The Janus Face of Liberalism Redux

David Wearing  wrote this for the New Left Project Julian Glover and the Two Faces of Liberalism

In addition, note that what Glover refers to with sniffy disdain as “mathematical equality” is also closely related to “mathematical” levels of violence, drug abuse, mental health problems, teenage pregnancy, measures of child well-being and a host of other key social indicators. It is hard to see how passing over human welfare with a rhetorical sleight of hand serves to elevate the way we discuss politics onto the higher plain to which Glover yearns to ascend.

Glover reminds us that the Guardian was “founded as a liberal publication at a time when liberal did not connote the left. Nor should it now”. He is correct to say this. The history of liberalism as a political philosophy has contained elements that face to the left, and others that face to the right. I have no doubt that most of the staff and readers of the Guardian who supported the paper’s endorsement of the Liberal Democrats at last year’s election, did so with the more enlightened, compassionate strand of liberalism in mind. With all respect to them, I remain of the view that this judgement was a mistake. There is a much less pleasant form of liberalism in British politics that does not share with its sibling the values of human equality and social democracy. That is the version of liberalism represented by the leadership of both governing parties, and we are seeing now, under their coalition, just how poisonous and destructive it can be.

This is a crucial point: the left does emerge from the liberal tradition almost immediately during the French revolution, but the origins of modernity and corresponding liberalism emerged: Rousseau, Locke, and Marx are all inheritors of that tradition and the tensions within the two variants of liberalism have emerged in the contradictions of left-liberals.   Right-liberals (neo-conservatives, modern Tories, and many Liberal Democrats in the UK) make the apparent these contradictions by constantly setting the agenda for the enacted politics of left-liberal coalition governments.

This brings me back to a point made by John Grey:

“As the political theory of modernity, liberalism is ill-equipped to address the dilemmas of the postmodern period. Liberalism was the political theory of the modern age, partly because it was a response to circumstances of diversity in world-views that arose in the early modern period with the Reformation and the Wars of Religion, and partly because it was a version of the animating project of modernity, which was the Enlightenment project – ‘the project’ as Alasdair MacIntyre summarizes it ‘of an independent rational justification of morality’.

The diversity of world-views, which gave rise to the liberal project in early modern times, has not diminished and is with us now; but the Enlightenment project which informed and sustained liberalism is now a dead letter. It lingers on in academic debates about realism in ethics and in the philosophy of science but – except in the United States, where along with an equally atavistic Christianity it continues to pervade the public culture – the Enlightenment project is no longer a living force in contemporary culture.

Within philosophy, the project of rationally reconstructing morality – whether on utilitarian, contractarian or rights-based foundations – is virtually extinct; and, if there remain philosophers wedded to that Enlightenment project, they are few and unimportant in the larger scheme of things, since philosophy itself is not a culturally marginal activity. The intellectual foundations of the Enlightenment project have fallen away; but liberal theory, for the most part, proceeds as if nothing has happened.(p 85 of “Liberalism” by John Gray)

While all the intellectual foundations of the Enlightenment have no fallen away, many of them have: scientific processes still stand with some serious caveats, most of the positivism and progressive teleology of liberal theory has been questioned.  The attempt to rationalization liberal morality in universal terms has always been problematic, and that is because that same intellectual artifice produced and is produced by the economic and political structures that early liberalism itself helped create.

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Posted on November 7, 2011, in ideology, Philosophy and Politics and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

  1. Benjamin David Steele

    This returns to a conflict of understanding I’ve discussed with you before. Many left-wingers tend to see political differences in terms of ideologies. Many liberals, however, don’t see ideology as the defining feature of liberalism. As Alan Wolfe explained it:

    http://www.tnr.com/blog/alan-wolfe/false-distinction

    “When instead we do discuss human purpose and the meaning of life, Adam Smith and John Maynard Keynes are on the same side. Both of them possessed an expansive sense of what we are put on this earth to accomplish. Both were on the side of enlightenment. Both were optimists who believed in progress but were dubious about grand schemes that claimed to know all the answers. For Smith, mercantilism was the enemy of human liberty. For Keynes, monopolies were. It makes perfect sense for an eighteenth century thinker to conclude that humanity would flourish under the market. For a twentieth century thinker committed to the same ideal, government was an essential tool to the same end.”

    I would go even further with this argument. Not all 18th century liberals agreed with Adam Smith. And not all 20th century liberals would agree with John Maynard Keynes. Furthermore, for a 21st century liberal, what makes sense is different yet again (with much disagreement continuing).

    This isn’t just about psychological predispositions. A liberal thinks in terms of a larger paradigm that can potentially include various ideologies and tactics. By definition, one is liberal precisely to the extent one mistrusts sectarianism and partisanship which corresponds with dogmatic divisions of ideology. Nonetheless, even though the liberal paradigm can include many ideologies, it doesn’t include all ideologies. It’s a wider framework than a single ideology and yet it still has defined boundaries, although these boundaries maybe seem vague to one who prefers more enclosed boundaries.

    I would clarify that the liberal predisposition and the liberal paradigm are closely related but not the same. Theoretically, someone could have a liberal predisposition and not endorse the liberal paradigm or someone could be born with a conservative predisposition and come to adopt the liberal paradigm. This also relates to the issue of ideology. One could adhere to a particular ideology that liberals would allow for in their paradigm and not adhere to that larger liberal paradigm or one could adhere to the liberal paradigm that allows for a particular ideology without agreeing with that particular ideology.

    Democratic politicians can use liberal rhetoric and even speak of policies some liberals support. Does that necessarily mean they have either a liberal predisposition or are working within the liberal paradigm? Nope. If we make liberalism so general as to include anyone who even vaguely and superficially resembles a liberal, then liberalism as a category becomes meaningless. Liberalism does have boundaries, but those boundaries may be hard to see by the non-liberal. It’s not that there is a ‘true liberal’. I’m arguing quite the opposite. However, one has to maintain the basic meaning of labels or else fall into mere empty rhetoric. It’s easier to criticize or dismiss a category than it is to sympathetically understand that category.

  2. “liberal thinks in terms of a larger paradigm that can potentially include various ideologies and tactics. By definition, one is liberal precisely to the extent one mistrusts sectarianism and partisanship which corresponds with dogmatic divisions of ideology.”

    This, Ben, is not just a form of special pleading: by claiming to mistrust sectarianism and dogma, the liberal is paradigm saying that an ideological commitment to maintaining the present as that what is. The idea that liberalism is a paradigm of openness and not just a temperament, but also not an ideological orientation, but a sort of paradigm of compromise and openness. Ben, a paradigm is definitionally an arbitrary framework, if liberalism is that then it is an empty signifier. But let’s ignore my thoughts on that for a second and I’ll operating accept your argument:

    Furthmore, given the definition, that Wolfe is operating under: Marx and leftist as well as Edmund Burke and most conservatives would be in the liberal project. We are all concerned with both historical contingency and with changing factors. The key difference is that modern liberals do not seek to change the system of thought, only improve it, as any complete rupture with the present would require a commitment that one is profoundly uncomfortable with. The brilliance of the examples of Smith and Keynes is that they were interseted in improving the present: Smith beause his faith in God (see the end of the Theory of Moral Sentiments for this) thought him that the natural order was in sentiments because God put them there, and they could be refined in orientation. Keynes wanted to maintain the capitalism. These were both systems of maintence.

    Now the more radical liberalism of the early Enlightenment that Wolfe is hinting at was actually a true rupture, and one that DID have TWO violent expressions of rupture in Europe.

    But let me take this further: The assumption that I don’t listen to liberalism defining itself. My of my correspondence is why some form of liberal and I myself have some liberal tendencies. I don’t see this as a weakness. Socialism in the Marxian sense was a negation of everything in capitalism, but of its over-riding logic and the expliotation hidden it. Capitalism, however, enabled development and technology. Marxists unlike primitivists and radical traditionalists do not want to drop all that.

    The left doesn’t want to desetroy all that is good in the liberal paradigm either. We emerged from it. The irony is that we are the sort of the more radical end of the same project and in the sense that Wolfe uses the term liberal, we are the same except for what is percieved by liberals as a dogmatism. Indeed, the hostility many on the left feel towards liberlism as an ideology or paradigm or whatever is that liberalism finds itself for the first time in history as the operating paradigm. In other words, it is the current traditionalism. We will listen sympathetically to liberlas make their case and most of us have. THe majority of the left in the US and Wesstern EUroe start off as liberals. Something radicalizes us and pushes us to demand a break with the current. Since modernity is largely a liberal project from the ENlgithenment. We have to break with liberalism as a set of operational assumptions to do that. Most leftists feel like they have already given liberalism a fair hearing since they started that way.

  3. Benjamin David Steele

    “This, Ben, is not just a form of special pleading”

    The only problem, Skepoet, is this accusation of special pleading isn’t accurate. lol

    I don’t even know why you think my statement was special pleading. I was making no exemptions that were unexplained or unverifiable. I was trying to be as specific and detailed as possible within the limits of the discussion at hand. I also didn’t state a non-liberal can’t understand what a liberal is, only that it is more difficult (in the way that it has been very challenging for me to genuinely and sympathetically understand even some basic elements of conservatism). I’m stating what liberalism is and has been and the framework that includes all of it. My explanation fits the common understanding of liberalism as a general category, although I was making some particular distinctions to clarify some of the common misunderstandings of liberalism.

    Your disagreement with me doesn’t justify your accusation of special pleading.

    By the way, a paradigm isn’t definitionally an arbitrary framework… and therefore an empty signifier. That is an analysis that is so simplistic and dismissive as to be empty of meaning itself. Just because you don’t understand the substance of what is signified doesn’t mean that the signifier is empty. A paradigm definitionally is the following (from Merriam-Webster):

    “a philosophical and theoretical framework of a scientific school or discipline within which theories, laws, and generalizations and the experiments performed in support of them are formulated; broadly : a philosophical or theoretical framework of any kind”

    To put it in the present context: A paradigm is the ideological framework containing various theories, the theories being framed accordingly and being used to justify the framework. The framework isn’t empty, but necessarily implies what does and can give substance to the framework (and hence what doesn’t and can’t).

    Wikipedia offers a very useful basic definition:

    “The word has come to refer very often now to a thought pattern in any scientific discipline or other epistemological context.”

    A thought pattern as in a specific and consistent way of thinking about something (a mindset) or more broadly a worldview (a mental model of the world and how to think about the world). It’s often used in terms of science. That helps explain the meaning here. A scientific paradigm isn’t any single scientific theory. Rather, it is the framework in which one develops, explores and tests theories.

    Corey Robin makes a good argument that conservatives are what they do and how they do it. In some ways, it is irrelevant what conservatives (or non-conservatives) theoretically claim about conservatism. The theory of conservatism as the tendency to conserve is disqualified by observations of the behavior of conservatives and also by what many conservatives will admit when one reads them carefully. I’m making a similar argument about liberalism. Any given ideological theory of liberalism is less important than direct observations of liberal behavior and cognitive patterns, the actuality of liberalism as it plays out in the world (in particular liberals and in the liberal movement).

    Looking at the Democratic Establishment, how much of it is actually liberal? It’s hard to tell. I suspect many in the Democratic Establishment are actually reactionary conservatives or else sympathetic with reactionary conservatism. On a similar note, Reagan was once a union leader and supposedly sided with progressivism, but then he became (or always essentially was) a reactionary conservative. In his reactionary conservatism, Reagan used a lot of the language and other elements from the left. Some consider Reagan to be the greatest example of a neoliberal. Just because Reagan spoke the way he did, was he actually a defender of political freedom and socio-economic progress? Did his liberal-tinted rhetoric mean he was a liberal? Within the Democratic Party, how many politicians actually identify as liberal and how many use liberal-tinted rhetoric? If reactionary conservatives seek to maintain elites, maybe the supposed liberals defending the traditional elites aren’t actually liberals in any meaningful sense.

    “Furthmore, given the definition, that Wolfe is operating under: Marx and leftist as well as Edmund Burke and most conservatives would be in the liberal project.”

    That doesn’t fit what Wolfe was attempting to communicate. A left-winger could be a liberal but certainly once couldn’t fairly or accurately claim that all left-wingers are liberals. It’s similar to the fact that some left-wingers test high on Right-Wing Authoritarianism and some test low. And it’s similar to the fact that reactionary conservatives adapt to progressivism/revolution on the left while adopting the rhetoric and tactics from the left. As for the former category of left-wingers, those who test high on RWA are by definition illiberal (because that is partly what is being tested in the research of RWA). As for the latter category of reactionary conservatives, just because they mimic the left doesn’t mean they are on the left.

    “The key difference is that modern liberals do not seek to change the system of thought, only improve it, as any complete rupture with the present would require a commitment that one is profoundly uncomfortable with.”

    Yes, that is how a left-winger would interpret liberalism. However, it is a left-wing assumption (one that isn’t proven) that change and improvement are in opposition or that change can only happen with complete rupture or that complete rupture is even possible. Change is change, whether it is interpreted as improvement or rupture, whether it is perceived as complete or incomplete. Yes, liberals do seek to maintain what they believe is good, but they do so as they seek to change what isn’t good. As a left-winger can be liberal or illiberal, a liberal can be a radical left-winger or a status quo defender (I’m somewhere in between).

    “Now the more radical liberalism of the early Enlightenment that Wolfe is hinting at was actually a true rupture, and one that DID have TWO violent expressions of rupture in Europe.”

    Liberalism can’t be understood outside of specific contexts. As a paradigm, liberalism is a general framework. But that general framework can only be discerned through particular examples. When liberalism has an outlet in mainstream society, it develops slowly and moderately. When liberalism is suppressed by those in power, it eventually erupts leading sometimes to rupture from the past (and at such times even more moderate liberals will ally with more radical liberals in seeking left-wing reform). It isn’t helpful to say only one of these manifestations is ‘true’ liberalism. However, it is valid to argue that in its ‘natural’/’normal’ state (when at rest, when not being provoked) liberals tend toward the moderate and away from radicalism, toward incremental improvement and away from revolutionary rupture.

    I liked your last paragraph. It aligns with my own understanding.

    “The left doesn’t want to desetroy all that is good in the liberal paradigm either. We emerged from it. The irony is that we are the sort of the more radical end of the same project and in the sense that Wolfe uses the term liberal, we are the same except for what is percieved by liberals as a dogmatism. Indeed, the hostility many on the left feel towards liberlism as an ideology or paradigm or whatever is that liberalism finds itself for the first time in history as the operating paradigm. In other words, it is the current traditionalism. We will listen sympathetically to liberlas make their case and most of us have. THe majority of the left in the US and Wesstern EUroe start off as liberals. Something radicalizes us and pushes us to demand a break with the current. Since modernity is largely a liberal project from the ENlgithenment. We have to break with liberalism as a set of operational assumptions to do that. Most leftists feel like they have already given liberalism a fair hearing since they started that way.”

    Let me repeat an observation of mine. Some left-wingers are liberal and some illiberal, authoritarian even (not all left-wingers begin as liberals). And some liberals are drawn to or adhere to left-wing ideologies and some to moderate or centrist or status quo ideologies. There is an overlap between the two, but the two are distinct categories. An illiberal/authoritarian left-winger will oppose all liberalism. And an elitist liberal defending the status quo will oppose all leftism. The more moderate left-winger and the more independent liberal find themselves caught in the middle and so get criticized/dismissed by those who are polarized.

    I was wondering about your statement of liberalism as the operating paradigm. I’d say this is true and untrue. I often make this argument in claiming that almost everyone today is liberal relative to the average person from the past. All of modernity is the results of the victory of liberalism. However, I think something is being missed or over-simplified in this conclusion.

    As Corey Robin explains, the reactionary conservative realizes they are playing on the turf of the left. They are reacting to the left, but the left they are reacting to is moreso the far left than the moderate liberal. The reactionary conservative would like to displace the liberal entirely and force the liberal into the position of the left-winger (and many liberals do indeed become radicalized into left-wingers because of this). Reactionary conservatives have been very successful. In recent decades, it is the reactionary conservative who has controlled the narrative and defined the operating paradigm. It is in the reactionary conservative’s favor to promote the belief that liberalism prevails even as conservatism prevails. Conservatives want everyone to believe liberalism is the operating paradigm. In a sense, this is true. On the other hand, this operating paradigm has been hijacked by the conservatives counter-revolution. It’s for this reason that the independent liberal has become the spokesperson for liberalism.

    In recent history, a liberal can only speak of liberalism from a position at least partly outside of the Establishment. Liberals too often find themselves caught in the middle of the fight between reactionary conservatives and radical left-wingers, constant back and forth, revolt and backlash. Liberals have been able to maintain a modicum of the liberal operating paradigm, but they aren’t fully in control of it. They just keep it from getting entirely destroyed, a mostly rearguard defense, neither entirely winning nor entirely losing.

  4. “I also didn’t state a non-liberal can’t understand what a liberal is, only that it is more difficult (in the way that it has been very challenging for me to genuinely and sympathetically understand even some basic elements of conservatism). I’m stating what liberalism is and has been and the framework that includes all of it. My explanation fits the common understanding of liberalism as a general category, although I was making some particular distinctions to clarify some of the common misunderstandings of liberalism.”

    You are defining something from within it, which generally gives itself special categories: for example that liberalism is NOT an ideology but a paradigm. The definition of a paradigm is an explanatory rubric that is arbitrary. paradigm change because they are arbitrary. Now Kuhn uses the phrase differently, a paradigm is a model whose operational assumptions are unquestioned. When something causes those assumptions to change, they are unmovable. To say liberalism is the paradigm and yet completely to change all it essentially an adaption to either special plead or to play with words. As you said, things must mean what they mean. To say that liberalism is a paradigm is contrast to sectarian versions of modernity (leftism, reactionarism) is to say that it is not ideological in its rigidity. I, frankly, reject this as factually problematic. It’s special pleading in the sense that it sees in itself none of the sectarian drives of other movements, but historically that’s not true. The Enlightenment was a sectarian movement and compromise was not a position of most of it: reading the French encyclopedists makes that clear. In other words, a paradigm is temperament plus ideology: that the ideology itself seems to be open to compromise and question makes it particularly hard to pin down or even define in a way clear enough for objective study. (The historical examples of liberalism often retroactively read liberalism unto the early Enlightenment as if it thought about itself in those terms.)

    This is why I talk about the Janus face of liberalism: ” They are reacting to the left, but the left they are reacting to is moreso the far left than the moderate liberal.”

    Really? You think that? Opposition to affirmative action, 14th amendment, abortion, social security, etc is reacting to the far left? They are reacting to moderate liberals, not us. They are using us to make your compromises look more radical than they are and thus more destabilizing. Furthermore, if you actually read conservative writing, they contempt for you is higher than for us. It is the moderates that reach out too because it is the moderates that can be pulled right, but it is also that your compromises can be given the air of radicalism and given that the compromises are increasingly palatable to no one, that discontent with lack of progress can be easily mobilized as discontentment with progress itself.

    But here’s where we agree:

    “In recent history, a liberal can only speak of liberalism from a position at least partly outside of the Establishment. Liberals too often find themselves caught in the middle of the fight between reactionary conservatives and radical left-wingers, constant back and forth, revolt and backlash. Liberals have been able to maintain a modicum of the liberal operating paradigm, but they aren’t fully in control of it. They just keep it from getting entirely destroyed, a mostly rearguard defense, neither entirely winning nor entirely losing.”

    No one ever entirely loses. That where most leftists screw up, they view things as totally zero sum. Now, I don’t think certain structures are worth saving, but dialectical reason prevents one from abandoning EVERYTHING in the past. But ironically, that makes the progressive the current traditionalism. The are in the same period a traditionalist is in. The traditionalist can only be a traditionalist if the tradition is waning and they are fighting a rear-gear defense. The conservative is sort an inverse utopian fighting for the re-establishment of old privileges that are almost gone in a way that is actually quite revolutionary. The liberal does not do this despite there ideas were once revolutionary. If it is a paradigm then this is more so case because what makes liberalism a paradigm is the ideological assumptions that are unquestioned (tolerance is good, gradualism is progress, etc). Once the unquestioned parts are questioned, then the paradigm either shifts or the field of operations dies. Given that there are things within liberalism worth fighting for (tolerance for diversity) one does not want the field of operation to die, but the paradigm to shift.

    For the liberal, if one things about this as an ideological flank, they are battling on a left-front and a right-front. The left-front has been in retreat, but has recently awakened and turned on its older ally because the older ally no longer seems to defend the present much less herald us to the future.

    For independent liberals, you are in an even more interesting position: You have to redefine your paradigm shift. The ideological component is hotly contested and the truce between you and your old left ally is weakening because the left sees you, not the conservatives as those who have been at the helm for so long. Now the left may say, “well, let’s call off this battle and go our separate ways” or might try to battle it out with both ideological sets, the later would be suicidal. The left has been just as fractious and decadent as liberals in power have been, but the independent liberal must decide where their paradigm is shifting too. Too much of the paradigm has been questioned now for it hold out within a shift.

    The left is similarly in a three and a half decades long redefinition period. Conservatives have a much clear vision that either because it can be summed up in one word: “No.” That clarity can lead them to over-reach, but it is clarity nonetheless.

  5. Benjamin David Steele

    I plan on replying, but I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. I want to make sure my thoughts are clear.

    I’m still reading Corey Robin’s book and I was perusing his blog which gets at some of his more personal views. So, I’ve been bouncing ideas off of his theory of reactionary conservatism and trying to see what that might mean for liberalism. This has been going on at the same I’ve been talking to you since it was his book that brought me to your blog.

    I see some complications in speaking too simply or too conclusively about liberalism. Obviously, there is a liberal predisposition. That part is easy to discuss because there is research with clear data distinguishing it from the conservative predisposition and distinguishing it from Right-Wing Authoritarianism. It’s also easy to speak about specific liberal ideologies, but there have been many of them in modern history. Even today, there is no singular liberal ideology. Liberalism is a category of ideologies. That is why I was using the idea of a paradigm… or maybe a better term would be a meta-ideology that would include all the various ideologies. A single ideology can be spoken of in detail, but a paradigm or a meta-ideology can only be spoken of in more broad generalizations.

    I don’t know how to explain this. I think another liberal would understand what I’m trying to say, but I’m trying to think of a way that would make just as much sense to a non-liberal. Part of the problem is that I realize that many people have many ideas of what liberalism is and yet liberals themselves would disagree with many of these perceptions. The right-winger and many conservatives see the liberal as moderate or secret left-winger, but that isn’t true. A liberal could adhere or be drawn to left-wing ideologies, although not necessarily. Some liberals are so moderate and mainstream as to be basically centrist.

    Another factor is that my experience as a liberal comes from growing up in the Midwest and in the Deep South. My primary identity, though, is with the Midwest. So, my liberalism is very Midwestern which can be in some ways massively different than the liberalism of the coasts. For damn sure, Midwestern liberalism is far away from neoliberalism. Midwest has lots of influence from Northern Europe. Both Quakers and Catholics have had major impact on the Midwest. Plus, there still is a traditional farming community culture that remains to some extent in many parts of the Midwest. Midwestern liberalism is very moderate and community-oriented and very much grounded in social democracy. The Sewer Socialists are an example of Midwestern liberalism. I’ve written about this Midwestern culture in various posts over at my blog. In one particular blog, I quoted Garrison Keillor from his book ‘Homegrown Democrat’ which is the best explanation of Midwestern liberalism that I’ve come across:

    http://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2011/07/31/public-good-vs-splintered-society-pt-3/

    What liberalism has meant in Europe (and Canada) is different than what it has meant in the US. What liberalism meant in early America is different than what it meant in the Populist Era which is different than what it meant during the Civil Rights movement which is different than it meant later during the time of identity politics and culture wars. Now with a more globalized society and more multicultural US population ever, liberalism is beginning to mean something else again. Even ignoring non-Western countries, it’s hard to say what all these liberalisms have in common and what might make them cohere into a single over-arching liberalism.

    I was thinking further about whether liberalism rules. I’m not sure that is entirely true or whether it is true in a way that is very helpful toward understanding liberalism. Reactionary conservatives will adapt to the left and adopt from the left. Neoliberalism may have emerged out of early liberal ideologies, but at this point it is no longer grounded in present liberalism. Neoliberalism has become defined by the right. Because the right has dominated so fully, some liberals have sought to define themselves according to the right’s definitions, but this has just led to confusion. If someone takes on the liberalism as presented by reactionary conservatives, are they actually a liberal or some weird extension of the reactionary conservative ideology of the present? If a liberal attempts to define themselves on their own terms which is very challenging, then that liberal runs the risk of being accused of special pleading.

    Do you see the difficulty I’m confronted with? If you ask someone who isn’t a left-winger what left-wing politics is, they would mention communism, socialism, Marxism, and some more well informed people might mention various forms of anarchism such as anarcho-syndicalism. If you ask someone who isn’t a liberal what liberal politics is, you’d have a much harder time getting a clear answer and most people would just mention the Democratic Party as if that actually answered the question.

    The best method I’ve seen so far is what Corey Robin has attempted in understanding conservatism. He points out that conservatism is certainly a movement of ideas, but the ideas that motivates conservatism aren’t the ideologies that most people assume defines the movement. The apparent ideologies are actually false or at least very misleading. What if the same is true of liberalism? What if everything you thought liberalism was is actually not the case? What if the true ideas of liberalism are hidden behind the apparent ideologies of liberalism? What if the ideologies of liberalism are just rationalizations that deceive the observer who isn’t careful? If like Corey Robin you were to read the history of liberal thinkers, what patterns and commonalities would you see across the centuries? What precisely is motivating and framing liberal thought about politics and society?

    I’ll have to give this some more thought and get back to you.

  6. I am finishing that book right now. I, however, was reading the early liberals like the French Encyclopedists and Isaiah Berlin. I have a dialectical approach to liberalism, so while I have been doing the negative analysis, I need to do the positive analysis. Then the negative dialectics (neither this nor this) and then a synthesis.

  7. Benjamin David Steele

    A major limitation I have is that I’m not familiar with the whole history of liberalism. I’m particularly not familiar with many of the earliest liberals. And I’m not overly familiar with liberalism outside of the US. My understanding is very biased in terms of my personal experience of liberalism. I really should read an overview of liberalism. Do you know any good books that cover the history of liberalism? Also, which are the key liberals that you would recommend reading, especially among the earliest liberals?

    My greatest bias of all is my being grounded in Midwestern liberalism. I’ve come to realize that most people, including most Americans aren’t very informed about Midwestern culture. So, Midwestern liberalism probably isn’t what most people think of as liberalism. But it is the liberalism of which I have the most direct experience.

    Along with Garrison Keillor, another example of Midwestern liberalism is Michael Moore who grew up in a family that was working class, heavily union involved and Catholic. In looking at data to understand the differences between regions of the US, two maps caught my attention because of how perfectly they matched. Catholics are mostly in the North of the US, particularly in the Midwest. This would be surprising if you had never been in the Midwest because people don’t think of farm country as being Catholic country, but if you visit small farming communities in Iowa there is often a large Catholic church right at the center of them. If you look at a map of Catholicism in the US, you’d notice that the highest concentration of Catholics is precisely where is the highest concentration of union membership. Catholics and unions are two peas in a pod. This makes sense when you consider the social justice tradition of American Catholicism.

    Isn’t that interesting? I was wondering what some more atheist and secular left-wingers might think of that. I know many left-wingers have been critical of religion, especially a patriarchal and hierarchical religion like Catholicism. I’m not really for or against religion per se, although I tend to think of myself as more spiritual (in the sense of being a bit epistemologically anarchistic). I wasn’t raised in Catholicism and so that isn’t a specific part of Midwestern liberalism that I’m as personally familiar with. I was raised in Midwestern Christianity but not a variety many might think of as being Midwestern. The church I went to the most as a child was Unity which is New Though Chrisitanity (positive thinking, prosperity gospel). It’s in the evangelical tradition but with a more new agey twist. It originated in Kansas City in the late 19th century during the Populist Era. I suspect that much of the New Age spirituality, like Standard American English, originated in the Midwest where it went to the West Coast during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Many members of the early Spiritualism movement were radical Quakers, and of course Quakers were some of the earliest immigrants to settle the Midwest where they are still found in larger concentrations.

    Another thing about Midwestern liberalism is its particular flavor of ‘conservatism’. It’s not ‘conservative’ in conserving the status quo of power and authority in the sense of East Coast liberalism (that originated more from Puritanism). Midwestern liberalism is more ‘conservative’ in a traditional sense of small close-knit farming communities. This aspect was clarified for me with the gay marriage issue. Iowa is one of the few states to legalize gay marriage. This is a manifestation of Midwestern liberalism, but what is unique about it is that the defense of gay marriage in the Midwest is rather ‘conservative’ in justification:

    http://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2011/02/03/lawrence-odonnell-fighting-for-gay-marriage/

    Midwestern liberalism is: community-oriented (with community as the model for the family structure), neighborliness (Welcome Wagons to greet new people into a community, neighborhood picnics, and in rural areas helping out when there is need such as in the past barn-building), egalitarianism (everyone is fundamentally equal in value; Midwesterners tend to dislike standing out from the crowd; so, don’t show off your wealth if you have it), humility and work ethic (do your own manual labor even if you are wealthy enough to be able to afford to hire someone), focus on common good and public participation (public education, building orphanages and homeless shelters, high quality public infrastructure and services), etc. All of this is why the union culture of solidarity and why sewer socialism fits well with Midwestern liberalism. Anyway, that is the culture I’m coming from. I don’t know if my personal bias is helpful or unhelpful in understanding what liberalism means more broadly.

  8. Mid-western socialist had similar values, but they left the mid-west and moved to central Canada in the 1940s and 1950s. Honestly, those sorts of community values are not something I have a particular problem with. While I tend to accept sexual and cultural radicalism, I also see no real reason to encourage as a primary way of life, just to allow people to organize their lives in such a way.

    I see East Coast Liberalism as “current traditionalism” and a highly problematics one at that. One that is in self-contradiction. Mid-western liberalism is a slightly different beast. One that I would like to see developed and moved away from the Democratic party. That’s a tradition worth defending.

  9. Benjamin David Steele

    You are correct that Midwest socialism went to Canada. I have a Canadian friend who is very critical of America’s hyper-individualism. I really wish the Canadians would send back those Midwestern socialist farmers. Communities of farmers collectively building granaries, apparently too radical for the US.

    I understand why you see East Coast Liberalism as “current traditionalism” (and I agree it is problematic). For sure, East Coast Liberalism is the variety that has the most influence in the Democratic Party and in Washington politics. Even so, Midwestern Liberalism has a special place in American culture. It’s the Heartland, after all. Also, Iowa plays a key role in national politics and I think there is good reason for that. Iowa combines some memory of traditionalism (that has been forgotten by conservatives in the rest of the country) and some memory of an American style of sewer socialism (that has been forgotten by liberals in the rest of the country). Presidential candidates have to first think about how the Midwestern (i.e., Iowan) voters are going to respond. If a politician can’t make it in Iowa, they have a tough challenge in their campaign. It’s in Iowa that politicians prove their American credentials.

    Despite the decline of Midwestern farming communities and much of Midwestern industrialism, I think the Midwest still captures some element of the American imagination, captures some essence of what it means to be American: art such as the regionalism of Mark Twain, Grant Wood and Norman Rockwell; movies like Wizard of Oz; music like Bruce Springsteen; radio shows like that of Garrison Keillor; Et Cetera. The Midwest represents ‘America’ in some basic kind of way or at least represents how many Americans would like to envision ‘America’. There is a down-to-earth liberalism in the Midwest that has massive impact on the rest of the country, even if most people don’t think of it as liberalism because so many people have come to think liberalism means the neoliberalism that dominates among so many of the ruling elite and the corporate elite. So, the liberalism of the common people isn’t even recognized as liberalism and yet it is the liberalism that is closest to the average American’s sense of identity. Maybe it is so influential for the very reason that it isn’t recognized for what it is, for the very reason that it forms the background for much of our political discussions.

    I’m wary of putting too much weight on Washington politics and defining the rest of America by that standard. America has always been more than what goes on in Washington. In reality, American democracy barely even exists in Washington. To find the heart of American democracy (in terms of functioning democracy), you have to look at local politics and the local cultures that motivate it. If liberalism isn’t about this grassroots democracy, then liberalism has become watered down to the point of being mere rhetoric behind which politicians hide their true agendas. I’d like to think that the still practiced Midwestern liberalism I experience in my local community is more than an echo from the past or an island in the present. The reason people voted for Obama is because they still believe in this down-to-earth liberalism. What Obama was selling was just rhetoric, but what motivated people to vote for Obama wasn’t mere rhetoric. The same thing that motivated many Americans (including some that identified as ‘conservative’) to vote for Obama also motivated them to join the Occupy movement. These Americans genuinely believe in the liberal vision of hope and change. If Washington politicians won’t give it to them, Americans won’t just give up on these liberal values. I agree that many people can be naive in believing someone like Obama actually meant what he said, but nonetheless the fact that they wanted to believe says a lot.

    I do hope that such liberalism moves away from the Democratic Party. I haven’t given up hope on the possibility of a new third party rising up to challenge the status quo. It was the left-leaning Republican Party that rose up in the Midwest to challenge the status quo in the early 19th century. Maybe we shouldn’t look to the radicalism of coastal politics. Instead, if a new third party is possible, maybe it is more likely to come from the Midwest or at least from the Midwestern sensibility. Or maybe not. I’m just thinking that, if socialism is to gain any foothold in the US, it will most likely have to come by way of the sewer socialism in the tradition of Midwestern liberalism. Also, if labor unions are to make a come back, it will require a strengthening of the union culture that has strongly existed in the Midwest. The Midwest seems key in American politics, especially for grassroots populism. Many of the recent political battles have been fought in the Midwest such as Wisconsin. Republicans spend so much money on Midwestern politics because they understand how pivotal the region is. If they can break the unions in the Midwest, they might be able to break the entire union movement across the country.

  10. Benjamin David Steele

    I had some thoughts I wanted to run by you.

    As I was reading Corey Robin’s book, I noticed he mentions a number of times a particular book on fascism: The Anatomy of Fascism by Robert O. Paxton. So, I decided to skim a sample of that book on my Kindle. It gave me insight into where Robin was coming from in his analysis. It seems he is generalizing the counterrevolutionary aspect of fascism, and by doing so fascism becomes just a radically extreme example of reactionary conservatism. Fascism was specifically reacting to socialism. It was countering the socialist movement even as it sought to usurp some of the socialist rhetoric… or that is my present understanding of it, anyway.

    Have you read Paxton’s book? What do you think of Robin having used fascism as a model for understanding conservatism as reactionary?

    There is one aspect I’m not convinced of about the theory of conservatism as reactionary. I might make less absolute distinction between traditionalism and conservatism. I see them as closely connected, at least in predisposition, the two maybe just being two expressions of the same psychological impulse. As I see it: In a traditional society, the conservative trait manifests as traditionalism. And, in a non-traditional society, the conservative trait manifests as reactionary. My other speculation is that, in a non-traditional society, there is a stronger tendency for those with the conservative trait to become allied with those with the trait of right-wing authoritarianism. I’ve always wondered about the possible connection between conservatism, especially social conservatism, and right-wing authoritarianism. My speculations seem confirmed by the research that shows communists in communist countries test high on right-wing authoritarianism. From what I know of countries that have been labeled as communist (USSR, China, Cuba, etc), they are relatively illiberal and even anti-liberal on many social issues, such as their being: patriarchal, hierarchical, anti-gay or traditional in gender identities, prejudiced against minorities or outsiders, nationalistic, etc. Other research shows there isn’t a perfect correlation between conservatism and right-wing authoritarianism, but there sure is plenty of points of connection, overlap, and/or alignment.

    Related to all of this, there is one particular distinction I was wondering about. I don’t think the left and the right are merely the reverse of one another. They have particular histories that have followed distinct paths. For example, communism/socialism isn’t anti-fascism in the way that fascism is anti-communism/socialism. The right is reacting to the left, but the left doesn’t seem to be reactionary in this fashion. In its reactionary stance, fascism becomes something very specific. Communism/socialism, on the other hand, is less specific; allowing for both statist and anarchist forms, both liberal and illiberal forms, both moderate and radical forms, etc. The left-wing is seemingly more open to a variety of avenues for social change. The right-wing, or at least the reactionary aspects of the right-wing, are less open to such varied possibilities in that, for example, all fascist movements will inevitably lead to nationalism if given the opportunity; there is no such thing as an anarcho-fascist commune.

    My thoughts aren’t exactly clear in this area of my analysis/speculation. I sense some kind of difference between the left and right. This seemed more obviously clear to me in thinking about liberalism and conservatism. I’ve often argued the distinction between liberals and left-wingers. As I’ve pointed out, a liberal might be drawn to left-wing ideologies or not and a left-winger can be either liberal or illiberal. Liberalism and leftism don’t exist on a linear spectrum. On the opposite side of this non-spectrum, I perceive a closer connection between conservatism and the right-wing, although not perfect alignment of course. The best example being Corey Robin’s theory of reactionary conservatism which apparently is modeled on the historical analysis of fascism. However, it is true that some right-wingers are more liberal on social issues such as libertarians… which makes me wonder if there is really any meaningful connection between ‘right-wing’ libertarians and ‘right-wing’ fascists. What does ‘right-wing’ mean that it can include both of these? Corey Robin argues that it is reactionary conservatism that ultimately connects both of them in that both are wary, to say the least, of increased egalitarianism of the left variety (Similarly, Corey Robin points out that right-libertarians are the theoreticians that give credibility to neoliberalism, a political force that has done more than almost any other in undermining liberal and left-wing egalitarianism).

    So, there ya go. That is what was on my mind. I was curious about what you might think in response to these ideas.

  11. I think Robins is wrong on that: He ends up having to put George Sorels in the conservative camp even though even in his proto-fascist days, Sorel’s was a Marxist. Honestly, fascism is a way for capitalism to survive in the Marxist tradition, but it is not strictly speaking conservative in the same way, it has both a reactionary and a progressive character. That makes everyone uncomfortable.

    Corey has to hollow out the end of conservatism to make it fit, oddly, something conservatives themselves have done.

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