Liberal Nor Communitarian: Feminism, Political Theory, Possibility


Neither Liberal Nor Communitarian: Feminism, Political Theory, Possibility

Elizabeth Frazer And Nicola Lacey,
The Politics Of Community: A Feminist Critique Of The Liberal-Communitarian Debate
(Toronto: University Of Toronto Press, 1993).

In the guise of a standard treatment of an academic “debate,” Frazer and Lacey have written an extraordinary book, one that provides a superb model for doing political theory. What appears at first to be yet another tired rehearsal of academic arguments, is in fact a work that deftly analyzes, criticizes, and extends vital points of view in both their political and theoretical contexts. Moreover, the book is so straightforward and tightly argued that it ably sounds and articulates postmodern themes without ever becoming mired in the bog of (all too often undecipherable) performative writing.

Not content merely to survey the published literature said to constitute the great “debate,” Frazer and Lacey’s engaged approach to political theory exhibits broader interests than those circumscribed by the subtitle. Behind their examination of the contentions between liberalism and communitarianism lie several cognitive interests. First, Frazer & Lacey wish to identify and question both the cultural backdrop and the ontological assumptions of contemporary Anglo-American political theory. Second, they want to outline the shape of a truly adequate political theory, one that can fully comprehend the material realities (e.g. wage and occupational inequalities, sexual harassment, and inequality of political power) of women’s oppression. Finally, they are concerned with what might be seen as a critical question for radical social and political theory, namely: how is liberation possible?

Frazer and Lacey are keenly aware that political theorizing does not occur in a vacuum. The contemporary controversies between liberals and communitarians occur against the backdrop of the problems of modernity (pp. 163-167). Each position in the “debate” emerges out of a particular type of response to those problems, whether the “welfarist” impulse of liberals like Rawls and Dworkin (staying with liberalism), or the “romantic” impulse of communitarians like Macintyre (rejecting liberalism and opting for tradition). In fact, not only does the debate make sense when read in this light, but it also becomes possible to articulate an acceptable post-modernist alternative.

Most contemporary political theory also is premised upon unarticulated assumptions. These assumptions sometimes concern the nature of human subjectivity (embodied and situated, or not);sometimes the binary oppositions that mark the vicissitudes of western thought (e.g., subject/object, individual/society, public/private, male/female); and sometimes the relation of traditional political theory to social and cultural phenomena (e.g., the discourses and practices that currently inscribe women’s oppression). Theoretically self-conscious (refreshingly and explicitly so), Frazer and Lacey identify the concepts of discourse and of practice as central terms in their “analytic apparatus.” Overall, their approach is that of critique, conceived as: “first the analysis of existing reality to discover the power relations and institutions, meanings and assumptions, and values that sustain it…[s]econd, the analysis of texts (in this case the texts of political theory) to discover the meanings, assumptions and values which make the argument make sense” (p. 20). In this context, then, Frazer and Lacey proclaim their commitment to both feminist theory and feminist practice. Privileging neither the material aspects of women’s oppression nor the symbolic aspects, they view their feminist critique of political theory as having three tasks: “first is the reappropriation of normative concepts generally used in political theory in ways that are insensitive or antipathetic to feminist concerns …[s]econd, feminists work practically against discriminatory, exclusionary, and oppressive institutions. …This second project…[p]resupposes a third: like political theory feminism goes on to engage in prescriptive and utopian thought” (p. 38).

Frazer and Lacey’s discussion of liberalism and communitarianism (which comprises the bulk of the book) has two primary achievements to its credit. First, it shows how both positions are inadequate in comprehending the realities of women’s oppression and in providing a useful framework for political theory. Second, it results in a compelling alternative to both liberal and communitarian positions.

As a political theory, liberalism has a great many faults — most of which have been known and studied for quite some time. One of its faults (the assumption of the autonomous agent or the disembodied self) has a fairly unique character as “an ideal or model of human life which has emerged in this particular form with the liberal tradition.” Accepting the reality of social constructionism, the historico- social determination of knowledge, one is left with the conclusion that “if liberalism is true as asocial theory, this is only because it is, in a wider sense, false” (p. 57). In other words, the very existence of liberalism denies its fundamental ontological assumptions.

Moreover, despite recent moves (especially by Rawls) toward acknowledging the social, liberalism ultimately fails because it cannot conceive of political life in general, or of women’s oppression in particular, in other than individualistic and legalistic terms (e.g., Treating sexual harassment as merely another form of discrimination). Frazer and Lacey also offer the traditional attacks upon liberal theorizing — the ontological and political limitations of contract theory, as well as the distinction between the public and the private spheres. In short, their “feminist critique suggests that in many areas of social life the progressive potential of liberalism has been exhausted, and that an alternative political analysis must be developed” (p. 78).

The various strands of communitarianism constitute one such alternative analysis. Communitarianism is an attractive possibility for feminism because both views share an “approach to the social construction of human nature and identity [which]leads naturally if not necessarily into both a constructionist approach to political and moral value, and a substantive notion of political value which gives a central place to … Public goods” (p. 109). However much communitarianism and feminism may share in their critique of liberalism, though, the two perspectives part company when the communitarian critique becomes a neo-romantic celebration of “community,” “tradition,” the “family,” or “fraternity.” (as is evident, the very terms used by communitarians to articulate their position are both theory-and gender-laden.) Acceptance of communitarianism as it is currently conceived thus runs the risk of reproducing the sexism and patriarchy embedded in a given culture, of ensuring that women do not attain full membership (having both voice and power) in the political community. In the end, just as liberalism could not succeed by virtue of its conceptual blindness, so communitarianism must fail because it cannot escape the conservative implications of its opaque concepts.

Like the German Greens who were neither right nor left, but ahead, Frazer and Lacey prefer not to take sides in the liberal-communitarian debate. Instead, they stake out a position they call “dialogic communitarianism,” which emphasizes universal access to political institutions, relational processes of mutual recognition and identity formation, the importance of authentic ethical and political dialogue amid acknowledged and accepted diversity. This position derives from a variety of sources: Hegelian philosophy, psychoanalysis, the sociology of knowledge, communitarianism, deconstruction, and socialist feminism — an intriguing, if not problematic, pedigree.

Key to the position is a conception of the “relational self,” which in contrast to the dualistic conceptions found in liberalism and communitarianism, “nicely captures our empirical and logical interdependence and the centrality to our identity of our relations with others and with practices and institutions, whilst retaining an idea of human uniqueness and discreteness as central to our sense of ourselves” (p. 178). Also central to Frazer and Lacey’s position are two political commitments (pp.190-193): one to a fundamentally egalitarian conception of citizenship (including the concrete conditions necessary for such citizenship), and the other to the elimination of oppression through “a political framework and a political practice which give a central place to dialogue and the ongoing democratic involvement of members of the political community.”

Toward the end of the book, Frazer and Lacey raise the question of how critique (and ultimately, liberation) is possible if we are embedded within communities and practices that are in many ways oppressive. “if feminism is to be a merely ‘internal ‘critique, we need to know much more about where the sources of critical insight emerge within dominant traditions and practices”(p. 139). One such source can be found in the diversity of communities found in (post-)modern societies: “the communitarian subject is exposed not just to one predominant cultural discourse but to multiple discourses” (p. 155).

Another such source can be found through a deconstruction of the opposition between agency and structure, which leads Frazer and Lacey to observe that though existing modes of legitimation perpetuate the status quo, they fall short of actually determining the course of social history (p. 173). Thus, “both the multiplicity of meaning-generating communities and the openness of social structures lay the groundwork for the development of dissent, struggle and change” (p. 202). Finally, the very conception of the relational self, embracing both connection and separation, provides people with an opportunity for critical reflection, especially through a variety of (formal and informal) consciousness-raising practices.

Underneath the book’s apparently standard approach to an otherwise sterile academic “debate,” then, lies an intriguing focus on the category of possibility — a category that is too little explored, even in radical or transformative political theory.

Leonard Williams is Associate Professor of Political Science at Manchester College (Indiana). He is currently working on a book entitled Ideolological Change and American Liberalism.