Mar 7, 2014
Benjamin R. Barber on Alan Wolfe’s ‘The Future of Liberalism’
Posted on Sep 11, 2009
From Rousseau to Foucault and Stanley Fish, from the critique of patriarchy to the critique of racism, skepticist (i.e., liberal) critics of power have noticed that power’s worst ravages often occur under the cover of liberty. Power’s hidden agenda is to subordinate liberalism’s ideals to power’s realities: “We all have the right to be free” actually means white propertied males have the right to be free; “all” is us, not them. Exposing hypocrisy thus becomes the liberal’s first task. This means liberals have to see through the farce that assures us that democratically made law is a kind of bondage while market anarchy is freedom. The truth is capitalism may advance private freedom but it corrupts public freedom. Liberals of Wolfe’s kind seem either not to notice or not to care. Indeed this is today how the “public option” in health care gets construed as a denial of liberty (“socialism” or “fascism”), while monopolistic private insurance companies are construed as liberty’s guarantors.
Yet liberalism is a philosophy that originates as a legitimation of resistance to arbitrary power and illegitimate authority—in earlier centuries, to monarchical and clerical power exercised by illegitimate institutions not founded on popular sovereignty. With an eye on this history, consistent modern liberals grasp that a crucial part of the modern liberal agenda remains to resist arbitrary power and illegitimate authority, wherever they are found today. Yet Wolfe remains obsessed with state power and indifferent to private power. “The curse the state visits upon liberalism is Progressivism,” he writes, adding that “the state itself is so unattractive … [that] few argue that it is good.” But even as he derogates progressivism and the democratic state in terms we might associate with the Republican assault on President Barack Obama’s health, education and financial oversight programs, he embraces the progressive empiricist notion that we can and should “master” the Earth. Consequently, he comes down surprisingly hard on conservationism and the green movement. Bill McKibben, a hero for many progressive Democrats (me included) but also for conservatives who understand the relationship between conservative and conservationalist, is to him someone who “to save nature … [is] perfectly willing to condemn humanity.”
In all of these typical neoliberal biases against government intervention, Wolfe highlights the trumped-up perils of a transparent, democratically accountable government power and ignores the far more invidious dangers of private market power. Nearly 200 years ago, Alexis de Tocqueville had already noticed that the new threat to liberty came not top down from the state but bottom up from public opinion—from chains that bound the human spirit rather than those looped around human wrists. Today, it is the free market media and marketplace advertising and marketing along with commercial entertainment and the new multi-spectrum digital media that envelop our lives and quietly constrain our freedom. In accord with liberal watchdog groups like Common Cause, most liberals understand that the problem for political liberty today is not the influence of politics over money but the influence of money over politics. The problem is not the democratic majority: As my teacher Louis Hartz said in his truly liberal book “The Liberal Tradition in America,” the democratic majority has always been a puppy dog tied to a lion’s leash. While corporations and private monopolies have, I might add, been voracious lions treated by neoliberals such as Wolfe like innocent puppy dogs.
Wolfe also seems to distort liberalism in his attempt to accommodate religion. Religion has always had the potential to be a scourge of liberty and the liberal open society because dogmatic religious belief must necessarily deny doubt and affirm certitude and is also constrained to distinguish true believers and some version of infidels. Wolfe wants to adopt a spongy liberal strategy that distinguishes good religion (nice, open-minded, tolerant religion) from bad religion (zealous, closed-minded, intolerant religion)—religion from fundamentalism. But any religion worth its salt advocates public beliefs in terms that seem dogmatic to true liberals, distinguishing believers and nonbelievers by reference to their faith and their principles. Secular liberals have faith in knowledge and the skepticist epistemology on which knowledge rests while the religious know by virtue of their faith (“believe that ye may know,” they attest). Wolfe’s religious good guys turn out to be weak believers, those who don’t take their faith too seriously—or hypocrites (my religion is OK, yours is the problem). It’s all very well to believe in the commandment thou shalt not kill, but if that makes you a pacifist or a critic of abortion, that’s taking your religion rather too seriously! Zealotry on behalf of brotherhood and integration is just fine (that would be Martin Luther King’s brand of Southern Baptist liberalism), but zealotry on behalf of creationism or heterosexual marriage (that would be Jerry Falwell’s brand of born-again Christianity) is fundamentalist bigotry.
A more dialectical approach might spare Wolfe these hypocrisies. The point is religion and liberalism necessarily stand in deep tension with one another. As creatures with both bodies (represented by the state) and spirits (represented by religion), we are necessarily divided: the city of God against the city of man. A politics that truly accommodates religion (which will hint at theocracy) cannot then really be liberal but must accommodate the illiberal nature of religion at the expense of liberty and pluralism. By the same token, a religion that accommodates democratic politics cannot really be spiritual, but must either posit some dualism (the two cities, the two swords, a separation of church and state) or insist on its own primacy.
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