Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Riding to the rescue of the L-word

A review of:
Alan Wolfe, The Future of Liberalism (Knopf, 2009)

Apart from having the same first name, what do William Kristol and William Wordsworth have in common? If this riddle appeals to you, you may like Alan Wolfe’s The Future of Liberalism. An effort to restate liberalism’s tenets for a non-specialist audience and to show that liberalism remains superior to competing “isms” in its ability to cope with modernity, the book is best approached as a series of connected essays in persuasion, to borrow a phrase from John Maynard Keynes. However, even readers who are not fully persuaded will likely pick up some bits of new knowledge along the way.

So what about the two Williams, the poet and the neocon? According to Wolfe, Kristol and his fellow neoconservatives have a romantic sensibility that denigrates caution, realism, and common sense in favor of grandiose dreams of democratic triumphalism. Like Wordsworth -- who heaped scorn on “mere safety” in his pamphlet attacking the 1807 Convention of Cintra (which allowed Napoleon’s defeated army to withdraw from the Iberian peninsula) -- Kristol et al. have a dangerously “heroic” view of the world which substitutes wishful thinking for an analysis of inconvenient realities. The flaws in this worldview became all too evident in the immediate aftermath of the invasion of Iraq. In drawing a connection between nineteenth-century romanticism and present-day neoconservatism, Wolfe may be on to something. It’s true that Wordsworth celebrated the French Revolution (“bliss was it then to be alive, but to be young was very heaven”), and it’s hard to imagine Bill Kristol, had he been around in 1789, saying that -- but no parallel is going to be a perfect fit. As the book proceeds, Wolfe detects the malign hand of romanticism in other places, from the writings of the liberal Paul Berman to Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Empire.

The Future of Liberalism revolves around several reiterated contrasts. Liberalism à la Wolfe sides with “interests” not “passions”; culture not nature; empiricism not “ideology” (a bad word in Wolfe’s lexicon). Wolfe’s liberalism is hopeful but cool, generous but ironic, committed unapologetically to its values but not in an overexcited, “ideological” way. This message is illustrated by various excursions into the history of ideas, featuring heroes (e.g., T.H. Green, Benjamin Constant, Lionel Trilling, John Dewey, Kant) and non-heroes (e.g., Carl Schmitt, Johann Gottfried von Herder, Marx, Rousseau, and, yes, Wordsworth). These excursions are generally well executed but they necessarily involve compression, and compression has its pitfalls. For example, anyone who wants to understand Max Weber’s famous distinction between an ethic of responsibility and an ethic of ultimate ends would be well advised not to rely too heavily on Wolfe’s brief summary of Weber’s “Politics as a Vocation.”

Wolfe’s liberalism has something in common with the tradition of political realism and its emphasis on the responsible exercise of power. “It takes ideological politicians to bring out the true virtues of realistic ones,” he writes (p.125), and he characterizes “a liberal global order” as one “in which as many governments as possible avoid romantic dreams, shun unrealistic expectations, and dampen religious and ideological enthusiasms.” (p.106) He says kind things about realists like Reinhold Niebuhr although the appropriation is partial: Niebuhr’s stress on responsibility is highlighted but not his view of the fallen nature of humanity. Wolfe’s preferred ground is Arthur Schlesinger’s vital center, “a place obviously distinct from the totalitarian right, but at the same time marked off from what Schlesinger [in 1948] called ‘doughfaced progressivism,’ which believes in ‘the more subtle sensations of the perfect syllogism, the lost cause, the permanent minority, where life can be safe from the exacting job of trying to work out wise policies in an imperfect world.’ ” (p.118)

This “exacting job,” however, is not one that Wolfe seems especially eager to take on. Admittedly his book is not intended to be a programmatic manifesto; he believes that liberalism’s philosophical basis is more in need of reviving than its programmatic ideas. But sometimes philosophical and programmatic considerations intertwine, and in these cases the book is less than satisfying.

The clearest example is Wolfe’s approach to the issue of equality. At the outset he writes: “How much actual equality there is in a society will vary from one to another, and one can imagine different kinds of liberal societies with different degrees of it. But any society that closes off opportunities for people to achieve their full human capacities, or that allows persistent inequalities to stifle the desire on the part of its least fortunate members to develop them, would not be a liberal one.” (p.12) This simultaneously suggests and evades a significant question: When do “persistent inequalities” become so persistent and deep-rooted that they stop being merely blemishes on a liberal society and start undermining its foundations? Consider the contemporary United States with its large underclass, astoundingly high incarceration rates, high levels of income and wealth inequality, and an educational system that relegates many children, especially poorer ones, to inferior schools from which only the unusually determined and lucky emerge with a decent education – at some point it becomes difficult to claim that such a society is giving a majority of its citizens opportunities “to achieve their full human capacities.” Wolfe endorses Michael Walzer’s view that there should be “a series of dams that prevent inequalities in some spheres of life from spilling over into others where they do not belong.” (p.82) Walzer’s Spheres of Justice divides the world into various domains – work, wealth, office, love, divine grace, and so on – and argues that different principles of just distribution apply in each. That’s fine in some ways, but it’s not much help in determining how much inequality in life chances is too much.

Wolfe says repeatedly that liberals want to maximize individuals’ ability to control their destinies, but the devil is in the details of how this principle is put into practice. Take welfare reform. Wolfe praises Bill Clinton’s abolition of Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) inasmuch as it represented a blow against dependency and the perpetuation of a “permanent welfare class” (p.248). On the other hand, “whether or not forcing mothers of young children into the workforce was the appropriate way to do this can and should be questioned, but the notion of overcoming dependency should not be.” (p.248) You can’t have it both ways: either ending AFDC was justifiable or it wasn’t. Wolfe’s discussion of equality and inequality would have benefited from a more thorough engagement with the tradition of democratic socialism, for which his occasional references to R.H. Tawney are not an adequate substitute. And when it comes to the transnational or global dimensions of inequality, Wolfe does not have much to say, apart from some fairly brief remarks on immigration and globalization toward the end of the book.

The Future of Liberalism has a thoughtful chapter on religion, which argues that liberalism properly understood is not hostile to religion and that freedom of religion is a meaningful principle worth defending. Here Wolfe’s hero is John Leland, a nineteenth-century “itinerant Baptist preacher from Massachusetts” and "the most important American never to have been the subject of a full-length biography" (p.165) who strongly supported separation of church and state and favored keeping organized religion out of politics, a position that Leland’s contemporary heirs in the Southern Baptist Convention have abandoned. In this chapter and elsewhere, Wolfe criticizes certain contemporary foes of liberalism, such as Stanley Fish, who, under the influence of postmodernism-poststructuralism, charge liberalism’s Enlightenment values with incoherence. He scores points against the postmodernists, which is useful if not especially novel. As already mentioned, however, socialist critiques of liberalism are either neglected in this book or treated summarily.

The book ends with a ringing plea for liberals to have the courage of their convictions and to recapture the spirit that animated the liberal accomplishments of the past. Wolfe’s decision to conclude in this way highlights what is perhaps the book’s most striking omission: its failure to acknowledge fully that liberalism’s problems of the last forty years have not been simply the result of liberals’ cowardice and complacency. The massive alterations in the operations of capitalism on both domestic and global levels, the weakening of organized labor in the advanced industrial countries (notably but not exclusively the U.S.), and reaction to the impact (real and perceived) of the movements of the '60s all had as much if not more to do with the electoral victories of Reagan, Thatcher, and some of their successors as did the timidity and miscalculation of their liberal opponents. Ideas don’t float freely, as Wolfe is well aware, and the best ideas don’t always win in the ideological marketplace; ideas exist in a context shaped by underlying economic and social forces, and a rigorous analysis of those forces is largely missing here.

Nonetheless and to end on a positive note, The Future of Liberalism makes me want to re-acquaint myself with the classics of the liberal tradition, and for that I thank the author.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this!

LFC said...

You're welcome.

Re the line at the end about reacquainting myself with the classics of the liberal tradition: in some cases "reacquainting," to be honest, should read "getting acquainted with for the first time."

For example, I never really read Mill -- the social theory course I took in college skipped over Mill the year I took it, or else dealt with him so quickly that if you blinked you missed it (and I never took the more detailed political theory survey, stupidly). Anyway, I have an old paperback copy of Mill lying around, and I have now read some of 'Utilitarianism' (haven't quite finished it, even though it's short). It has some good passages (one of which I've been tempted to put up on the blog). Then after that, 'On Liberty' (in the same old edition).

The only reason I'm admitting I've never read these things is that this is a comment, not a post, and even fewer people are going to read it than read the posts. Of course, if certain blogospheric adversaries start writing things like "LFC, by his own admission, hasn't read XYZ," I guess I'll know this was a mistake.

Anonymous said...

Yes, a lot of people don't get to read first hand sources for various reasons.

If and when we do, we begin to get a sense of how rich (and how disturbing) some of these ideas are. It is a useful exercise to me at least because it tells me that a) some of our contemporary problems have to do with the paradoxes that are their in these seminal thinkers; and b) that we need to work with/against these ideas in earnest without thinking that we don't need to rethink some fundamentals of political/social theory.

Have you read Uday Singh Mehta's work on the nexus between liberalism and colonialism? Sorry it is obviously a primary source but might be interesting to you. I have read some of it but plan on reading more of it this summer.

LFC said...

Heard of it but have not read it.