27 April 2009

The Future of Liberalism?

My political reading of the moment is Alan Wolfe's The Future of Liberalism, which seems daring by its mere assertion that liberalism has a future. It's actually a very lucid account of what liberalism stands for as opposed to both conservatism (philosophical and partisan) and radical leftism. Wolfe defines liberalism as the belief that people have to create the social conditions in which they can enjoy rights, and justifies the modern welfare state for that reason. While conservatives argue that mankind can't control its fate (and thus must accept "freedom" as the best option), Wolfe claims that liberals "have always insisted that it is because human beings live for purpose that they can establish and realize goals they themselves set. He elaborates:

We are not...prisoners of economic calculations and therefore unable to influence the moral character of the societies we inhabit. Instead, we are quite capable of deciding what moral purposes we want our societies to serve and then designing our economic arrangements accordingly. It is not a planned economy liberals seek -- that is a goal more properly identified with socialism -- but a society that can decide what it stands for and do its best to realize it. There is a common good. We can know what it is. And we can achieve it. (84)

Wolfe stresses, however, that identifying the common good is a collaborative project that requires compromises of interests. He doesn't disparage self-interested thinking, but demands that it be what used to be called enlightened self-interest, rational above all. He virtually concedes that some people will find liberalism boring because it requires people to be rational and calculate the possible consequences of actions. Wolfe prefers dispassionate rationalists like Jeremy Bentham to heroic Romantic types who are all too often tempted to go for broke in all-or-nothing attempts to achieve Utopia or rid the world of evil.

The strongest chapter I've read so far is "Mr. Schmitt Goes to Washington," which tends to define liberalism negatively as whatever hasn't been tainted by the influence of the German political scientist Carl Schmitt. A contemporary of Leo Strauss who stayed in Germany and served the Nazis while Strauss fled, Schmitt's influence derives from two dangerous ideas: that political sovereignty consists of the power to make exceptions to the rule of law, and that politics itself is based on an inevitable division of the state into friends and enemies. Schmitt's ideas, however indirectly transmitted, have strong appeal for both modern partisan conservatives and many leftists, Wolfe claims, because both groups are inclined to see those who disagree with them as the enemy. Liberals are defined by a refusal to do so. They prefer proceduralism and the rule of law to the heroic fantasy of the exception because, as a rule, they don't see politics as a struggle to defeat enemies, but as an attempt to reconcile different interest through appeals to reason.

Wolfe doesn't try to prove that Carl Schmitt influenced the Bush administration -- after all, it's very unlikely that George W. Bush has ever heard of the man. But Wolfe does invite you to notice the similarities between Schmitt's notion of the sovereign declaring exceptions to the rule of law and the American concept of the "unitary executive's" right to wage war unchecked by the other branches of government. He also finds it interesting that many leftists seem to admire the quasi-Nazi Schmitt, and explains that by assuming their desire to destroy ideological enemies. I might add that a revolution would also count as a "state of exception," and that some leftists I've read, particularly Slavoj Zizek, embrace the concept of the exception because they think revolutionary terror may be necessary for "the people" to assert their rightful sovereignty over the state.

Liberalism's opposition to these ideas is a make-or-break stand. Look at it one way and it makes sense if you assume that we all don't have to be enemies despite our disagreements. Wolfe carries that argument in a new direction in the chapter I'm currently reading on religion. But liberals are waging a lot on the assumption that all political or philosophical differences are either reconcilable or manageable through proceduralism, and that society can continue to advance without decisive resolutions of at least some of these differences. I don't know if Wolfe can prove those hypotheses, or whether he thinks it necessary to do so. But I still have about a third of the book to read. We'll see how it all turns out.


Anonymous said...

I wonder what Mr. Wolfe thinks about a situtation where you have one group of "liberals" as he defines it, looking to reach a concensus "common good", but another group who simply refuses to be rational or reasonable and is only looking out for the individual members' self-interest? Would he define such a group as an "enemy"?
Insofar as Mr. Zizek is concerned, in a country such as the USA, should we consider the idea that the people are the state and assert their sovereignty every time they vote?

Samuel Wilson said...

My guess is that Wolfe would say the main goal would be to defeat your theoretical "enemy" at the polls to make sure they have no political power to work mischief. This wouldn't be the same as suppressing their right to speak out or protest, and in any event Wolfe is leery of accusing anyone of being irrational -- that would be intolerant as far as he's concerned. He's a John Stuart Mill style liberal of the sort who think there's no such thing as a permanently discredited idea.

As for Zizek, in his view people aren't "the People" until they resolve to be so to the exclusion of any other class or group loyalties. "The People" only really exist, he seems to say, in times of revolutionary change and can continue to exist, I'm assuming, only under conditions of "permanent revolution" like those proposed by Trotsky or Mao.