Liberty and Government: Hindess and the History of Liberalism

By Ivison, Duncan | Alternatives: Global, Local, Political, February 2011 | Go to article overview
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Liberty and Government: Hindess and the History of Liberalism

Ivison, Duncan, Alternatives: Global, Local, Political


This article investigates Barry Hindess's distinctive interpretation of liberal political thought, and especially his analysis of liberalism's emphasis on the normative priority of liberty. For Hindess, drawing on Foucault's lectures on the history of early modern political thought and liberalism, liberty is an important aspect of liberal thought but so too is "government," understood in the broadest sense. Any genealogy of the liberal conception of freedom must, therefore, also deal with the nature of liberal government, understood as a distinctive "rationality" of government. Hindess' "realist" approach to political thought, his focus on the relationship between freedom and government and the extent to which liberalism governs not only through freedom but also in determining which agents and/or groups could not be governed in this way, offers a rich and unusual perspective on the nature of liberal freedom. The article concludes with an attempt to provide an account of liberty as a distinctly political value that incorporates aspects of Hindess' analysis and yet challenges it in other ways, especially with regard to the importance liberty plays in the way we conceive of the legitimate exercise of political power.


liberty, liberalism, power, government, Foucault

Liberalism has no essence but it does have a history. This means the term can be extended in a multiplicity of ways, albeit always within a certain range. Thus, one finds claims that Hobbes, Spinoza, Rousseau, Kant, Von Humbolt, Mill, Sidgwick, Rawls, and Hayek are all liberals of one kind or another, despite espousing often radically different philosophical and political views. In this article, I want to explore the distinctive interpretation of liberalism offered by Barry Hindess in range of articles and books over the past decade. (1) Although he draws extensively on the work of historians of political thought in order to put various strands of liberal political thought into historical context, his general approach is "realist," where this term refers not to metaphysical realism, or to the realism one finds in theories of international relations, but rather to political realism. I want to begin by saying something more about the nature of political realism.

Nietzsche claimed only that which has no history can be defined (a favorite quotation of Barry's), and so perhaps attempts to define liberalism are doomed to fail, or at least be uninteresting. But does that mean there is nothing we can say, in general, about liberalism? To claim something has an essence is distinct from making certain generalizations based on our understanding and evaluation of the particular history (or histories) of a concept or conception. The history of the uses of a concept will inevitably shape and constrain what we can do with it, but the very fact that we are historically aware of its different trajectories and contexts means we can at least attempt to understand that past and reshape its future. The boundaries of concepts are fuzzy and subject to variation and change. Liberalism, for example, can probably never be transformed into something approaching a claim about the virtue of the dictatorship of the proletariat, but that is not to say it cannot be bent to more radical or conservative ends, depending on context and historical circumstances.

If singular definitions of liberalism are of limited value, then what can we say about it? There are at least four broad tendencies or predilections we might associate with modern liberalism, each of which is shaped by other beliefs and values and together form different constellations that become more or less central to liberalism in different contexts and at different times. These include (a) a broad commitment to individual and social freedom; (b) to toleration; (c) to individualism and autonomy; and (d) to a suspicion of unlimited or discretionary power. In each case, of course, there are multiple variations and traditions, many aspects of which are often at odds or cross-purposes with each other.

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