Neither Liberal Nor Communitarian: Feminism, Political Theory,
PossibilityElizabeth Frazer And Nicola Lacey, The Politics Of
Community: A Feminist Critique Of The Liberal-Communitarian Debate
(Toronto: University Of Toronto Press, 1993).
In the guise of a standard treatment of an academic "debate," Frazer and
Lacey have written an extraordinary book, one that provides a superb model for
doing political theory. What appears at first to be yet another tired rehearsal
of academic arguments, is in fact a work that deftly analyzes, criticizes, and
extends vital points of view in both their political and theoretical contexts.
Moreover, the book is so straightforward and tightly argued that it ably sounds
and articulates postmodern themes without ever becoming mired in the bog of (all
too often undecipherable) performative writing.
Not content merely to survey the published literature said to constitute the
great "debate," Frazer and Lacey's engaged approach to political theory exhibits
broader interests than those circumscribed by the subtitle. Behind their
examination of the contentions between liberalism and communitarianism lie
several cognitive interests. First, Frazer & Lacey wish to identify and
question both the cultural backdrop and the ontological assumptions of
contemporary Anglo-American political theory. Second, they want to outline the
shape of a truly adequate political theory, one that can fully comprehend the
material realities (e.g. wage and occupational inequalities, sexual harassment,
and inequality of political power) of women's oppression. Finally, they are
concerned with what might be seen as a critical question for radical social and
political theory, namely: how is liberation possible?
Frazer and Lacey are keenly aware that political theorizing does not occur in
a vacuum. The contemporary controversies between liberals and communitarians
occur against the backdrop of the problems of modernity (pp. 163-167). Each
position in the "debate" emerges out of a particular type of response to those
problems, whether the "welfarist" impulse of liberals like Rawls and Dworkin
(staying with liberalism), or the "romantic" impulse of communitarians like
Macintyre (rejecting liberalism and opting for tradition). In fact, not only
does the debate make sense when read in this light, but it also becomes possible
to articulate an acceptable post-modernist alternative.
Most contemporary political theory also is premised upon unarticulated
assumptions. These assumptions sometimes concern the nature of human
subjectivity (embodied and situated, or not);sometimes the binary oppositions
that mark the vicissitudes of western thought (e.g., subject/object,
individual/society, public/private, male/female); and sometimes the relation of
traditional political theory to social and cultural phenomena (e.g., the
discourses and practices that currently inscribe women's oppression).
Theoretically self-conscious (refreshingly and explicitly so), Frazer and Lacey
identify the concepts of discourse and of practice as central terms in their
"analytic apparatus." Overall, their approach is that of critique, conceived as:
"first the analysis of existing reality to discover the power relations and
institutions, meanings and assumptions, and values that sustain it...[s]econd,
the analysis of texts (in this case the texts of political theory) to discover
the meanings, assumptions and values which make the argument make sense" (p.
20). In this context, then, Frazer and Lacey proclaim their commitment to both
feminist theory and feminist practice. Privileging neither the material aspects
of women's oppression nor the symbolic aspects, they view their feminist
critique of political theory as having three tasks: "first is the
reappropriation of normative concepts generally used in political theory in ways
that are insensitive or antipathetic to feminist concerns ...[s]econd, feminists
work practically against discriminatory, exclusionary, and oppressive
institutions. ...This second project...[p]resupposes a third: like political
theory feminism goes on to engage in prescriptive and utopian thought" (p. 38).
Frazer and Lacey's discussion of liberalism and communitarianism (which
comprises the bulk of the book) has two primary achievements to its credit.
First, it shows how both positions are inadequate in comprehending the realities
of women's oppression and in providing a useful framework for political theory.
Second, it results in a compelling alternative to both liberal and communitarian
As a political theory, liberalism has a great many faults — most of which
have been known and studied for quite some time. One of its faults (the
assumption of the autonomous agent or the disembodied self) has a fairly unique
character as "an ideal or model of human life which has emerged in this
particular form with the liberal tradition." Accepting the reality of social
constructionism, the historico- social determination of knowledge, one is left
with the conclusion that "if liberalism is true as asocial theory, this is only
because it is, in a wider sense, false" (p. 57). In other words, the very
existence of liberalism denies its fundamental ontological assumptions.
Moreover, despite recent moves (especially by Rawls) toward acknowledging the
social, liberalism ultimately fails because it cannot conceive of political life
in general, or of women's oppression in particular, in other than
individualistic and legalistic terms (e.g., Treating sexual harassment as merely
another form of discrimination). Frazer and Lacey also offer the traditional
attacks upon liberal theorizing — the ontological and political limitations of
contract theory, as well as the distinction between the public and the private
spheres. In short, their "feminist critique suggests that in many areas of
social life the progressive potential of liberalism has been exhausted, and that
an alternative political analysis must be developed" (p. 78).
The various strands of communitarianism constitute one such alternative
analysis. Communitarianism is an attractive possibility for feminism because
both views share an "approach to the social construction of human nature and
identity [which]leads naturally if not necessarily into both a constructionist
approach to political and moral value, and a substantive notion of political
value which gives a central place to ... Public goods" (p. 109). However much
communitarianism and feminism may share in their critique of liberalism, though,
the two perspectives part company when the communitarian critique becomes a
neo-romantic celebration of "community," "tradition," the "family," or
"fraternity." (as is evident, the very terms used by communitarians to
articulate their position are both theory-and gender-laden.) Acceptance of
communitarianism as it is currently conceived thus runs the risk of reproducing
the sexism and patriarchy embedded in a given culture, of ensuring that women do
not attain full membership (having both voice and power) in the political
community. In the end, just as liberalism could not succeed by virtue of its
conceptual blindness, so communitarianism must fail because it cannot escape the
conservative implications of its opaque concepts.
Like the German Greens who were neither right nor left, but ahead, Frazer and
Lacey prefer not to take sides in the liberal-communitarian debate. Instead,
they stake out a position they call "dialogic communitarianism," which
emphasizes universal access to political institutions, relational processes of
mutual recognition and identity formation, the importance of authentic ethical
and political dialogue amid acknowledged and accepted diversity. This position
derives from a variety of sources: Hegelian philosophy, psychoanalysis, the
sociology of knowledge, communitarianism, deconstruction, and socialist feminism
— an intriguing, if not problematic, pedigree.
Key to the position is a conception of the "relational self," which in
contrast to the dualistic conceptions found in liberalism and communitarianism,
"nicely captures our empirical and logical interdependence and the centrality to
our identity of our relations with others and with practices and institutions,
whilst retaining an idea of human uniqueness and discreteness as central to our
sense of ourselves" (p. 178). Also central to Frazer and Lacey's position are
two political commitments (pp.190-193): one to a fundamentally egalitarian
conception of citizenship (including the concrete conditions necessary for such
citizenship), and the other to the elimination of oppression through "a
political framework and a political practice which give a central place to
dialogue and the ongoing democratic involvement of members of the political
Toward the end of the book, Frazer and Lacey raise the question of how
critique (and ultimately, liberation) is possible if we are embedded within
communities and practices that are in many ways oppressive. "if feminism is to
be a merely 'internal 'critique, we need to know much more about where the
sources of critical insight emerge within dominant traditions and practices"(p.
139). One such source can be found in the diversity of communities found in
(post-)modern societies: "the communitarian subject is exposed not just to one
predominant cultural discourse but to multiple discourses" (p. 155).
Another such source can be found through a deconstruction of the opposition
between agency and structure, which leads Frazer and Lacey to observe that
though existing modes of legitimation perpetuate the status quo, they fall short
of actually determining the course of social history (p. 173). Thus, "both the
multiplicity of meaning-generating communities and the openness of social
structures lay the groundwork for the development of dissent, struggle and
change" (p. 202). Finally, the very conception of the relational self, embracing
both connection and separation, provides people with an opportunity for critical
reflection, especially through a variety of (formal and informal)
Underneath the book's apparently standard approach to an otherwise sterile
academic "debate," then, lies an intriguing focus on the category of possibility
— a category that is too little explored, even in radical or transformative
Leonard Williams is Associate Professor of Political Science at
Manchester College (Indiana). He is currently working on a book entitled
Ideolological Change and American Liberalism.
© CTheory. All Rights Reserved