What’s left of liberalism?

Why the left and right both seem to agree that liberalism has failed us.

What’s left of liberalism?

Why the left and right both seem to agree that liberalism has failed us.

You’d be forgiven, these days, for believing leftists shit-talk "liberals" more than they do conservatives. But what is it that leftists mean when they criticize “liberalism?” Surely, they don’t mean the concept of rights, the framework through which we have won legal protection against discrimination, to collectively bargain, to fuck and marry whom we please. And surely, most of them don’t mean self-rule (even in its presently defanged form), equality before the law, or the principle of coequal branches of government.

Rather, the left’s rhetorical opposition to “liberalism” tends to arise in moments of discontent with the timid “leaders” of the Democratic Party, their fixation on norms that their opponents on the right have long since abandoned, and their rote expressions of devotion to “diversity,” “opportunity,” and “access,” all-but-empty signifiers which tend to translate, on the ground, into a modicum of enhanced personal liberty for the already relatively privileged. In other words, what leftists tend to mean by “liberalism” is the narrow Americanized meaning of the term, the dominant ideology of the Democratic Party in its present iteration, which is fundamentally hostile to the more radical redistributive policies prized by the left. Nancy Pelosi is liberal, a corporation changing its logo for Pride is liberal, at least three popular Twitter accounts that purport to express the opinions of a dog are liberal.

This American meaning of “liberal” is distinct from its meaning in Europe — and in philosophy seminars — where it tends to mean the cluster of political principles developed by Enlightenment thinkers and implemented by American and French revolutionaries in the 18th century, i.e. limited government, individual rights, freedom of the press and association, free trade, separate private and public spheres, and unregulated markets.

Of course, an ideology that has variously countenanced the enslavement of one race by another, colonialism and empire, the subjugation of women, and racial apartheid under the guise of liberty was always going to be a bit slippery.

But more frustrating than pure semantics is that liberalism’s most ardent defenders tend to credit the liberal order for victories won beyond the means of properly liberal politics. More often than not, the march toward justice in liberal societies has been fueled by illegal strikes, civil disobedience, riots, and, at times, the threat of violence — not merely winning arguments in the “public square.” If we always played by liberalism’s rules, abiding by its preference for legal and parliamentary procedure over open revolt, the progressive victories now attributed to liberalism’s natural egalitarian tendencies would never have been achieved.

Recently, the most articulate attacks on philosophical liberalism, however, have come not from socialists or Bernie Bros but from Trump-friendly social conservatives. Occasioned in part by the ongoing split between conservatives who welcome Trump’s economic nationalism and his disregard for hallowed institutional norms vs. those who blanch at Trump’s more authoritarian tendencies, the debate over the centrality (or superfluity) of liberalism to the conservative movement was a major event on the right. But you might have missed it if you don’t masochistically follow these things as I do. To summarize in as few words as possible: earlier this year, the (nominally) ecumenical religious conservative outlet First Things published a series of pieces denouncing what they termed the “Dead Consensus” of libertarian conservatism — with its civility, reverence for free markets (of goods and ideas), and its willingness to fight the culture war within the supposedly “neutral” institutions of liberal democracy.

Social conservatives, Ahmari believes, are besieged on all sides by transgender radicals, sexual perverts, and hostile anti-clericalists.

In its place, these “illiberal” conservatives — most prominently, Sohrab Ahmari, the opinion editor of the New York Post and a First Things contributor — championed a politics of “enmity,” of fighting the “culture war with the aim of defeating the enemy and enjoying the spoils in the form of a public square re-ordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good.” The right, as he would have it, has simply played too nice. Ahmari’s invective against what he termed “David Frenchism” treated the National Review editor and conservative litigator David French as synecdoche for a version of social conservatism which has sought to safeguard religious (i.e. Christian) values from the onslaught of cultural libertinism through polite argument in the public square, the courts, and the pages of conservative magazines.

This, Ahmari has concluded, won’t do. Social conservatives, Ahmari believes, are besieged on all sides by transgender radicals, sexual perverts, and hostile anti-clericalists. These enemies cannot be defeated through the bloodless proceduralism of classical liberalism, which, he believes, has led to this impasse between the demand of ever-greater individual autonomy and the communitarian ethos of Christianity. Rather, social conservatives of moral fortitude should instead embrace, well, something else.

Ahmari et al tend to be coy about what exactly that something else entails, but many intelligent readers have read his aspiration for a society organized around “the Highest Good” as pining for pseudo-theocracy, in which the demands of pluralism and democracy would be subordinated to the demands of religious morality. It’s relatively easy to dispense with these arguments, which, as The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer has ably demonstrated, amount to a (terrifying but infantile) tantrum. Conservatives couldn’t win the culture war on the “neutral” grounds of liberal democracy; so instead they want to change the rules of the game. Both populist and establishment wings of the Republican party, writes Serwer, “have concluded that they cannot be allowed to lose power simply because a majority of American voters do not wish them to wield it.” So what if we aren’t popular, we have the will of God on our side. This open hostility to democracy as such is evidence not merely in their theoretical arguments, but in their nationwide effort to disenfranchise voters who don’t support their agenda.

And yet, there is something wrong with the liberal order. And there is, at least, some consonance between the right’s criticism of classical liberalism and the left’s. First Things editor Rusty Reno has written that liberalism naturally generates an ideal subject whose only drive is toward autonomy and material comfort. “The liberal end game is easy to formulate”, Reno writes, “Ideally, we would reach a state of affairs where people would feel no loyalty to non-economic goods such as family, community, or nation. This would free them for the liberal dream of complete autonomy… It would also make them more available as mobile, productive workers and eager consumers unhindered by disciplines or compunctions that have no utility value, thus fulfilling the liberal dream of non-coercive market coordination of all aspects of life.”

Liberal individualism, these right-wing critics observe, is fundamentally hostile to communitarian values. Marx believed the same. In On the Jewish Question, Marx argued that liberalism (“the so-called rights of man”) is fundamentally isolating, generating a subject “withdrawn into himself, into the confines of his private interests and private caprice, and separated from the community.” In stark contrast to Marx’s vision of man as a social being, liberalism created conditions in which the “sole bond holding [humans] together is natural necessity, need and private interest, the preservation of their property and their egoistic selves.”

Today’s American leftists — some but not all Marxists — critique liberalism in similar terms. Liberalism and capitalism today work in tandem to isolate us, to make us more reliable consumers and more servile workers. Left and right critics agree that liberal capitalism is an engine for generating isolation, alienation, and solipsism. They disagree, however, about the effects of capitalism’s exhaust.

For Ahmari and Reno, the apotheosis of the liberal drive toward absolute autonomy — toward self-making as the highest good — is the movement for transgender rights. What more completely marks the victory of individual choice over nature and tradition than the ability to change one’s gender? Right-wingers, constitutionally incapable of seeing anything that isn’t directly in front of their faces, read New York Times articles celebrating gender fluidity and sexual transgression and imagine that, because liberalism’s ideal subject is one whose identity is entirely self-fashioned, trans people are in fact the most affirmed and doted upon members of society. (It’s worth noting that Ahmari’s blistering tirade against “Frenchism” was inspired by his horror that a library in San Francisco was hosting a drag queen reading hour for kids. Yes, these people are deranged.)

This pervasive conservative assumption — that being gender non-conforming (or black or a woman or gay) is rewarded by contemporary liberalism — is a product of many right-wing pathologies. But it’s also evidence, ironically, that conservatives believe in liberalism, believe that it provides what it purports to: a universal right to self-expression. In their minds, liberalism has won (based almost entirely on evidence gleaned from social media, Hollywood, and mainstream newspapers) and achieved its aims.

Leftists, rather than thinking that liberalism has succeeded all too well, think that liberalism is not enough. In the absence of a more robust redistributive politics, the liberal promise of autonomy is empty, available only to the wealthy and comfortable; the liberal ideal of a radically self-sufficient subject (worker/consumer) is completely meaningless to the vast majority of people, who are necessarily enmeshed in relationships of dominance and coercion, and who rely on interdependence (family and community) to survive. In other words, liberalism fails to deliver on its own promises, and it fails because it is utterly myopic about power.

Left and right critics agree that liberal capitalism is an engine for generating isolation, alienation, and solipsism. They disagree, however, about the effects of capitalism’s exhaust.

Even the supposed triumphs of the trans rights movement that so haunts Ahmari are undermined by this problem. Poor and working class trans people cannot afford the medical care they need; trans and non-binary people continue to face daily threats of violence, sexual coercion, and social exclusion. And none of these problems are mitigated by the fact that Caitlyn Jenner was allowed to appear on the cover of Vanity Fair. The leftist ideal is one in which the opportunities for self-making guaranteed to this one wealthy, white, Republican trans woman are available to all.

This critique is not a new one. Think of A.J. Liebling’s quip, “Freedom of the press is guaranteed to everyone who owns one”; or better yet, Anatole France’s: “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges and beg in the street.” Liberalism’s inattentiveness to power relations is enshrined in Constitutional law. The Supreme Court has repeatedly acknowledged that poverty is an obstacle to the full enjoyment of one’s constitutional rights, but denies that the government has any constitutional obligation to rectify that situation. In other words, in the eyes of the highest Court, being too poor to exercise a right — to privacy, to free speech, to due process — isn’t the same as not having that right. Thus the Court’s finding in 1977’s Maher v. Roe and 1980’s Harris v. McRae, that restrictions on Medicaid funding for abortion are constitutional because “a woman’s freedom of choice” does not carry “with it a constitutional entitlement to the financial resources” necessary to exercise “the full range” of choices.

So while illberals of the right prefer a state endowed with the power to outlaw abortion — or any activity deemed ungodly — altogether, left critics of liberalism want a state that could provide the conditions necessary for everyone to have reproductive freedom.

My friend Matthew Sitman, with whom I cohost a podcast about conservative thought, recently put it to me this way, “while the right wants to go behind liberalism, the left wants to go beyond it.” Ahmari, Reno, and their fellow travelers want to go back to a mystical pre-capitalist communal society where life had purpose, traditional bonds and obligations flourished, and collective energy was oriented toward the Highest Good, i.e. the veneration of God (and, incidentally, racial and sexual minorities, women, and other marginal or transgressive identities were crushed). Where as, the left wants to go beyond liberalism, to a political economy in which the best promises of liberalism — of dignity, autonomy, and fulfillment — are actually available to everyone.

There is one other sense in which I see overlap between liberalism’s left and right critics, however. Both agree that liberal proceduralism, its pretension of neutrality, tends to enervate and disenchant the practice of politics. Both left and right radicals desire — at least affectively — a hot-blooded politics, a politics of struggle and sacrifice. In this way, both have come to adopt German theorist Carl Schmitt’s concept of the political as reducible to the existential distinction between friends and enemies. (NB: Matt and I call our podcast “Know Your Enemy.”) A life without this distinction — which is to say, for Schmitt, a life without politics — would be shallow, insignificant, devoid of meaning. And this is the world liberalism wants, a depoliticized world, where people are deprived of a higher purpose.

Liberalism relies on the idea that functional institutions like courts and legislatures can mediate between competing conceptions of the good. But the Trump presidency has inspired a great deal of cynicism about that notion on both sides. What rational compromise can be made with a political tendency that rips children from their mothers’ arms? What we’re ultimately faced with is a prisoner’s dilemma of means and ends. There is, I believe, a mismatch between the means of liberalism and the left’s ultimate goal of a fair and egalitarian society. But so do our opponents believe liberalism is a poor tool for achieving their aim — a society ordered in accordance with God’s law. Schmitt believed that what followed from real enmity, was not political strife but war, “the existential negation of the enemy.” I hope we’re not all Schmittians yet.

Some of my comrades would disagree, but I don’t think the frequent inefficacy of liberal proceduralism means we should throw out the procedures altogether. It’s possible (likely) the world we want can only be achieved outside liberal institutions — that is, beyond the ballot box — but we should think hard about what sorts of rights and systems for mediating political conflict we want to preserve in that world too. For myself, I still believe political emancipation is a stop on the road to human emancipation, not a barrier or detour.

Sam Adler-Bell is a writer in Brooklyn.