Liberalism without Accountability

Gareth Fearn

Witnessing the scores of militarised police being deployed to round up student protesters, many people in the United States and across the world may be wondering what the difference is between supposedly progressive, liberal government and authoritarian, reactionary leaders like Donald Trump. The latter are certainly worse, but liberalism’s failures mean that the threat of authoritarianism is a less terrifying spectre than it ought to be.

Universities exemplify the crisis of liberalism. US universities, especially Ivy League institutions, rely heavily on large private donations and the profits from investing their endowments in hedge funds. Fees continue to rise to astonishing levels (nearly $90,000 a year all in at Columbia, though many students get financial assistance), even though universities and the financiers who run the funds make billions, while graduate incomes decline because of economic stagnation. The Biden administration has essentially acknowledged this, writing off more than $146 billion of student debt, though without challenging the hedge-fund model of the university system.

As the protesters rightly identify, universities have significant investments in arms and other companies that profit from the genocide in Gaza. Universities are hardly unique in this: many pension funds operate in a similar way, spreading risk by tracking groups of firms (for example the Dow Jones or the FTSE 100). Following these patterns of financialisation, it is difficult (but not impossible) to avoid investments in arms companies, oil and gas firms etc. It is even more difficult if you want to maximise your returns.

Many of the universities’ most generous billionaire donors openly support the Israeli government’s actions and buy into the idea that university students are dangerous radicals suppressing the free speech of others by expressing their own views. At the same time, right-wing politicians are attacking universities along similar lines, forcing some university presidents out of their jobs for their supposed tolerance of alleged antisemitism while others submit to congressional demands to restrict academic freedom.

This is a toxic combination: universities reliant on investment portfolios in a system where mega-profits are made by companies that threaten and destroy human life, influenced by an increasingly radicalised class of billionaires, teaching students whose degrees won’t earn them enough to pay off their loans, managed by supine administrators threatened by (or willingly collaborating with) a reactionary right, who have decided that young people’s minds are being turned against capitalism not by their own lived experience of austerity and racialised police violence but by ‘woke Marxist professors’. This situation has now met with a live-streamed genocide which is supported, and brazenly lied about, by political leaders and commentators who claim to stand for truth and justice. Students, like much of the public, cannot square the reality of what they see with the world as constructed by politicians and the media.

Under such circumstances, pitching tents, raising placards and demanding divestment are really quite mild-mannered responses. That they have been met, in many US universities, with militarised policing reflects the fragility of liberalism – in the face of the growing hegemony of the conservative right as well as its own inability to offer a future even to Ivy League college students, let alone the less privileged.

There is a refusal by liberals to accept accountability for the world they have created, through their support for wars in the Middle East, their acceptance of growing inequality and poverty, cuts to public services, glacial action on climate change and failure to create secure and meaningful jobs.

This could be a moment for significant reform, but it would require a challenge to at least some sections of capital. Changing university funding models means taking on Wall Street. Arms companies rely on US defence spending and its military interventions or proxy wars. Action on climate change means losses for fossil fuel companies, whose owners often fund the conservative right.

Liberals in the US and across Europe have decided they do not want to take on this challenge. Their latest wheeze is to de-risk investment in the hope that it will revitalise stagnating economies, while doing what they can to see off any challenge from the more progressive left. That means heavily policing and demonising protests, working with the right to undermine candidates and parties that do seek to challenge capital (and the status of liberal parties), and more generally polluting the political sphere with bullshit to blur the lines of accountability – as when the mayor of New York, Eric Adams, insinuated that the protests at Columbia were instigated by ‘external actors’, or a Princeton administrator allegedly fabricated stories about threats made to staff.

Liberalism has two core components: the protection of property rights and a notion of negative freedom grounded in human rights and political checks and balances. What we are now seeing in the US (and the UK, and elsewhere in Europe) is the defence of the former at the expense of the latter. Political leaders and university managers are undermining not only free expression but the role of the academy in holding political decisions to account. Large sections of the news media are engaged in holding the public to account rather than politicians. And, perhaps most fundamentally, the ballot box offers a choice only between the degree of authoritarianism and economic dysfunction available to voters. If this situation persists, not only in the US but across the world, then occupying a university building will seem like a picnic when compared with what may be coming down the road.


  • 3 May 2024 at 8:48am
    Stephen Rozhdestvenksy says:
    hyperbolic, hysterical, and inaccurate, but nicely written because it is a product of the same expensive education it criticses: i.e., the modern liberal left in a nutshell.

    • 3 May 2024 at 1:57pm
      David Hughes says: @ Stephen Rozhdestvenksy
      Your response seems to validate a lot of what he’s saying. It’s just a personal attack in place of actual engagement with the ideas and issues, in a nutshell.

    • 3 May 2024 at 3:26pm
      John MacKay says: @ David Hughes
      Indeed. Also seems to have misspelled his own last name, curiously enough.

    • 3 May 2024 at 3:57pm
      XopherO says: @ John MacKay
      And I am not sure he knows what hyperbolic and hysterical really mean - seems quite sober given the need to be to the point in a blog - 'nicely written'. And 'inaccurate' is an odd word to use. Nor is education per se criticised, but its funding and attacks on those with the temerity to query the world they live in, which I always thought was part of the point of an 'expensive education'. What is 'inexpensive education'?

    • 3 May 2024 at 8:44pm
      steve kay says: @ Stephen Rozhdestvenksy
      Hmm, I went to a state grammar school back in the sixties, but did not go on to uni, technical college or art school. This certainly does not make me modern, but what about being liberal, or a nut? As for left, anyone whose name Stephen is spelt with ph rather than v is certainly a left footer in Scotland.

    • 5 May 2024 at 9:42pm
      Gareth Fearn says: @ Stephen Rozhdestvenksy
      Stephen - Thanks for reading! At a bit of a loss how an article that critiques liberalism is also coming from the position of 'the liberal left', but happy to correct inaccuracies of there are any - i cant see any!

    • 8 May 2024 at 5:10pm
      Rory Allen says: @ Gareth Fearn
      I notice that your challenge has not met with a response. Mr R is not interested in facts, so asking him to provide them is unlikely to be successful. But as Stewart Lee's taxi driver said: you cam prove anything with facts, can't you?

  • 3 May 2024 at 5:49pm
    Oliver Cornell says:
    Great summary. Would like to see more analysis and a deeper look at the political economy of capitalism itself. Why universities are driven to increase student expenses and maximize their returns on their endowments to the detriment of student outcomes. It seems to me that the radical financialization of education along with other social institutions (social services) forces these institutions to prioritize profits over socially responsible outcomes.

    • 4 May 2024 at 12:08am
      Justin O'connor says: @ Oliver Cornell
      You might check out Adam Tooze’s two recent Chartbook posts on the political economy of Columbia University

    • 5 May 2024 at 9:47pm
      Gareth Fearn says: @ Justin O'connor
      Yes this is good, and Daniela Gabor has done something on Princeton and divestment - and most importantly so have the students themselves.

  • 4 May 2024 at 4:52am
    Khalid Mir says:
    Thank you for that interesting piece. Generally agree with the critique but think the last two points are pretty weak (and overly optimistic).

    The media in 'liberal' countries doesn't appear to be able to hold power to account and is in some sense actually a reflection of that power (imho). Also, what do you see 'coming down the road'? Are there, that is, any genuine alternatives? Liberalism,at the political level, may be a version of Zizek's " you can do anything you want, as long as it involves shopping." İ think it's more realistic to suggest that what's coming down the road might be *worse*: populist or right-wing governments/leaders.

    • 5 May 2024 at 9:59pm
      Gareth Fearn says: @ Khalid Mir
      Yes I think what is coming down the road may well be worse, with climate change there are likely to be no shortage of economic crises too!

    • 9 May 2024 at 10:06pm
      David Ascher says: @ Khalid Mir
      " you can do anything you want, as long as it involves shopping."

      Or isn't that another version of "freedom's just another word for nothing else to do?" Or Anatole France's "Both the rich and the poor are free to sleep under a bridge"?

      The de-radicalization of the late 60s youth rebellion, steering it to "personal fulfillment" and away from social responsibility was too perfect.

  • 4 May 2024 at 5:38pm
    Annie Smart says:
    As a Socialist myself (and retired academic and artist) I am tired of the way 'Liberal' is constantly used as a catch-all for anyone who is not definable as a Rightist or a Marxist. As if it is a 'movement'!? It's a meaningless term and as used here makes what might have been an interesting article quite trivial. Capital has entrenched itself behind the defend-able walls of international shell companies and complex fund relationships and the students' sweet request for disinvestment at best can be agreed to only performatively. Which is not to say that should not be done! But bottom line: America makes most of the war machinery sold to and used by the rest of the world. That's why it is the biggest and most important country. Nowt to do with its politics and other such myths. That's also why it is a violent country, a very violent country, because having millions and millions of guns in its domestic arena is an inevitable result of being the world center of arms production. These stonking great facts sit there while Biden and Trump cast trembling blows at each other. You would have to threaten my children for me to vote Trump (a realistic idea unfortunately and not a fantasy), but I have no faith that Biden will be any kind of 'answer'. Biden's gentlemanly respect for Bibi is, as the writer here infers, an inept liberalism, an incompetence that barely conceals the reality that the US is economically dependent on arms sales.

    • 5 May 2024 at 8:58am
      Chris says: @ Annie Smart
      I don't think 'liberal' here is a 'meaningless term ', but I do think the relationship between 'liberal values' and actually existing liberalism which fails to deliver on those values could be usefully explored elsewhere.

    • 10 May 2024 at 4:05pm
      Annie Smart says: @ Chris
      I agree with your inference that Fearn's article suffers from omissions simply due to length. But even the most lengthy and comprehensive analysis of this slippery, inadequate term 'liberal' is only going to run into many walls. It's become a useless catch-all, particularly here in the US where folk desperately attempt to re-define terms like liberal and 'democrat' to reflect their lived experiences and ambitions better. And in not having a 'thing', a movement to believe in, everything becomes fragmented only into the parts one is 'against'. Using 'liberal' defangs political action and experience, and where the word is used you find good people with no definable agenda, little analysis and an inability to inspire. So my view is, better to walk away from the abused and misused word and not use it as a philosophical leaky umbrella. It only obfuscates.

  • 6 May 2024 at 9:26am
    Michael Edwards says:
    Very welcome summary and warning. Very proud of these students & staff in universities everywhere.
    But I do wish that LR B would distinguish the US use of “liberal” to mean left or anti-capitalist from our European use as in neo-liberal.
    Michael Edwards, UCL

    • 9 May 2024 at 10:19pm
      David Ascher says: @ Michael Edwards
      There are many meanings tossed around for "liberal" in the US. Only the wacko neo-fascists call "liberals" anti-capitalist... And then only when they're trying to be polite. Liberals of the Nancy Pelosi, John Kerry, etc. stripe are adamantly NOT anti-capitalist. They try hard to make it clear that they L O V E love capitalism and "freedom" that accompanies it. There is very little daylight between the avowals of these American liberals and George Bush "conservatives".

      To the neo-fascists, "liberal" means somebody who "hates America", is a "closet commie atheist" who wants to take all my money earned by my hard work and give it to lazy black and brown people.

      We dreamed we saw Joe Hill last night, but it turned out to be Joe McCarthy.

  • 6 May 2024 at 9:38am
    Udith Dematagoda says:
    This is a fair analysis, but it seems to elide the fundamental disjunction at the heart of the liberal project. The political romanticism of individual rights was only ever a cover for its only central and core principle, which is - and always has been - the protection of property rights. This becomes abundantly clear every time the latter is threatened by the former. In other words, liberalism doesn't have two core components. It only has one.

  • 7 May 2024 at 9:38pm
    su fernandez says:
    Thank you for this. And for Justin O'Connor's direction to Tooze's Substack essays. One wonders, however, why the many faculty protesting with the students and writing in support of the protests, do not put themselves on the line--by resigning. In the US hundreds and hundreds, if not thousands of institutions of higher learning have small or even no endowment invested in the military-industrial complex. These institutions would be delighted, I am sure, to employ Tooze or Anahid Nersessian or Michael Hoffman, thereby ensuring their clean consciences.

  • 8 May 2024 at 5:01pm
    rjmzapater says:
    The slogan used to be that "the liberals of today are the fascists of tomorrow". Turned on its head nowadays by what we have been living it makes more sense to say that "the liberals of today are the fascists of today".

  • 8 May 2024 at 5:03pm
    Michael Willoughby says:
    Provocative and intriguing. Too many arguments in a short space and not enough unpacking and stats to totally convince me. I am sure you would have welcomed a higher word count.

  • 8 May 2024 at 9:35pm
    Michael McBrearty says:
    The students are discovering (in Marxist terms) that the economic base rules the political and academic and media superstructure. An honest intellectual in a bourgeois university, private or public, is behind enemy lines, their opinions always limited by the wealthy, conservative board of directors or anti-intellectual state legislators. Since Cold War One, the intellectuals have abandoned Socialism and the working class. The workers, who are thus kept ignorant of Marxism, fall prey to Fascists like Trump. But the workers are ignorant without the intellectuals and the intellectuals are powerless without the workers.

  • 10 May 2024 at 1:00pm
    CarpeDiem says:
    Thank you, Gareth, for this contribution.

    I have been thinking about the two core components of liberalism that you mention. It seems to me that while in theory they are meant to be universally applicable, in practice they are not, and it is a small and privileged subset of society which gets its property rights and freedoms protected, and at the expense of rights and freedoms of the rest (of us). Attempts to extend these rights and freedoms exposes the inherent chasm between the theory and practice of liberalism, so given the power structures that operate in society, such attempts will be met with a heavy handed suppression. As we see happening in University campuses in the US.

    Does this analysis make any sense at all ?

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