Liberalism started as being about freedom, equality and fraternity, but it took off in different directions. The dominant form these days is very conservative in the sense that while it may talk about “institutional racism”, it is always framed as a collection of individuals. I call that conservative because it emphasizes individual responsibility and that is because it is based on a more traditional metaphysics of atomized agency. I never hear anyone with influence using the term “superstructure” so popular in Marxism. Margaret Thatcher, one of the first to implement neoliberalism, (which has its roots in the economic arguments of anarchocapitalists), famously declared “there is no society”, by which she meant that society is just a bunch of individuals.
While blaming society can be disempowering, the problem isn’t so much the emphasis on system as the quality of focus. As usual, it comes down to the metaphysics. Scapegoating is a byproduct of reductive thinking that ceases to appreciate the complex dependencies, reciprocal determinations, feedbacks… in short it looks for a cause to target and eliminate. In contrast, critical metaphysics looks for a system to understand and only intervenes and places responsibility after careful contextualization with that knowledge. What the Right calls “extreme Leftists” these days are more like extreme liberals in the sense that they may blame the system, but to them the system is a bunch of white men with no morals that need to be replaced. This is not radical at all. It is more moralizing conservatism. They have more in common with the extreme Right that blame the elite for everything but are drawn into their own power politics. So shifting the emphasis to the system should not entail no responsibility, but it shouldn’t devolve into blame. It should understand the context before demanding accountability. Otherwise we just get more of the same.
On the other hand, thinking conservatives and intelligent socialists also have a lot in common. I would say I am conservative in the sense of being skeptical of attempts at radical change, since they often do more harm than good, or mask things that are even worse. On the other hand I think radical change is necessary and possible. Perhaps not rapid change for the better; though rapid change may be forced on us, it is unlikely to be for the better without some conservative skepticism about the reality of any changes. Like Marxists have been pointing out since they began, real change demands the right conditions. Everyone these days is obsessed with quick change, either making it happen or trying to stop what is moving too fast for anyone to understand. On the other side of these more or less conservative brands of liberalism, there is the thinker. As “Marxist” philosopher Slavoj Zizek told Occupy when they were all fired up for changing what they had very little understanding of: “Don’t just act. Think”.
So as many have pointed out concerning patterns of assigning responsibility in politics, liberals tend more towards the social, conservatives more towards the individual, but in reality most people have various combinations of those influences.
The problem I see is that those combinations are still very polarized along different lines and that keeps us from organizing and changing society while we engage in these pointless culture wars. For instance, we all know there is a problem with our food and medical systems, but whether we blame people or the system, or whether we blame both as most reasonable people do, conservative or liberal, we still aren’t seeing the problem because we aren’t actually seeing the concrete relations of the system. That keeps our society arguing over how exactly to divide blame rather than discussing how to make helpful changes.
The problem with blame in general is that it cannot grasp the relations that actually constitute everything, every system. Blame is a natural consequence of having a metaphysical worldview based on atomized individual agents, something that we all have internalized living in this liberal society. Conservatives are often “classical liberals” and so have a hard time with compassion despite often professing Christian morals because they no longer live in a world that makes that kind of compassion meaningful. So many liberals have pity for victims but have a hard time seeing or discussing the context and reasons that created their suffering, which could turn pity into a helpful compassion. They often project the victim/aggressor model onto society when no immediate scapegoat is available, and then society just becomes another projection/abstraction of a poorly understood relation, instead of a concrete expression of the relations that are meaningful in the situation. The fat person is fat because of a whole system of relations that need to be understood if they are to be helped. Blaming them doesn’t help, blaming society doesn’t help, pretending it is all relative and there is no problem with obesity is ridiculous no matter how well intentioned when we know we have a huge health problem and an obesity epidemic.
This may sound complex or abstract, but in actual fact it is more concrete and helps cut through the abstractions we all let confuse us. Which is why I am passionate about philosophy and find it problematic when people frame it as “speculation” or some indulgent thing overeducated people do or that we can do too much of in some absolute sense. It is something we all do all the time, it is thinking itself, though we can do it better or worse depending on how conscious we are of our thinking; but not just in some watchful/mindful sense. We need to think through our assumptions and where they lead. Real spirituality in this age is more than just inner experience of the self. It must include a spiritual perception of otherness, the world, in other words it must include the mind. This comes from thought taken to its higher levels in intuition and even illumination, clairvoyance, etc. We all can experience some of these psychic realities and they are necessary for true compassion. Without understanding someone in all their karma, we risk turning them into a pure victim or scapegoat and missing the context that is important for true change. This must be something that involves our own responsibility as well as the person or indeed persons plural we label as society. True understanding of society must start with our own responsibility, or own assumptions and perspectives and how they are shaped by and part of shaping everyone else. We can then see that every person is an expression of society and society and expression of every person. We are all to blame, or more rightly, we are all involved with learning how to create the world and experiences we want to explore together. This requires we face some difficult truths concerning dependent relations between things like our freedom and another’s suffering. It goes beyond any simple causal line of blame and leads to a web of relations that can illuminate the best interventions and strategies.