Two weeks ago I began discussing some of what I see as the flaws in the left critique of (neo-)liberalism, beginning with the charge that liberals lack imagination, and that liberalism as a political philosophy stunts or enfeebles the political imagination. Today I’d like to advance that idea a little further, once again making use of Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism and thinking about the possibility that the perspective or ethos which Fisher calls by that name might be treated a little more respectably as an expression of what Judith Shklar named the liberalism of fear.
The pertinence of this connection, I think, ought to be clear, as I am writing the day after Marine Le Pen was soundly beaten but still managed to carry off about a third of the vote in the second round of the French presidential election. The most common response was relief, but relief of two kinds. One might be represented by Yascha Mounk, who wrote even before the first round of voting that a Macron win would be a “sensation.” The other variety seems to be represented well by this tweet by MSNBC host Chris Hayes, which is almost a year old but which I see retweeted almost every time now that an election occurs with a similar cast of characters:
I don’t want a future in which politics is primarily a battle between cosmopolitan finance capitalism and ethno-nationalist backlash.
— Christopher Hayes (@chrislhayes) June 24, 2016
Briefly in what follows, I want to explore the meaning of those first three words: “I don’t want.” For in a very real sense, the division we see between someone like Mounk and someone like Hayes is activated by a difference in taste, by a kind of aesthetic judgment about the liberalism of fear. Is there something distasteful about having to vote for an unappealing candidate in order to block a serious threat to democracy and minority rights?
If you spend any time with a three-year-old, you will learn that being forced to do something you do not wish to do is not only frustrating or irksome but baffling and confusing. The ability to process that an independent will is taking precedence over one’s own is a skill that humans do not seem to be born with. That this independent will is often acting out of opaque and possibly unknowable reasons only adds to the shock and confusion which accompanies the learning of this skill; there is a very real pathos in the eyes of a child when they lock up because of the cognitive and emotional demands generated by the need to respond to a command that contravenes their immediate wishes.
I am not beginning here, with a three-year-old, to make an invidious comparison with the left: they act like toddlers! I am attempting rather the opposite: I hope to give due acknowledgment and respect to the disorientation that comes with the abrupt transformation of the act of voting from preference to a sort of civil defense. In times such as these, one’s vote is not one’s own; it is severed from a pure act of conscience and judgment and becomes the possession of a public interest that may not be in tune with one’s own interests on numerous concrete questions. There is something violating about having to use one’s vote in this manner.
That may be true, and yet it does not condition the aesthetic response that one may have to this violation: one may find it repellent or invigorating, or one may find it simply, shall we say in honor of the French, comme il faut. Whether we want to sacrifice our vote in this manner–whether it is our preference to do so, whether we find it pleasing to do so–is an open question.
And that question will be answered, I think, by how one responds to the liberalism of fear, by whether one thinks that the crushing of the worst is an act worth praising or if we must keep the champagne on ice until we have made some progress toward the best. Is merely defeating inhumanity worth a cheer?
Judith Shklar’s essay “The Liberalism of Fear” is a tremendously subtle and sinuous work, and I cannot do justice to it here. But it has struck me each time I read it how coy and cool she is in introducing and advancing this concept: it is not put before the reader as a definition or a declaration, but almost as an afterthought, as if the essay always needs to talk about something different, something which consumes the writer’s attention while its titular concern only nibbles diffidently.
But if the liberalism of fear means something hard and unequivocal, it is that something dire–religious persecution, xenophobia, state corruption–makes utopianism unattainable and lesser-evilism unavoidable. There is no alternative.
As I pointed out in the post linked above, “TINA” is Mark Fisher’s basic definition for capitalist realism–which, it is worth noting, is an explicitly aesthetic rather than philosophical or political category, a kind of play on “socialist realism.” What is distasteful or repugnant about capitalist realism is that it refuses to be utopian, that it forces everyone constantly to accept the least-worst option and not even to peek at a better world.
Fisher, I think, believed that no one could seriously feel anything other than anger at such an aesthetic, that one’s judgment of the world produced under such conditions would be unremitting repulsion. Those who profess to find something inspiring or emancipatory in a candidate like Macron or Clinton must have not only gross politics but gross taste, a perverse sense of political aesthetics.
If we shift our terms back from capitalist realism to the liberalism of fear, however, we must at least acknowledge that there have been numerous people who have found something noble and vital about fighting against the worst, and perhaps especially so if that means one is fighting in the name of the least-worst. There is a kind of political taste, I think, which distrusts the sublimity of utopia and prefers the certainty of fighting for the more easily identifiable lesser-of-two-evils. There are no maps to utopia; the ways to the least-worst option are well marked and strongly lit.
I am not, to conclude, making a case for this perspective, or rather for this aesthetic. But I am making the case that the kind of dismissal and blithe incomprehension of the robustness and sincerity of this aesthetic which I have observed frequently over the past year is not intellectually or politically
serious self-obvious. It is itself an aesthetic judgment.
Edit (5/9 7:50): I struck through “serious” in the last paragraph above and replaced it with “self-obvious.” It is closer to what I intended, but last night I wrote “serious” out of a sense of frustration and fatigue. Clearly, the attitude of someone like Hayes is serious–in the sense of earnest–but I’m not sure his desire for something better than a battle of the least-worst vs. the worst is so unquestionable as he seems to presume.