Friday, January 28, 2011

Is Liberalism Done Yet?

I don't have much to add to Mike Konczal's respectful but thorough rebuttal of the idea that the passage of health care reform marks the end of the liberal project; Yglesias is so clearly wrong, for so many reasons. Most immediately, the health care bill as passed will leave 8 percent of the population uninsured, so even if universal health insurance is the finish line, we haven't crossed it yet. More generally, there are clear areas where expansion of public provision and regulation is almost inevitable, whenever the political climate turns favorable. Most obvious is childraising (and caring labor more generally), where our current system of uncompensated household labor is being steadily eroded by the acid of the market, even while the demands on it increase. In a few years, universal childcare will be seen by liberals as essential to a civilized society, just as universal health coverage is now.

More broadly, I'm reminded of Stephen Resnick's story of his fellow MIT grad student Stephen Hymer going in to Robert Paul Samuelson’s office (this would be the early ‘60s) and asking him if there was anything important in Marxism that you couldn’t talk about using conventional economics. Samuelson’s answer: “Class struggle.”

Liberals and radicals do disagree over ultimate ends - more stuff, more equitably distributed, for them; the full and free development of human capacities, for us. But the more salient disagreement, at least in the current conjuncture, is over means. Liberals believe that the political process is ultimately a form of rational debate, in which the objectively best ideas win out and are then executed by a neutral administrative mechanism. Political engagement means situating yourself within shouting distance of the seat of power, and then making the case that your preferred policy is in the best interests of everyone. Who you are doesn't matter, just the merits of your views. Carl Schmitt, interestingly enough, gives one of the clearest statements of this conception of politics:
All specifically parliamentary arrangements and norms receive their meaning first through discussion and openness. This is especially true of the fundamental principle that the representative is independent of his constituents and party... The characteristic of all representative constitutions ... is that laws arise out of a conflict of opinions, not out of a struggle of interests. ... Conduct that is not concerned with discovering what is rationally correct, but with calculating particular interests and the chances of winning and with carrying these through according to one's own interests is ... not discussion in the specific sense.
Schmitt, the anti-liberal, saw better than liberals that this mode of politics is specific to the particular institutional context of parliamentarianism. A context that remains very important, of course, outside of the formal political domain as well as within it. [1] But it's not universal, and in particular it can't be the last word in a society that is divided by fundamentally conflicting interests.

Radicals, by contrast, see the conflict of interests as fundamental. Or rather, we see it as inescapable in politics as long as it exists in economic life and society generally. From this point of view, arguments are won in parliament only thanks to the rioters, literal or figurative, in the streets outside. And liberalism as a concrete political project is a compromise between opposing interests, one that's always open to renegotiation when the balance of forces changes. So unlike in science (liberalism's implicit ideal), progress is always reversible, so no political struggle is ever definitely finished. Any given compromise is only sustainable to the extent that there are social forces striving for a horizon beyond it.

[1] For example, I'm current serving on a university hiring committee, and the norm that discussions must be conducted only in terms of differing opinions, never opposing interests, is very strongly felt.


  1. @Josh.

    This post is confused.

    You endorse the Schmittian notion of liberal parliamentarism as the misguided belief in a disinterested, rational, ecumenical technocracy. It is allegedly opposed to the “radical” worldview that “see[s] conflict of interests as…inescapable in politics as long as it exists in economic life and society generally.” But wait a minute—isn’t liberal parliamentarism the filthy, gutter-minded sausage factory where every interest group gets its slice? Isn’t that what Obamacare was about? In fact, you seem to switch to that second notion when you write “liberalism as a concrete political project is a compromise between opposing interests, one that's always open to renegotiation when the balance of forces changes.” So does liberalism countenance conflicts of interest, or not?

    Another liberal-radical distinction you draw: “Liberals and radicals do disagree over ultimate ends - more stuff, more equitably distributed, for them; the full and free development of human capacities, for us.” That’s a false caricature of liberalism, which has been in the vanguard of every movement for non-materialist liberation and the full and free development of human capacities—freedom of religion, abolition of caste privileges, artistic license, feminism, mass higher education, gay liberation, you name it. It also contradicts your subsequent characterization of radicals as the ones who are focused on hard-nosed class, presumably economic, interests while the liberals are just running a high-minded debating society.

    The dispute between liberals and Marxists—say it right--isn’t over the presence of conflicting economic and class interests in politics—both camps recognize that—but over the word “compromise.” Liberalism views interest conflicts as eternal; the purpose of politics is to strike provisional compromises between them. As long as no one is excluded from the bargaining table, which is the central tenet of liberalism, the compromises will be the stablest arrangements you can get--and, yes, will on the whole advance civilization. (Your notion that “any given compromise is only sustainable to the extent that there are social forces striving for a horizon beyond it” sounds wrong. Stability comes when all the interests are satisfied with their sausage; social forces straining towards a paradise just over the horizon tend to disrupt political compromises.)

    Marxists, on the other hand, hate compromise, except as a strategy. They look forward to the day when a revolution ends the clash of interests by suppressing all interest groups save one. They want, in words Carl Schmitt would appreciate, a final solution to the problem of clashing interests in politics. (Sorry, but you’re the one who invited in a Nazi philosopher.) Schmitt thought politics was indeed a pitiless struggle between irreconcilable interests; his remedy was a fuehrer who would suppress that struggle by getting rid of Jews and other allegedly antagonistic elements. (Thankfully, his ideal of a state structured around naked antagonisms was bombed flat by liberal technocratic ecumenes that made room for Jewish scientists. Leftists who, like Hitler, disparage liberal democracy as soft-headed, half-hearted, overly intellectual and indecisive unless strong-armed by rioters should reflect on the vigor of liberalism in its victorious contests with rivals.) Marxists similarly want to get rid of the capitalist class and let an undifferentiated working class pursue unvexed its unitary interests. So let’s not forget that behind the Marxist politics of class conflict lies a vision of a disinterested, apolitical technocracy that puts to shame anything liberals dream up.

    Anyway, hard-headed politics lies in realizing that people act on their ideologies—their grand conceptions of the right ordering of society—not just their interests. The appeal to reason doesn’t win every political battle, but to slight it is a recipe for failure in the long term.

  2. Bill,

    I owe you an email. Meantime, tho, you want to join the blog? No reason for your stuff to be just in comments.

    On the substance: I knew you wouldn't like this post. It's sort of continuing the argument of the microfoundations and satisfactions ones. Back to concrete analysis of the concrete situation soon!

    So first of all, I concede that the post uses the term liberalism inconsistently. At certain points, it refers to the liberal vision of the political process, at other points to a concrete political project -- universal healthcare, etc. The Schmittian idea of politics-as-discussion refers to the first, but when I say liberal politics depends on rioters in the street, I'm referring to the second. So yeah, that was avoidable confusion.

    You're also basically right that more stuff isn't a fair summary of the liberal idea of the good life. Yes, there's a more comprehensive version of individual autonomy. In my defense, I'm thinking of people in the blogosphere like Matt Yglesias or Brad DeLong, who (explicitly or implicitly) assume all the important fights over autonomy have been won, so that *now* liberalism can be just about more stuff.

    And you're also right that radical is a euphemism for Marxist. Well, except maybe euphemism isn't fair. Say it's a translation.

    So what am I not conceding? Two important points:

    First, I don't think a the liberal (second sense) compromise is sustainable in any country where you have a capitalist class in control of the means of production, unless they're threatened, on some level, with expropriation. The people who run the world don't want what's best for everyone, they don't even want to maximize output. They want to maintain a position of superiority to the rest of us. That's what liberals won't come to terms with.

    And second, I do believe a world without antagonistic contradictions is possible. Am I deluded? Very possibly. But there it is.

    And the historical argument -- this stuff is tricky. I would argue that European social democracy would never have been possible without the threat/example/alternative of Soviet communism next door.

  3. Also, Nazi, whatever. Schmitt's stuff is brilliant, you can learn a lot from it.

  4. Robert Samuelson is a Washington Post columnist. Paul Samuelson was an MIT economist.

  5. Ouch. Of course you are right. Thanks for pointing that out.

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