U.S. Intellectual History Blog

After the Death of Post-Liberalism

Recently, I spent a weekend teaching about the Progressive Era and the New Deal as part of a Teaching American History grant administered through the University of Virginia.  I pitched-hit for Sidney Milkis who knows infinitely more about this period and the liberalism developed through it than me.  Nonetheless, after reading a couple dozen essays in two volumes Milkis edited on Progressivism and the New Deal, I came up with a somewhat pithy way to describe the evolution of liberalism in America.  Using the ambiguous notion of liberalism reflected in Jefferson’s phrase, “the Pursuit of Happiness,” I suggested that from the founding to the late-19th century American liberalism addressed the pursuing of happiness–the freedom to pursue made people happy; from the Progressive Era to today, Americans have contested the happiness that they all believe they have a God-given right to pursue.  While probably not very original, my construction struck the teachers in the program as inordinately generous to liberalism.  While as a group they all agreed that liberalism had some relation to “freedom” to pursue interests of different sorts, their reading of essays on Croly, Dewey, TR and FDR, made them rethink their assumptions about liberalism.  Most assumed that social security and welfare stand as ends in themselves.  In short, liberals have no moral imagination. 

The teachers can’t be faulted for their vision of liberalism.  In the latest issue of First Things, Bill McClay has the lead essay from a conference sponsored by the journal called “After Liberalism.”  McClay’s piece, entitled “Liberalism After Liberalism,” nicely sums up the sense my group had of liberalism: arguing against Justice Anthony Kennedy’s notorious explanation of liberalism as “the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life,” McClay declares that “the alternative private-sector inequality generally is not the vaunted achievement of ‘democracy’ but the gray reign of public bureaucracies, whose ‘equality’ is administered and enforced by unaccountable officials, with exemptions paid out to the politically connected and the ideologically favored.”  So much for the legacy of the CCC, WPA, or the Social Security Administration (for that matter).  
McClay mentions only two books on liberalism written after 1945, Alasdair MacIntyre’s demolition of liberalism, After Virtue, and Paul Starr’s paean to liberalism Freedom’s Power.  The forum in First Things demonstrates that there is little need to address works by Kloppenberg, Rodgers, Westbrook, or Milkis (among the scores of others) that address liberalism in its various complexity.  So I have come to an impasse in my understanding of this particular historiography.  Have reached the moment that requires a list of books that addresses whatever it is that comes or has come or will come after the death of post-liberalism?
My colleague Andrew Hartman suggested there are three broad avenues regarding the intellectual history of conservatism that need investigation.  I ask a comparable question in regard to the what follows our era of post-liberalism. Who is out there writing on this topic (I want to recognized Chris Shannon’s remarkable essay is this general area)?  Where are we headed?

12 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Ray – An interesting post. I don’t have a list of books, so I’ll offer some ideas in hopes of starting a conversation.

    Maybe what follows post-liberalism — taking you to mean what follows McClay’s latter-day liberalism, which I’ll call liberalism #2 — is the in-place reality of a global “neo-liberal” order, one with which both liberals and conservatives are fully if somewhat uneasily partnered, but whose terms of legitimation neither can fully articulate.

    For a long time, a central issue has been how to assign blame for the pathologies of modernity, from alienation, to narcissism to totalitarianism, dividing leftists and liberals, who mainly fault capitalism, from conservatives, who fault the state. To deal with threats to social order and cultural meaning, liberalism #2 moralizes the state, while conservative traditionalists (sometimes hard to distinguish from #1 liberals) construct a politicized morality. Neither can conceive of life without both the market and the state, but each is fitfully prey to the utopianism of a pure world without the other – a Rousseauian solidarity or a restored state of nature.

    Perhaps what’s changing is that the market and the regime of human rights are slipping the bonds of the national society political-cultural formation, so that neither ideology can believe in or generate a sense of moral solidarity or the common good, at least in the absence of war. [Apropos, Randolph Bourne might be generalized as “War is the health of society.”]

    The political and moral vocabularies of modern ideologies have grown increasingly unreal. They are rooted in, presume, and make reference to a concept of society, but in an age of fracture the concept has largely disappeared from discourse, though spectrally persisting in references to historically associated terms. They are losing their ground and justification in the national frame, but lack connection to a global society that no one can conceptualize.
    Here I’m drawing on, though not fully committed to, the Durkheimian notion that society is not a market or a state, but rather each is an institution of/within society. If there’s anything to this, perhaps our divided politics and our culture wars manifest deep issues less than a narcissism of minor differences. Perhaps their very intensity expresses their marginality.

    Anyway, to hurry this along, I was struck by the fact that Mc Clay appeals to the social at the point where he seeks sacred sanction for individual freedom. True religious liberty, “a dramatically different kind of liberty,” is not only of the individual, “it also is, and has to be, a corporate and associative liberty with a public dimension…because it makes ultimate claims about the order of creation and our place and purpose in it.” What he calls “the commitment to noncoercion [which] flows from a theologically grounded commitment to the fundamental and intrinsic dignity of each individual person” is carried over by analogy from the sacred-social to the economic and political realms.

  2. Okay first things first, are you critiquing liberalism or are you critiquing post liberalism? The implication being that if you’re critiquing post liberalism then it is sans liberalism. But I think that even though you have buried it you can’t help but continue to speak ill of the dead and to misquote that famous Roman I come not to bury liberalism but to praise it.
    I think we can agree that America’s liberal origins begin with a protection of liberty and property and I’m going to argue pursuit of opportunity not necessarily happiness.
    I don’t think anyone pursues happiness I think they hope for it as a consequence of their actions. Mom and dad go off to work pursue a career hoping to find satisfaction in that career. For most the pursuit is to earn an income if satisfaction comes from that all the better. Is that happiness, maybe, but it may not last, satisfaction may change to ennui and pursuit of something more satisfying (money, advancement) may substitute for happiness. James Livingston seems to think our identification with the things we buy will bring us happiness. I find happiness too amorphous, too momentary, and too elusive to make it a pursuit that’s why I call it a consequence of other pursuits, a byproduct not an end.
    The function of the state is to protect rights and to guarantee opportunity. If the state fails to guarantee opportunity than that’s a failure of liberalism. Liberalism doesn’t guarantee there won’t be set backs, it is after all a human institution and I don’t mean to minimize the tragedy that can be caused by those set backs. Doesn’t liberalism have the means of correcting its course, changing the program? Isn’t this what representative government purports to accomplish? Isn’t this the net result of many social movements the last 200 years? Doesn’t modification of the liberal state to control the excesses of capitalism demonstrate its resilience as opposed to its failure, even if that means that a re-evaluation of capitalism is an unending pursuit or do you envision a panacea? Isn’t faction and fracture the nature of an evolving society and consequently a continuous ongoing struggle? You can call it liberalism, post liberalism, social liberalism or neo-liberalism but liberalism still seems to endure because there’s still room for the argument to be made that things need to improve.
    Okay, I’m beginning to sound like the concluding voice over on a 1940’s WWII movie with “God bless America” welling up in the background so I’ll shut up.
    By the way, mission accomplished Bill.

  3. Thanks to both Bill and Paul for their comments. As usual, Bill, I appreciate the time you take to read my musings and provide a thoughtful critique. If there is a common thread in both comments it might be the notion that a common culture seems hopelessly inadequate these days. What both of you point to, though, is that debates over liberalism have at the core an assumption that something is being protected for individuals by some kind of institution–whether it is the state or, as McClay suggests, a set of sacred truth claims.

    I am interested, then, in what you both think of the role coercion plays in the debate over liberalism’s legacy. It seems to me that both the state and a set of commanding truths coerce individuals in order to protect a set of general social goals (perhaps a notion of happiness). After doing some work on the presidency of Jimmy Carter and his failure to employ his religious faith and his state power to coerce Americans to be better, I wonder if Carter’s era is not the touchstone for the transition from liberalism to the era where we presume liberalism #1 is dead, liberalism #2 is unduly inhumane, and the death of post-liberalism is complete.

  4. Ray- Using “commanding truths” to coerce has me
    perplexed unless your using coercion in a broad sense ranging from friendly persuasion to acts of violence, in which case an advertisement for washing detergent could be viewed as coercive. Do you mean this as in religious truths/commandments?

  5. Ray – Perhaps I misunderstood your terms. I was drawing on McClay’s distinction between earlier and later liberalisms, naming them #1 and #2. You refer to something “after the death of post-liberalism,” and that left me somewhat confused. I guess the “post” phase would be what McClay was sketching. Ok, so what comes “after” post-liberalism has expired? This is a bit reminiscent of early discussions of post-modern: initially some saw it as a stage “after” or “beyond” modernity, but others, who I think won the debate, saw it as a something “within,” a phase of the modern. I guess my throwing in “neo-liberalism” didn’t help.

    I was not clear on your points about pursuit of happiness, so I ignored them and went in another direction. I’ve always been confused by distinctions between means and ends, but I didn’t follow your distinction between “pursuing of happiness” and “contest[ing] the happiness.”

    On the coercion question, I agree with Paul that you’re taking “coercion” rather too broadly if it includes Carter’s efforts at moral suasion. I’m not sure what historical point you were making by referring to Carter.

  6. Coercion is often an ill-defined and hotly contested term but it shows up quite a bit in the debates over the Constitution and has played an important role in debates over social policy from the temperance movement to the New Deal to the criticisms of the healthcare mandate. It is the latest version of coercion that I have in mind when I wonder if we are now in a period that exists beyond post-liberalism. Coercion does not need violence to work; I think most often in the American context it has meant forcing citizens to act whether or not they believe such action is in their interests. My reference to Carter is only to note that he tried to redirect the spirit of New Deal liberalism through a post-liberal order that combined the free market and progressive Christianity. Now we are in a period beyond Carter’s failure, and while we struggle to define how to extend healthcare we are no longer using terms that bear much resemblance to liberalism of old or even post-liberalism. So I wanted to know who was writing about this period that accepts the death of post-liberalism as a feature of our political and intellectual life.

  7. Ray – Thinking more about “coercion,” I read an article by that title by Scott Anderson, from The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and further reflection leads me to think your broad approach is more useful as a starting point, though here too the devil is in the details.

    I thought in very interesting that Anderson emphasizes the importance of Robert Nozick in recent thinking about coercion, and here’s a couple of passages:

    “Nozick’s account diverges from the more traditional approach in that (1) it associates coercion only with proposals (e.g., conditional threats), and excludes direct uses of force or violence; (2) it insists that coercion takes place only when the coercee acquiesces to it; and (3) it makes coercion explicitly dependent on the coercee’s choice to take or not take a specific action A, and mandates that a judgment about coercion must refer to facts about the coercee’s psychology, such as her assessment of the consequences A-ing in light of the coercer’s proposal. The overall effect of these differences is to focus the analysis of coercion on how the coercee is affected by it, rather than on what the coercer does, and what is required for him to do it successfully…. Nozick’s analysis emphasizes the alteration in the coercee’s choice of actions which results from the way the coercer’s proposal affects her reasons for acting….[It] puts the focus on how the coercee perceives her situation; it is only via this reflection that it takes into account how the coercer is able to create this perception. That is, it leaves the standard sorts of means (force, violence, perhaps even economic deprivation) that coercers use out of the account, and instead treats all kinds of alterations to the coercee’s costs and benefits to acting as possible indications of coercion. While this more ecumenical approach to coercion may succeed in encompassing ways of coercing that the traditional theories would leave out, it creates a difficult challenge for the theory to distinguish coercive from non-coercive proposals. It is not surprising, therefore, that these are the issues that have been the focus of most subsequent theorizing on the subject.”

    For me the most interesting thing here is that Nozick understands coercion through the lens of rational action analysis, and makes it “explicitly dependent on the coercee’s choice,” since a common way of thinking seems to juxtapose coercion and “force,” associated with the state, over against “choice” and freedom. Odd: on the one hand Novick sets aside the coercers’ means, but in another way includes them, translated into costs and benefits.

    Maybe another start for a more historical discussion would be to review Daniel Rodgers’ recent narrative – in ch. 3, what happened to power in the age of fracture, and in ch. 6, “The Little Platoons of Society,” especially the discussion of Nozick and libertarianism.

Comments are closed.