Benjamin R. Barber on Alan Wolfe’s ‘The Future of Liberalism’Can liberalism be rescued from those who equate it with treason, terrorism, evil and even a mental disorder?
As Eric Alterman has shown in his book “Why We’re Liberals,” on most core policy issues from health and abortion to civil rights and foreign policy, the majority of Americans are decidedly liberal. Nonetheless, thanks in part to a toxically ubiquitous conservative punditocracy that has managed to equate liberalism with treason (Ann Coulter), terrorism and evil (Sean Hannity) and a mental disorder (Michael Savage), the term liberalism is widely derogated, and many who are in fact liberals assiduously avoid the label. Asked in 2004 whether he and his oh-so-liberal presidential running mate John Kerry were actually liberals, Sen. John Edwards said no, no, they were “mainstream America.”
With this as political context, Alan Wolfe deserves considerable credit for not only accepting the liberal label, but writing over 300 pages of text to defend liberalism and explore its future. Unfortunately, on the way to giving liberalism a respectable pedigree and a promising future, Wolfe draws a rather too pretty and simplistic picture of liberalism, which, in his verbal flourishes, “manages the complexities of modernity” better than any of its rivals (like nationalism or socialism or conservatism or romanticism) without losing its affinity for tradition and religion; which eschews the perils of “progressivism” (a “wrong turn” on liberalism’s road!) and “flirts” with elitism (in a good way, of course!) without denying equality and democracy their due; which is “the most appropriate political philosophy for our times”; which is not skeptical of religion but friendly to religious freedom and hence to “non-oppressive” religion; and perhaps most important for a book so embedded in the history of political theory, which knows how to distinguish the bad sources—above all Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Carl Schmitt—from the good sources such as the Johns, Locke and Dewey, and hence is a liberalism that is “honest about itself.”
The victory Wolfe’s “The Future of Liberalism” achieves in putting up a fight on behalf of liberalism is, for these very reasons, badly compromised by what the author does to liberal theory on the way to rescuing it. As Alterman has written, “liberals are never so influential in American politics as when they mouth conservative pieties,” and Wolfe mouths enough such pieties on his way to opening a road to liberalism’s future that he earns a blurb from anti-liberal neocon William Bennett. The theoretical foundation on which he builds his liberal understanding is in fact deeply defective: It is undialectical, innocent of the subtleties of historical political theory, and both far too biased against democracy, progressivism and socialism and far too oblivious to the perils of property as power (i.e., capitalism) to secure anything other than a safe and predictable theorization of Democratic Leadership Council-style middle-of-the-roadism. Wolfe’s is a liberalism nearly impossible to distinguish from conservative pieties, whether they are neoliberal pieties about the market or neoconservative pieties about religion; a liberalism, in other words, that seems to have forgotten its defining origins in resistance, revolution and the democratic quest for justice.
The strength of the book is an accommodating, tolerant, bland approach to liberty and modernity that picks few quarrels with the center right, posits no real tensions between liberalism and good religion, good tradition and good security, and anticipates no real internal conflicts in liberalism other than those imposed by illiberals—such as romantics, conservatives, nationalists and socialists—all of whom Wolfe tolerates as long as they are not too critical of liberalism.
To see long excerpts from “The Future of Liberalism,” click here.
The weakness of the book is an accommodating, tolerant, bland approach to liberty and modernity that sees no real tensions and conflicts because it denies dialectic, misreads the history of political thought, ignores capitalism and its costs, and completely misreads Rousseau—one of revolutionary liberalism’s most vital sources, construed by Wolfe here, however, as an enemy of liberty.
Wolfe has written a would-be left-of-center (i.e., liberal!) book that accommodates more or less everything and everybody except leftists. Rather than embracing and trying to make sense of the all too real conflicts between liberalism and equality, liberalism and religion or liberalism and tradition (which is what dialectic tries to do), he simply denies the tensions altogether and treats them as members of one happy family.
To ground this indictment of Wolfe’s book convincingly would take us beyond the parameters of a review. But let me try at least to demonstrate how destructive to true liberalism Wolfe’s aversion to dialectical thinking is by looking briefly at two features of his argument: his misunderstanding of liberal theory and its historical roots as a result of his misreading of Rousseau as an ideologist; and his flawed account of liberal practice in the absence of any discussion of capitalism, power and property.
The confounding of philosophy and ideology is the more egregious flaw in Wolfe’s reasoning. The difference between political philosophy and political ideology is that philosophers purvey an encompassing vision of the social world in place of the narrow political programs advanced by ideologists and party partisans. Ideology is akin to melodrama where there are good guys and bad guys, easily decoded by the color of their hats. Philosophy is more like dramatic tragedy, where good and evil are entwined in ways that deepen and complicate character and make it hard to discern the heroes and the villains. Is Aristotle an inegalitarian champion of slavery and human hierarchy or the first truly democratic thinker? Is Machiavelli a classical civic republican who believes in the virtues of the mixed constitution or a cynical power elitist who embraces Princely dictatorship? Is Hobbes the first modern authoritarian (his omnipotent sovereign Leviathan) or the first modern liberal (man’s natural condition of liberty and the voluntarist social contract)? What makes each of these theorists compelling and enduring is that they resist such simplistic dualisms. They cannot be boxed and labeled this way without annihilating their deeper meanings. They are dialectical thinkers whose work denies the very ideological categories by which, in evading their complexities, ideologues try to embrace or dismiss them. 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. 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.Wolfe’s book opens with a frontispiece from John Dewey celebrating the deep mutability of human nature. But mutability is itself an anthropocentric Enlightenment principle that stands in sharp contrast to religious conceptions of human nature as fixed and immutable (original sin, Calvinist destiny, for example). It is not man’s power but God’s or Allah’s or Jaweh’s power (or mercy and grace) that determines human fate. Although Wolfe never mentions it, liberalism is grounded in an epistemology that assumes man is born with a tabula rasa, a blank tablet for a mind, on which experience writes its over-determining narrative. By manipulating environmental circumstances (education, prisons, the law) we can change human nature and thus achieve progress and perhaps even perfection (via the “mutability” Dewey celebrates). But religion assumes that man is born with a fixed spirit already carrying messages inscribed by his maker, a creature destined for reunion with the One that is God—either that or for some form of permanent alienation from God (damnation, hell). Unless both liberalism and religion are mere fashion statements, their underlying psychologies and epistemologies will stand in deep tension. For Wolfe, liberalism makes us “master of our own destiny,” but of course in religion God is master, while man is not autonomous but subordinate to God’s laws and commands. Even in Protestantism, which acknowledges human liberty, that liberty is a freedom to choose God (or not). It is not a freedom to fashion our own autonomous nature or do as we please (by the way, Kant’s point too!).
In short, when Wolfe argues that “[ i] n truth, liberalism’s enemy is not religion but religious oppression and its friend is not skepticism but freedom, including religious freedom,” he is engaged in wimpish wishful thinking that eschews what should be a true liberal commitment to resistance to authoritarian institutions and to human mutability, plurality and progress. Raise any of the hard issues—abortion, gay marriage, pacifism, divided loyalties between political and moral commands—and the schism becomes undeniable. The hard issues also make it apparent why the scourges of modern religion from Tom Paine to Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris (none of whom Wolfe likes) are so intolerant of religion, even if their own polemics are both extreme and politically counterproductive.
Wolfe would like to believe that because 44 percent of Americans “switch their faith in the course of their lives,” religion is a kind of changing taste that need not be taken too seriously and hence need not come into conflict with political and civic choices. “Because religion has made its accommodation [with liberalism],” Wolfe concludes, “it is time for liberals to make their accommodation with religion.”
To be sure, one should appreciate Wolfe’s effort to be sympathetic to religion, tradition and (in a section I haven’t discussed) national security concerns. He wants liberals to win elections and does not think they can do so without a more centrist and prudent approach to such issues. After all, this is the centrist outlook that Democrats like theorist William Galston and politician Bill Clinton, vexed by so many lost elections, talked about in the 1980s, the outlook that helped shape the ever-so-moderate, pro-business Democratic Leadership Council, and the two-term Clinton presidency the DLC helped fashion.
Yet in the end, on the way to rescuing liberalism from progressivism and accommodating it to nontoxic forms of conservatism, Wolfe and liberals like him have more or less abandoned both the liberal creed and the liberal agenda (hence, William Bennett’s endorsement). Such compromises were what allowed President Clinton to turn against welfare and cozy up to capitalism in the 1996 Federal Communications Act, and are what may permit President Obama today to turn away from the public (government) option in his health insurance plan. The formula is simple enough: Liberal electoral victories trump liberal principles. But the long-term result is a liberalism more sympathetic to conservatism than to progressivism, more attuned to religion than to skepticism, more inclined to capitalism than to equality, more sensitive to the claims of elitism (see John Stuart Mill) than to the claims of populism. Such a liberalism is all too comfortable with power, property and nongovernmental kinds of authority, whether religious or market, and all too distant from its own origins in resisting illegitimate power. Yet I suspect the truth is precisely what it was 250 years ago when Rousseau insisted in the “Social Contract” that liberty’s prospects lay with and not against equality, justice and democracy: namely, that if liberalism is to have a future today, it will first of all have to recognize its radicalism and make its peace with democracy.
Benjamin R. Barber is Distinguished Senior Fellow at Demos in New York and Walt Whitman Professor Emeritus, Rutgers University. His books include “Strong Democracy: Participatory Politics for a New Age,” “Jihad vs. McWorld: How Globalism and Tribalism Are Reshaping the World” and “Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole.”
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