Against political determinism

“Neoliberalism” is a tricky and often misleading term. There have been myriad attempts to theorize it from a Marxist perspective, more or less adequate, usually less. But at the level of campaign slogans and mainstream political discourse there is a marked tendency to treat the whole phase of capitalist development from 1973 to 2008 as the result of a series of blunders, mishaps, or shady backroom dealings. Michael Rectenwald’s article on Sanders, Trumpism, and Brexit explores this crude political reductionism through the lens of what Andrew Kliman has called “political determinism,” the obverse of the economic determinism denounced by Lenin a century ago.

Rectenwald is not thus falling back on some caricatured version of the old Economist thesis that politics in no way mediates economics. He’s not arguing that policies are irrelevant, nor that they are simply a reflex of underlying economic shifts. What Kliman and Rectenwald are each looking to counter is a kind of idealistic voluntarism whereby electoral events, plebiscites or referenda, assume disproportionate importance or are even made into independent causes of subsequent growth. Perhaps they might be seen to herald a sea shift, but as Rectenwald points out, there can be no return to postwar productivity and prosperity — a “new New Deal” or post-neoliberal Fordism redux.

Many predicted that the 2008 financial crisis would finally draw the neoliberal phase of capitalism to a close. The election of Barack Obama was accompanied by a vague “hope” that things might “change”: one-word condensations of the new Zeitgeist, which featured prominently on posters across the nation. Eight years on, it’s difficult to remember the sense of enthusiasm and intoxication occasioned by Obama’s presidency. Occupy’s only significance — beyond the rhetoric of “the 99% vs. the 1%,” which seems to have stuck — was that it expressed the frustration and disappointment of voters who had swept Obama into office. Syriza, Podemos, and the Arab Spring arose to fill the void.

Commentators have by now for the most part acknowledged that earlier predictions of neoliberalism’s imminent collapse, the death-knell of the Reagan-Thatcher (but also Clinton-Blair) consensus, were premature. In the intervening years, the Tea Party had become known more for its libertarian attitude than its xenophobic paranoia. Austerity measures were imposed on Greece, but only after being ratified by the Syriza coalition in power. Now the British decision to leave the European Union is seen as the long-awaited, delayed-reaction repudiation of failed neoliberal politics.

To the horror of most, however, the ideological impetus behind this decision came mostly from the Right, fueled by anti-immigrant sentiment and delusions of autarky. Protectionist proposals, tariffs and the like, can come just as easily from the Right as from the Left. Farage and Trump, or rather the politics they seem to personify, testify to this fact. Rectenwald is correct to reexamine the faulty analysis that takes politicians to be the prime movers of socioeconomic change, since the same misconceptions inform movements that seek their salvation in candidates. One can’t “just say no” to neoliberalism, something which Rectenwald has already pointed out.

2/11/1985 President Reagan shaking hands with Donald Trump and Ivana trump during the State Visit of King Fahd of Saudi Arabia at the state dinner in the Blue Room

Sanders, Trumpism, and Brexit:
The decrepit state of capitalism

Michael Rectenwald
The Marxist-Humanist
Initiative (July 2016)

There’s a basic article of faith in leftist thought, held especially dearly by most among the US left. It is so entrenched and so seldom challenged that it has attained the status of myth, an unquestioned origin story on par with the Book of Genesis, as the latter must have been regarded within Christendom during the Middle Ages.

The myth goes like this: During the 1980s, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher — two arch-conservative, right-wing, and highly potent politicians — rose to power in their respective nations, the US and the UK. They thereafter began to institute what was for the vast majority a vile and destructive political and economic scheme: “neoliberalism.” Previous to the installment of this neoliberal scheme, the working class had experienced relative economic improvement, and capitalists seemed happy too (as if we care). But suddenly, and seemingly without cause (although the failure of Keynesianism was apparent in the unprecedented stagflation of the 1970s), these evil political twins, prompted by wizards who formalized the approach, introduced the nefarious ideology of neoliberalism to the world. As cruel and heartless representatives of the capitalist class (which, indeed, they were), they and their supporters caused the Fall from the supposed Paradise of Keynesian reformism that had preceded them. In this mythological version of reality, neoliberalism is understood merely as a set of essentially unwarranted and unusually brutal policies, an ideological and political formation that was hatched in the brains of evil masterminds conspiring in right-wing think tanks, concocted to dupe and punish the vast majority for the benefit of the rich and powerful. Continue reading

Weekend at Bernie’s: On Sanders 2016

Two articles I’m reposting here. Both concern the Bernie Sanders campaign. One, written by Jake Verso, specifically focuses on US politics. It also provides some historical context, mentioning past socialist figures such as Bernstein and Debs. The other, written by Michael Rectenwald, compares the enthusiasm surrounding the Sanders campaign to the outpouring of support for the Syriza coalition in Greece.


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Weekend at Bernie’s

Jake Verso
Communist League Tampa
August 20th, 2015

However fed up it claims to be, a certain portion of the Left in the United States remains sympathetic (if not outright loyal) to the Democratic Party. Many of these people are coming to support the candidacy of Bernie Sanders, and for them, the legacy of the postwar American economy looms large. When not focusing on identity politics and fear of republicans, Keynesian economic policy tends to be the ideological basis of the left wing of the Democratic Party. However, that same institution is incapable of bringing forth such reforms, not only due to the capitalist nature of the organization, but also because the leadership understands, at least unconsciously, that such reforms are impossible in the current historical moment.

In the dark comedy classic Weekend at Bernie’s, two reformist insurance employees discover the corpse of their boss at his weekend beach house. In order to protect their lives and keep the party going, they spend the rest of the film working to maintain the illusion that the lifeless corpse of their boss is still alive and is having the time of his life. To their surprise, and the delight of most of the unknowing spectators, the ruse is successful: the dead guy brings more joy to everyone who encounters him as a corpse than he probably would have were he still alive.

Bernie Sanders has frequently identified himself — in interviews, speeches, etc. — as a “socialist.” When pressed as to what this means, he usually mentions something about Sweden or else sticks the “democratic” moniker in front of it, presumably to be less scary. Yet Sanders is deliberately appealing to something bigger and more powerful than what is normally found within the bounds of typical political rhetoric. While most of the Democratic Party has stoically marched right, Sanders has veered left, raising the specter of a revamped populism with his appeal to outrage over growing economic inequality. His seemingly unpolished style, appearing and talking like your old socialist uncle who probably still mimeographs his own newsletters, Sanders appeals to the legacy of American unionism and nostalgia for its former strength. During this period of escalating election hype, it is important to remember that this remains within a framework of mainstream left-of-center politics. Positioning himself within Democratic Party primary politics, Sanders has drawn more attention to this type of rhetoric than one might have thought feasible. Since Sanders has nowhere to go but up, this has been the key to his appeal: raise the specter of working class strength, state directed social development, and populist economic outrage contained within a palatable framework and channeled into old political currents.

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This is nothing new. If anything, it is the new normal. This same self-congratulatory politics could be seen during the 2008 Obama campaign. In his tone and diction Obama sought to subtly evoke the legacy of Martin Luther King, and would later famously install a bust of the man in the Oval Office. Today the Eugene Debs poster in Sander’s office is a similar object of note for reporters. Obama also acted as insurgent candidate against Clinton, filling a necessary power vacuum in the Democratic Party’s shallow bench of celebrity politicians. Obama promised a new kind of politics, albeit of a vaguer sort than Sanders, and sailed in on a wave of popular outrage toward the Bush administration and panic at the sudden emergence of the economic crisis. During Obama’s rise, all of the usual useful idiots pressed the line, excited that someone is able to appeal to loftier notions in anything resembling a mainstream context. To his credit, Sanders policies and political history go slightly deeper than Obama’s, but at the same time this poses a greater hurdle for him. A good deal of the Democratic Party base identifies as moderate or conservative. If Sanders hopes to actually secure a nomination, like Obama or anyone else, he will be forced to make concessions to those components of the party. All of this is moot anyway. Whether or not Sanders gets the nomination, or even if he somehow gets elected, the Democratic Party as a whole and as an institution is both unwilling to and incapable of implementing the kind of economic policy Sanders is touting. For now, Sanders has skillfully exceeded the extremely low expectations surrounding his candidacy and made great strides in closing the gap in the polls against Hillary Clinton. There has been a great deal of euphoria on some sectors of the American Left (to the extent that a Left can be said to exist in America). There has also been a growing chorus of dissident voices pointing out that Sanders platform is much less radical than some are touting it as. I suppose that I stand in the latter camp. But rather than listing the numerous political sins he’s committed over the years through his relationship with the Democrats, I’m going to examine and critique some of the assumptions underlying his appeal and then briefly look at just how meaningless Sanders conception of socialism really is.

Reformism and neoliberalism

The extent to which one can place hope in reformist efforts today, depends in part as to one’s conception of neoliberalism. It can be tough to characterize the economic opinions of the Left, since so little of it can be said to hold any kind of economic conception of capitalism. For many people, in today’s environment Clintonite stooge Robert Reich has come to constitute some kind of economic guru for many people. Still, a unifying theme, from soft Marxists like David Harvey and Richard Wolf to liberal reformists like Robert Reich is that the period encompassing neoliberalism roughly amounts to an attack on the working and middle classes by the rich. That the gutting of US manufacturing, international trade deals, the welfare state, and dying off of trade unions was the result of a concerted effort, lead on a political front by greedy elites who were not satisfied with the previous equilibrium that had been established in the economy. This skillfully and self-servingly reduces structural economic problems to a question of political leadership, and from this standpoint, it makes sense to expect that the United States could return to “peace and prosperity” through the policy decisions of elected officials. Unfortunately this picture does not correspond to the reality of the last forty years or to capitalism in general. Continue reading

Postscript on identity, intersectionality

Over the last week the whole internet’s been aflutter with righteous rage and condemnation, all stemming from the publication of a couple articles critiquing identity politics and intersectionality on the Left. “Exiting the vampire castle,” a piece addressing the former of these topics, appeared on The North Star five days ago. Its author, Mark Fisher, known for his widely-acclaimed monograph Capitalist Realism from 2009, sought to isolate and describe a rather corrosive tendency within contemporary leftist discourse. He christened this tendency “the Vampires’ Castle”:

The Vampires’ Castle specialises in propagating guilt. It is driven by a priest’s desire to excommunicate and condemn, an academic-pedant’s desire to be the first to be seen to spot a mistake, and a hipster’s desire to be one of the in-crowd. The danger in attacking the Vampires’ Castle is that it can look as if — and it will do everything it can to reinforce this thought — that one is also attacking the struggles against racism, sexism, heterosexism. But, far from being the only legitimate expression of such struggles, the Vampires’ Castle is best understood as a bourgeois-liberal perversion and appropriation of the energy of these movements. The Vampires’ Castle was born the moment when the struggle not to be defined by identitarian categories became the quest to have “identities” recognised by a bourgeois big Other.

Several weeks ago I posted an exchange between Michael Rectenwald and me about “identity” as “the bane of the contemporary Left,” along with a follow-up on the shifting significance of the term “identitarian” within critical theory. These are somewhat relevant to the topic at hand. Anyway, Fisher’s article almost immediately unleashed an unholy shitstorm (stricto sensu) of leftish snark and indignation across the web. Both in the comment thread and beyond, throughout the Twitterverse and numerous repostings on Facebook walls, supporters and detractors alike hashed it out in an orgy of opprobrium and vicious accusations. Lost amidst all this pseudo-controversy and scandal-mongering was any sense of scale or circumspection. These are usually the first casualties of such disputes, of course.

When the dust finally settled (has it settled?), not a few articles had been written. Some were rejoinders to Fisher’s original posting. A few figures also rose to his defense. It’d be pointless to try to reconstruct all these interventions, however, so for now a list will have to suffice.

First, we have his opponents:

Next up, Fisher’s allies:

Heartfield’s piece, incidentally, is the other article I alluded to at the outset. Though it must’ve seemed like a pre-planned, two-pronged assault in conjunction with Fisher’s critique of the Vampires’ Castle, both were written and accepted for publication without prior knowledge of each other. Strangely enough, they just happened to be released around the same time, Heartfield’s a couple days later. Which is why I include it here.

Regardless, there were a couple other responses that took a more ambivalent stance toward the whole affair. Three articles belong to this “third camp”:

Krul’s article was probably the best of the bunch so far, in any of these “camps” — though that isn’t saying very much. In addition to this, there was also apparently some sniping from the leftist blogger Richard Seymour (who goes by the quaint handle “Lenin”). Seymour also took to Twitter to register his opinion of Heartfield’s criticisms of intersectionality. According to Seymour, “Heartfield’s article is classic male backlash/ ex-RCP contrarianism.” He kept his remarks about Fisher a bit more private, posting them on his Facebook wall. When one of Fisher’s associates alerted him to these comments, he had only this to say:

The Reverend Seymour is moraliser-in-chief, who’s built his career on condemning and excommunicating. But nobody cares about these people beyond a very narrow, self-defined online “Left” — they are emperors in Liliput…

A fairly accurate portrayal, at least in my experience. Part of the latter-day Left’s modus operandi is to shamelessly shun or “no platform” its opponents, thereby skirting any substantial disagreement in favor a narrow ideological line of acceptable deviations. Everything else is considered abhorrent and must be ignored unto oblivion. Surprising stuff, considering the stakes are so low. The real, i.e. historical, Lenin gladly met and talked politics with imperialist boosters like the Fabian H.G. Wells and the pro-war anarchist Petr Kropotkin after 1914. What an age we live in. Continue reading

On the term “identitarian”

Yesterday I posted a brief exchange between Michael Rectenwald and myself about the pernicious effects of “identity politics” on the contemporary Left. Today I’d like to spell out two different uses of the term “identitarian” as a term of critique on the Left.

“Identitarian” ideology under Fordism

The first form of thought identified as “identitarian” here comes from Adorno. In his late magnum opus Negative Dialectics (1966), Adorno seeks to critique ideological representations of society that minimize or suppress real antagonisms and unresolved antinomies that historically persist. Adorno approaches this problem from the highest level of abstraction in modern (Western) philosophy, the split between subject and object. He takes issue with philosophies that contend that objects can be perfectly comprehended by the concepts of an apperceptive, epistemic subject. Though this seems to place Adorno at a further remove from Hegel’s speculative idealism and closer, as some have maintained, to Kant’s transcendental epistemology — in which the thing-in-itself, the original source of all a subject’s intuitions, remains forever unknowable — the non-identity of concept and object is not a permanent natural condition, but a potentially transient social condition. For Adorno, continued division, disharmony, and disequilibrium in cognition are constitutive of a society in which capitalism has not yet been overcome. Identitarian thinking, which obscures these uneven realities, belongs to a conceit symptomatic of the tendency to deny social conflict:

Nonidentity is the secret telos of identification. It is the part that can be salvaged; the mistake in traditional thinking is that identity is taken for the goal. The force that shatters the appearance of identity is the force of thinking: the use of “it is” undermines the form of that appearance, which remains inalienable just the same. Dialectically, cognition of nonidentity lies also in the fact that this very cognition identifies — that it identifies to a greater extent, and in other ways, than identitarian thinking. This cognition seeks to say what something is, while identitarian thinking says what something comes under, what it exemplifies or represents, and what, accordingly, it is not itself. The more relentlessly our identitarian thinking besets its object, the farther will it take us from the identity of the object. Under its critique, identity does not vanish but undergoes a qualitative change. Elements of affinity — of the object itself to the thought of it — come to live in identity.

To define identity as the correspondence of the thing-in-itself to its concept is hubris; but the ideal of identity must not simply be discarded. Living in the rebuke that the thing is not identical with the concept is the concept’s longing to become identical with the thing. This is how the sense of nonidentity contains identity. The supposition of identity is indeed the ideological element of pure thought, all the way down to formal logic; but hidden in it is also the truth moment of ideology, the pledge that there should be no contradiction, no antagonism. (Negative Dialectics, pg. 149)

Put differently, “identitarian” ideology for Adorno occurs wherever apparent homogeneity masks underlying heterogeneity. This can be elucidated with reference to the historical problem he was addressing. Following the end of World War II, with the defeat of Nazism and the onset of the Cold War, a kind of consolidation was achieved between Keynesian economic policies in North America drifting leftward and social-democratic economic policies in Europe drifting rightward. With the Fordist state’s periodic intervention to “correct” the market’s inherent volatility, by manipulating interest rates, controlling currency, and the creation of large bureaucratic welfare agencies through deficit spending, it appeared that the massive class conflict of earlier periods of capitalism had finally been resolved. Labor appeared to have been largely integrated into the new postwar constellation through collective bargaining and the emergence of big unions to match big business and big government. Continue reading

Conclusion: The Truth of Liberalism

The world revolution of 1848 marked a turning point in the history of the Left.  By and large, the old political categories were thrown into crisis.  A number of the terms that had up to that point held common currency now proved to be utterly inadequate to the task of describing the social reality that emerged.  Just as 1789 had introduced a new vocabulary to European political discourse, so did 1848 refine and build upon this prior language of revolution.  Herein lies the root of Losurdo’s error: his misrecognition of the liberalism of the past as the liberalism of the present.  By reifying liberalism in its present, thoroughly reactionary form — particularly as the Austrian neoliberalism of Hayek and Mises[272] — Losurdo denies that it ever had a truly revolutionary role to play.  He equivocates on the issue of liberalism’s merits, offering only backhanded praise — expressing his admiration for its ability to “learn from its opponent” (i.e. radicalism)[273] and a vague appreciation for its doctrine of the limitation of state power.[274]  Certainly, there is no reason to prefer one historical definition of “liberalism” to another.  Yesterday’s liberalism should be afforded no special dignity over its present-day counterpart.  But since it is historical relationships that are at issue here, and not some transhistorical doctrine of politics that obtains past, present, and future, it is incumbent upon the historian to trace out its subtle mutations and shifts of meaning over time.  To try and extract some sort of immutable “essence” out of the multivalent historical significance of liberalism is a fruitless venture.  This means that one must pursue exactly the opposite method from the one implied by Losurdo’s insistent rhetorical repetition of the metaphysical question, “What is liberalism?”

Unfortunately, Losurdo is hardly alone in committing this fallacy.  Numerous leftish scholars and academics — such as C.B. Macpherson, Uday Singh Mehta, and Theodore Koditschek, to name a few — have offered similarly one-sided appraisals of liberalism’s legacy.  Their insensitivity to the variety of meanings “liberalism” historically possessed may be excused by the limited scope of their inquiries, however.  None, except for maybe Macpherson, has attempted to paint liberalism with such broad strokes as Losurdo.  Even then, Macpherson was mostly just interested in disavowing an earlier form of liberalism, so-called “possessive individualism,” the political theory of which had been expounded by primarily English philosophers from Hobbes to Locke.[275]  While he acknowledges that thinkers like Locke, Bentham, and James Mill understood the relation of capital to wage-labor better than their successors J.S. Mill and T.H. Green,[276] Macpherson clearly favors the latter two as providing a stronger ethical foundation for modern liberal-democracy.[277]  As for Mehta, his focus is clearly on a very specific phase of liberalism, a phase in which liberal politics became closely entwined with colonialism — namely, liberalism in power.  Though he does not delineate an explicit timeline of the phenomena he is investigating, the vast majority of Mehta’s source material dates from the second half of the nineteenth century.  Once again, this tends to confirm the periodization set forth in the present essay.  Most of the events Mehta deals with fall under the period of reactionary liberalism, from 1848 to 1873 or 1884, the period immediately following the moment liberalism first came into in crisis.[278]  Mehta suggests about as much by the subtitle of his book.[279]  Likewise, Koditschek’s study of Liberalism, Imperialism, and the Historical Imagination takes up “nineteenth-century visions of a greater Britain,” taking Mehta’s earlier research into the topic as its point of departure.[280]  Accordingly, he does not claim to have unearthed some hidden matrix of domination buried deep within the essence of liberalism.  Only Losurdo is sufficiently ambitious to attempt such a feat.

Oddly enough, it is Immanuel Wallerstein, who has been known to sometimes smooth over the subtler gradations separating one epoch from another, who proves himself the most perceptive here.  In his 1995 reflection on politics After Liberalism, he explains the complex web of concepts and meanings as they existed from the great French Revolution of 1789 up to the June insurrection of 1848.  Many of the distinctions that today are taken for granted, Wallerstein points out, emerged only subsequently.  He writes:

Liberalism was the ideological response to conservatism.  The very term liberal (in noun form)… emerged only in the first decade of the nineteenth century.  Generally speaking, in the period of 1848, there was a blurred field of persons who overtly (or covertly, in the case of the English) supported the ideals of the French Revolution.  The field included persons with such diverse labels as republicans, radicals, Jacobins, social reformers, socialists, and liberals.

In the world revolution of 1848, there were really only two camps, the Party of Order and the Party of Movement, representing, respectively, conservative and liberal ideology, or, if one wishes to use another terminology with origins in the French Revolution, the Right and the Left.  It was only after 1848 that socialism emerged as a truly distinctive ideology different from, and opposed to, liberalism.[281]

As Wallerstein makes clear, the paths of socialism and liberalism at this point — in 1848, that is — diverged.  What had been a more or less undifferentiated camp of opposition to the status quo was now rent asunder by the force of its own internal contradictions.  The familiar “trimodal” political constellation of conservatism — liberalism — socialism, as Wallerstein refers to it, crystallized in this moment.[282]  Against Losurdo’s contention that liberalism and radicalism arose out of completely separate and distinguishable streams of thought, the interpretation offered in this essay argues that these two political traditions share a common origin.  They only became identifiably distinct after the traditional order of the ancien régime seemed to have finally been vanquished.  Bourgeois liberal thought, which had up to that time opposed the system of legal privileges that existed in the old state apparatus — the Ständestaat, or “polity of estates”[283] — was forced to face up to its own internal antagonisms, now that the despotism of the clergy, the nobility, and absolute monarchy had been swept away.  Only then did liberalism turn reactionary, suppressing the further development of the freedoms it had helped bring into being.  This was Marx’s perspective as he expressed it in a letter written to Engels in 1854, just as he was reading the French liberal Augustin Thierry’s History of the Formation and Progress of the Third Estate.  Marx wrote to his friend:

A book that has interested me greatly is Thierry’s Histoire de la formation et du progrès du Tiers État.  It is strange how this gentleman, le père of the “class struggle” in French historiography, inveighs in his Preface against the “moderns” who, while also perceiving the antagonism between bourgeoisie and proletariat, purport to discover traces of such opposition as far back as the history of the tiers-état prior to 1789.  He is at great pains to show that the tiers-état comprises all social ranks and estates save the noblesse [the nobility or Second Estate] and clergé [the clergy or First Estate] and that the bourgeoisie plays the role of representative of all these other elements.  Quotes, for example, from Venetian embassy reports:

“These that call themselves the Estates of the realm are of three orders of persons, that of the clergy, of the nobility, and of the rest of those persons who, in common parlance, may be called the people.”  [Vol. 1, pg. 3].  Had M. Thierry read our stuff, he would know that the decisive opposition between bourgeoisie and peuple does not, of course, crystallize until the former ceases, as tiers-état, to oppose the clergé and the noblesse.  But as for the “racines dans l’histoired’un antagonisme né d’hier”[roots in history…of an antagonism born yesterday], his book provides the best proof that the origin of the “racines coincided with the origin of the tiers-état.[284]

What is perhaps most remarkable about Marx’s comments on Thierry’s text is the almost bemused sense of appreciation they seem to express toward the French liberal’s insights.  At the same time, they show none of the biting wit or withering condemnation that Marx typically unleashed upon authors whose works he criticized.  Instead, his attitude toward Thierry might even be characterized as forgiving, or at the very least understanding of the epistemic limitations of the historical epoch in which he was writing.  The tone of Marx’s criticisms here display his recognition of the fact that, in the words of Postone, “forms of consciousness and the very mode of their constitution vary historically and socially.”  As a result, Marx realized that “[e]ach social formation…requires its own epistemology.”[285]  To put it another way, Marx did not see his own work as a refutation of the arguments or ideas with which Thierry was grappling.  Rather, he understood his work to constitute a clarification of these same arguments and ideas. Spencer Leonard, in a recent paper he delivered on this topic, pointed out that “even before 1848, Marx and Engels saw that the fraught (and seemingly intractable) question of liberalism’s relationship to socialism had become ‘the true object of philosophy.’”[286]  In stressing this point, Leonard explained, he only meant “to emphasize what, in the long death-agony of Marxism, most Marxists fail to appreciate: namely, Marxism’s immanence to liberalism.”[287]

Socialism, or what may be called the truth of liberalism, thus did not simply represent the attempt to abolish bourgeois society.  To no less of an extent did socialism represent the attempt to realize bourgeois society’s nearly fathomless potential.  Marxism, as the most sophisticated and consistent expression of this attempt, may therefore be said to be classical liberalism’s truest heir.  By contrast, the various successor ideologies whose thought most superficially resembles the ideals of the old liberalism — Keynesian/Fordist liberalism and Austrian neoliberalism — should be regarded as the falsification of the old liberalism, no more than two different species of its untruth.  Returning to the question of what ever became of liberalism’s project of emancipation after 1848, or where its historic commitment to the advancement of libertarian and egalitarian principles went, the answer thus presents itself.  Forsaken by those who had called themselves liberals, liberalism’s emancipatory project fell to socialism, which thereby also inherited its commitment to advance the cause of liberty and equality throughout the world.  Not only this, however.  Marxian socialism aimed, moreover, to achieve these principles at a higher level than the founders of classical liberalism could have ever imagined.  This might seem to contradict the empirical fact that liberal freedoms, both positive and negative (ancient and modern), have been extended further today than at any prior point in history.  But this does nothing to change the fact that humanity remains unequal and unfree.  Even that which commonly passes for liberty or equality in the present proves woefully impoverished, a mere shadow of what these words once meant.  And insofar as Marxists today look with scorn upon the tradition of classical liberalism, they too pass into untruth.  Or, as Engels once put it in a rousing speech, recalling the great bourgeois revolutionaries of ages past: “If that mighty epoch, these iron characters, [do] not still tower over our mercenary world, then humanity must indeed despair.”[288]

Continue to Notes to “The Truth of Liberalism”

The Paradox of the Honest Liberal (reblogged)

A Young Dan Carlin

An excellent reflection by C. Derick Varn, reblogged from his equally excellent blog, The Loyal Opposition to Modernity.  A blog well worth following.

The Left and the Right both square off with liberals–often for deeply divided reasons–for two major reasons: 1) this epoch is largely a liberal epoch shifting ever more towards the “right” side of liberalism, and 2) Liberalism is the current traditionalism of both the US and the EU, it has been the current traditionalism of the US for longer as both Republicans and Democrats in power until the middle 1970s functioned with liberal values. Indeed, classical liberal values spawn both the American Left and Right, and while Keynesianism, anarchism, Marxism has added to the thick veins of the American left-liberal tradition making it resemble its Marxist-Saint Simonian-LaSallean-Left Keynesian cousin, Social Democracy, and libertarianism has increasingly became close to reactionary elements in the “conservative” tradition obscuring the character of what is going on, both are heirs to a liberal tradition.

Furthermore, all the reactions against the Enlightenment are largely rooted in it: counter-enlightenment thinkers such as De Maistre or Herder or the fundamentalists or the Romantics are still locked in categories set by the Enlightenment. Also, “Left” critiques of the Enlightenment that material in origin are developments out of contradictions within liberal modernity itself–one can see this as analytic developments, or dialectical developments, and it would still stand. So in that sense, the background to the hostility non-liberals feel towards liberalism is partly cultural (Haidt’s research can be useful here) and partly pathological–we all see parts of our tradition reflected in what is currently deemed “liberal.”

In fact, I don’t think the failures of the Left are liberal failures, and leftists would do well to quit blaming our failures on outside parties or on competing but related traditions. No, but the failures of liberalism now is encapsulated by two things: a willingness to engage in almost tribal support for leaders whose compromises even disappoint liberals themselves, and often a failure to even conceive of the reactionary position liberalism has put itself in as a “current traditionalism.” In other words, the dominant thought form will be by-and-large concerned with maintaining its past gains, and given the inability of liberalism to deliver on Enlightenment promises, this will only get worse as the economic situation makes the contradictions obvious.

Look at Dan Carlin: Carlin is an independent, but crucially he is a liberal in the old sense of the term. Yet he sees the fundamental incoherence that both sides of a partisan debate have to can be illustrated in both healthcare and war policy. Carlin, being an honest man, no longer sees an answer, but his question as to the problem is corruption. His paradox is that his self-effacing honesty still has one hampering: he can not easily admit that the past he so valorizing contained all the contradictions of the current, and yet he does almost admit when he openly calls most of American self-conceptions “myths.”

The paradox of the liberal is that contradictions of the declining effacement are so great that they are left like the Soviets in the late 1980s, doing too little far too late, and letting resentment build so that the other side wins. Carlin sees the ad hoc nature of what the constitutional regime and the piecemeal developments of the 20th century have left so many elements of daily life, and he is furious at the disconnect with the leadership. Yet he can not square the circle either, and how can one expect it him to? He is in a defensive position. The questions for left-liberals and the paradox of the liberalism is thus though: if Carlin does square the circle, will what he produces look liberal anymore? Will it avoid the bloodshed? Further imperialism? Resource depletion? Or would maintaining the liberty he wants to maintain cost much in blood and treasure? Would he accept that cognitive dissonance? Or will he act like some Trotskyist or Maoist sectarians stubbornly refusal to acknowledge the contradictions of their own history and trying to pretend that so much of the past didn’t happen? Will anything that resolves these splintering and contradictions even be liberal anymore? I don’t know.

I doubt it. In the meantime, the Left has one major responsibility: to hold itself to account for its failures and to offer an alternative to the current–either through liberalism or against it. At the current, it does neither element of that responsibility well, and thus also cannot be said to have answers to the questions at hand.