Benjamin R. Barber on Alan Wolfe’s ‘The Future of Liberalism’
Posted on Sep 11, 2009
Although he spends a great deal of time and energy on political theory in what amounts to a miniature history of liberal theory, replete with notecard-style comments on good guys like Adam Smith and John Locke and bad guys like Martin Heidegger and Carl Schmitt, Wolfe’s categories suggest he is far more interested in ideology. For the bad guys are not only the supposedly illiberal classical thinkers like Rousseau, but a wildly mixed bag of moderns including John Yoo, Richard Rorty, Jerry Falwell, Leo Strauss and Stanley Fish, guilty by association because they sound like bad guy Carl Schmitt (like Fish, even if they never cite or talk about him) or think like villain Robespierre, who was a fan of Rousseau, or unmask liberalism’s own power biases like Rorty supposedly channeling Foucault who is echoing Rousseau.
So when he comes to Rousseau himself, the most salient figure in the history of liberalism, on whom Wolfe spends more space and expends more venom than on anyone else in the catechism, he casts him entirely as an illiberal villain. To be sure, many others have both embraced him (e.g., Robespierre) and condemned him (e.g., Edmund Burke) based on this kind of crude ideological reading, but for the most part they were politicians, not philosophers. How then can Wolfe as a serious intellectual historian claim that the Enlightenment philosopher who wrote “men are born free but are everywhere in chains” is an enemy of liberalism? How can he conclude that the man Kant called “the Newton of the moral world” is actually an adversary of Kant? Wolfe actually roots his indictment of Rousseau in a putative quarrel between the good liberal Immanuel Kant and the bad democrat Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a quarrel that never happened and is little more than a slapdash misreading of both Kant and Rousseau.
Far from arguing with Rousseau, Kant idolized him as an epitome of Enlightenment, seeing in Rousseau’s argument for the “general will” a political analog of the categorical imperative—proof that we are truly free only when freedom is constrained by moral imperatives, but unfree when we live under the illusion of a liberty that is mere caprice and willfulness. This is the very formula Rousseau articulates in political terms in his “Social Contract” when he proposes that the only solution to the puzzle of how we can remain free and yet live under laws that will guarantee justice and equality is to make those laws ourselves. Democracy is not inimical to liberty, as Wolfe would have us believe; it is civic and moral liberty’s very condition. In these terms, the phrase liberal democracy is redundant, democracy being rooted in the preservation of liberty, and liberty having as its condition the democratic process.
Wolfe also gets Rousseau’s reading of history and progress and modernity all wrong. He thinks in the spirit of Voltaire’s polemics against Rousseau that Rousseau is a simplistic Romantic who wants to escape the modern world of Enlightenment and return to some aboriginal state of nature. But that is not Rousseau’s position at all. Free by nature (“born free”), Rousseau argues that history has placed us under the bondage of inegalitarian and authoritarian institutions (private property, illegitimate power). Yet Rousseau responds to this dilemma, as Kant does, not by advocating a “return” to the ideal of natural liberty (an impossible return to a presocial and Edenic existence) but rather by pursuing a realistic way to “legitimize our chains”—that is to say, to find ways to render law and liberty compatible.
This is the very definition of the liberal project that defines, for example, the magisterial book on liberal justice by John Rawls, who makes it his task to root equality (justice) in liberty. In Rousseau’s terms, the question is how to live under laws that secure safety, equality and justice and yet allow us to remain “as free as we were before.” The solution Rousseau hypothesizes is direct democracy: participating in the making of laws that rescue freedom from natural caprice and anarchic individualism and permit us to live lives of civic and moral freedom—the Kantian ideal.
Rousseau is no reclusive romantic who wishes to travel back in time, but a realistic theorist of liberty under the law, and the source of what should be Wolfe’s own core definition of liberalism. As a dialectical thinker, Rousseau is not the enemy of modernity Wolfe would make him, but an appropriately ambivalent critic of its virtues and its costs. Going forward has cost us much (can anyone looking at the history of the 20th century deny this?), but human progress, virtues and vices alike, is ineluctable and there is no going back. Wolfe wants to celebrate liberalism, however, by shearing it of its connections to democracy and populist participation, so he makes a hash of Rousseau, turning him into that proto-totalitarian scoundrel liberal ideologues love to hate and trying to make him the source of inspiration for the likes of Jerry Falwell.
Wolfe’s undialectical misreading of Rousseau as theory points directly to the two chief defects of his approach to liberal practice: his forgiving attitude to the assaults of religion on liberty and his opacity to all questions of power and property of the kind associated with capitalism. John Locke, one of Wolfe’s good guys, was perfectly frank: The social contract was not simply about the preservation of liberty (Rousseau’s aspiration) but about the preservation of property—for Locke, the natural expression of liberty, for Rousseau the source of liberty’s perversion. Wolfe makes the case for liberty without reference to its relationship to property and power, however. When power is addressed, it is only as state and government power perilous to private liberty, never as private power perilous to public liberty. This is why in the Declaration of Independence Jefferson altered Locke’s phrase about “life, liberty and property” to “life, liberty and … happiness.” Better salesmanship. But the confounding of liberty and property is in truth the key to the tension between liberty and equality, liberalism and justice, individualism and democracy.
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