Liberalism Past: The Rise of Moral Clarity

By Outis Philalithopoulos, who met an untimely end five years ago, and now “wears the chains he forged in life” as an economist.

Previous events in this series led the ghost of Outis back to 1996.  After meeting the first of three Spirits and being shown a series of sometimes unwelcome visions, Outis found himself alone.

I thought about the people I had seen during my spectral journey.  They seemed to think of themselves as liberals, even though they would be out of place among modern progressives.  I toyed with an evolutionary explanation.  There were things Brown didn’t understand about forceful communication, and things Franken didn’t understand about a lot of subjects, but maybe the two of them were “primitive progressives,” who hadn’t yet developed into real progressives.  Maybe if someone had just called them out, they would have understood, and grown.

One thing Franken and Brown had in common is that they both came off as smarter than the people they criticized.  To me, being progressive was basically about not being stupid, and so it was unsurprising that primitive progressives had also tried to show that they were intelligent.  But to reach that end, Franken and Brown used different strategies.

Franken seemed one of a group of 90s Democrats who saw themselves as having mastered the most defensible positions on each issue.  Support of deficit reduction and trade pacts were orthodox positions of mainstream economics, and so for these liberals, there wasn’t any political problem here – you just needed to say the correct answer as quickly as possible.  For Brown, on the other hand, her self-confidence was tied more closely to her academic career, and to her ability to see around and behind “narratives” that other people might believe in.

What else brought the “whipsmart” Democrats and the academic postmodernists together?  Not much, as far as I could tell, except that they both disliked sounding too definite.  In other words, they also had in common a sort of “postmodern attitude.”

I wondered if my generalizations about primitive progressives held more broadly.  What else could I remember about liberals of the time?  There was a lot said about self-esteem.  One time in high school something bad happened and a teacher wanted us to hold hands, and talk and feel together – or was that a movie?  Regardless, many people did seemed to prize being non-judgmental.

Wendy Brown had worried about whether some liberals genuinely believed in postmodernism, especially those trying to represent particular demographic groups.  Even those writers, according to Brown, typically claimed to believe that culture was socially constructed, but they also wanted to privilege the perspectives of people who had suffered more, and treat their suffering as objectively real.  Brown didn’t explain why this was supposed to be a problem, and clearly later progressives had realized that Brown was wrong to be so concerned.

If primitive progressives had been a “rainbow coalition” of disparate groups who didn’t have much in common besides smartness and a vague commitment to postmodernism, how were they able to work together at all?  How had we managed to banish the specter of postmodernism, and build an unprecedented degree of cultural cohesion and confidence?

A finger touched my shoulder.  Michel had returned.

“I know you are weary of my presence,” he began sympathetically, “and so I will speed you to the last clues I can provide.”

“But can we instead…” I began.  Before I could finish my sentence, the horizon blurred and I found ourselves in a large lecture hall, surrounded by people who seemed very important, and somber.  At the podium was a stern man in suit and tie.  His voice rang through the hall:

Something else died on Tuesday, in addition to thousands of innocent people.  It was the doctrine of moral equivalency — the idea that people everywhere are just like us, or can be made so by meeting their demands.

These humanistic, “can’t we all get along,” “profiling potential terrorists is racism,” “we’re all God’s children,” Kumbaya, “all we’re saying is give peace a chance” moral equivalency equivocators will soon be back.  They’ll try to wear down our resolve.

They should be ignored.  Evil exists.  It must be opposed.  If this is war, let’s start acting like it and tell America’s enemies that if they are so intent on seeing their God, we’ll help them get there.  As for us, we intend to die of natural causes.

The audience cheered.  “I guess this is 9/11?” I said to Foucault.  “Two days later,” he concurred.

“And this guy is some sort of rightwinger?”  He nodded.  “Syndicated columnist Cal Thomas.”

A young, smartly dressed woman was speaking to her neighbor.  “Guess what’s on the bestseller list right now?”

Her somewhat older neighbor shook her head.

Quarterlife Crisis – a book written by two twentysomethings bemoaning the,” and here her voice became brutally sarcastic, ‘landmine period in our adult development during the transition from college graduation into the real world.’“

“The poor dears,” said the neighbor.

“Many of them feel,” and here her voice took the same tone as it had before, “helpless, panicked, indecisive, and apprehensive.  You know what this generation needs?  A real crisis.  And now…. we have one.  Our generational wake-up call.  Our bloody moment of shattered self-complacency.”

“Michel, Michel,” I said, annoyed.  “I get it.  The Right was fixated on the idea that progressives lacked moral clarity.  Whatever truth there was in that claim, it’s clearly false now.  What I’d really like to know is…”

But Foucault shook his head and put a finger to his lips.  Again, the scene shifted.

We were in another room, with another speaker and another audience.  This venue, though, was rather small, and while some attendants looked rather professional, others were dressed informally.  Foucault whispered to me, “2007.”

The audience listened intently to the speaker.  She exuded an infectious, intimate candor as she talked about Internet activism.

You know what? Sometimes we’re very, very rude.  I go right into the face of mainstream media writers’ faces and call them out.  I’m right in there with the worst of them, foul-mouthed, vituperative, and personal.  There’s a reason for that: it’s the only way to get their attention!

We have a beef – and I maintain it’s legitimate and important.  For years we’ve watched the mainstream media aid and abet the right wing to the point at which they behaved like a bunch of puerile cheerleaders for an absurd impeachment and stolen election.  Iraq was the frosting on the cake.  There’s no amount of polite discourse that’s going to shake up that comfortable relationship.  And after Iraq, it’s become downright dangerous.

Finally, a real progressive, I thought to myself.  As she ended her speech, two men in expensive suits, with open collars, faced each other.

“She’s right, you know, and it’s not just the media,” one remarked.

“No shit,” the other seconded.  “Say what you want about the Republicans, they know how to win.  All we know how to do is lose.”

The first shook his head in disgust.  “The whole Democratic Party has become a bunch of,” and he lowered his voice, “pussies.”

I looked angrily at Foucault.  He put a sympathetic hand on my shoulder.

The second man also shook his head.  “We need to grow some balls.”  He paused, then went on.  “The thing is, I know this sounds optimistic after the last couple decades, but I actually think some people are starting to get it.”

“It’s true,” the first acknowledged.  “Take Rahm Emanuel.  Someone tries to swift boat him, he swift boats them back.  Some people don’t like him ‘cause he’s abrasive and says fuck a lot, but if you ask me, we need more people where you kinda feel like, this guy isn’t intimidated by Karl Rove.”

“Yeah, Rahm’s cool,” the second said.  “We just need to put ourselves out there more.  Stop letting the Republicans paint us as weak.  Stop accepting that they’re just going to get all the good donors.”

“Exactly,” the first said with some passion.  “And it’s not like this means compromising our principles.”

“Of course not,” snorted the second.  “I mean, we have our convictions.  We just need to be smarter.”

“Michel,” I said with some heat.  “if the point is supposed to be that in our efforts to stand up to the right wing, we became more like them, I have to say, I find the idea unpersuasive and offensive.”

“Well…,” he began.  I motioned him to silence.

“I think it’s really not that complicated.  With the rise of the Internet, it became easier for good ideas to circulate and harder for bad ideas to escape criticism.  So of course we were able to stick up for the truth more vigorously, and be less wishy-washy than before.  Sort of like how the printing press made the Reformation possible…”

“I see!”  he exclaimed, brightening.  “You cast yourself as one of the early Protestants, upholding a more rigorous standard of morality against the worldly and corrupt Catholics who preceded you.  The Internet punishes tentativeness, just as the printing press made it so Erasmus’ skepticism could be pilloried by Luther in their debate on free will.”

“Uh…” I said, a little disoriented by his tendency to show off his erudition.

“But perhaps,” he mused, “if the earlier liberals are the medieval Catholic church, then you are the Counter-Reformation, strengthening the discipline of the Catholic faithful by imposing meticulous rules of self-examination and intensifying the obligation of confession?”

That sounded less flattering.

Michel frowned and took a step back.  Some sort of invisible force was tugging on the back of his shirt.  He turned to me and sighed.  Désolé, but my time has grown very short.”

I opened my mouth to say something, but Foucault, and the room from 2007, disappeared.  In their place stood a bunny, looking me straight in the eye.

* * *

In the next episode, Outis journeys into a popular and widely praised artistic representation of modern liberal culture.

Sources:  Cal Thomas’ column from September 13, 2001 can be read .  The young woman attending his talk is based on Michelle Malkin, see her .   The Internet activist is based on Heather Digby Parton’s , with past tense changed to present.  Foucault’s comments on the Counter-Reformation are loosely paraphrased from p. 19 of Discipline and Punish. His comments on the Reformation are not based on anything concrete in his writings, and hopefully he would not disagree too strongly with them.

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45 comments

  1. Disturbed Voter

    Some of us are defined by what we are for, others are defined by what they are against. Both are necessary.

  2. toshiro_mifune

    I have really been enjoying these.
    Viewing the world through a Foucauldian lens, especially the past few years, has proven immensely informative.

  3. Moneta

    From my vantage point those on the right don’t like change. They are the old guard and those who don’t want to rock the boat.

    Many of those on the left want change so they can have more power or be in the group of haves too. Most of these are conservative have nots.

    In my mind, a good way to spot a true progressive is to look for a belief in fairness, a search for truth and a good level of asceticism because he/she realizes that there is not enough to go around the way our consumption economy is based.

    Most of the past philosophers were interesting but limited by the scientific truth of their time so when you spot where they have gone wrong in their thinking it becomes painful to keep on reading them… that’s when I move on to the next and so it goes until I make up my own mind linking all the disparate pieces of thoughts. But the intellectuals will not recognize your ideas unless you quote a whack of well known names!

    Frankly, I don’t see many progressives around. Most of those who see themselves as such are too tied up in consumerism and a fairness ideology based on a level of materialism that will lead to the destruction of our environment.

    IMO, the reason why the left is having so much trouble is because its ideology is flawed since it is based on greed while trying to make it look like fairness.

  4. DJG

    Ahh, the 1990s. Norberto Bobbio published his influential Destra e Sinistra, which is available in English, in 1994. His thinking clarified mine: Conservatives (the old right) are animiated by hierarchy. Tradition matters, which is why they are averse to change. The left still is animated by the French Revolution: liberty, equality, fraternity. The current Republican party is drowning in its hierarchy and tradition. The current Democratic Party doesn’t care much about equality or solidarity–what with a vice-presidential candidate who supports the Hyde Amendment and right-to-work laws. A clarifying election indeed.

    And what about next Wednesday morning, no matter who wins? Time for the debate to go on. Time for the left to reclaim its heritage, which is not postmodernism.

  5. Ivy

    As a follow-up to the Quarterlife Crisis concept, here is a to help understand somewhat more the thought processes of some younger people.

    Heard being used in a sentence last week: “I’m so tired of adulting”!

  6. Patricia

    I get a big kick out of Outis. Thanks.

    The comparison to Protestants’ continual division is hilarious and apropo. Constant majoring in the minors.

    Reminds me of when I taught painting/drawing to freshman. A primary goal was to get them beyond a penchant for details to consider the whole of their surfaces/compositions. Really, it is a 19 year-old developmental issue and that so many don’t get beyond it—drives me nuts.

    1. clinical wasteman

      Someone else has probably already made this point; sorry no time to check, but:
      the other obvious analogy is Luther’s breathless eagerness to side with the German princelings in their slaughter the revolting “peasants” (many of whom were actually literate urban artisans, producers of some amazingly prescient political literature: see Robert W. Scribner, Tom Scott (eds.), The German Peasants’ War: a History in Documents, Michigan, 1991, or Verso’s Thomas Muentzer collection with commentary by Wu Ming and Alberto Toscano).
      That and the bloody end of the fraught but genuine alliance between the Levellers/rank & file army Agitators and Cromwell’s generals and managers, after which the military-mercantile state sent its surviving army opponents off to pillage Ireland. (Christopher Hill and Brian Manning passim; much of James Holstun, Ehud’s Dagger.)
      Admittedly Calvin’s Geneva and the early Calvinist towns of the French Midi offer no such clear-cut story of betrayal/reversion to type by liberal/Protestant sermonizers, unless you count the opportunistic conversion of Enrique de Navarra/Henri IV of France (‘Paris is worth a Mass’ and all that.) But the small cities were too busy being massacred for 100 years or so by French troops, and Calvin himself had little to betray: he made it clear from the outset — illustrated with plenty of gallows — that his programme was dictatorship of the middle-upper bourgeoisie. But less than half a century or so later his radical doctrine of conscience became socially explosive when it fell into the hands of the ‘wrong’ class in London, (geographical) Bohemia and even the American Colonies.
      Incidentally, whenever Foucault remembers that a world outside Catholic France even existed, he gets every word wrong.
      But in general, yes, the analogy between 21st c. liberal and early Protestant political professionals works. That’s why most political speeches (or NYT/Guardian op-eds) are really sermons.

      1. Patricia

        “Calvin himself had little to betray: he made it clear from the outset — illustrated with plenty of gallows — that his programme was dictatorship of the middle-upper bourgeoisie.”

        Yes, he did make that clear. And if one passes by that explosive bit in between then and now, US Reformeds/Presbys (Calvinists) are still largely middle-upper bourgeoisie, authoritarianism intact, and considered the intellectuals of the Evangelical set, such as it is these days.

    2. H. Alexander Ivey

      As a fellow teacher and muser of what does it take to learn something, I applaud your example. It is a confirmation (-al basis?) of my theory that to learn requires learning two things; the thing to learn (detail) and the relationship between that detail and the world the learner already knows (the whole).
      This is why I read NC (I already know the world is in Hell via a handcart).

  7. flora

    “Franken seemed one of a group of 90s Democrats who saw themselves as having mastered the most defensible positions on each issue. Support of deficit reduction and trade pacts were orthodox positions of mainstream economics, and so for these liberals, there wasn’t any political problem here – you just needed to say the correct answer as quickly as possible. ” (my emphasis)

    And where was the Left in the creation of these orthodox positions? There was the Right’s economic thesis. Where was a Left’s vigorous antithesis that would lead to a synthesis? Where did the Left push back against neoliberalism, against bad trade deals, against a looting FIRE sector, against tax laws that favored the wealthy at the expense of the average, against Pete Peterson’s plans?

    Beginning in the 1950’s the US academic Left and liberals stopped challenging the Right and conservative economic positions. My view is the Left retreated from economics (and what other meaningful point is there for a Left if not economics) after the Right’s destruction of the academic Left in the HUAC hearings. The professors who remained after the purges toed the safe line of discourse. These professors were the ones teaching when Franken and the Clintons and Rahm were in college.

    But what of Europe’s Left? Had too many elevated Marxism as the sole valid Leftist critique of capitalism in an all-or-nothing way? All-or-nothing thinking is dogmatic. When, after WWII, the facade fell away from the ghastliness of Stalin’s Soviet Union did Europe’s, did all-or-nothing thinking leave Europe’s Left with nothing?
    I have more questions than answers.

    Very much enjoying these posts. Thanks.

    1. Patricia

      “My view is the Left retreated from economics…”

      None of the educated progs I know will talk about money, and have not done so in the 30 years I’ve been among them. And they think economics is all/only about money. It is distasteful, crass to them. It’s a bourgeois’ version of politeness. I do not have this problem with the working class people I know.

      1. Moneta

        What they fail to see is that money controls the distribution of resources globally. Life and the activities one can do on this planet revolve around this distribution.

        Those around me love to say that there is more to life than money when the reason they can say that is because they were born in a country and a time when they did not have to scrape by to survive.

        When they finally accept that money and resources need to be acknowledged, the left might stand a better chance.

        1. Carolinian

          What you are saying is that people who live inside a certain class bubble lack the range of experience that would produce empathy for other groups. Perhaps it’s empathy rather than morality that we should be talking about. Morality is about judging–empathy often just the opposite.

          And by shrouding themselves in a protective sheath the comfortable classes are often living much less richly in a strange sense. There’s that saying that the wealthy man will never experience the ultimate gourmet experience–the taste of food when you’re hungry. You could explain our politics very simply by just pointing out that Americans are a lot richer than they used to be, that is richer than during that other economic crisis in the 1930s, when the left found its purpose for awhile.

          1. Patricia

            Interesting idea about empathy versus morality. I agree that, on its own, morality wrecks. But ISTM empathy emerges from a sense of morality—somewhere along the line, one made some decisions about what’s fair, unjust, etc. Perhaps the act of giving open attention to another, simply becoming aware, begins an internal ethical discussion that results in those decisions.

            There is empathy among my educated prog friends. It’s pointed towards each other but a few also volunteer in socially acceptable places such as soup kitchens, women’s shelters, and after-school art programs for kids.

            But volunteering allows one to avoid thinking about personal issues of money and also doesn’t require looking at the systems causing the needs. It ends up being a bandaid for them as well as for those who need help, an inadequate good.

            The discussion reminds me of Jesus’ idea that love fulfills law and that without love, law is death. The right-wing’s religion contains its own answer but they pay no attention because they too are mostly about staying inside a social bubble, a different bubble than my prog friends, even though there’s a similar view of charity.

            Maybe it’s mostly about wanting to feel safe, which is held tightly until fate steps in and takes it away. Niceties are fragile. ?

            1. Carolinian

              Morality is something you are taught. Empathy is something you feel instinctively for a fellow human being or for that matter a fellow animal. It’s the realization that you and that fellow human or animal are alike. I would contend that as with so much of human behavior–mothers’ feelings about their children for example–this is wired in.

              Which is not to say morality is meaningless since it’s the result of centuries or millennia of human experience living in societies. Christianity for example offers a very good set of ethics. But obviously conceptions about what is or is not moral are constantly changing. If we want to get down to bedrock we have study our instincts instead and empathy may be one of the most important as it is bound up with the quest for knowledge.

              So to the question: what is liberalism? Liberals have empathy–even for deplorables.

              1. Patricia

                You and I might disagree about educated liberals (or progressives). I see as much contempt for the white working class from them as I have seen for the black poor from the white working class.

                When I taught at art college, I found it necessary to protect white working class kids who came in on scholarship, *particularly those who were unapologetic about their background*. They were seen as outre. But the black poor kids who came in on scholarship were unobjectionable, and so was whatever they made of their background. This was the opinion of the majority of faculty, both black and white, and I had to spend time defending my position as being all-inclusive rather than ignorant&conservative. I got lucky in that eventually it was laughed off as a personal quirk rather than an unforgivable breach. They never took the lesson.

                But we might be having a terminology difference—I see empathy as determinant for leftists.

          2. Moneta

            I think they can have empathy… they can put themselves in others’ shoes.

            The issue is that if they don’t understand how the financial system works, their vision of the world is totally flawed…

            Example… progressives believe in world peace with freedom of movement… this ideal sorts of fits in with the globalists’ ideals of perverted free markets… The cons know how to fit this ideal into their own game plan using finance… and because of the typical progressives’ lack of interest in finance/economics they don’t realize how a huge number of gains in liberal rights have been funded using a conservative frame work which explains why we are seeing the gains recede.

            1. Moneta

              I imagine the progressives would have been anti-Brexit, just like the globalists, but for entirely different reasons and chances are this did not even occur to them.

            2. Patricia

              “…because of the typical progressives’ lack of interest in finance/economics they don’t realize how a huge number of gains in liberal rights have been funded using a conservative frame work which explains why we are seeing the gains recede.”

              Matt Stoller, recently linked at NC, made this point, too:

          3. animalogic

            Progressivism is fast becoming a political dead-end. It is to politics what a revenant or a zombie is to life.
            Part of that morbidity can be sheeted home to progressivism’s frequent need to identify with & express itself through Political Correctness.
            (It might be argued that PC & post modernism are two sides of the same coin)
            Progressivism as “politics” lacks an overarching & unifying political narrative & identity….probably by design. It’s nebulousness allows for incredible absurdities — such as the belief by millions of people that Hillary Clinton is actually “progressive”. (Note her talent for blithely mouthing all the PC pities).
            When “genuine” progressives do gain power the Syriza debacle is the likely outcome.
            Progressives are easy meat for the Right. Indeed, the Right has made great sport out of progressives’ addiction to “identity politics” for decades now.
            Progressives, or as they are correctly referred to, the pseudo-left, their minds full of a grab bag of idealistic abstractions have, as many commentators here have pointed out, long ago ceded the commanding heights of the economy & Class to the Right. This is no surprise: ultimately progressives are capitalists, fully committed to consumerism & materialism. But of course, they are “NICE” capitalists….
            In short, they are “easy meat”.

        2. steelhead23

          In general, the accumulation of wealth leads to an accumulation of power and Lord Acton was right about the accumulation of power. Hence, a search for a progressive ubermensch is illogical. The concept of the collective we, not my interests, but ours is primary to being progressive. Now, whether this necessarily requires a subordination of self is a deserving question – but it is clear that the accumulation of individual wealth and power is inconsistent with progressive ideals. I cannot fathom how anyone on the left could not see that “money” and its distribution is a very real, perhaps primary, issue for our agenda.

          1. HotFlash

            The concept of the collective we, not my interests, but ours is primary to being progressive.

            Indeed! The hard part of this, even with supposedly willing participants, is determining what “our” interests might be. It has been said that the revolution will not be televised, but there will be meetings. How, practically, do we get to “our”?

            1. Mel

              An idea circulated by John Ralston Saul (A Fair Country), and perhaps Richard Wright (What Is America), who claim they absorbed it from First Nations society: by constant and ubiquitous dialogue amongst everybody.

              1. steelhead23

                We are here. On the internet. Perhaps we should find a way to create Cfdtrade cells in our neighborhoods. Chronicling the machinations of the elite state is important, but it doesn’t move the ball. Watching events from Malhuer to DAPL to Occupy and BLM, it would appear that moving that ball is likely to involve a bit of violence, which I abhor, but nonetheless seems likely.

    2. Outis Philalithopoulos Post author

      In Italy, the Italian Communist Party (PCI) disintegrated soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The PCI was one of the more interesting local communist parties – it had considerable electoral strength, it was associated with a lot of high quality cultural production, it had separated to some degree from the Soviet Union. (It still excommunicated Pasolini.)

      Regardless of how one assesses the PCI, once it was gone, it became difficult to find much in the way of radical (i.e. idealistic, not simply “realistic” attempts to come to terms with the status quo) thinking about economic issues. Someone from Italy who lived through that time might be able to provide a more informed account of what happened to economic discourse there than I can, but as a first approximation the “elevated Marxism as the sole valid critique of capitalism” hypothesis doesn’t seem wrong.

      1. animalogic

        Just to pick up on one of your points:
        To “come to terms with the status quo”.
        This is a key issue — there is NO coming to terms with the status quo. This neoliberal version of Capitalism will never compromise. The Fabian moment is long gone.
        In the absence of systemic catastrophe, neoliberals have a core faith in their own righteousness. Their infinite greed & lust for power makes even cosmetic compromise seem like a betrayal & an insult.
        Let’s take one example: “Obama care”. Legislation which advertises itself as a grand social benefit for average Americans — yet from beginning to end it is designed to benefit the health industry’s profits. If any individual American has benefited it is purely coincidental. Can detect any compromise ?
        As the Stanford study has demonstrated, at a very real essential level, the needs of 95% of Americans are simply invisible to the elite. The US is an oligarchy.
        Until people accept the fact that the West is now terminally corrupt & degenerate– until they accept the fact that they WILL suffer whether or not they accept the need for militant socialist intervention, the world will continue on its downward spiral into imperial war and impoverishment & alienation.
        “Compromise” with TPTB is
        DEFEAT.

  8. David

    People get far too worked up about “post-modernism”: it fulfills an analogous role to the work of Wittgenstein, or to Machiavelli for that matter – this is how it is, folks. I usually ask critics of most-modernism to give me one, universally true, totally obvious moral or ethical precept that they are sure they can convince anybody of. The silence so far has been deafening. All Foucault was saying is that ideas and ways of thinking about things change as society changes, and I would be suspicious of anyone who doubted that. But people don’t like hearing that because it puts the onus on them to make their own moral or other judgements.
    And yes, of course, relativism can be taken to self-defeating extremes by those who abuse post-modernism, but then they are usually people who once attended a lecture by somebody who read Foucault in a bad translation.

    1. flora

      Post-modernism has political uses that are anti-democratic.
      ” What is the degradation of the Subject in fact, and ought theory to be an accomplice to it?”

      Postmodernism and the ‘Death of the Subject’.

      1. flora

        Thanks for the links. I enjoyed this overview of her book “Undoing Demos” from MIT Press:

        “Neoliberal rationality—ubiquitous today in statecraft and the workplace, in jurisprudence, education, and culture—remakes everything and everyone in the image of homo oeconomicus. What happens when this rationality transposes the constituent elements of democracy into an economic register? In Undoing the Demos, Wendy Brown explains how democracy itself is imperiled. The demos disintegrates into bits of human capital; concerns with justice bow to the mandates of growth rates, credit ratings, and investment climates; liberty submits to the imperative of human capital appreciation; equality dissolves into market competition; and popular sovereignty grows incoherent. Liberal democratic practices may not survive these transformations. Radical democratic dreams may not either.

        “In an original and compelling argument, Brown explains how and why neoliberal reason undoes the political form and political imaginary it falsely promises to secure and reinvigorate. Through meticulous analyses of neoliberalized law, political practices, governance, and education, she charts the new common sense. Undoing the Demos makes clear that for democracy to have a future, it must become an object of struggle and rethinking.”

        1. Paul O'Sullivan

          I enjoyed reading that book. It is worthwhile and covers Foucault also. She talks about it at some length here;

          1. Paul O'Sullivan

            Karl Polanyi being a great starting point

            Almost be accident I came to them consecutively. The Great Transformation would now rank on my essential reading list (not that I have such a thing).

  9. Jim

    One of the major questions/issues I have been raising in my comments in this extremely productive series, is whether liberalism itself ends up producing an illiberal outcome (the war of all against all) in the actual political world, primarily as consequence of liberalism presupposing that very outcome in its own, possibly mistaken, assumptions about human nature.

    The result is that liberal thought has produced in practice the circumstances it originally assumed in theory.

    Does the violent state of nature (as seen in Hobbes) and conflict-ridden human association (as seen in Rousseau) end up requiring the remedies of coercive state control and market competition?

    Do liberal ideas and institutions rest on a violent ontology and a pessimistic anthropology?

    Does this mean that this crisis of liberalism cannot be resolved in a liberal way?

    1. Outis Philalithopoulos Post author

      Richard Tuck (one Hobbes scholar) holds that Locke subtly altered Hobbes’ concept of the state of nature. Roughly summarizing Tuck’s view, Locke believed that the economy (cfr. his discussion about possession of land going to the first occupier) arose outside of politics, due to basic human sociability, while Hobbes would have said that political organization is a precondition for a modern economy. From this perspective, liberalism rests less on a violent state of nature than on a selectively violent one, a state of nature in which some sorts of conflictual relations (i.e. market competition) can function in an orderly way “spontaneously,” without the intervention of some sort of collective decision-making.

  10. Michael

    1) This is a great reminder of how tremendously much liberal culture has changed with regard to gender. From jokes about sexual assault to gender-based insults being seen as passe by even suit-wearing bros to North Carolina being organizedly pilloried for its ridiculous bathroom police laws.

    2) I wonder how environmentalism fits into all of this.

    1. flora

      Yes, there has been long overdue cultural change for the better for formerly marginalized groups.
      However, I wonder if liberal culture is the same thing as Liberal economics. And I wonder if liberal culture that supports formerly marginalized groups (very welcome and right) is being used as a PR front by Liberals for an economics that is undermining or impoverishing these same groups. Not that liberal culture recognizes or would agree to be used in this way by Liberal economics politicians.
      Here’s the thing: the great burst of liberal culture expansion in the 60’s was preceded by a large increase in incomes for most people, especially the working class. One can be more generous about allowing “outsiders” in if one feels economically secure. Now, however, economic security is scarce. The scarcity is not due to liberal culture but due to Liberal economic actions like NAFTA, etc. I don’t have answers. It just seems to me like it’s in TPTB interests to conflate liberal culture with Liberal economics.

  11. RBHoughton

    Fascinating article.

    NC morphs into NYRB. The site has become a delight each day. I am making NC my home page.

  12. Roland

    Liberalism was a “left” ideology only for as long as the bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie were classes which were being oppressed, or which reasonably feared oppression.

    Once they became the politically and culturally dominant class, the “liberalism” of the bourgeoisie became dedicated mostly to the freedom of the bourgeoisie to concentrate ever more wealth and power in their own hands.

    Given how dominant in society and culture the bourgeois class has become, it is worth reminding oneself that the bourgeois class, despite its wealth, was in the past routinely preyed upon by more powerful classes in society–the aristocracy and the clergy.

    The bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie engaged in centuries of struggle against their class-enemies, over whom they eventually triumphed. The aristocracy and clergy were politically liquidated as classes, although not always physically liquidated. Those formerly dominant classes are still to be found in the world today, although the bourgeoisie have relegated them to a vestigial, theme park type of existence.

    The proletariat, in due time, may well keep around some token bourgeois. At the SCA in the future, nerds will spend Sundays jousting to commemorate the era of chivalry, while Tuesday will feature “stock market night,” to commemorate the era of disruptive innovation.

    Liberalism is about the freedom to do and think as one will, with like respect to others. Bourgeois liberalism became a truncated, perverse, kind of liberalism, because the bourgeoisie as a class define themselves by their own accumulation. Therefore the freedom to accumulate property became to the bourgeoisie the only freedom that matters.

    Bourgeois liberalism is a liberalism for 1% of the population. The contradiction, of course, is that the aristocracy before them also could offer freedom to 1% of the population. So what has become the point of bourgeois “liberalism,” anyway?

    There can be no freedom in society for more than 1% of the population until power and wealth are widely distributed. Proletarian liberalism is more logical than bourgeois liberalism.

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