Art After Liberalism, Part 2: A Brief Theory of Postliberalism
Post #1903 • November 9, 2021, 4:00 PM • 1 Comment
["Art After Liberalism" is a paper rejected by the 53rd Congress of the International Association of Art Critics (AICA), supported instead by readers. Index: Proposal, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5.]
As Martin Luther King put it so beautifully in 1960:
Of course there is one phase of liberalism that I hope to cherish always: its devotion to the search for truth, its insistence on an open and analytical mind, its refusal to abandon the best light of reason. Liberalism's contribution to the philological-historical criticism of biblical literature has been of immeasurable value and should be defended with religious and scientific passion.
It was mainly the liberal doctrine of man that I began to question. The more I observed the tragedies of history and man's shameful inclination to choose the low road, the more I came to see the depths and strength of sin. My reading of the works of Reinhold Niebuhr made me aware of the complexity of human motives and the reality of sin on every level of man's existence. Moreover, I came to recognize the complexity of man's social involvement and the glaring reality of collective evil. I came to feel that liberalism had been all too sentimental concerning human nature and that it leaned toward a false idealism.
I also came to see that liberalism's superficial optimism concerning human nature caused it to overlook the fact that reason is darkened by sin. The more I thought about human nature the more I saw how our tragic inclination for sin causes us to use our minds to rationalize our actions. Liberalism failed to see that reason by itself is little more than an instrument to justify man's defensive ways of thinking. Reason, devoid of the purifying power of faith, can never free itself from distortions and rationalizations.
One of the most dependable axioms of human nature is that there is no ethos that is so perfect that no one can apply it badly. Liberalism, particularly as I laid it out in Part 1, is at most a set of guidelines that encourage human flourishing. It is magnificent that any human beings anywhere were able to arrive upon them, especially given human beings' often disgusting track record. But liberalism too can be applied badly. Blake Smith, on the work of Judith Shklar:
...Shklar argued that we need to be afraid not only of physical cruelty committed by officials and police, but of the “moral cruelty” committed by those who claim to hate oppression. Drawing on the ideas of Friedrich Nietzsche—whom she considered one of the most dangerous enemies of liberal democracy—Shklar warned that liberalism can degenerate into a cult of victimhood that permits our sadistic desires to be passed off as unimpeachable virtue. ...Shklar argued that liberals should see cruelty as the greatest of evils. But cruelty does not appear only in the form of physical violence, and is not committed only by the state. Shklar suggested that liberalism may be destroyed from within by liberals’ well-intentioned efforts to eradicate cruelty.
Herein lies the clue as to why liberalism is losing ground in the aftermath of sundry and increasingly frequent upheavals. Progressives, you'll recall from Part 1, want to defend the oppressed from oppression. But progressive liberals eventually find that liberalism is standing in the way of the fullest extent of that project. I emphasize "fullest extent" because in the main, liberalism successfully uplifts the oppressed and mitigates oppression. Regarding everyone as existentially equal is the greatest attack upon oppression in all of human history, and has done more than anything yet to empower the oppressed. Much the same can be said for the sanctity of the individual, the culture of tolerance, and market allocation of resources.
But liberalism cannot be asked to solve every human woe. It was never designed for that. Markets enrich the poor, but generate inequality in the process. (This is the preferable outcome between the two, by the way. It is much more important to ameliorate absolute poverty than relative poverty, and the latter is an entirely acceptable price to pay for the mitigation of the former. But the evils of inequality are practically an article of faith among progressives.) The sanctity of the individual grates upon top-down efforts to solve large-scale problems, such as pandemics or climate change. The culture of tolerance demands that we exercise humility about what might be prohibited as "hate speech" or misinformation, thus they can only be countered with speech, and nothing more forceful. Existential equality is standing in the way of, among other things, reparations, and the implementation of the Kendian idea that the remedy for past discrimination is present discrimination. Thus some kind of post-liberal arrangement beckons. The project of progressivism, if it is to progress, would seem to demand it.
It goes likewise for the conservatives, whose main concern is the defense of civilization against barbarism. Some of them maintain that the sanctity of the individual has devolved into a solipsistic cult of the self that worships personal fulfillment at the expense of interpersonal obligations. They feel that the culture of tolerance has bred a culture of intolerance for people who don't assent to every progressive demand or don't want to normalize every gyration at the fringe of culture. They fear that markets have handed power over to a quasi-cartel of corporations that disdain their values, and has no higher value to replace them except conformity and consumerism. And whenever they stand up for existential equality—the colorblind society, equality of opportunity, impartial justice, and so on—the progressives accuse them of racism. Thus some kind of post-liberal arrangement beckons them too. The project of conservatism, if it is to conserve anything, including itself, would seem to demand it.
Even some of the libertarians, who in general are the great defenders of liberalism of our time, have grown dissatisfied with liberalism. This gives rise to apparently paradoxical movements like anarcho-monarchism that advocate for a kind of night-watchman feudalism. They and other libertarians in this category harbor doubts that, pace the Declaration of Independence, there's anything self-evident about the claim that all men are created equal. If that falls, the question arises as to whether natural rights really exist. If they don't then perhaps any exercise of power is ultimately ad hoc, but not in a way that you can hold against said exercise.
But in the main, it is basically as Barton Swaim sums it up on behalf of Benjamin and Jenna Silber Storey for the WSJ:
Twenty-five years ago, that understanding of liberalism [a view of government and society embracing free markets, representative democracy, individual freedom, strict limits on state power, and religious neutrality] was almost unquestionable. Not anymore. On the left, markets generate inequality, democracy works only when it achieves the right outcomes, individual freedom is uninteresting unless it involves sexual innovation or abortion, the state is everything, and religion doesn’t deserve neutrality. On the right—or anyway the intellectual/populist right—markets destroy traditional moral conventions, democracy is mostly a sham, individual freedom encourages behavioral deviancies, state power is a force for good, and the First Amendment’s ban on the establishment of religion was likely a bad idea.
Partisans will dispute these characterizations, but the liberal order in America (and Europe) is under attack—and not without reason. Political debates in Washington are bereft of good faith, the education system idealizes self-hatred and sexual confusion, and even corporate leaders—who until yesterday could be counted on to champion patriotism and hard work—eagerly recite the maxims of idiots.
(An exercise for the reader: Understand what is going on in conservatism that the descriptor "intellectual/populist" is apt rather than oxymoronic. Then find its analogue in progressivism. It's there, I promise you.)
Liberalism is not a source of meaning. Used as such, it produces contradictions and unsatisfying results, then breaks. It is meant only to establish conditions under which meaning may be sought—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Progressivism, conservatism, and libertarianism are likewise not sources of meaning. Used as such, they turn into pseudoreligions, then break. They are only frameworks by which various political phenomena might be understood.
I will now venture a claim that I can't prove as thoroughly as I'd like, but suspect to be true anyway. We are in a war that was instigated by progressive postliberals who find meaning, literal raison d'etre, in progressivism. It was progressives, after all, who decided that the personal is political. Andrew Sullivan:
What we’re losing, I fear, is the idea that we can take on a role as public citizens that is separate from our role as private human beings; that we can place limits on what the state can do to us, and what we can do to each other. As Hannah Arendt perhaps best grasped, a liberal society is almost defined by its belief that politics has limits, and that it exists to defend us from either the government or our fellow citizens leveraging private human flaws for political purposes. There are, in fact, many worse things than hypocrisy. Shamelessness, for example. The first is human; the second is sociopathic. I want to live in a world where the former prevails.
But if there are limits on politics, and politics are the source of meaning for certain lives, then said lives will be burdened with heavy loads of existential meaninglessness.
From that instigation it was only natural that the conservatives would respond in kind. Rod Dreher:
As I told [Elisabeth] Zerofsky in our very long interview [this one—F.], I would like to live in a liberal democratic world. I still believe in liberal democratic ideals like free speech and freedom of religion. But the Left does not, and the Left in power is doing all it can to crush people like me. Where does that leave us? Well, Viktor Orban has taken the measure of the illiberal Left in a far more realistic way than American conservative politicians. Do I like all of the illiberal things Orban is doing? No, I do not — and I have made that clear in my writing. But on the whole, the Hungarian prime minister is doing the right thing, and deserves our unapologetic support. If we on the Right are not going to be smashed, we are going to have to learn some lessons from Viktor Orban, and make them work in our American context.
This conflict could tank the liberal project, as Christina Rees intimated in Part 1. But to correct Dreher—and this is partly why I don't subscribe to the left-right paradigm—progressive postliberalism is as opposed to progressive, conservative, and libertarian liberalism as it is to conservative and libertarian postliberalism. Here's the chart again:
|progressive liberal||progressive postliberal|
|conservative liberal||conservative postliberal|
|libertarian liberal||libertarian postliberal|
Progressive postliberalism wields enormous power. At the same time, it has nothing but enemies—with one notable exception. I will describe the situation in Part 3.