Taking a break from poetry month drafts, Benjamin at Marmalade opines Thankless Task of Being a Liberal. It is a pretty thankless task because it is both omnipresent and consistently denied. Benjamin comes up with three questions:
This is how the liberal dream slowly fades away. Liberals forget what was so great about the dream in the first place. Were we ever so naive to believe in it? With experience, we learn of the hollow rhetoric of politicians. Yet every once in a while the old inspiration hits us and for that moment we believe something else might be possible.
Yet even then, it’s challenging for us liberals to say what liberalism is or could be about. If we no longer had any excuses for failure, what would we do? If we fought hard for our principles and won that fight, what would the world look like? If the liberal vision were unleashed, what could be accomplished?
What is liberalism? And what would happen if we liberals took it seriously? If liberals don’t fight for liberalism, who will? Then again, if most liberals fought hard and fought to win, would they still be liberals? What if, instead, liberalism isn’t what it appears to be?
Why are there so few liberals at the bloody frontlines of the battle for justice and freedom, so few liberals in ghettos, prisons and refugee camps? Why does liberalism usually only attract those living comfortable lives? Why is it so often that the first thing liberals are willing to sacrifice is their own liberalism?
Part of what makes this complicated is that liberalism as we understand it is not just an economic ideology with roots in Lockean, Humean, and even Kantian branches of the European Enlightenment. Even between those three thinkers, one has radically different conceptions of both the justification for “liberty and equality” in both contexts and manifestation. Locke roots it in property and the improvement of land–Locke coming out of the agrarian capitalism of early Modern English state and Protestant reformations/revolutions that led to landowners being increasingly in charge of the company. In Locke you have both the justification for liberal self-ownership but also the justification for chattel slavery and colonial forms of Imperial expansion.
Still Liberalism is much larger than this and in its dominance of the ideological much more promiscuous. Part of the problem with calling anything in modern North America or Europe “liberal” is that an element of it legitimately sticks and can be traced to a liberal movement in 16th and 17th century. After all, even anti-liberal leftists like Mao and Engels fundamentally began in liberal circles first. Marx in Hegelian circles, and thus he too is a capital of idealist mutation of the Enlightenment. Modern conservatism, as even DeMaistre observed, were impossible with the revolutions at the ned of the religious wars of the 15th and 16th century. Indeed, DeMaistre viewed the French revolution as a teleological necessary to birth a reaction to it. Illiberalism itself, in the post-European and European world, is born as a reaction against the dominance of liberalism.
Yet the definition has shifted and morphed, and differentiated within itself to the point where, while not non-cognitive, it is very hard to say what liberalism is. Even an illiberal like myself still comes out of that fundamental framework just like I also come out of assumptions around Christian culture in specific and Abrahamic culture in general. These assumptions have been wedded to capitalism but are slightly tangential to it and are only tied because of the particular contingencies of history.
In the the scandal is the liberal mind may not be its defeat or decline, it is more than in its dominance in a time of capitalism, it not longer has a coherent identity. The scandal of the liberal mind isn’t one. It is thus useful primarily as slur. Something to try to differentiate oneself from, and yet in the case in Europe and US, a conservative is just a liberal from a different age more often than not.
4 thoughts on “The Precarious Liberality”
Liberalism is the post-Enlightenment dominant paradigm. As such, it in a sense contains within it the many strains of illiberalism, anti-liberalism, and pseudo-liberalism: counter-Enlightenment, reactionary, conservatism, libertarianism, anarchism, socialism, etc.
Liberalism endlessly spawns new ideological forms, including its own critics and enemies. Liberalism is forced to define itself against what opposes it and so it must constantly produce that which to oppose.
The one thing liberalism can’t sustain is focus turned back on itself. It is less substantial than it appears and that is its very power, the ability to shift and morph. It can’t be pinned down for that is its only defense.
However, this is a sign of a weakening ideology in the sense that it eventually will not be productive even in a cynical sense. As a current tradition, it will have a harder and harder time adapting to opposition.
There is that. It does involve what you refer here as a weakening or what I might think of as an unraveling. That is why I like tugging at the loose threads. When it unravels, what will be left? Well, what will be left besides a pile of threads? I like to think that this activity isn’t mere destruction, but in the process may reveal something of import. Or maybe not. Either way, I feel compelled to keep tugging at it. It could be that, to use another metaphor, I’m just picking at a scab.
Well, parts of it will outlast liberalism as a coherent concept. Ideas around Confucianism and the Polis have outlasted them as a complete and coherent social system.