04 May 2009

The Future of The Future of Liberalism

This week's Nation has the first review I've seen of Alan Wolfe's Future of Liberalism. George Scialabba critiques both Wolfe and Jedediah Purdy's Tolerable Anarchy from somewhere to the left. He identifies Wolfe with the "complacent centrism" of The New Republic, and complains that the book spends so much time attacking alleged heresies from evolutionary psychology (which encourages deterministic thinking at odds with liberal belief in self-definition) to militant atheism. Scialabba thinks Wolfe's critique of each phenomenon is exaggerated, since most evolutionary psychologists, he claims, are themselves liberals, and the atheists don't owe believers so much respect as Wolfe demands.

Scialabba also thinks that both Wolfe and Purdy are too conservative in their recommendations for liberalism's future. "Liberalism has always stood, at least in theory, for government accountability and citizen participation, for broadly based prosperity and the absence of class hierarchy, for social solidarity and against exploitation," he writes, "It has always, that is, been proto-socialist [and] needs to affirm those values far more explicitly and emphatically, even if the world 'socialism'-- the victim of history's greatest terminological hijacking -- is never heard again."

The critic actually seeks a middle ground between liberalism and socialism based on public participation. "The problem with socialism ... is, as everyone knows, that it would take too many evenings," he writes, probably quoting someone else, "The problem with contemporary liberalism is that it takes too few." Scialabba's ideal is worth quoting at length.

How many Americans meet regularly with neighbors or co-workers to formulate questions or instructions for their elected representatives or evaluate their performance; to hear experts, activists or officials criticize or defend government or corporate policy; to share information or discuss strategy with fellow citizens in other neighborhoods or workplaces? A nationwide participatory political culture has been perfectly feasible since radio was invented. With current technology -- at least until the Interenet is privatized and community cable TV is defunded -- it's a piece of cake. Yes, it can be tedious. But if we don't meet before this or that local or national institution breaks down or crisis develops, we'll just wind up having to meet afterward, in far less pleasant circumstances.

What Scialabba recommends probably didn't seem so tedious to people of the Founding generation. The Founders themselves mostly defined virtue as participation in public life, an ideal the country quickly got away from when the idea got around that it was each man's prime vocation to get as rich as he could. The Founders felt that, in a republic, each man's prime vocation was to help preserve the republic through both his own labor and through persistent vigilance. That ideal of vigilance has been largely lost as we've come to depend on others to report to us, from newspapers to radio talkers to bloggers. That may be because citizens lost track of their stake in what government did, not to mention what corporations or other powerful neighbors did. "Mind your own business" was a principle advanced perhaps too universally, and it is still, to an extent, an important tenet of liberalism. There are contradictions throughout the liberal tradition that need to be resolved if liberalism is going to have any kind of a future.

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