Response to Bright's "Why I Am Not A Liberal"
Liam Bright’s latest is written in his typically careful and direct manner. His post is filled with the sort of piercing sociological insight for which he is, at this point, internet famous. He begins his piece mapping out the territory; the academy is, by commonsensical agreement, a liberal place. He rightfully notes that the evidence for this in philosophical circles is relatively scant and haphazardly collected. He makes a fine case to the “leftists” in the audience why he should and does his due diligence in reporting, however briefly, on the conservative role (the right-liberal role) that the academy plays in our common life. Since he prefaces his remarks on the academy with “materially speaking”, one is drawn to ask what the academy does “ideally speaking”. But we will put this aside, because it is mostly contingent to the case he makes. Though maybe it shouldn’t be.
His tripartite sketch of the normative core, a brief Black Marxist-inflected history, and philosophical ontology of liberalism is impressive for its thoroughgoing scope despite its brevity. Interestingly, the account he gives most briefly is the one he holds dearest; the “nominalist” individualism that births, among other things, the varieties of infamous “social constructivism” and the related new social epistemology of his own work. We should not be surprised that this is the kernel that survives Bright’s treatment, but it seems remarkable for its simple presentation. We’ll return to that later.
This ends with a summary paragraph painting a convincing picture of the world as the sober, educated, and, yes, radical liberal should see it. It is hard not to be taken in by this beautiful portrait. One is reminded of the power of Hayek’s and Mises’s account of liberalism as a properly global normative vision that lets our traditional lives, our forms of life as they sometimes go by, do the heavy lifting while patiently sifting through the swarm of individuals with laws and police where necessary. This liberalism is, as he says, where our political life lives and breathes and our disputes and passions are acted out. After this kind of portrait is painted it will take an expert critic to deface it.
Bright is such a critic. He deals with each element of his sketch of liberalism piece by piece. His first attack is against the public/private divide, taking a totalizing tack typically associated with the mainstream Marxist tradition. He claims that the attempted neutrality of the normative stance of liberalism causes our political discourse and culture to “grind to a halt”, recreating and exacerbating the problems of overlapping consensus that it was supposed to solve. Better to have a notion of the common good, however difficult that may prove, and however radical the ramifications, rather than play at referee.
This is the first place for a liberal response. First, who is to say that our “political discourse and culture” should not grind to halt? The spirit of agonism not only sharpens and refines, one might think, the views at issue, but the ongoing dissension is a testament to the operation of liberalism rather than one of its faults. What account of the “common good” could we give that we haven’t already given that would be so sweeping that it would include the new constituents of the contemporary “massive class” of persons without meaningful exclusion? The “pretend procedural objections” that Bright laments are precisely the core, for example, of Kant’s monumental depiction of Reason. Importantly, as Robert Brandom points out in his newest political work on Hegel and Rorty, they are the seat of authority in a world that cannot provide us with a common good. The lawyerly hemming and hawing that makes up so much of our op-eds pages is waged because the common procedure is the authority. In short, who has the right to decide about what we should do, if not all of us?
Bright then takes up the blood-soaked history of liberalism. Its historical concentration of power and wealth lingers on and compounds despite concerted attempts from many quarters to broaden the scope of who is worthy of these goods. This cuts against the high-minded egalitarian and individualist slogans of, say, the American Constitution or the French Revolution. Liberalism, actually extant liberal states, are bound up in largely ineffectual litigation when they try to cool class tensions or redistribute power. Importantly, as so many libertarians have pointed out, such attempts to mend the market and the ballot box simply redistribute asymmetries or reset conditions where they can be born again. Bright, again echoing mainstream Marxist cant, suggests this is tied up with the ownership of the means of production and I have every reason to think that he is right.
Isn’t this a feature, and not a bug? Focused as he is on the materialist aspects of liberalism, Bright might note that when it comes down to concrete expressions of our individuality, liberalism secures this only by securing us away from one another intentionally. Individuality is, on this view, a consumerism, a right to have one’s sovereignty felt, one’s dream realized. It’s hard to know what sort of society would respect the realized rights of the individual better than a liberalism which secures one’s gains against those who would dismiss them. On this view, money as universal and worldwide equivalent allows us just that sort of protection. Liberalism may prevent our public life from being “a site wherein we can get things done together” but that is the point. Our measurement of common good, of influence in public life, is money because it is a necessary and limited abstraction that allows us unpopular action. This objection aside, a libertarian critic might note that any society that attempts to redistribute anything by decree, whether by law or by norm, will simply re-present us with analogous asymmetrical dilemmas of influence and justice. If we don’t devolve these decisions to individuals, how else should we navigate the tragedy of competing goods?
Finally, Bright adopts another plank of the Marxist line in rejecting the idea of the possibility of an idealized liberalism. This takes the form of a skepticism about its purported utilitarian bona fides. Can a society with a real history of exploitation, built on capital flight and the duels of speculators, really redound the benefit of the commons? He leaves the question open after registering his doubt. This raises the question of what counts as unjustified exploitation. Why are sweatshop workers, galamsey miners, and the targets of oil conglomerates justified in registering their various complaints when so many really do benefit from their voluntarily agreed-upon work? Today’s factory workers might well be tomorrow’s middle class, and the ongoing panic of the “West” today may simply be a shiver at the idea that Capital actually is benefitting those who were before deeply impoverished. Our libertarian worry also persists here: why shouldn’t we just think that any society we arrive at will have this gradation of goods and work? Who will work the dangerous and necessary jobs, and how will they be compensated? And, more importantly, who decides what is an essential good worthy of dangerous work? This is our same problem of sovereignty, of who decides.
Bright ends with an able summary and a strange note about the barely-spoken-about nominalism referenced earlier. It’s worth preserving he says, and not much more. But shouldn’t we have reason to think that exactly this nominalism is the hole in the middle of the story he has told us? Isn’t exactly this nominalism the reason why we need recourse to the courts, the banks, and the state? Isn’t this precisely the ontology that leaves us with the skeleton of procedure to work out our anxieties?
The liberalisms that are missing from Bright’s account are the political philosophies of the fraternal twin children of Adorno, Butler and Habermas. Butler, also inheriting Foucault’s Nietzscheanism, presents a powerful account of the political skepticism I have sketched out above. Liberalism is beneficial precisely because it provides us with places to hide, and a possibility of our existing because we avoid the common good. While every political society is built upon sovereignty, built upon the possibility of exclusion, Liberalism’s confused mire is just the mess of differentiated individuality maximized. It allows for the possibility of becoming invisible, escaping the codification and myopic insistence on function of older societies. While contemporary parliamentarian liberalism (and its authoritarian liberal cousins across the world) is currently on a track to maximize surveillance and regularization, liberalism has another inheritance of allowing for dark places where someone can exist not only outside of the law and the market, but also outside of our (often direly authoritarian) conventional “communities”. Perhaps this is the best the abject among us can hope for, rather than assimilation by torsion into some other common good.
Even more importantly, Butler does justice to the ontology that Bright would like to preserve. The “empty center”, the “death of God” that marks contemporary liberal nominalism leaves us only with the play of different perspectives. We might think that the decentralization of sovereignty, of who can say what and who deserves the right to coin concepts, is only possible because of the universal equivalence I mentioned above. The promise of liberalism, to paraphrase Foucault, is the promise of not being governed quite so much, even if it means that our view of the world won’t come into concert with some broader actuality. Maybe being left alone, or left together, is the best way to realize Bright’s nominalist aspirations.
An alternative to Butler’s shadow liberalism is Habermas’ daunting Neo-Kantian worldview. Habermas overcomes the difficulty of the internal, Nietzschean challenge of modernity with another ontology (though he would no doubt shake his head to hear me say it). His solution is a two-tiered view of the world, in which our forms of life really do get a non-nominalist grip on a differentiated local world, with its specific history and its varieties of social organization. Each hermeneutic circle is left untouched by the state to go through its own processes of problem-solving and evaluation, of mediating (without the law) its various conflicts in concert with its own inheritances. These circles overlap, however, in the broader realm of law. The procedures that Bright treats with domain are just structures of minimally secured trust, in the finest tradition of Smith, where international human rights lay out the boundary between bloody conflicts and the slow boring of parliamentary procedure. In short, liberalism is not built upon some blind neutrality or netless nominalism, but on the complementary logics of life-world and institutional reason.
Most importantly, Habermas’s arguments, from his earliest work to his contemporary Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences, take seriously Bright’s well-expressed concerns. The worries about the common good, the crisis of distribution, and the problems of utility can only be worked out in a discursive context that allows for dispute and compromise. The individuality that Bright tries to protect in his quiet nominalism is just another name, on Habermas’s account, for freedom, a word mostly missing from Bright’s story. And freedom, in Habermas’ view, is just another name for those things that no one else can do for us. If we are going to come to some idea of the common good, a more egalitarian society, or something approaching international parity, Habermas might say, we cannot achieve it through a proletarian putsch or technocratic fiat, which, one might suspect, would recapitulate a number of problems outlined above, but through the very voluntary procedures that anchor liberalism. Isn’t it simply better to rally around a radical proceduralism, or, as Bright notes in passing, something like Mills’ Black Radical Liberalism en route to another mode of political organization? In short, can we really skip the hard work, the human project, that liberalism presents us with, especially if we have evacuated any other source for our norms and values and are left only with one another?
Bright’s sophisticated critique is a breath of fresh air in the crowded basement of Twitter discourse. As should be clear by my comments above, I agree wholeheartedly with his critique. But I think that his worries can be cast in accommodating light by sophisticated liberal accounts. In order to really take umbrage with the liberal project we have to grapple with his closely guarded nominalist ontology. And that requires a broader conversations about the relationship between values and the world, about the status of the concept of “utility”, about the capital-G Good, about what education is, and about our ideas of freedom and individuality that are more fundamental than the ones taken up in Bright’s brilliant argument.