Archive | Political Theory RSS feed for this section

Why Does the Winger Whine? What Does the Winger Want?

20 Apr

At National Review Online, Jonathan Adler writes:

Over at the progressive blog, Crooked Timber, Corey Robin lists “Eleven Things You Did Not Know About Clarence Thomas.”  The items Robin lists shouldn’t surprise avid court watchers, or others who have paid much attention to the conservative justice.  Judging from the comments, however, several of the items were quite a revelation to CT’s readership.  I can only imagine the surprise if Robin had blogged on Justice Thomas’s jurisprudence, further challenging the caricature of Clarence Thomas that continues to dominate so much liberal commentary about him.

Actually, a fair number of commenters at CT claimed not to be surprised by these revelations at all.

In any event, you’d think Adler would have been pleased that a group of progressives were having some of their misconceptions about Thomas challenged, if not dispelled. Instead, he complains about the fact that the misconceptions of a group of progressives are getting challenged, if not dispelled. Apparently the only thing worse than the left not knowing something about the right is…the left learning something about the right.

Wingers whine when we don’t pay attention to them; they whine when we do pay attention to them. Why do they whine so much? What does the winger want?

From The Reactionary Mind:

“The 1960s are rightly remembered as years of cultural dissent and political upheaval, but they are wrongly remembered as years stirred only from the left,” writes George Will in the foreword to a reissued edition of Barry Goldwater’s The Conscience of a Conservative. Several decades ago, such a claim would have elicited puzzled looks, if not catcalls and jeers. But in the years since, the publication of a slew of books, each advancing the notion that most of the political innovation of the last half-century has come from the right, has led historians to revise the conventional wisdom about postwar America, including the 1960s. The new consensus is reflected in the opening sentence of Ronald Story and Bruce Laurie’s The Rise of Conservatism in America, 1945–2000 : “The central story of American politics since World War II is the emergence of the conservative movement.” Yet for some reason Will still feels that his kinsmen are insufficiently appreciated and recognized.

Will is hardly the first conservative to believe himself an exile in his own country. A sense of exclusion has haunted the movement from the beginning, when émigrés fled the French Revolution and Edmund Burke and Joseph de Maistre took up their cause. Born in the shadow of loss—of property, standing, memory, inheritance, a place in the sun—conservatism remains a gathering of fugitives. Even when assured of his position, the conservative plays the truant. Whether instrumental or sincere, this fusion of pariah and power is one of the sources of his appeal. As William F. Buckley wrote in the founding statement of National Review, the conservative’s badge of exclusion has made him “just about the hottest thing in town.”

While David Hume and Adam Smith are often cited by the more genteel defenders of conservatism as the movement’s leading lights, their writings cannot account for, as we have seen, what is truly bizarre about conservatism: a ruling class resting its claim to power upon its sense of victimhood, arguably for the first time in history. Plato’s guardians were wise; Aquinas’s king was good; Hobbes’s sovereign was, well, sovereign. But the best defense of monarchy Maistre could muster was that his aspiring king had attended the “terrible school of misfortune” and suffered in the “hard school of adversity.” Maistre had good reason to offer this defense: playing the plebe, we now know, is a critical weapon in the conservative arsenal. Still, it’s a confusing defense. After all, if the main offering a prince brings to the table is that he’s really a pauper, why not seat the pauper instead?

Conservatives have asked us not to obey them, but to feel sorry for them—or to obey them because we feel sorry for them. Rousseau was the first to articulate a political theory of pity, and for that he has been called the “Homer of the losers.” But doesn’t Burke, with his overwrought account of Marie Antoinette that we saw in chapter 1—“this persecuted woman,” dragged “almost naked” by “the furies of hell” from her bedroom in Versailles and marched to “a Bastile for kings” in Paris—have some claim to the title, too?

Or just listen to Chet Baker…


Or this lovely version from Thelonious Monk…

Is the Left More Opposed to Free Speech Today than It Used to Be?

25 Mar

In a sharp take on the left, Freddie deBoer asks, “Is the social justice left really abandoning free speech?” Drawing on this report about an incident at the University of California at Santa Barbara, Freddie answers his own question thus:

It’s a question I’ve played around with before. Generally, the response [from the left] is something like “of course not, stop slandering us,” or whatever. But more and more often, I find that the answer from lefties I know in academia or online writing are answering “yes.” And that is, frankly, terrifying and a total betrayal of the fundamental principles we associate with human progress.

Freddie goes on to offer a rousing defense of free speech. I don’t want to enter that debate. I have a different question: Is Freddie’s sense of a change on the left—”more and more often”—accurate?

To be clear, I know exactly the phenomenon Freddie is talking about, so he’s not wrong to point it out. But from my admittedly impressionistic vantage as a middle-aged American academic, it seems far less common than it used to be.

Historically, the left has had an ambivalent relationship to what used to be derisively called “bourgeois freedoms.” From Marx’s On the Jewish Question to Herbert Marcuse’s notion of repressive tolerance, some of the most interesting thinking on the left has been devoted to examining the limits of what for lack of a better word I’ll call the liberal defense of freedom and rights. And of course this tradition of thought has often—and disastrously—been operationalized, whether in the form of Soviet tyranny or the internal authoritarianism of the CPUSA.

But if we think about this issue from the vantage of the 1960s, my sense is that today’s left—whether on campus or in the streets—is far less willing to go down the road of a critique of pure tolerance, as a fascinating text by Marcuse, Barrington Moore, and Robert Paul Woolf once  called it, than it used to be. (As Jeremy Kessler suggests, that absolutist position, which is usually associated with content neutrality, historically went hand in hand with the politics of anti-communism.) Once upon a time, those radical critiques of free speech were where the action was at. So much so that even liberal theorists like Owen Fiss, who ordinarily might have been more inclined to a Millian position on these matters, were pushed by radical theorists like Catharine MacKinnon to take a more critical stance toward freedom of speech. But now that tradition seems to be all but dead.

Something happened on the way to the censor. Whether it was the pitched battle among feminists over the MacKinnon/Dworkin critique of pornography—and their advocacy of anti-porn statutes in Indianapolis and elsewhere—or the collapse of the Berlin Wall, most leftists since the 1990s have been leery of deviations from the absolutist position on free speech. Not just in theory but in practice: just consider the almost fastidious aversion to shutting down any kind of discussion within the Occupy movement. That’s not to say that leftists don’t go there; it’s just that the bar of justification is higher today. The burden is on the radical critic of free speech, not the other way around.

Yes, one can still read of incidents like the one that provoked Freddie’s post (though compared to the past, they seem fewer and farther between). And critical issues like the relationship between money and speech are still argued over on the left. But, again, compared to the kinds of arguments we used to see, this seems like small beer.

My take, as I said, is impressionistic. Am curious to hear whether others have a different impression. And to be clear, I’m talking here about the left, not liberals, who may or may not be, depending on a variety of factors and circumstances, more inclined to defend restrictions on freedom of speech.

David Brooks: Better In the Original German

11 Mar

Isaac Chotiner thinks David Brooks is not making sense. That’s because Chotiner’s reading Brooks in translation. He needs to read Brooks in the original German.

Here’s Brooks in translation:

What’s happening can be more accurately described this way: Americans have lost faith in the high politics of global affairs….American opinion is marked by an amazing sense of limitation —that there are severe restrictions on what political and military efforts can do.

Today people are more likely to believe that…the liberal order is not a single system organized and defended by American military strength; it’s a spontaneous network of direct people-to-people contacts, flowing along the arteries of the Internet. The real power in the world is not military or political. It is the power of individuals to withdraw their consent. In an age of global markets and global media, the power of the state and the tank, it is thought, can pale before the power of the swarms of individuals.

It’s frankly naïve to believe that the world’s problems can be conquered through conflict-free cooperation and that the menaces to civilization, whether in the form of Putin or Iran, can be simply not faced. It’s the utopian belief that politics and conflict are optional.

Here’s Brooks in the original German:

A world in which the possibility of war is utterly eliminated…would be a world without the distinction of friend and enemy and hence a world without politics.  It is conceivable that such a world might contain many very interesting antithesis and contrasts, competitions and intrigues of every kind, but there would not be a meaningful antithesis whereby men could be required to sacrifice life, authorized to shed blood, and kill other human beings.

The negation of the political, which is inherent in every consistent individualism, leads necessarily to a political practice of distrust toward all conceivable political forces and forms of state and government, but never produces on its own a positive theory of state, government, and politics.

What this liberalism still admits of state, government, and politics is confined to securing the conditions for liberty and eliminating infringements on freedom. We thus arrive at an entire system of demilitarized and depoliticalized concepts.

State and politics cannot be exterminated.

American Schmittianism, alive and well.

James Madison and Elia Kazan: Theory and Practice

19 Feb

James Madison, Federalist 51:

The constant aim is…that the private interest of every individual may be a sentinel over the public rights.

Elia Kazan, on why he named names:

Reason 1: “I’ve got to think of my kids.”

Reason 2: “All right, I earned over $400,000 last year from theater. But Skouras [head of Twentieth-Century Fox] says I’ll never make another movie. You’ve spent your money, haven’t you? It’s easy for you. But I’ve got a stake.”

Death and Taxes

13 Feb

Last year, I said, somewhat tongue in cheek, that socialism is about converting hysterical misery into ordinary unhappiness.

This is what I meant. Socialism won’t eliminate the sorrows of the human condition. Loss, death, betrayal, disappointment, hurt: none of these would disappear or even be mitigated in a socialist society. As the Pirkei Avot puts it, against your will you enter this world, against your will you leave it (or something like that). That’s not going to change under socialism. But what socialism can do is to arrange things so that you can actually deal with and confront these unhappinesses of the human condition.

I was reminded of that reading this wonderful piece by Anya Shiffrin about the death of her father.

Last spring, André Shiffrin, the legendary publisher, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer (he died in December). A New Yorker through and through, he nevertheless decided to spend his last months in Paris, where he and his wife had an apartment and where he had been born. It proved to be a wise move, as Anya explains.

So imagine my surprise when my parents reported from Paris that their chemo visits couldn’t be more different [than they had been at Memorial Sloane Kettering in New York]. A nurse would come to the house two days before my dad’s treatment day to take his blood. When my dad appeared at the hospital, they were ready for him. The room was a little worn and there was often someone else in the next bed but, most important, there was no waiting. Total time at the Paris hospital each week: 90 minutes.

There were other nice surprises. When my dad needed to see specialists, for example, instead of trekking around the city for appointments, he would stay in one room at Cochin Hospital, a public hospital in the 14th arrondissement where he received his weekly chemo. The specialists would all come to him. The team approach meant the nutritionist, oncologist, general practitioner and pharmacist spoke to each other and coordinated his care. As my dad said, “It turns out there are solutions for the all the things we put up with in New York and accept as normal.”

One day he had to spend a few hours at Cochin. They gave him, free of charge, breakfast and then a hot lunch that included salad and chicken. They also paid for his taxi to and from the hospital each week.

“Can’t you think of anything bad about the French healthcare system?” I asked during one of our daily phone calls. My mom told me about a recent uproar in the hospital: It seems a brusque nurse rushed into the room and forgot to say good morning. “Did you see that?” another nurse said to my mom. “She forgot to say bonjour!”

As Anya goes onto explain, her father wasn’t “getting VIP treatment or had a fancy private plan. Not at all. He had the plain vanilla French government healthcare.” She also points out that health care spending is much lower in France.

French health care couldn’t stop André Shiffrin from dying; nothing in this world could. Instead it helped him and his family confront and deal with his dying, without the distraction and mayhem of our system. It’s not that taxes can save you from dying; it’s, well, here’s Anya:

When my dad began to get worse, the home visits started. Nurses came three times a day to give him insulin and check his blood. The doctor made house calls several times a week until my father died on December 1.

The final days were harrowing. The grief was overwhelming. Not speaking French did make everything more difficult. But one good thing was that French healthcare was not just first rate — it was humane. We didn’t have to worry about navigating a complicated maze of insurance and co-payments and doing battle with billing departments.

Every time I sit on hold now with the billing department of my New York doctors and insurance company, I think back to all the things French healthcare got right. The simplicity of that system meant that all our energy could be spent on one thing: caring for my father.

That time was priceless.

In my Freudian (late Freud) moments of despair, I sometimes wonder if the madness of American capitalism isn’t one massive contrivance to avoid the sadness and finitude of the human condition. Filing our insurance claims, haggling on the phone, waiting for doctors, we don’t have time or space to deal with death. At least not properly. That’s what socialism might help us do. Perhaps that’s why we don’t want it.

Socialism is not a flight from the human condition; it’s a direct and unsentimental confrontation with that condition.

Aristocrats of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your…shame.

15 Jan

I just heard Ari Shapiro report on NPR about an effort in Britain to “modernize” the aristocracy by allowing women of the nobility to inherit the titles and estates of their fathers. Current British law requires that all heirs to titles and estates be male. No one on the show mentioned the most obvious step to modernity: abolish the titled aristocracy altogether.

There was a time when the battle against sexism and the battle against the aristocracy were thought to be one and the same. No more. As Lady Liza Campbell, one of the aggrieved heiresses-in-waiting, told Shapiro:

Nowhere should girls be born less than their brother. Yes, it’s the aristocracy. You may want to hold a peg over your nose. But it’s still sexism. You can be an atheist and support the idea of women bishops, I think.

It’s easy to pooh-pooh and laugh at this sort of talk, but as I argued in The Reactionary Mind, one of the chief ways that the right defends against the left, and preserves its privileges more generally, is to borrow the tropes and tactics, the memes and methods, of the left. Sometimes, as I said in the book, this act of borrowing is self-conscious and strategic; other times, it happens un-self-consciously, with the defenders of privilege coming under the influence of their antagonists, without even realizing it. This current case seems to be a bit of both.

As if to prove my point, Campbell tells Shapiro at the end of the report that if she and her comrades are not able to change the law in Parliament, they will take their cause to the European Court of Human Rights at Strasbourg. The British aristocracy pressing its case before an international human rights tribunal. Edmund Burke, meet Tom Paine.

Indeed, Campbell’s comment reminded me of that moment in Burke where he drops all talk of little platoons and local tradition and starts insisting that the aristocracy and the counterrevolution reinvent themselves as “citizens” of Europe. So “sympathetic with the adversity or the happiness of mankind” should counterrevolutionary Britain be, he writes in the Letters on a Regicide Peace, that “nothing in human foreign affairs,” and certainly nothing in revolutionary France, would be “foreign to her.” Were the counterrevolution to think this way, he sighs dreamily, “no citizen of Europe could be altogether an exile in any part of it.” And the aristocracy might just have a fighting chance of preserving itself.

Aristocrats of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your…shame.

When Richard Nixon Met Karl Polanyi

30 Oct

In 1969, while he was working on Richard Nixon’s Family Assistance Plan, which would have guaranteed an income of $1600 plus $800 in food stamps to every family of four, Daniel Patrick Moynihan was deputized by Nixon to investigate the historical accuracy of one of Karl Polanyi’s claims in The Great Transformation.

Polanyi had argued that Britain’s Speenhamland system—like Nixon’s plan, it would have guaranteed an annual income to poor families, regardless of whether they worked or not—had the perverse effect of making the poor poorer. Reiterating claims made by Marx and Engels, Polanyi wrote that Speenhamland allowed, even encouraged, employers to hire workers at below-subsistence wages (the poor were guaranteed an income regardless of whether they worked). Because workers would start losing their income  supports once they earned more than a subsistence wage, and because employers were more than happy to have local parishes supplement or subsidize wages, Speenhamland effectively put a cap on wages. Productivity went down, and with it, poor rates and income supports.  The long-term result, said Polanyi, was increased immiseration among the poor.

Few people have attended to Polanyi’s caveat that had the working poor not been prohibited by the Anti-Combination Laws of 1799-1800 from organizing themselves they might have been able to reverse these effects. (Admittedly, that point only gets a passing mention in Polanyi’s chapters on Speenhamland.) Instead, his argument has been taken as Exhibit A of Albert Hirschman’s perversity thesis: policies designed to achieve positive ends, particularly when those ends relate to the poor, often produce the opposite of their aims. (Hirschman himself made a nod to these linkages.)

When Nixon began mooting his version of Speenhamland in the early part of 1969, talk of perversity (in all senses) was very much in the air. In mid-April, the economist Martin Anderson—then a White House staffer, but previously a devotee of Ayn Rand; Anderson has also been credited with bringing Alan Greenspan, another Randian, into government—prepared a report on the history of poor assistance, which was essentially little more than a series of extracts about Speenhamland from The Great Transformation.

So troubled was Nixon by this history that he had Moynihan personally undertake an assessment of Polanyi’s findings. Moynihan set his staff right to it, resulting in a team of bureaucrats surveying all the most up-to-date historical literature on Speenhamland.

As Fred Block and Margaret Somers—from whose wonderfully informative 2003 article in Politics & SocietyIn the Shadow of Speenhamland: Social Policy and the Old Poor Law” I have cribbed this story—concluded:

The Family Assistance Plan was ultimately defeated in the U.S. Senate but only after Richard Nixon had a conversation about the work of Karl Polanyi.

Update (12:30 pm)

There’s an ungated version of Block’s and Somers’ article here.

For the New Intellectual…

28 Oct

Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged:

A is A. A thing is itself. You have never grasped the meaning of his statement. I am here to complete it….Whatever you choose to consider, be it an object, an attribute or an action, the law of identity remains the same. A leaf cannot be a stone at the same time, it cannot be all red and all green at the same time, it cannot freeze and burn at the same time. A is A. Or, if you wish it stated in simpler language: You cannot have your cake and eat it, too….All the disasters that have wrecked your world, came from your leaders’ attempt to evade the fact that A is A. All the secret evil you dread to face within you and all the pain you have ever endured, came from your own attempt to evade the fact that A is A. The purpose of those who taught you to evade it, was to make you forget that Man is Man.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations:

“A thing is identical with itself.” — There is no finer example of a useless proposition.

Burke in Debt

24 Oct

Some day someone should write an essay on the struggles of Edmund Burke in his final years to overcome his considerable debts—some £30,000—by securing a peerage and a pension from the Crown.

Throughout his career, Burke’s financial state had been precarious. Much to his embarrassment, he was periodically forced to rely upon well timed gifts and loans from his wealthier friends and patrons.

So terrified was he of dying in a debtor’s prison that he struggled in his retirement to learn Italian. His hope, claimed one of the many visitors at his estate, was to flee England and “end his days with tollerable Ease in Italy.” (He also floated, apparently, the possibility of fleeing to Portugal or America.) “I cannot quite reconcile my mind to a prison,” he  told a friend.

Thanks to the interventions of his well connected friends, Burke secured from Pitt in August 1795 two annuities that would wipe out his debts and a pension that, along with an additional pension and the income from his estate, would enable him and his wife to live in comfort into their old age.

Three months later, when Burke took up his pen against a proposal for the government to subsidize the wages of farm laborers during bad harvest years (so that they could sustain themselves and their families), he wrote, “To provide for us in our necessities is not in the power of government.”

The History of Fear, Part 5

17 Oct

I’m back today with part 5 of my intellectual history of fear. After my posts on Hobbes (rational fear), Montesquieu (despotic terror), Tocqueville (democratic anxiety), and Arendt (total terror), we’re ready to turn to more recent theories of fear, which arose in the 1980s and 1990s, in the wake of the conservative backlash against the 1960s and the collapse of communism.

In my book on fear, I divide these recent theories into two broad camps: the liberalism of anxiety and the liberalism of terror. The first camp tracks communitarian liberalism (or liberal communitarianism) as well as some influential arguments about identity and civil society; the second camp tracks what is often called political liberalism or negative liberalism, and it includes treatments of ethnic conflict and violence. The first camp takes it cues from Tocqueville, the second from Montesquieu.

The primary theoreticians of the first camp include Michael Walzer, Charles Taylor, Michael Sandel, Will Kymlicka, Amitai Etzioni, David Miller, and to a much lesser degree Seyla Benhabib. The primary theoretician of the second camp is Judith Shklar, but her arguments are echoed by theorists like Avishai Margalit and Richard Rorty and popular writers like Philip Gourevitch and Michael Ignatieff. The work of Samuel Huntington hovers above both camps.

Both camps, I argue, are responses to the failures of the radicalism of the 1960s and to the conservative retreat since then. To that extent, their political and intellectual context mirrors that of Tocqueville writing in the 1830s and Arendt (and other Cold War intellectuals) writing in the late 1940s and early 1950s. All were grappling with questions of fear in the wake of ruined insurgencies.

Today, I’ll only focus on the liberalism of anxiety; in my next installment, I’ll talk about the liberalism of terror.

• • • • •

While I was fearing it, it came,
But came with less of fear,
Because that fearing it so long
Had almost made it dear.
—Emily Dickinson

Though the liberalism of anxiety borrows from the reaction against the French Revolution, though it takes aim at philosophers like Kant and Descartes, the immediate occasion of its misgiving is the 1960s. Anxious liberals make frequent, unhappy references to gains won and goods lost throughout that decade and its aftermath—entitlements to welfare without corresponding duties, expansive rights “to ‘do our own thing,’” and other smaller liberations. According to Amitai Etzioni, individual freedom and communal life are “out of balance after decades in which self-interest and expressive individualism have prevailed.” That imbalance, adds Jean Bethke Elshtain, is a product of the “new attitude toward rights that has taken hold in the United States during the past several decades.”

The sixties, in this view, is not simply a historical moment, but an ongoing project of individual emancipation, which has not been beaten back in any significant way. At a time when Democrats and Republicans have stripped suspected criminals of procedural protections, when a presidential candidate’s membership in the ACLU suggests membership in the Communist Party, and when there are fewer counties in the United States with abortion providers than there were in 1973, the liberalism of anxiety worries about a “rights-absolutist climate of opinion” that has not dissipated.

While its discontent is plainly addressed to the 1960s, the liberalism of anxiety is no simple antagonist of that decade. In the same way that Tocqueville was ambivalent about the French Revolution so are the liberals of anxiety conflicted about the rights revolutions of forty years ago. Contrary to the claims of their critics, these writers are not entirely hostile to liberalism or its recent achievements. They express no desire to return to a segregated or sexist America. Some, like Michael Walzer, were among the most eloquent voices of the 1960s, and still argue for the elaboration and extension of its achievements. Others, like Etzioni, claim that communities should be fostered and nurtured, but not at the expense of individual rights. Majorities can be tyrannical, Etzioni warns, which is why the Constitution has wisely deemed “some choices” to be “out of bounds for the majority.”

Nor should we return public argument, write Etzioni and Michael Sandel, to premodern canons of natural law or religious authority; instead, we should embrace the irreducible pluralism—and contentious debates—that liberalism at its best insistently honors. Walzer argues that communitarianism, the most prominent version of the liberalism of anxiety, is an “intermittent feature of liberal politics,” which, “like the pleating of trousers,” seeks not to overthrow liberalism but to texture it with sociological and moral depth. And in their effort to incorporate communitarian criticisms into liberal arguments, philosophers like William Galston and Will Kymlicka have proven Walzer correct.

The ambivalence of the liberals of anxiety toward the sixties runs even deeper. Though they often argue for a revival of community and civic virtue by reference to Aristotle or Machiavelli, their vocabulary is often drawn from the very individualist ethos they question.

The anxious liberals care much for the fate of the self, which they believe rights-based liberalism has deprived of full agency and force. They do not praise community and civic culture as goods unto themselves: community is worthy in their eyes because it lends a necessary theater to the self’s appearance.

According to Etzioni, “Individuals who are bonded into comprehensive and stable relationships and into cohesive groups and communities are much more able to make reasoned choices, to render moral judgments, and to be free.” Kymlicka claims, “Cultures are valuable, not in and of themselves, but because it is only through having access to a societal culture that people have access to a range of meaningful options.” Membership in a common culture, particularly a culture of diverse subcultures, helps us make “intelligent judgments about how to lead our lives.” Without close-knit communities, writes Walzer, the individual suffers a radical “decline in ‘the sense of efficacy.’”

Anxious liberals thus do not spurn the individualism of the 1960s: they question its political sociology. For them, social order—which can range from the nation, a common culture, or subculture, to an institution, a voluntary association, or a local community—is the seedbed of the self. It provides the deep grammar of individualism, the nurturing ground upon which the self learns who she is and what she believes. From preestablished moral prescriptions and social ties—that which is given, as opposed to that which she chooses—the individual learns to express herself and her needs in a publicly intelligible language. Once she has internalized these prescriptions and ties, she can think and act for herself. She no longer requires an authoritative structure to direct her every step; she can take her own steps, even steps that contradict or challenge those assigned to her, for a properly pluralist social order offers the individual a variety of scripts—doctor, lawyer, Christian, Muslim, Democrat, Republican, and so on—to perform. It even tolerates her efforts to revise or write new scripts. Like parents and teachers, the agents of social order use their power to guide rather than repress, with the goal of turning the student or child into a rational, autonomous adult.

But the liberalism of anxiety also stows a darker, more subversive account of social order. Recalling an argument made by everyone from Tocqueville to the Frankfurt School to Christopher Lasch, anxious liberals quietly cherish social order as a necessary antagonist of the self. Social order makes demands upon the self, they claim, exacting obedience, asking the individual to abide by its rules. Such constraints often provoke the appearance of a more fractious, defiant self, who knows what she believes and is willing to risk all to pursue it. A Martin Luther or Anna Karenina—those great refusals of history and literature who declare, “Here I stand. I can do no other.” In the revolt against constraint, the self defines her own beliefs, articulates her own principles—far more vigorously than she would under the soporific gaze of an excessively tolerant parent.

The prerequisite of such a deeply felt intransigence is a social structure that weighs heavily upon her. Without that structure, rebellions will be shallow and trivial, freedom an empty gesture. “Radical freedom,” Walzer insists, “is thin stuff unless it exists within a world that offers it significant resistance.” He adds, “the easier the easiness” of breaking loose, the less strong the individual will be. Or, as Galston writes, “Rational deliberation among ways of life is far more meaningful (I am tempted to say that it can only be meaningful) if the stakes are meaningful—that is, if the deliberator has strong convictions against which competing claims can be weighed.”

The radical pursuit of freedom, these critics argue, and corresponding decline of social order, breed anxiety, crippling the self. The “vaunting of ‘free individuality,’” writes Kymlicka, “will result not in the confident affirmation and pursuit of worthy courses of action but rather in existential uncertainty and anomie, in doubt about the very value of one’s life and its purposes.” “Self-determination,” he adds, “has generated more doubt about the value of our projects than before.” It destroys the personal intimacy and social proximity we need to become full individuals. The result, writes Walzer, are identities “mostly unearned, without depth.” This observation does not prompt conservative nostalgia. Instead, it asks us to make good on the promise of comprehensive individuality and robust agency that the sixties were supposed to deliver. If we were once again “participants in a common life,” we would witness a true flourishing of human capacities, for men and women “are stronger, more confident, more savvy” when they “are responsible to and for other people.”

In the 1950s, at a comparable moment of political retreat, American intellectuals responded in like fashion to the end of the New Deal and a rampant McCarthyism. Like our contemporary liberalism of anxiety, the Cold War version took its cues from Tocqueville. Intellectuals argued that the average American felt isolated and alienated, that the greatest threat to individual agency was the anxiety of anomie. “A fluid social structure,” wrote David Riesman, “creates anxiety and bewilderment.” The solution was not to return to the past, but to create what Talcott Parsons called an “institutionalized individualism,” to situate the individual within institutions. A “strong emphasis on freedom and responsibility,” Parsons insisted, required “a framework of both normative order and collective organizations.”

The Cold War intellectuals did not see the quiescence of the 1950s or McCarthyism as the product of a resurgent Republican Party in Congress, the overthrow of a dynamic labor movement, or the capitulations of liberal Democrats to red baiting. Instead, they assumed that it was the continuing momentum of liberalism that generated anxiety and crippled individual agency. For liberalism, in the words of Lionel Trilling, was “at this time . . . not only dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition” in the United States.

Like other reactions to failed emancipations past—one also thinks of Tocqueville’s diagnosis of democracy after the French Revolution, Arendt’s meditations on spent modernity after World War II—the liberalism of anxiety is the voice of a ruined insurgency. It conveys the promise of liberated human capacity, and the disappointment of seeing that promise betrayed.

But what makes the liberalism of anxiety a reaction against the insurgencies of the 1960s—as opposed to a symptom of their decline—is its peculiar understanding of the threats to the self’s agency, an understanding drawn from Tocqueville’s analysis of anxiety. Where Hobbes understood the fearful self as a being of fixed contour, frightened and threatened by forms of external power that thwarted it, the liberalism of anxiety imagines a weak self of almost vaporous indeterminateness. This weak self, rather than external coercion or repression, is the Trojan Horse of unfreedom.

What makes the self so weak and anxious, in this view, is the absence of external structure and order, the absence of coercion and repression. What would make the self strong? A revival and strengthening of integrative institutions like churches and families, which could once again press upon the individual and propel her to be a full self.

The insurgents of the 1960s presumed that the self was an agent who knew, and was passionately committed to, her interests and beliefs. Indeed, it was this knowledge and commitment that hurled her against the barriers of constraint—Jim Crow, the family, the Pentagon—for she believed those barriers prevented her from achieving her aims. If the self did not act, it was because these barriers—or her fear of them—stopped her from doing so. Challenging barriers meant taking risks and making sacrifices, resulting perhaps in the loss of career and opportunity, or, in some cases, life itself. Knowing that danger made men and women afraid, sometimes to the point of not acting. Fear thus required two actors of real presence—a determinate self and the agents of social order.

But the liberalism of anxiety has turned the self’s knowledge of her beliefs and interests into a problem, the agents of social order into an indeterminate ether, and, with that, fear into anxiety. Because anxious liberals believe contemporary America lacks integrative institutions, they imagine the self to be a thin figure of disintegration. Conversely, because the self has grown thin, she cannot participate in integrative institutions. Where there was presence, now there is absence; where there was fear, now there is anxiety.

One of the most telling symptoms of this shift from fear to anxiety is the discussions over the last two decades about the problem of identity. The occasions of these discussions have been various: pitched battles over political correctness, scholarly debates about nationalism and ethnicity, meditations on the politics of recognition versus the politics of distribution. But the underlying vocabulary and assumptions of these arguments have been consistent. The most pressing questions of politics, according to many participants in these debates, concern not the distribution of power and resources or the aggressive contest for equality and expropriation. Politics instead involves those agitated questions of membership and exclusion—of who belongs and who does not, who I am, who you are, and the unrelenting anxiety over borders (of self and society, group and nation) that such questions entail.

In the words of David Miller: “It matters less, it seems, whether the state embraces the free market, or the planned economy, or something in between. It matters more where the boundaries of the state are drawn, who gets included and who gets excluded, what language is used, what religion endorsed, what culture promoted.” “The negotiation of identity/difference,” writes Seyla Benhabib, “is the political problem facing democracies on a global scale.” Unlike “the struggles over wealth, political position, and access that characterized bourgeois and working-class politics throughout the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century,” she claims, today’s struggles are about what Jürgen Habermas calls “the grammar of forms of life.” Or, as Samuel Huntington puts it, “In the post–Cold War world, the most important distinctions among peoples are not ideological, political, or economic. They are cultural.”

Though oppositional intellectuals during the 1960s were not uninterested in identity, they spoke of it as an instrument of rule. Dominant groups, these earlier thinkers believed, organized differences—of race, class, and gender—vertically, placing one group on top of another, distributing more resources, status, and power to those at the top. As late as 1982, feminist theorist Catharine MacKinnon gave voice to this dispensation in a debate with Phyllis Schlafly. Feminists, according to MacKinnon, had little interest in socially generated differences as desirable or undesirable in themselves. They worried about differences that “enforced subordination, limited options,” and generated “social powerlessness.”

This political understanding of difference prompted an interest in fear, rather than anxiety, for fear arose from and reinforced society’s vertical cleavages. Fear was a tool of the powerful against the powerless, and a reaction of the powerful to the possibility that the powerless would one day dispossess them of their privileges.

But contemporary theorists of identity conceive of society horizontally, which is why anxiety is their preferred emotion. We are divided into groups not at the bottom and the top, they argue, but at the centers and the margins. Whether the group is a race, ethnicity, religion, nation, or culture, it is never sure of the coherence or durability of its borders. It worries that its perimeter is too permeable, that foreigners will slip through its porous frontiers and jeopardize its existential character and basic unity. Because men and women are not sure where they begin and end, there is a pressing need to “differentiat[e] oneself from what one is not.”

The struggle for identity, in other words, results from the anxiety over borders, which produces a redoubled effort to guard those borders. Reviving unwittingly an argument from an earlier moment of political retreat, theorists of identity ascribe a nagging political salience, trumping all other conflicts, to anxieties about self and other, in group and out group, nation and enemy.

To be sure, intellectuals did not initiate these arguments over identity in a vacuum: with post–Cold War debates over inclusion and exclusion threatening to dissolve entire societies into chaos, theorists felt legitimately called upon to offer some guiding intelligence. But these theorists have gone further, interpreting identity claims as the political return of the deepest, most elemental disquiet of the human condition.

Huntington writes that “peoples and nations are attempting to answer the most basic questions humans can face: Who are we?” Identity, argues Taylor, “designates something like an understanding of who we are.” Those who struggle on its behalf are roused by the sense that “there is a certain way of being human that is my way.” When we refuse to recognize that way of being, we harm the person, imprisoning her “in a false, distorted, and reduced mode of being.” Politics should accommodate men and women who seek to identify themselves with a nation or some other culturing grouping, explains Miller, because “identifying with a nation, feeling yourself inextricably part of it, is a legitimate way of understanding your place in the world.” Or, put more strongly, politics is the effort to define oneself with the nation or some other cultural grouping.

Because the liberalism of anxiety values the expressive self of the 1960s—but worries about its disruptiveness—it seeks a politics that allows for individual expressiveness without its disintegrative consequences. For that reason, anxious liberals prize institutions of civil society that are nonpolitical or antipolitical, and cares and concerns that are social and cultural, but not ideological or partisan. It is these institutions and concerns that combine the virtues of expression and connection, allowing the individual to disclose who she is without provoking disorder and disintegration.

Civil society is valuable, according to Etzioni, because it encourages us to “attend to nonpolitical institutions.” Local communities should be supported, Elsthain suggests, because they are not ideologically maximalist: their “ethos is preserving, not acquiring,” their goal is “to defend and sustain what remains of a way of life.”

Civic associations, writes Taylor, are important because they are “often dedicated to ends which we generally consider nonpolitical.” The ideal form of civil society is a conversation between two people: “A conversation is not the coordination of actions of different individuals, but a common action in this strong, irreducible sense; it is our action. It is of a kind with—to take a more obvious example—the dance of a group or a couple, or the action of two men sawing a log.” Conversations can range from Mozart to the weather, for “in human terms, we stand on a different footing when we start talking about the weather.” In conversation, we don’t just impart information to a separate self. Instead, we create a shared universe of intimate meaning between ourselves. Conversations model the ideal form of politics, which should be expressive and embedded, collective but not divisive. “What has all this [talk of conversation] to do with republics?” Taylor asks. “It is essential to them,” for “they are animated by a sense of a shared immediate common good.”

This bias against political action and debate is by no means uniform among proponents of the liberalism of anxiety. Some, like Walzer, praise the rough and tumble of democratic politics. But even when Walzer embraces disruptive and redistributive organizations—labor unions, for instance—it is partially their integrative function, their support for “cooperative coping,” that he praises. And when the state supports unions, he adds, it helps men and women overcome their isolation. For Walzer, the 1935 Wagner Act, which gave workers the right to organize and join unions without fear of employer retribution, does more than protect workers from intimidation by their employers: it also “counter[s] the dissociative tendencies of liberal society,” protecting “communities of feeling and belief” from the centripetal force of individual mobility.

It is these quietist tendencies within the liberalism of anxiety—the love of intimate conversation, the praise of non-ideological associations, the embrace of integration over conflict—that ultimately render it an inadequate philosophy of politics. The liberalism of anxiety was aroused by remorse over the disappearance of the passionate conviction and crusading movements of the 1960s, and still longs for the individual and political vitality of an earlier age. It seeks a stronger self, a more defiant individual.

But little of that is to be found in the PTAs and Rotary Clubs it so fulsomely praises. Whatever their value as modes of social integration, these organizations are not weapons of social conflict or training grounds of strenuous selfhood. They may be partial to conversation and cocktails, perhaps some cooperative coping, but they eschew antagonism, conflict, and political confrontation. Civil society must thus remain an object of permanent disappointment for its defenders. Because it disappoints, its advocates are driven to embrace an alternative ethos, the liberalism of terror. Formulated by a different group of writers in response to a different set of concerns, the liberalism of terror provides the bracing resolve and militant politics liberals of anxiety seek but cannot find in private associations, civil society, and conversations about the weather.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,601 other followers