Feminism, the Public and the Private

By Joan B. Landes | Go to book overview

19
Dealing With Difference: A Politics of Ideas or a Politics of Presence?

Anne Phillips

In the post-communist world of the 1980s and 1990s, liberalism and liberal democracy have achieved an impressive ascendancy, and can more plausibly present themselves as the only legitimate bases for equality, justice or democracy. Critics, of course, remain, but the grounds of complaint have shifted considerably. For many years, the central arguments against liberalism fell into three broad categories: that the liberal emphasis on individual freedoms and rights reflected a self-protective and competitive egotism that refused any wider community; that the liberal focus on 'merely political equalities ignored or even encouraged gross inequalities in social and economic life; and that the liberal consolidation of representative democracy reduced the importance of more active citizen participation. None of these complaints has disappeared, but each has been reformulated in terms of diversity and difference. Feminist theorists, in particular, have identified liberalism with an abstract individualism that ignores its own gendered content, and many have criticized the homogenizing ideals of equality that require us to be or become the same.1 Accusations of gender-blindness and race- or ethnicity-blindness have added weight to older complaints that liberalism is blind to class. At a moment when most political theorists have situated themselves more firmly in the liberal tradition, liberalism is extensively criticized for erasing diversity and difference.

From the standpoint of that much-maligned visitor from Mars (whose technical brilliance in negotiating the journey always combines with an astonishing ignorance of political ideas) it might

Reprinted by permission from Constellations, 1/1 ( 1994), 74-91. Copyright © Blackwell Publishers Ltd ( 1994). The work for this article was made possible by a Social Science Research Fellowship from the Nuffield Foundation, 1992-3, and the first version was presented as 'Democracy and Difference: Changing Boundaries of the Political'. Annual Conference for the Study of Political Thought at Yale University, New Haven, Conn., Apr. 1993.

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