Saturday, October 24, 2009

Benjamin R. Barber on Alan Wolfe’s ‘The Future of Liberalism’

As Eric Alterman has shown in his book “Why We’re Liberals,” on most core policy issues from health and abortion to civil rights and foreign policy, the majority of Americans are decidedly liberal. Nonetheless, thanks in part to a toxically ubiquitous conservative punditocracy that has managed to equate liberalism with treason (Ann Coulter), terrorism and evil (Sean Hannity) and a mental disorder (Michael Savage), the term liberalism is widely derogated, and many who are in fact liberals assiduously avoid the label. Asked in 2004 whether he and his oh-so-liberal presidential running mate John Kerry were actually liberals, Sen. John Edwards said no, no, they were “mainstream America.”

With this as political context, Alan Wolfe deserves considerable credit for not only accepting the liberal label, but writing over 300 pages of text to defend liberalism and explore its future. Unfortunately, on the way to giving liberalism a respectable pedigree and a promising future, Wolfe draws a rather too pretty and simplistic picture of liberalism, which, in his verbal flourishes, “manages the complexities of modernity” better than any of its rivals (like nationalism or socialism or conservatism or romanticism) without losing its affinity for tradition and religion; which eschews the perils of “progressivism” (a “wrong turn” on liberalism’s road!) and “flirts” with elitism (in a good way, of course!) without denying equality and democracy their due; which is “the most appropriate political philosophy for our times”; which is not skeptical of religion but friendly to religious freedom and hence to “non-oppressive” religion; and perhaps most important for a book so embedded in the history of political theory, which knows how to distinguish the bad sources—above all Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Carl Schmitt—from the good sources such as the Johns, Locke and Dewey, and hence is a liberalism that is “honest about itself.”

The victory Wolfe’s “The Future of Liberalism” achieves in putting up a fight on behalf of liberalism is, for these very reasons, badly compromised by what the author does to liberal theory on the way to rescuing it. As Alterman has written, “liberals are never so influential in American politics as when they mouth conservative pieties,” and Wolfe mouths enough such pieties on his way to opening a road to liberalism’s future that he earns a blurb from anti-liberal neocon William Bennett. The theoretical foundation on which he builds his liberal understanding is in fact deeply defective: It is undialectical, innocent of the subtleties of historical political theory, and both far too biased against democracy, progressivism and socialism and far too oblivious to the perils of property as power (i.e., capitalism) to secure anything other than a safe and predictable theorization of Democratic Leadership Council-style middle-of-the-roadism. Wolfe’s is a liberalism nearly impossible to distinguish from conservative pieties, whether they are neoliberal pieties about the market or neoconservative pieties about religion; a liberalism, in other words, that seems to have forgotten its defining origins in resistance, revolution and the democratic quest for justice.

The strength of the book is an accommodating, tolerant, bland approach to liberty and modernity that picks few quarrels with the center right, posits no real tensions between liberalism and good religion, good tradition and good security, and anticipates no real internal conflicts in liberalism other than those imposed by illiberals—such as romantics, conservatives, nationalists and socialists—all of whom Wolfe tolerates as long as they are not too critical of liberalism.

To see long excerpts from “The Future of Liberalism,” click here.

The weakness of the book is an accommodating, tolerant, bland approach to liberty and modernity that sees no real tensions and conflicts because it denies dialectic, misreads the history of political thought, ignores capitalism and its costs, and completely misreads Rousseau—one of revolutionary liberalism’s most vital sources, construed by Wolfe here, however, as an enemy of liberty.

Wolfe has written a would-be left-of-center (i.e., liberal!) book that accommodates more or less everything and everybody except leftists. Rather than embracing and trying to make sense of the all too real conflicts between liberalism and equality, liberalism and religion or liberalism and tradition (which is what dialectic tries to do), he simply denies the tensions altogether and treats them as members of one happy family.

To ground this indictment of Wolfe’s book convincingly would take us beyond the parameters of a review. But let me try at least to demonstrate how destructive to true liberalism Wolfe’s aversion to dialectical thinking is by looking briefly at two features of his argument: his misunderstanding of liberal theory and its historical roots as a result of his misreading of Rousseau as an ideologist; and his flawed account of liberal practice in the absence of any discussion of capitalism, power and property.

The confounding of philosophy and ideology is the more egregious flaw in Wolfe’s reasoning. The difference between political philosophy and political ideology is that philosophers purvey an encompassing vision of the social world in place of the narrow political programs advanced by ideologists and party partisans. Ideology is akin to melodrama where there are good guys and bad guys, easily decoded by the color of their hats. Philosophy is more like dramatic tragedy, where good and evil are entwined in ways that deepen and complicate character and make it hard to discern the heroes and the villains. Is Aristotle an inegalitarian champion of slavery and human hierarchy or the first truly democratic thinker? Is Machiavelli a classical civic republican who believes in the virtues of the mixed constitution or a cynical power elitist who embraces Princely dictatorship? Is Hobbes the first modern authoritarian (his omnipotent sovereign Leviathan) or the first modern liberal (man’s natural condition of liberty and the voluntarist social contract)? What makes each of these theorists compelling and enduring is that they resist such simplistic dualisms. They cannot be boxed and labeled this way without annihilating their deeper meanings. They are dialectical thinkers whose work denies the very ideological categories by which, in evading their complexities, ideologues try to embrace or dismiss them.

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