How to Spot a Liberal By Joe Crawford, University of Stirling

Quliberalestion: What is the opposite of a critical urbanist?

Answer: A liberal academic

They’re everywhere. Don’t get me wrong, they’re lovely people, and some of them do very good work. But they’re liberals, and of that fact, one must always be aware (and on one’s guard), lest one be tricked into thinking, as liberals do, that the world is just as it appears, empirically verifiable, with no hidden dimensions lurking beneath the shadowy surface.

So to help you, here’s a quick guide on ‘How to Spot a Liberal’.

Liberals are champions of commonsense thinking and see a political bias (which they perceive as a left wing bias) in critical thinkers’ refusal to accept the world as it presents itself. Liberals also tend to ignore the fact that submission to the dominant order is in itself an entirely political act[1] (early warning – if you flinched at the words ‘dominant order’, you might just be suffering from some form of liberalism).

At dinner parties critical urbanists will say things like ‘all science would be superfluous if the manifest form of things and their essence coincided’[2], or ‘commonsense is a political relation, as are the categories of perception that sustain it’[3]. Liberals, on the other hand tend to talk about ‘actual politics’ (that’s the boring stuff that goes on between people who are officially recognised as ‘politicians’ i.e. people like Dave, Nick and Ed- known in Scotland as the Three Amigos). They concern themselves with ‘real worldy’ things like policy and free-market economics.

They also tend to do much better than non-liberals when it comes to promotional prospects in the academy. While critical urbanists have to hot-desk in shared office spaces and buy their own pencils and jotters, liberal academics get entire rooms to themselves, with mahogany furniture and a regular slot as a pundit on Newsnight.

Liberals talk about things like ‘evidence-based policy’, and reproduce, often without question, the concepts created via official discourse which in effect reproduce the language of governance (Newspeak to use an Orwelian term) rather than opening a space for critical inquiry.

They equate critical thinking with ‘moaning about stuff’ and invariably avoid reading articles or attending conference papers which have the word ‘Neoliberalism’ in the title, a word they deem to be not only vacuous, but a clear indication of the author’s intention to bleat on about how rubbish everything is.

More importantly, (we’re getting technical now so if you’re losing the will to live, then, I’m afraid you’re suspicions might be well placed. Yes. YOU could very well be a liberal). Liberals derive their ‘power’ from the efficacy of the double naturalization process which arises when mental structures (the categories of perception that persons apply to all things of the world) are more or less adequately adjusted to objective structures (the external world) giving the impression that everything in the world is just as it should be, natural, right, groovy and great! What liberals fail to adequately account for is the fact that when it comes to the production of these categories of perception, these epistemological couples (individual/collective, profit/loss, rights/responsibilities, etc.) the state operates on an industrial scale churning out, through the smog of ‘official discourse’, the rules and regulations, the laws, the guidelines, on how things should and should not be done, as well as the very definition of social problems and their solutions.

As Bourdieu (1994) warns, the state creates ‘social’ problems (through official discourse and processes of problematisation), which academics do little more than ratify when they take them over as ‘sociological’ problems. Liberals (mistakenly) see a hint of cynicism in the ‘radical doubt’ (Bourdieu 1994) that critical urbanists apply to their analyses of the state, particularly to the symbolic dimension, which masks, and thereby strengthens, relations of domination and exploitation by hiding them under a cloak of ‘nature’, ‘benevolence’ and ‘meritocracy’.

So be alert. Liberals don’t see the social world in this way. That’s the difference between them and us 🙂


Joe Crawford, PhD researcher, University of Stirling



Bourdieu, P (1994) Rethinking the State: Genesis and Structure of the Bureaucratic Field. Sociological Theory 12: 1



[1] Jeremy Paxman – the doyen of liberal thought, had to publicly admit (apologise) that the BBC had the ‘wool pulled over its eyes’ regarding WMDs and the Iraq war This folly could have been avoided had Paxman bothered to read Machiavelli while at Cambridge.

[2] Marx Capital Volume Three

[3] Bourdieu Language and Symbolic Power