The Spirit of Liberalism: What is Liberalism? What is the Left?

The following series is a work of fiction.  Any resemblance of characters in the story to people in real life is entirely intentional, and their dialogue is typically cut, with only insignificant modifications, from books, articles, or interviews.  When substantive remarks derive from a source not mentioned explicitly in the text, the source is described at the end of the episode in which they appear.

By Outis Philalithopoulos, who met an untimely end five years ago, and now “wears the chains he forged in life” as an economist.

I had imagined that this new existence would be like working for the NSA, with official clearance to watch over my loved ones and enemies.  But I continue to see through a glass darkly – mostly only confused impressions, and recently a sense of impending doom lying heavily upon the United States.  Once in a while, though, clearer images slip through the veil, like letters washing up on the woeful banks of the Acheron.  So it was that I found myself perusing a February article by philosopher John Holbo in the influential blog Crooked Timber.  He began with a question that got my attention:

What is liberalism? What is conservatism?

Then he noted:

If you are interested in getting answers to these questions, you (probably) want the answers to do two things for you:

1) Give you the best possible version of this thing. What is the best liberalism/conservatism could be, as political philosophy? […]

2) Give you insight into what’s going on in real politics. What constructions of liberalism/conservatism, as philosophies, give me the best handle on what’s going on in the US election cycle, say?

Holbo pointed out that #1 and #2 are not the same thing, and trying to do both at once creates confusion.  For example:

Suppose you think the best, most defensible philosophical conservatism would be G.A. Cohen’s conservatism.

Intellectually, that might be rather fine, yet useless for getting a grip on real U.S. politics. You can’t make sense of the Republican candidate line-up by measuring relative degrees of departure from what [Cohen] thinks conservatism ought to be.

True, I thought to myself, conservatives don’t measure up to their ideals.  Fortunately, describing people like me – liberals, progressives, the Left, whatever you want to call us – is easier.  Corey Robin gave a straightforward definition in his 2011 The Reactionary Mind,

Since the modern era began, men and women in subordinate positions have marched against their superiors in the state, church, workplace, and other hierarchical institutions.  They have gathered under different banners – the labor movement, feminism, abolition, socialism – and shouted different slogans:  freedom, equality, rights, democracy, revolution.

Then I had a disturbing thought. Isn’t Robin’s definition a textbook example of #1?  It is “the best, most defensible” idea of what liberalism could be:  a patchwork of causes throughout history that in retrospect I want to identify with, while leaving on the cutting floor everything else that has called itself “Left.”

What would happen if someone were to define us progressives by #2?  By our actions and our actual effects upon the world, and not by our language or our ideals?  Was that where Holbo was going?  I braced myself as I continued to read the article.

But I reached the end, and after flipping through the 207 comments by what seemed to be mostly university faculty, I relaxed.  While considerable effort had gone into attempts to define the unattractive, non-ideal reality of conservativism, the only new definition of liberalism offered was:

To me being left wing means not killing (lots of brown) people, being critical of power and authority and trying not to be a (selfish) dick.

Sounded good to me.  Clearly most of these well-educated people agreed that Robin’s definition was basically correct, with real life only slightly messier than the ideal.  Maybe for liberalism, #1 and #2 are more or less the same thing.

Then again, I thought with a twinge of unease, they are mostly liberals like me.  Maybe I should seek what might be painful truths.

I had an idea about where to start looking, and I flitted up a shadowy hill, where there huddled a bespectacled spirit with hunched shoulders.

“Allan,” I began.

Allan Bloom squinted at me.  “Do I have the pleasure of meeting a fellow elitist?”

“What?” I asked, startled.  “No, I was hoping you could tell me why liberalism is evil.”

He chuckled.

“Don’t hold back,” I implored him.  “I can handle the truth.”

“A corrosive ideology has taken over the American mind,” he began.  “By now, almost everyone, especially in the universities, believes that truth is relative.  They treat this relativity as a moral postulate, as the condition of a free society.  To them, the real danger is people who think they are right, and the solution is not to correct mistakes and really become right – it is not to think you are right at all.  The Left of today does not believe in itself or in what it does.”

“Thank you, sir,” I said, bowing, and went to ponder his words.

It was exciting to think of myself in Bloom’s terms.  Was I one molecule of a transhistorical acid that was eating away at all truth in the world?  I thought about myself and my Left-oriented friends.  Did we believe that sexual repression, the Iraq War, overt and subtle racism, anti-immigrant bias, and gender stereotyping were absolutely wrong?  Yes.

Did we believe in ourselves?  Of course.

With relief but also a hint of disappointment, I concluded that even the brilliant Bloom had not succeeded in painting a convincing portrait of what, if anything, was evil about liberalism.  Back to Robin’s definition, I thought to myself, and there things would have ended if not for…

“OUTIS!” bellowed a voice.  I whirled around.

“Polyphemus,” I said uncomfortably.  “I thought we had agreed that I had nothing to do with that burning stake…”

“NO!” interrupted the Cyclops.  “I come here for YOU, not the accursed son of Laertes.  I have a QUESTION!”

“Yes?” I asked.

“You have thought a little about your identy, o No-Name, and what it means to be a liberal.  But what if being a liberal means neither being the leaven of the world, nor yet being a dark agent of the Apocalypse?”

“What do you mean?” I said quickly.

“What if 21st century liberal culture is simply one society that happens to be influential in this time and place?  A culture in which idealism and grandeur are mixed with wretchedness and compromises and contradiction?  One that does not stand astride history but has been produced by history and has not escaped it?  What if, in a word, it is a culture like other cultures?”

“Ridiculous!” I burst out. “You’re saying there’s no difference between us and the ancient Greeks, who had slavery?  Or the 19th century British Empire, whose missionaries laid waste to India?  Or the Eskimos, who had rigidly defined sex roles that oppressed women?”

“Console yourself with these facile mantras,” sneered Polyphemus.  You are the only one of us to speak of sameness.”

“Of course I understand that liberal culture of today has a history,” I muttered.  “Of course I don’t think we are some sort of elect, better than all other cultures that have other lived, except of course…”

I stopped.  Polyphemus laughed.

“You are a droll one, doughty Outis,” he remarked.  “If Bloom had made a more persuasive case that progressivism were a monstrous contagion destroying all that is good, you could have accepted it.  What you cannot accept is that it might be human.”

“I can accept anything!”  I snapped.

“Really?”  The Cyclops looked at me skeptically.  I nodded.

“Very well,” Polyphemus.  “If you truly wish it, a path will be provided that you can tread, seeking whatever truth you may.  You will be haunted tonight by three spirits.”

* * *

In the next episode, Outis meets a Spirit whom he fails to recognize, and travels back into the past of liberalism.

Sources: The second Crooked Timber definition is from comment 71 to the Holbo article linked above.  Allan Bloom’s long paragraph is made up of sentences from The Closing of the American Mind.  

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  1. Sound of the Suburbs

    In the UK we have three parties:

    Labour – the left
    Liberal – middle/ liberal
    Conservative – the right

    Mapping this across to the US:

    Labour – X
    Liberal – Democrat
    Conservative – Republican

    The US has been conned from the start and has never had a real party of the Left.

    At the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th Century US ideas changed and the view of those at the top was that it would be dangerous for the masses to get any real power, a liberal Democratic party would suffice to listen to the wants of the masses and interpret them in a sensible way in accordance with the interests of the wealthy.

    We don’t want the masses to vote for a clean slate redistribution of land and wealth for heaven’s sake.

    In the UK the Liberals were descendents of the Whigs, an elitist Left (like the US Democrats).

    Once everyone got the vote, a real Left Labour party appeared and the Whigs/Liberals faded into insignificance.

    It is much easier to see today’s trends when you see liberals as an elitist Left.

    They have just got so elitist they have lost touch with the working class.

    The working class used to be their pet project, now it is other minorities like LGBT and immigration.

    Liberals need a pet project to feel self-righteous and good about themselves but they come from the elite and don’t want any real distribution of wealth and priviledge as they and their children benefit from it themselves.

    Liberals are the more caring side of the elite, but they care mainly about themselves rather than wanting a really fair society.

    They call themselves progressive, but they like progressing very slowly and never want to reach their destination where there is real equality.

    1. Outis Philalithopoulos Post author

      “Liberals as an elitist Left” – that’s an interesting, pithy formulation.

      1. Leif

        But a real oversimplification. What’s the difference between progressive and liberal? What’s the difference between conservative and reactionary? What are the elitist factions of the left versus right? What are their populist versions? Sometimes a privileged perch isn’t sufficient for understanding.

  2. Sound of the Suburbs

    Of course the parties shift over time and neo-liberalism has seen some big changes.

    In UK politics everything moved to the centre, but a neoliberal centre, that is pretty elitist and all three parties would moan about the populists and were almost indistinguishable.

    They all loved LGBT and immigration but didn’t care about the working class

    It is just starting to break down with Corbyn coming in as leader of the Labour party and the Conservatives becoming concerned about the working class (since Brexit).

    In the US everything just seemed to shift to the Right, with Noam Chomsky saying Republicans were like a lunatic fringe they were so far Right.

    The Democrats loved LGBT and immigration but didn’t care about the working class

    Sander’s was just a little too early and the US will be ready for his thinking again soon, what a shame.

    Trump is left to lead the backlash against an awful status quo.

  3. Carolinian

    Perhaps liberalism is an attempt to come up with a society that works versus conservatism’s belief that–in the immortal words of Margaret Thatcher–“there is no such thing as society.”

    Of course this approach would leave out much of the current leftwing where liberalism is merely a club and you belong to it.

    Here’s betting that these debates over labels will become increasingly meaningless as the world’s social and environmental problems increase. Survival has strong tendency to “concentrate the mind.”

      1. Carolinian

        The headline is “What is Liberalism?” Would you prefer “discussion of definitions” to “debate over labels”? I’m not sure what you are objecting to….

        But to expand my point I believe that the traditional ideologies of both Left and Right represent flawed models of human behavior. People are neither perfectly idealistic nor perfectly selfish. It could be time to move these discussions beyond the realm of Political Science to real Science. Easier said than done of course.

        1. Jim

          As Left ideology sinks ever deeper into crisis it seems more important than ever to carefully examine the fundamental assumptions behind our political/ideological positions.

          It is certainly the case the liberalism assigns the highest priority to procedure–a process which tends to institutionalize the priority of the right over the good.

          Under this assumption the state tends to be officially disbarred from embracing its own concept of the good but must instead assign priority to individuals and groups within the private sphere to exercise their primordial right to pursue their own version of the good.

          This subordination of the public to the private sphere seems itself to be grounded in the concept of the good that identifies it with neutrality.

          Is it right to assume that this type of liberal politics, as a kind of procedural agnosticisim in public affairs destroys any notion of the common good?

        2. Outis Philalithopoulos Post author

          Holbo’s point is that describing the impact of a group of people on the world and describing a political ideal are not the same thing.

          Illustrating the distinction, when you suggest defining liberalism as “an attempt to come up with a society that works,” that is a political ideal. When you say in “much of the current leftwing,” “liberalism is merely a club and you belong to it,” that is describing the impact of a group of people on the world.

          The series aims at exploring some aspects of the culture of a specific group of people, namely the people in America who call themselves liberals or progressives and are influential in mainstream society.

          That being said, I think your point about labels could be taken as suggesting that many people are increasingly trying to break out of lockstep with the packages of beliefs that they are supposed to have, given their general political affiliation.

          1. Jim

            “Holbo’s point is that describing the impact of a group of people on the world and describing a political ideal are not the same thing.”

            If liberal thought has redefined human nature as fundamentally individual existence and liberal practice has become the pursuit of wealth, power and pleasure then maybe 1 and 2 are not coming apart but are more intimately and deeply linked than previously considered?

  4. funemployed

    For me, personally, being on the left means embracing three basic propositions (historicity and all):

    1) All human beings have inherently equal and inalienable moral worth

    2) Tradition and authority are inadequate guides to the truth or a better future, and must always be questioned in relationship to proposition 1.

    3) Commitment to propositions 1 and 2 fundamentally cannot be spread, nurtured, or practiced through coercive mechanisms (though places wherein commitment is already strong can be defended by military force).

    Critiques welcome – been dancing around this maypole for a while.

    1. bmeisen

      I like it! And I would re-write 3) to allow commitment to props 1 and 2 to be spread nurtured and practiced through representative democratic government, which can be coercive for the minority. That’s a problem in systems like the USA where the minority has comparatively little institutional support, and it’s less of an issue in parliamentary democracies with proportional representation, i.e. systems that assign formal roles to political parties and give voters 2 votes.

      The price of freedom is vigilance – and vigilance is impossible without education! Free education, independent judiciary protecting a diverse 4th estate that is anchored on a publicly financed and apolitical information clearing house aka broadcasting service. And finally SOLIDARITY: single payer based public health care, generational responsibility regarding environmental sustainablitiy, equal economic opportunity facilitated by a public utility financial system.

      Your military force tag is a little funny as a vigilant, educated and informed electorate knows when a threat is real. Certainly the just state must claim the monopoly on violence. The 2nd Amendment is a real and present danger to the survival of democracy in the USA.

      1. funemployed

        Not a fan of the 2nd, just recognizing that violence is occasionably justifiable even with a commitment to minimizing coercion. Monopolies on legitimate violence are definitional for a state, for sure.

        Agree on parliamentary democracy, too. I’m partial to Germany’s model for the US (with a few tweaks and minus the censorship). That is, in my fantasy land where Americans understand the need for and want a more effective democratic model.

      1. funemployed

        Agreed. Class fits in here for me insofar as the alienation of workers is inherently coercive (so it’s hiding in 3).

  5. Code Name D

    What is liberalism?

    This would seem to be a fairly straightforward question. And as most of those “on the left” tend to approach such questions from a scientific background, they expect some authority to stand up and offer the definitive definition of liberalism. But not without some skepticism, the definition could be right or it could be wrong, so they also expect the authority to present the evidence that makes up the foundation for the correct definition.

    What is “scary” however is that there is no one true definition for liberalism. There is no one true definition for anything – not even for scientific concepts that have strong evidential backing. Even for something as often quoted as the 2nd law of thermal dynamics. Even between scientist, the definition is not quite the same – they only thing being consistent is the central idea thermal dynamics itself.

    As a result, most liberals not only do not have the “definitive” definition of liberalism that they so desperately need to be “properly informed,” but lack even the basic tools to tackle what is essentially a philosophical question.

    The first thing one needs to understand is that there is no such thing as a right or wrong definition – just useful or un-useful definitions, and that this is a subjective process. And the first step to any philosophical discussion is first a rigorous definition of the terms to be used. Indeed, most of any philosophical discussion will be over the nature of the definitions themselves. So right off the bad, the search for any definitive definition is misguided as there is no such thing. Instead, one should learn about the basic tools that formal philosophy used to build and test definitions.

    With all that said, while definitions are subjective – they are far from arbitrary. When a liberal asks, “what is liberalism,” what they should really be asking is, what is the intellectual and academic foundations to the collection of ideals that we call “liberalism”, and how that has progressed and evolved over the years? And here is where the academics and professional philosophers speak with a deafening silence.

    I often describe political discourse as a three-sided table. At one side of the table you have the citizen voters – the person who has the ultimate power to be vested in the democracy, but at the same time lacking the breath of academic knowledge needed to make informed decisions.

    At the second side of the table is the technician, the expert, be they engineer, scientists, investigator, educator, historian and of course the philosopher. They have the knowledge that the voter needs to make an informed decision. But this is not a one-sided relationship. The citizen lives out in the real world, and has access to the very reality that is the academics calling to study.

    At the third end of the table is the politician, be they an elected official executing the will of the voter, or a member of a political party that has a role in shaping that will. It’s the politicians job to bring the technician and the voter together. To facilitate the real-world knowledge and experience to the academic to power their research, and then to convey back the findings and conclusions that academia has arrived at regarding the citizens’ experiences.

    Sadly, not all three sides of the table are represented. The Democratic Party has been more of a wall between the academic and the citizen. When an ideally moved in, often its first target are definitions. And without definitions, the dialog that follows is always meaningless.

    1. Jim

      So, Code Name D, what, in your opinion, are the “intellectual and academic foundations to the collection of ideas that we call liberalism?”

      1. Code Name D

        I have no idea.

        I am sure that there is one. Heck, there are probably dozens of them. But at best they are simply guides. Proper definitions is just the starting point for the dialog behind these ideas.

        In my blog though, I tend to define Liberalism as thus, “Liberals has a utopian vision of the future. And then ask this question, what sort of changes and policies can we make to bring us closer to that vision.” But this isn’t a useful definition because “changes and policies” remain undefined – the whole point of the definition.

  6. armchair

    The search for weapons of mass destruction was really an eye opener as to who owns the labels of subjectivity and objectivity. Hans Blix was the man on the ground using data, reports, science, investigations and inspections to determine if there were WMD in Iraq. Meanwhile we had Bush telling bedtime stories of mushroom clouds, Powell waving vials of baking soda around in front of the U.N. and after the invasion a confident Rumsfeld telling us the WMD were either North, South, East or West of Baghdad. In that scenario, it was the Bush War Party that had studied Foucault and decided everything was relative, not the quantitative analyst, Hans Blix.

    If the Clintons, Obamas, Schumers, Feinsteins, Bayhs, Liebermans, Kerrys, Albrights and Emanuels are going to be included under the liberal banner, then the term will lose all meaning. There is certainly Venn Diagram overlap between liberals and democrats, but there is plenty that is not liberal about the Clinton Machine and their cohorts. They are too happy in war, too quick to compromise with the lives of vulnerable people and too in love with money and power.

    1. Jane

      I’m going to requote that!

      “If the Clintons, Obamas, Schumers, Feinsteins, Bayhs, Liebermans, Kerrys, Albrights and Emanuels are going to be included under the liberal banner, then the term will lose all meaning. There is certainly Venn Diagram overlap between liberals and democrats, but there is plenty that is not liberal about the Clinton Machine and their cohorts. They are too happy in war, too quick to compromise with the lives of vulnerable people and too in love with money and power.”


    2. Outis Philalithopoulos Post author

      The Bush-era neocons, Rahm Emanuel, and Michel Foucault will all make appearances later in the series.

  7. UserFriendly

    How nice to hear from Outis again! I do hope he examines the contradiction between the liberal ideal of equality and the rigid non equality inherent in a meritocratic society. That does seam to be the contradiction of the coruptocrats.

    1. Outis Philalithopoulos Post author

      Nice to hear from you, too! I don’t know if the series will explore the problem you mention in the explicit terms in which you put it, but ideas about meritocracy will make an appearance later.

  8. Adam Eran

    The political right’s libertarian fantasy as described by a lefty:

    “And there is no progressive equivalent of taking ideas seriously. So we’ve got lots of funding for campaigns for people working on all kinds of different areas but a metanarrative, like the Charles Koch metanarrative — and he’s said it explicitly — is that he is challenging collectivism, he is challenging the idea that when people get together they can do good. [emphasis added] And he is putting forward the worldview that we’re all very familiar with that if you free the individual to pursue their self-interest that will actually benefit the majority. So you need to attack everything that is collective, whether it’s labor rights or whether it’s public health care or whether it’s regulatory action. All of this falls under the metanarrative of an attack on collectivism.

    So what is the progressive metanarrative? Who funds it? Who is working on changing ideas that can say, “Actually, when we pool our resources, when we work together, we can do more and better than when we only act as individuals.” I don’t think we value that. So here we are in this moment when of course we should be introducing a carbon tax but it’s like almost unthinkable that we could. I mean, tax, we can’t say tax, everyone hates taxes, right?” — Naomi Klein in Salon.

    As for tolerance…the libertarian fantasy is at least as “tolerant” as any lefty ideal. All that racism, xenophobia, etc. promoted by the right are divide-and-conquer self-justified by the nobility of the right’s cause.

    People willing to (even) fight and kill for their ideals, right or left, even if those ideals are peaceful ones, are not optional, IMHO.

  9. Jesper

    Liberalism? The modern version appears to be rebranded anarchism without a heart but with an unhealthy dose of Nietsche. The strong do whatever they damn well please and the weak suffer what they must, any attempt of the weak to fight back is populism or even worse, an attempt to interfere with the (rigged for the strong) market. How dare the weak demand laws to protect them? How dare the weak demand that laws are enforced also against the strong?
    & add some PR in selecting some disenfranchised to support. It is either something done from the (non-existent) heart or it is something done to divide the weak?
    The true modern day liberal can do what used to be for the divine: distingish between the deserving and the undeserving. The selected deserving will then be shown off as a proof of the heart of the liberal…. And of course it is almost possible to find at least one in any group of the others to be shown to be undeserving so that the group can be tainted – but one of the elite caught doing something wrong is what? An individual wrong-doing that has to be forgiven and the rest of the group of the elite is innocent as new-born babes…
    Felt good to rant a bit :-)

    1. Lambert Strether

      > rebranded anarchism

      Well, except for the role of government, of course. But I do see, and agree with, the perception of the modern liberal that they, as the good people, have the social function of determining who goes to HappyVille, and who goes to Pain City.

    2. Jim

      What if the social-cultural liberalism of the left since the 1960s has been in a type of tacit alliance with the economic-political liberalism of the right since the 1980s.

      Doesn’t the social-cultural liberalism of the left support personal choice and freedom from constraint except for the law and private conscience while the economic-political liberalism of the right champions the absence of constraint on the market–from the interventions of the bureaucratic state?

      Does the twin triumph of these 2 types of liberalism result in the continual convergence of the strong state with the supposed free market resulting in an ever greater centralization of power?

      1. Outis Philalithopoulos Post author

        Based on my reading, you posit:

        (1) Liberalism places great stress on individual choice/success/self-realization.
        (2) The social-cultural liberalism of the left is compatible with this, in the sense that its notion of the good is fundamentally individualistic in character.
        (3) The preceding creates space for substantial underlying harmony between liberalism and powerful societal institutions, both corporate and governmental.

        The series as a whole is an attempt to grapple with questions of this sort. It has a view of the interrelationship between (1) and (2) that is a bit more conflictual: it argues that some influential elements within the broad Left area are both more moralistic and less individualistic than your description might suggest; and yet, there does seem to be a sort of tacit harmony here, and that seems worth thinking about.

      2. Outis Philalithopoulos Post author

        Responding now to your comments elsewhere about liberalism as an embrace of procedure over individual decision-making…

        This is a tricky but interesting point. There are phenomena that point in the opposite direction. For example, taking up your theme of tacit left/right convergence, many Left cultural areas and familiar Right ones come together in supporting the idea that justice should pivot around the preferences and feelings of victims.

        However, in many practical situations, it becomes difficult to satisfy the feelings of everyone involved, and so in order to avoid blame, organizations often try to remove all elements of personalized decision-making from the process, placing responsibility for the outcome on procedure. So it seems possible for a certain type of moralizing insistence to support and be used to justify the amoral proceduralism you mention.

  10. Watt4Bob

    Liberalism is the activity engaged in by liberals whereby We the People are prevented from directly petitioning our owner/masters for the purpose of improving our lot.

    Think of liberals as filling the same purpose as your average McDonalds manager, that is, keeping the employees far away from the owners.

    In America, the conservatives openly do the bidding of the owner/masters, conserving their privileges if you will, while liberals tend the gates, and prevent We the People from ever understanding that we have any options available, other than asking liberals to please, please pass on our grievances to whoever is in charge.

    The ‘Left’ is a small but very annoying group of malcontents who insist on pointing out that liberals mostly ignore We the People, and file our grievances in the circular file bin.

    Loud Liberals can sometimes win election to public office, Lefties who make that much noise usually end up in jail.

    “The phrase “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate”[1] is a quotation from the 1967 film Cool Hand Luke, spoken in the movie first by Strother Martin (as the Captain, a prison warden) and later, abridged, by Paul Newman (as Luke, a stubborn prisoner).”

    “The context of the first delivery of the line is:
    Captain: You gonna get used to wearing them chains after a while, Luke. Don’t you never stop listening to them clinking, ’cause they gonna remind you what I been saying for your own good.
    Luke: I wish you’d stop being so good to me, Cap’n.
    Captain: Don’t you ever talk that way to me. (pause, then hitting him) NEVER! NEVER! (Luke rolls down hill; to other prisoners)
    What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.”
    Some men you just can’t reach.

    “Luke takes a final stab at freedom – stealing a dump truck and taking flight.
    After his dramatic escape from the Florida chain gang prison, Luke abandons the truck and enters a Church, only to be surrounded by police moments later.

    Feeling that his life is no longer worth living, walks to a window facing the police
    and mocks the Captain by repeating the first part of his speech

    (“What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.”).

    He is immediately shot in the neck by Boss Godfrey.

    The former is conservative; the latter is liberal.

  12. Roland

    @Carolinian wrote: “Here’s betting that these debates over labels will become increasingly meaningless as the world’s social and environmental problems increase.”

    It’s the other way around. As the problems get worse, everything gets more and more political. Survival will indeed “focus the mind” — on politics!

    Survival is a political affair. Who survives, and in what way? For example, humanity can survive on Earth at 12 billion strong–if at least ten of those billions live at a bare subsistence. After all, it’s the aggregate consumption level that stresses the environment, rather than the number of human beings per se.

    It is easy to imagine a future Wonderful Green Society in which a small number of highly cultured and highly sophisticated enviro-mandarins comprehensively manage all aspects of the lives of a tightly constrained mass of people. Nor is it difficult to imagine the philosophy of eternal self-congratulation that would prevail among those enviro-mandarins. And just think of how conservative those enviro-mandarins would become: after all, the least threat to change their status in society would be regarded by them as an unacceptable risk to the survival of all humanity.

    Is survival necessarily the best or most important of things? Can other things sometimes matter more? What might they be, and when? Those, too, are political questions.

    BTW Darwin can’t help you with these questions because of course evolutionary “success” can only be measured in retrospect. The only thing that poor old Chuck can tell you, is that whatever survived, must have been what was best. He would love to help, but epistemologically, he just can’t.

  13. David

    Can we at least be clear that liberalism, “progressives” and “the Left” are not the same thing? They are quite different, and liberals and “The Left” have been bitter enemies for most of modern history. This is inevitable because liberalism is about the unfettered pursuit of economic (and more recently political and social) rights by individuals, regardless of consequences, and “The Left” historically has been about collective action for the good of society; the fact that in some countries (well, basically the US) leftists have had to call themselves liberals confuses the issue but doesn’t abolish the distinction.
    I don’t know where the Bloom quote comes from, but of course he’s completely wrong about modern liberals, who don’t believe that everything is relative. Indeed, they are distinguished by the excessive rigidity and conformity of their ideas, and the violence with which they attack others (notably “The Left”) who disagree with them.

    1. Outis Philalithopoulos Post author

      The Bloom quotes comes from “Closing of the American Mind,” see the sources at the end.

      There seems to be a widespread desire to want to see words like “liberalism” as having correct definitions, to which everyone should adhere regardless of how the words are actually used. One sometimes meets people who try to convince anyone who uses the word “liberal” in typical American ways that they should actually remember that, based on classical liberalism of the 19th century, “liberal” really means…

      For some time now, many people have wanted to differentiate themselves from “normal liberals,” and create labels for a more “authentic” form of political affiliation. To the extent that this push becomes mainstream, even the liberals you might not want to use the term start to identify themselves as “progressives” because of its cachet. The Outis in the story is satirizing this trend.

      1. BeliTsari

        Progressives drive autonomous Audi Q7s, whereas Liberals can barely park their BMW X5s (this is why Trotsky labeled them as reactionary?) Leftists take their bicycles aboard the train, while anarchists see insufficient reason to attend & simply stay home.

  14. Tim

    Hmm. An exercise to self identify with a polarized point of view.

    When will somebody tell me how to self identify as a moderate (i.e. where is the middle)? This is where most people are and is the only place to have a fighting chance of us all getting along.

    While I ascribe to many of the ideals about liberalism I also must respect that what made America exceptional was it took a flying leap with meritocracy with wild productive success up until say the last 50 years. As our Gini coefficient continues to get worse the meritocracy disappears along with our productive success and the resources required to support liberal ideals.

    That is the balance, meritocracy balanced with the idea all men are created equal.

    Corruption is the enemy of both, which is why the corrupt love us to self identify as conservative or liberal so we fight over the balance between meritocracy and all men are created equal instead of us fighting corruption together.

    Sorry for my rant, but this is the only mindset of the future that will serve our country, (finding the middle and fighting corruption) and I think the increases in independent voters is a symptom of people especially young people coming to this realization.

    1. Yves Smith

      You ignore the fact that, institutionalized by the Powell Memo of 1971, there has been a concerted, well-funded, open ended effort to move the US to the right that has been extremely successful. You seem to operate from the view that there is some sort of natural middle when in fact positions that for the last 30 years have always polled significant majorities or at the very worst clear pluralities (polls are very sensitive to how the questions are framed) like stop the wars, strengthen Social Security and Medicare even if it means raising taxes on everyone, tax the rich more, increase minimum wages, are depicted in the media as left or even extreme left.

      Meritocracy is a bogus idea. It is unattainable in practice and the problem has been acknowledged in the HR literature for over 100 years.

      See this article:

      1. flora

        Thanks for that. “Meritocracy” sounds wonderful: elimination of old prejudices; replacing prejudice errors with measurable, objective (another wonderful word) criteria. The same dreamed-of-goal lies behind much of the rapture over AI; if we get human foibles out of the picture then ancient prejudices will lose their power. Striving for a decision making process less subject to human error and superstition is a laudable goal. However, as Cathy O’Neil ‘s “Weapons of Math Destruction” and your linked article show, “meritocracy” as an ideal has become the new buzz word cloaking old systems that enforce old human error and superstition. “Meritocracy” sounds modern and without original sin, but is used for the same old. Think ‘captured ideals’ — the same subornation as captured regulatory agencies, and for the same reasons.

        1. flora

          I’ll add this as a qualifier. The original Merit systems in hiring were designed over 100 years ago to try and eliminate corruption (cronyism) and incompetence in governmental (city, state, national) hiring. There were several reasons for this: reduce corruption, increase competence, keep the central functions of government running during party changes of office, free public employees from political pressures to look the other way on political illegalities and/or corruption. Thus the creation of the civil service system, where hiring and promotions are supposed to be based on fitness for position and without political favoritism. This narrow construct the Merit system is a good thing.

          When it comes to government hiring I am all for the civil service merit system. I don’t want my local tax assessor more interested in keeping his political benefactor happy than in doing his job well, accurately, and without fear or favor.

      2. H. Alexander Ivey

        And may I humbly suggest the summer issue of ‘Meritocracy and its Discontents’ at The HedgeHog Review website and journal? Don’t be put off with it being published from a formal, academic institution, the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, UVa. Their ‘journal’ reads much more like a proper tri-monthly magazine reviewing pop culture – well, not Madonna pop, but still the world where most of us (use to) work and play.

  15. Synoia

    No, I’m not a Democrat, I’m a Deplorable.

    One can only succeed as a Deplorable if one believes in the Common Good over Self Actualization.

    Either you strive for the Common Good, which includes sacrifice, or You work for your own Rugged Individualism (Rugged Individualism appears to me to be a Chimera).

    We are dependent on too much from the Commons to be Rugged Individualists – when one could ride west and separate oneself from the people back east, rugged individualism has some meaning.

    However, when the rugged individualists required the 7th Cavalry to come and rescue them from stealing the Native’s land (Their Commons), they stopped being Individualists, and depended on the (new) commons, the US Army to survive.

    Reagan an Thatcher focused too much or Individualism and denigrated Cooperation, deliberately I might add, because divided (individually) we fall and united we stand.

    So I will repeat:

    One can only succeed as a Deplorable if one believes in the Common Good over Self Actualization.

    No, I’m not a Democrat, I’m a Deplorable.

    1. LifelongLib

      Listening to my grandmother casually mention the names of second cousins as she talked about life in early 20th century Montana made me realize that the supposed rugged individualism of that time is a crock. Life then was rugged all right but it was not individualistic. If anything people then were much more family and community oriented than we are now.

  16. Synoia

    No, I’m not a Democrat, I’m a Deplorable.

    One can only succeed as a Deplorable if one believes in the Common Good over Self Actualization.

    Either you strive for the Common Good, which includes sacrifice, or You work for your own Rugged Individualism (Rugged Individualism appears to me to be a Chimera).

    We are dependent on too much from the Commons to be Rugged Individualists – when one could ride west and separate oneself from the people back east, rugged individualism has some meaning.

    However, when the rugged individualists required the 7th Cavalry to come and rescue them from stealing the Native’s land (Their Commons), they stopped being Individualists, and depended on the (new) commons, the US Army to survive.

    Reagan and Thatcher focused too much or Individualism and denigrated Cooperation, deliberately I might add, because divided (individually) we fall and united we stand.

    So I will repeat:

    One can only succeed as a Deplorable if one believes in the Common Good over Self Actualization.

    No, I’m not a Democrat, I’m a Deplorable.

    1. Jim


      What if liberalism as practice by the traditional left, assumes a procedural agnosticism in public affairs which tends to undermine any notion of the common good?

      Is it enough to articulate a positive conception of the human good, say be the central state, that does not result in a political situation (like today) where a liberal ethos officially favoring neutrality and fairness entrenches itself as the only class-based beneficiaries of a supposedly neutral state?

  17. Jeremy Grimm

    If the meaning of a word derives from how that word is used. the meaning of the word/label liberalism is dissolving into various blurs. Referring to the dictionary [1913 Webster] — liberalism has two meanings which in combination define what liberalism means
    1: a political orientation that favors social progress by reform and by changing laws rather than by revolution
    2: an economic theory advocating free competition and a self-regulating market

    All the political parties on the menu for the next election adhere to philosophies of liberalism fitting these dictionary meanings. Of course 1913 was over a hundred years ago so that the actual meanings for liberalism as the term is commonly used in the political discussions of today is rather different and I am reluctant to attribute meaning to ‘liberalism’ from these usages given their lack of consistency and precision. Tack on the prefix “neo” the term means something alien to the meaning the word had in the 1913 Webster. The breadth of meanings for liberalism becomes apparent by examining the usages of the term ‘liberal’ referring to one who believes in liberalism. Try searching on “Confessions of a Liberal”. [My favorite: “Republocrat: Confessions of a Liberal Conservative”, a “… lively romp through Christianity and politics.” — from the Amazon description blurb.] Looking more closely at the definitions for liberalism — part of the problem with these definitions derives from the multitude of meanings for the words and concepts used in those definitions — ‘social progress’, ‘reform’ in opposition to ‘revolution’, ‘free competition’ and ‘self-regulating market’. I guess the best answer to what does ‘liberalism’ mean might be provided by someone from the “old” Anderson Accounting — “What would you like it to mean?” I’d prefer retiring the word or simply leaving it to the whims of the think tanks crafting varieties of meanings for many other of the 19th Century words which once described 19th Century values — words like democracy, freedom, justice, the law, equality …

    Of course I’m not surrendering my 19th Century values or the 19th Century meanings for these unfortunate words tortured in the 21st Century agnotology mills of neoliberalism. I’m surrendering the words ‘liberalism’ and ‘liberal’ — words tortured with such severity they’ve become empty shells of themselves.

    What is ‘the Left’? That is considerably easier to define. ‘The Left’ is whatever is opposed to what is termed ‘Liberalism’ in its many embodiments and contorted meanings. But a definition in opposition to such a chimera is itself a chimera in reflection.

    ‘The Left’ represents the combined social and individual forces which strive to achieve a more just society. Liberalism has verged so far from Justice I feel I might be relieved from the ancient problem of defining what is Justice? I don’t need to define Justice beyond the simple terms of Justice sentient animals like Yves’ capuchin monkeys can recognize. Until we have allocated “to each according to their need” I don’t have to work through what to do with the rest. We have plenty of existential challenges to deal with that will demand use of that remainder beyond basic needs. We can no longer afford the luxury of supporting a worse than useless leisure class.

  18. Harold

    It seems to me very normal and natural that an abstract term like liberalism would have many meanings. I just want to mention a few that might have been overlooked so far.
    Social progress [i.e., change] by reform rather than revolution implies a rule of law and adherence to procedure. And rule of law implies equality before the law, to which no person, including a political leader, is above. That is how I see liberalism (political). But to me liberalism also implies the value of individual freedom of thought to arrive at decisions and opinions independently without coercion or slavishly following of others, and also the generosity of spirit to respect and listen to the points of view and concerns of other people. (Maybe this is what Alan Bloom meant by relativism.) Other positive aspects of liberalism I would file under “humanism” or humanitas. Liberalism as either moderate centrism or as total freedom from state regulations on say, commerce or property owning, I don’t see as very positive.

  19. Harold

    For those unfamiliar with it, here is Bertrand Russell’s “Liberal Decalogue” ( quoted from The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell, Vol. 3: 1944-1969, p. 71–72):

    Perhaps the essence of the Liberal outlook could be summed up in a new decalogue, not intended to replace the old one but only to supplement it. The Ten Commandments that, as a teacher, I should wish to promulgate, might be set forth as follows:

    1) Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.
    2) Do not think it worth while to proceed by concealing evidence, for the evidence is sure to come to light.
    3) Never try to discourage thinking for you are sure to succeed.
    4) When you meet with opposition, even if it should be from your husband or your children, endeavor to overcome it by argument and not by authority, for a victory dependent upon authority is unreal and illusory.
    5) Have no respect for the authority of others, for there are always contrary authorities to be found.
    6) Do not use power to suppress opinions you think pernicious, for if you do the opinions will suppress you.
    7) Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.
    8) Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent that in passive agreement, for, if you value intelligence as you should, the former implies a deeper agreement than the latter.
    9) Be scrupulously truthful, even if the truth is inconvenient, for it is more inconvenient when you try to conceal it.
    10) Do not feel envious of the happiness of those who live in a fool’s paradise, for only a fool will think that it is happiness.

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