||An enormously influential western political theory that underpins modern democracy and more. It structures political systems, bureaucracies, our notions of citizenship, and self, and is often (though not always) conjoint to capitalism. Liberalism is usually called a protean political theory because its emphasis has changed over the centuries and in different places. Gray (1986), however, has suggested four strands in liberal thought, outlined below. Amidst these themes, its relationship to geographic thought is best characterized as equivocal. On the one hand, there are affirmative links between the two bodies of thought, where the two theoretical domains clearly reflect and reinforce each other (see discourse). On the other hand, there have been numerous critiques of liberalism in which geographies have participated insightfully.
Individualism. The individual is the principal focus and unit of analysis in liberal thinking. The liberal individual is delimited by the body and holds certain inalienable rights, achieves self-worth and knowledge (in other words, his/ her idea of \'the good\') through exercises of freedom. For liberals, then, individual liberty to pursue the good is the primary social good in society (in some strands of liberalism this point is argued to be a natural human condition). In order to argue this point, liberals must hold a certain sceptical and ambivalent attitude toward the state. It is a necessary evil: on the one hand guaranteeing freedoms (and this should be its only aim), while on the other constantly threatening other freedoms when it tries to carry this very function! There is deep suspicion of state authority, especially in determining the nature of \'the good\'. Politics is conceptualized as a morally neutral arena where individuals seek to maximize their pursuit of the good. This is sometimes summarized as \'the priority of the right over the good\' (Mouffe, 1993), meaning that individual rights should trump any broader social, collective definition of \'the good\' should the two conflict. By drawing distinctions between private and public spheres, liberals limit state power and force or create forums where individuals\' freedoms are guaranteed. Here we can see how liberalism reinforces the hegemony of capitalism, since profit-making and a capacity to sell one\'s own labour are validated as freedoms.
Emphases on individualism are found at several turns in geographic thought. Neo-classical economic geography\'s homo economicus (see rational choice theory) is informed clearly by this perspective. humanistic geography, in a rather different way, also celebrates the integrity and primacy of the individual. In political geography, liberalism influences debates over jurisdictional partitioning\'s consequences for individual rights and freedoms (gerrymandering; electoral geography; districting algorithm). Most recently, geographers have been interested in how much public and private spheres are spatialized.
Within political theory, communitarians characteristically criticize liberalism\'s individualism as socially thin, atomizing, and amoral. They challenge liberalism by declaring \'the priority of the good over the right\', thus linking politics and morality at a social, contextual scale. In geography, strains of communitarian thought might be detected paradoxically in both Marxist and Humanistic authors, insofar as both draw broader moral arguments into their understandings of political action. Marxism, however, especially rejects the radical individualism ideological subterfuge (Harvey, 1973; cf. Marxist geography), while Humanism depicts a less instrumental, fuller psyche for agents.
Egalitarianism. According to liberal theory, all citizens have equal political standing and moral worth in society. Egalitarianism is a necessary corollary to the liberal individualism, since it would be logically inconsistent to argue for human freedoms but then claim that certain people\'s freedoms are more vital than others. Geographers interested in social justice have certainly manifested liberalism (Smith, 1994). post-structural geographers are currently interested in how to sustain egalitarianism while simultaneously appreciating difference and diversity (see radical democracy). In the post-war era, some theorists have claimed the rise of neo-liberalism. While difficult to pin down because it is used quite differently in different places, it signals an endorsement of egalitarian diversity (often depicted as the outcome of social movements\' struggles since the 1960s), though it is caught in debates over the extent to which the state should pursue (and pay for) this aim. neo-liberalism seems to underpin the new middle class that Ley (1991) associates with gentrification.
Universalism. Liberalism argues an overarching, trumping unity to the human species and places historical and geographical social arrangements as secondary or contingent. The essentialism of the human subject is echoed in humanistic and neoclassical thinking of course, but geography\'s idiographic tendencies have always provided a challenge to this tenet. Most recently, and more sophisticatedly, postmodern geographers of various stripes have worked over this point. Feminists exposed the patriarchy in liberal ideas that are grounded in an exclusively male individual, undermining not only its claims to universalism but egalitarianism as well (Marston, 1990). This sexism not only excludes the subject of women from politics and citizenship, but also ignores a priori forms and location of action that may well be considered political. Similar arguments have been made with respect to exclusionary heterosexism. Likewise, a major thrust of post-colonialism has been directed at the racism and cultural violence of liberal individualism promulgated by imperialism (e.g. Hyndman, 1997). How, for example, does the UN declaration of human rights violate indigenous communal or natural ontologies of the self?
Meliorism. Liberalism is an essentially optimistic and progressive worldview, believing fundamentally that political institutions and social arrangements can be improved upon by human effort. Thus the most compelling arguments in early radical (and critical human) geography work from the liberal assumption that social institutions can be improved, hence the point of critique. Likewise, applied geography\'s focus is clearly grounded in this strand of liberalism. This belief, however, has suffered under the more extreme nihilism sometimes associated with postmodernism, since a major consequence of that thinking has been the impossibility of removing oneself from the exercises of power that inevitably cause oppression. Here we might note a series of reflexive essays and editorials in the last decade that have posed questions of meliorism in geographic research (e.g. Barnes and Gregory, 1997).Â (MPB)
References Barnes, T. and Gregory, D., eds, 1997: Reading human geography. London: Arnold.Â Gray, J. 1986: Liberalism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.Â Harvey, D. 1973: Social justice and the city. London: Arnold and Baltimore: Johns Hopkins.Â Hyndman, J. 1997: Border crossings. Antipode 29: 149-76.Â Ley, D. 1991: Gentrification and the politics of the new middle class. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 12: 53-74.Â Marston, S. 1990: Who are \'the people\'? Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 8: 449-58.Â Mouffe, C. 1993: The return of the political. London: Verso.Â Smith, D.M. 1994: Geography and social justice. Oxford: Blackwell.
Suggested Reading Gray, J. 1986: Liberalism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.Â Kymlicka, W. 1990: Contemporary political philosophy. New York: Oxford University Press.Â Sandel, M. 1984: Liberalism and its critics. New York: New York University Press.