The Rhetoric of Liberalism

  • Michael Ryan
Part of the Language, Discourse, Society book series (LDS)


I have argued that the substance of social reality is figural or constructed, an effect of an arrangement of instituted tropes — the narrative of progress or ‘growth’ that transforms economic power structures into temporal figures of movement, the structuring of democracy as a displacement from popular participation to representational elitism, the metaphor of individual freedom that effaces interrelational social realities, the metonymic shaping of happiness on the mass level into fragmentary fetishes or part objects like drugs or sports, the patterning of sexuality as a doubly negated dynamic of repression and violent effusion, and so on. The substance of the social is constituted as these shaping procedures, these arrangements that create an effect or appearance of a pre-rhetorical reality that is ‘represented’ by existing institutions. What is interesting about such social-rhetorical structures is the tension they contain between the stabilization of the existing format and the forces that push against that stabilization, pushing it beyond its boundaries. In this chapter, I will consider how such tensions are played out in the social theory of liberalism.1


Civil Society Liberal Theory Individual Freedom Liberal Society Property Ownership 
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  1. 1.
    By ‘liberalism’ I mean the social theory of individualism. On liberalism in general, see R. M. Unger, Knowledge and Politics (New York: The Free Press, 1975), andGoogle Scholar
  2. T. Spragens, The Irony of Liberal Reason (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981). Spragens characterizes what he calls ‘Liberal Reason’ in the following way. It assumes that ‘human understanding, guided by the “natural light” of reason, can and should be autonomous. Moreover, it constitutes the norm and the means by reference to which all else is measured. It is possible and necessary to begin the search for knowledge with a clean slate. It is possible and necessary to base knowledge claims on a clear and distinct, indubitable, self-evident foundation. This foundation is to be composed of simple, unambiguous ideas or perceptions … The entire body of valid human knowledge is a unity, both in method and in substance … Genuine knowledge is in some sense certain, “verifiable”, and capable of being made wholly explicit’.Google Scholar
  3. 2.
    T. Paine, The Rights of Man (London: Penguin, 1979) p. 187.Google Scholar
  4. 3.
    J. Locke, Two Treatises of Government (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1980) p. 324.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    See S. Federici and L. Fortunati, Il grande Calibano: storia del corpo sociale ribelle nella prima fase del capitale (Milan: Angeli, 1984) for an account of the primary accumulation of capital in Europe as an accumulation of women’s power of species reproduction.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    T. Hobbes, Leviathan (London: Macmillan, 1962) p. 113.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    See C. B. MacPherson, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962). ‘The agreement to enter civil society does not create any new rights; it simply transfers to civil authority the powers men [sic] had in the state of nature to protect their natural rights’ (p. 218).Google Scholar
  8. 9.
    B. de Montesquieu, The Spirit of Laws (New York: Hafner, 1949) p. 109.Google Scholar
  9. 10.
    M. Wollstonecraft, The Vindication of the Rights of Woman (London: Penguin, 1978) p. 319.Google Scholar
  10. 11.
    J. S. Mill, ‘An Essay on the Subjection of Women’, in A Rossi (ed.) Essays in Sexual Equality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970) p. 222.Google Scholar
  11. 13.
    Charles Darwin, The Origin of the Species (New York: Collier, 1962) p. 27.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Michael Ryan 1989

Authors and Affiliations

  • Michael Ryan
    • 1
  1. 1.Northeastern UniversityUSA

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