(The Future of) Liberalism in Our Disordered Age
Reality is never as we think of it. Yet we must live, act, think, choose, and find our place within some story about reality that purports to lay out the coordinates of the world as grasped by our physical and numinous experiences. At the level of society or, to use a rather grand word, civilization, periods of alienation emerge when the way we describe reality no longer fit our experiences. Inevitably some variety of reactions to the false or inadequate conception of our reality emerge from this experience of alienation. At some point the story we tell about ourselves no longer works—our world no longer makes sense.
Eric Voegelin explored, as well as anyone, this relationship between reality, which is the fixed “ground of our existence,” and human experiences, which take place “inside” reality and are “events” that do not alter reality. Many others—a great many others, it turns out—who lack Voegelin’s philosophical penetration, seek today to explain political events and social changes relative to the deeper reality. They serve as so many competing oracles, each promising to make the world less alien to us. From many quarters one reads authoritative accounts of the end of an era, the inevitable collapse of a regime or ideology, the necessary trajectory of technological, economic, or structural evolution—all more or less deterministic. Most of them are scientistic without being scientific. Some preach collapse and others declare that history is moving in a clear direction toward some new era of economic growth, technological revolution, and individual empowerment, if not enlightenment. Beneath their diverse perspectives they all play on our need for some handy, authoritative explanation of our world, which is otherwise changing rapidly.
Even the well-read “conservative,” who finds in his hands a book that traffics in crude deterministic models, is prone to agree more than he ought. He can feel like a gourmet scarfing a greasy burger. To be sure, this well-trained gourmet loves fine food, but nuanced tastes and textures, contrasts that complement one another, the delight—made possible only with sustained effort—of a combination of foods most unique but damned subtle—these sometimes do not satisfy a more visceral yearning. He wants intensity. He needs something that overpowers, that requires no reflection or thought, that feeds his most rudimentary taste. Like the juicy burger, these books satisfy something in us during times when we tire of sustaining a complex grasp of a changing reality dimly lit by our limited historical resources.
If Melvyn L. Fein’s Post-Liberalism: The Death of a Dream were a well-written book, clever and sharp, filled with satisfying albeit simplistic distinctions, then I would serve it up to the reader as a guilty pleasure, like smiling with Rush Limbaugh in your Prius. It is, however, a dense and superficial book that robs the reader of even that simple pleasure of clandestine agreement because the insight is not worth the labor of digging for it. Extending over three hundred pages, it is both redundant and elusive—simplistic and vague. If this book extended one hundred pages and offered bold contrasts in sharp relief, it could tap into my need to not feel alone in my experiences of the world. Such a book, despite or because of its stark contrasts, can attract readers who want to feel a kinship with others who see around them an increasingly unpersuasive narrative of reality—a narrative that so many people, lamentably, accept even though they must sense that it is akilter.
Fein, a sociologist and disillusioned former leftist (though he does not call himself a conservative) who teaches at Kennesaw State University in Georgia, writes with the frustration of one who feels like he belongs to a beleaguered minority and whose plain and obvious truths his colleagues dismiss because of the ideological madness deranging the profession (not just sociology, but academia more generally). It appears that Fein wants his book to reach a popular audience, and he freely mixes lightly resourced scholarly evidence with his own personal experiences. This is a recipe for a very successful book when it comes with sharp, focused, clear writing and a breeziness that makes the writer seem authoritative without being pedantic. More of Fein’s frustration than his command of the material comes through in his prose, alas.
Nonetheless, there is a serious argument to be found in the book, and one that deserves reflection. Liberalism, Fein asserts, is a dream or a vision. More pointedly, it is an immature dream that does not fit with reality. In this case, the reality with which liberalism doesn’t fit has at least two components: what we might call human nature and, second, the circumstantial reality of our “techno-commercial society.” This liberalism springs, at its most basic level, from an exaggeration or distortion of Christian ideals about “universal love.” The historical development of what Fein calls the liberal dream, which runs from Christianity through Rousseau, Marx and the “Bobos,” is barely a sketch in this work and highly derivative. The less said about his story of the history and philosophical development of liberalism the better.
The liberal dream, however, takes on a formulaic clarity: “Liberals believe in (1) universal love, (2) as mediated by government programs, (3) designed and administered by the best and brightest, such that (4) war, poverty, and discrimination are eliminated, and (5) full equality which (6) protects the underdog emerges. They also intend to (7) liberate people from oppression by encouraging self-actualization, and by (8) getting everyone to be nice to everyone else.” The reader might well wonder if this is best described as “liberal” or, if it is, whether there are many liberals who even unconsciously accept all eight points. Indeed, the weakness of his argument at this point is precisely that he has abstracted these eight elements and formed them into an ideological “dream.”
Any serious student of modern history and liberalism could easily expose Fein’s defining category as something too abstracted from a much more complicated and conflicted ideological reality to serve as a guide to real humans or their philosophical commitments. But this weakness is also its potential strength. A certain kind of reader, whose experiences—scholarly, social, and political—have made it possible for him to recognize instantly all eight themes, could very well use such an abstraction as this to put together pieces that otherwise seem inchoate. For such a reader, Fein’s overly abstract taxonomy could serve to connect experiences in such a way as to give him a grasp of the flow of history. And because Fein declares over and over again that the liberal dream must fail, this reader can gain command of both the past and the future.
This was the great opportunity of Fein’s book—to create an analytical framework that put pieces together for those who experience a narrative out of sync with reality. In his defense, Fein tries in this longish book to give the reader a sense of how all of these elements fit together and how they have evolved. In that way it is a noble effort and an ambitious project. If the book reflected a more philosophically and historically serious grounding, it might have been intellectually successful. To make it so would require that the claims about “liberalism” be put into a larger context of modernity and played more flexibly with both the modern project to gain mastery over our reality and the various liberal projects to make more modest improvements to nature and to extend the freedom of individuals.
In some ways my own diagnosis tends to be darker than Fein’s insofar as I find modernity more than liberalism to be the problem. The philosophical hubris of modernity goes deeper, and its various ideologies are more of a problem, than liberalism itself. On the other hand, Fein’s claim that liberalism must fail because it so violates reality strikes me as too simple. Liberalism, as a set of flexible ideas, motives, methods and purposes, has proved much more resilient than Fein acknowledges. Moreover deterministic models (though Fein would likely not agree to this characterization of his argument) based on a person’s claim to a deeper grasp of reality betray the contingent nature of all human experience. When a society finds itself in disordered times, the way forward is hardly clear. The past is a guide to the nature of humans as historical beings seeking to live meaningfully within a story about reality. History exposes to us the structure of human existence that takes place between the constant flux of everyday existence and the dimly known and unchanging reality toward which we lean. But such knowledge, even when it is deep and encyclopedic, cannot predict well the shape of any future reordering narrative or symbolic structure.
Fein does see the future—or he advocates a way forward, a way beyond both liberalism and conservatism. The great problem with liberalism, it seems, is that liberals have sought to apply the social glue of a small tribal society to the needs of a globalized, mobile, “techno-commercial society.” Hence, liberals are prone to call for community where no community is possible—at the national or even global scale. There is no going back to the small-scale communities of our nearly forgotten past and so Fein calls on us to accept the “professionalized ideal.” “Professionalized persons are self-motivated experts. They are both skilled at difficult tasks and able to supervise their own activities. In other words, professionalized individuals combine knowledge, technical capabilities, and internalized impulses into an integrated social role.”
Well—I’m not quite sure what to do with Fein’s professionalized ideal. It accepts the decentralization of a globalized economy and it suggests that old forms of authority, resting on tradition or institutions, are ill-suited to the circumstances. These professionals are experts in their fields and they have gained the skills to learn what they need to be successful (to be flexible and adaptive) not only in business but in personal lives. They are, one is prone to say, more attuned to reality and expect less from reality than do liberals. They don’t seek to control reality so much as become masters of their individual fates by participating in a complex economic, social, political reality where knowledge and skills allow one to respond rationally to real human needs rather than to liberal dreams.
To say that “professionalized ideal” is an inadequate remedy to the failure of liberalism that Fein claims to discern, is hardly necessary. In the end, Fein’s argument pushes me back to the grounding philosophical questions that the book does not answer. We are currently in the middle of the most progressive (left-liberal—choose your label) political administration in American history. Our media—the primary sources of the images and language we have to see and describe our contemporary world—are dominated by people who dogmatically and unapologetically seek an overthrow of existing power-structures. Our schools, the products of decades of progressive tinkering, are now largely hostile places for people whose beliefs and ideals are not in accord with much of the “liberal dream” of which Fein writes. The basic institutions that have long served as the matrix that supports a healthy social order attuned to human needs are in disarray. Order—the skein of meanings for a society that provides its social glue and moral purpose—is increasingly a function of propaganda and government, leaving our families, churches and mediating institutions as pale reflections of their former selves.
This is part of the reality that warrants serious reflection—a state of affairs that suggests deep disorder, of which political disorder is only a small expression. The politicos who have fought culture wars, who have organized disciplined corps in media, in think tanks, and elsewhere to gain political power, have left us impoverished with regard to the deeper philosophical, social, spiritual problems of our age, of our society, of ourselves. We avoid our obligation to seek order in a disordered time when we claim that the existing regime inevitably must fall and its governing ideas be discredited. The human condition is more complicated; our capacity to use immense resources to seek escape from reality, our democratized libido dominandi, in the context of technological wonders, can spur on many generations of people who seek mastery of a recalcitrant nature rather than attunement to a reality that does not change. The way to respond to the dream of liberalism is to penetrate to the sources of order—to seek the ordering presence that will produce a better narrative and symbolic structure—a narrative and structure that presents answers more than solutions, that expresses gratitude rather than hubris, that discovers in “utility” something most impractical for any being with a soul.
Ted V. McAllister holds the Edward L. Gaylord Chair of Public Policy at Pepperdine University.
Posted: February 17, 2013