On Not Thinking Like a Liberal in the 21st Century

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Yves here. I hope you’ll circulate this essay on the uses and effects of liberalism. Not surprisingly, one is to help those who wound up on the top of the food chain feel good about their position and rationalize the damage of inequality.

Forgive me for bringing up a pet issue, how “meritocracy” is touted as a justification for inequality. As we pointed out in Fit vs Fitness in the Conference Board Review, not only is meritocracy not attainable, but even the much fetishized personnel reviews cannot be made to work adequately.

By KLG, who has held research and academic positions in three US medical schools since 1995 and is currently Professor of Biochemistry and Associate Dean. He has performed and directed research on protein structure, function, and evolution; cell adhesion and motility; the mechanism of viral fusion proteins; and assembly of the vertebrate heart. He has served on national review panels of both public and private funding agencies, and his research and that of his students has been funded by the American Heart Association, American Cancer Society, and National Institutes of Health.

I have been a scientific worker or a working scientist for my entire professional life, which I date to the summer after my second year in the university when I got my first full-time job at the age of 19 in the laboratory where I served a long apprenticeship that turned into what has been, most of the time, a solid foundation [1].

In my experience, virtually every scientist I have known is a Liberal [2].  Most of them are now enamored of Neoliberalism, or what can be called Market Fundamentalism, and in what follows I don’t distinguish between the two versions of Liberalism.  Yes, some were on the conservative side, including one of my most influential mentors who nevertheless was in the thrall of both the Economist and Jeanne Kirkpatrick.  The former I understood; the latter remains a complete mystery almost 40 years later.  My first faculty mentor/employer, 97 years old in 2023 and retired to Utah, still occasionally tries to get me interested in the “flat tax.”  That he spent his entire scientific and academic career on the payroll at several public research universities seems to have been forgotten.  In any case, I miss both of them, but they would undoubtedly wonder about me.

Most of my friends and academic/scientific colleagues tend toward the adjectival liberal side of the divide.  To a person they are also paid-up, lifetime members of the PMC – Professional Managerial Class – and TDS [3] seems to be only getting worse among them.  That anyone could be anything other than a liberal Liberal is anathema to them.  Such is the way of their world in which something called “Democracy” is under constant threat from Donald Trump and apparently him alone.

That these men and women are also somewhat proud of their disdain for “mere politics” is a contradiction that never seems to register.  That science is the product of the Liberal Imagination (this Liberal Imagination is a good place to start, from a mostly literary perspective) and a child of the Enlightenment (a recent accessible treatment is here) is perhaps the central pillar of the Liberal mind.  All of this is a given, but the consequences are not widely appreciated.  Anthropogenic climate change, maldistribution of wealth, rampant inequality, the imperative of capitalist growth on a finite planet that is now full, all of these are a concomitant of capitalism of the Liberal and now Neoliberal variety.

So, I am alert to new books, especially “little” books that address Liberalism and other conundrums.  By little, I mean books that can be read in one or two sittings but tell a story we need to hear.  Looking at my shelf devoted to these I see On Bullshit by Harry Frankfurt, who died at the age of 94 this summer, and Religion Without God by Ronald Dworkin.  A few others include Why Not Socialism? by G.A. Cohen, Cannibal Capitalism and The Old Is Dying and the New Cannot Be Born by Nancy Fraser, Why is there Something Rather than Nothing? by Leszek Kolakowski, Khirbet Khizeh by S. Yizhar (Yizhar Smilansky).  And from the “other side,” The Southern Tradition by Eugene Genovese, after he traveled somewhat from his original stance, Ideas Have Consequences by Richard M. Weaver.  My copy of Capitalism and Freedom seems to be missing.

A new addition to this collection is our focus today, Not Thinking Like a Liberal by Raymond Geuss, who is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Cambridge.  The first book of his that I have read is his recent A Philosopher Looks at Work, which has been published in a series of “little” books already on my shelf in which A Philosopher Looks at Human Beings (Michael Ruse, whose work on evolution is essential), Sports (Stephen Mumford) and Architecture (Paul Guyer).  A most remarkable thing to me about Professor Geuss is that he has a thoroughly working-class background.  This is rare for an academic of any discipline, and my hope that this would make a difference was confirmed in both A Philosopher Looks at Work and our subject for today.  I readily confess that because I come from a working-class background, I have also not thought like a liberal for a very long time.

Like many such good “little” books, Not Thinking Like a Liberal is substantially autobiographical.  The story is told from the perspective of a student in a boarding school outside of Philadelphia run by Hungarian priests of the Order of the Pious Schools (Piarists).  Geuss later attended Columbia, where he also received his PhD, and then became a Professor of Philosophy at Cambridge, where he is now Professor Emeritus [4].  His teachers were profound, both in their work and in their teaching, and the journey is instructive.  We all have teachers, if we are willing to pay them the attention they deserve.  If we choose well those teachers we can, the outcomes are likely to be rewarding.  In my view, Professor Geuss has gifted us with a very good book for our time.

And if we have been particularly fortunate, we all have had teachers like Béla Krigler who taught the young Professor Geuss and who understood Liberalism, both what it is and what it is not.

Humanly speaking, no individual, not even the most self-reliant, was truly independent and free-standing; each person was multiply dependent on other human beings, in the first instance on their own families and then on society.  Metaphysically, no human being was independent of God.  It was also simply not true that most people knew themselves and their inner world better than they knew the basic features of external reality, or that they knew themselves better than others knew them…”

Some of us might have no need that particular metaphysics, but apprehending the truth does require a strong epistemological foundation.  Professor Geuss got his from his Catholic teachers who had little use for Aquinas.  From one of my teachers: During the second half of the 18th century the Irish physician and trader James Adair lived among the Native Americans of the southeastern woodlands of North America.  His ethnography depended on his theory that these peoples were descended from the lost ten tribes of Israel.  No, but using this framework his observations had a theoretical foundation.  Thus, they had value long after they were compiled in the story of his life.

When it comes to Liberalism, the fantasy at its core is that each of us is an “entirely sovereign individual.” However, according to Geuss, this is best currently viewed as a reaction to “massive anxiety about real loss of agency in the world…which is perfectly justified in the world we live in, and so the fantasy is clearly connected to the satisfaction of a real need.”  But, of course, Liberalism “does not serve only as an imaginary consolation for frustrated needs…it actually does effectively and palpably benefit some powerful economic actors.  The benefits of Liberalism are by no means imaginary for CEOs, the fossil fuel industries, and they thus have a very strong incentive, and ample resources, for contribute to maintaining it in existence and to strengthening its hold on the population.”  Indeed, Margaret Thatcher told us 40 years ago that “There is no alternative” to Neoliberalism.  So far, that has been the case.

The middle of Not Thinking Like a Liberal covers Authority, Religion, Language, History, and Human Variety. Suffice it to say that Béla Krigler and his fellow Piarist teachers were not in agreement with dominant mid-century American thought.  For example, “Christianity was not to be found in the New Testament in the way in which the theory of evolution was to be found formulated in the writings of Darwin.  Rather it was a constellation of historical events, institutions, and practices with some associated, but shifting, beliefs, and it could not be understood in a way that abstracted from that  ‘Just read the Bible’ by itself was a truly idiotic injunction.”  Protestant America, for the most part, would not understand this, except at the margin represented by Union Theological Seminary and similar institutions.  Right was right, and Liberal; here, for an example of Liberal attitude [5].

Fear, shame, and guilt were, and still are, motives in the larger Liberal, Protestant culture, and were part and parcel of the Protestant “need to make the world simpler than it really was…(but) we should try not (italics in original) to allow ourselves to be motivated by any one of these three powerful human impulses.  They were all completely natural and also extremely strong, but we needed to learn to act in ways that were as independent of them as possible.  Obeying God’s command because of the fear of punishment was the sign of a low-grade personality” and the same applies to fear and shame.  As one who was fortunate to have had a mainstream Protestant upbringing that did not rely on fear, shame, or guilt, all I have to say to this is “Amen.”  Perhaps this was due to my particular union-supported working-class family?  I would like to think so.

Which brings us to the next stage of Guess’s intellectual and professional journey, which he describes as follows:

There was nothing in the real politics of the 1960s in the United States that  would have persuaded a young man like me, or anyone who was not already tacitly convinced that liberals were automatically always on the side of the angels, that classic liberalism was a particularly attractive position to adopt.  After all, the major political issue was the war in Vietnam, which had first been planned and was now being conducted by people in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations who had reputations as standard-bearers of liberalism [6].  On a wider range of other social, economic, and political issues, liberalism did not seem to be an ideology that was actively generating either much original thought or much effective action.  None of this was…strictly a ‘refutation’ of liberalism, but it also meant that there was nothing terribly inviting about the liberal position.

Professor Geuss’s next teachers were “critics of liberalism from the Left”: Robert Paul Wolff, Sidney Morgenbesser, and Robert Denoon Cumming.  We could use a new generation of critics of liberalism from the Left.

A brief discussion of Wolff follows.  Morgenbesser is described here briefly, which is largely in agreement with Professor Geuss’s chapter on him.  He was the teacher at the periphery we all need.  Cumming is fascinating and I hope to return to him after having read is Human Nature and History: A Study of the Development of Liberal Political Thought (Chicago, 1969,) which is out of print.  Too many books, not enough time.

Robert Paul Wolff, on the other hand, is a philosopher for our time.  He recognized early on that meritocracy is a trap.  Those members of the PMC who use the term today with such ardor seem to not have read The Rise of the Meritocracy, which was written in postwar Britain by the sociologist Michael Young as a dystopian novel with the subtitle “An Essay on Education and Equality.”

Wolff was also particularly critical of John Rawls, even before A Theory of Justice was published in 1971.  He observed that Rawls “was an ideological genius because he showed how one could argue from the accepted liberal premises to the ‘justice’ of gross forms of social and economic inequality.”  Harsh but, “Rawls had filled a major gap that existed in American ideology, and he filled it to a tee, by providing a theory which permitted a population deeply committed to massive real inequality to feel good about themselves, because obscene differenced in wealth, power, and life-chances in their society were mere surface phenomena, which anyone with a deep understanding would see were really just expressions of profound human equality.”  I cannot imagine a better description of the PMC, as originally described by Barbara and John Ehrenreich and recently described as “virtue hoarders” Catherine Liu.

A good summary of Wolff’s libertarian anarchism, something which will be required of us as the world necessarily shrinks in the coming decades is:

If you really want to understand the human world at any given time, look at the characteristic forms of reciprocity and social cooperation in the major groups; they are what hold the society together and make it able to survive and are thus preconditions for the existence of any given individual.  Subjectivity, consciousness, the individual ego, the sovereign self are not basic or free-standing phenomena.

Margaret Thatcher was wrong.  And while John Rawls has become a favorite of the most performative tranche of the PMC, his work is still discussed seriously, as it should be.  I picked up this book earlier this month while traveling: Free and Equal: What Would a Fair Society Look Like? by Daniel Chandler.  I have only just begun, but from flyleaf, “Taking Rawls’s humane and egalitarian liberalism as his starting point, Chandler builds a careful and ultimately irresistible case for a progressive agenda that would fundamentally reshape our societies for the better.”  Probably not.  The book is blurbed by Stephen Fry, who calls it “A tremendous book, timely, wise, authoritative and clear.”  The very talented Mr. Fry is also on the dust jacket of What We Owe the Future: A Million-Year View.

For a final gloss on a teacher, we come to Theodor Adorno, who had this view of clarity: “Everyday language is corrupt because of its integration into the existing political and economic system, and as such is itself part of an apparatus of repression…It sounds very democratic and anti-elitist to demand that authors…express themselves in ways that can be easily and immediately be understood by everyone, but only if you fail to realize that what counts as clear and comprehensible is to a significant extent limited to what is thought to be compatible with the status quo.”  This is not a brief for obscurity, but yes, this is true.

A famous, in some circles, argument between Lawrence Summers and Herman Daly at the World Bank about whether the economy is bounded by the physical world and the ecosphere, or exists in a theoretical economic universe of its own, was won by Summers who said, “That’s not the way to look at it.”  But the truth, here unremittingly, is finally emerging.

Shorter and perhaps less dogmatic that Adorno (who wasn’t all that dogmatic in my view) are Raymond Williams, who published Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society in 1976, and more recently John Patrick Leary has written Keywords: The New Language of Capitalism (2019) and Keywords for Capitalism: Power, Society, Politics (2022; both 30% off at Haymarket Books on September 12).  Language is a tool, used for good or ill, whatever its apparent clarity.

Finally, we come to Liberalism in Our World (p. 165): It is hard to see how traditional remedies of liberalism will be of any help to us in the world we now inhabit:

Our species is now committing suicide by destroying our natural environment.  It seems impossible to imagine how catastrophe could be avoided without significant coercive measures directed against the major actors and institutions of our current economic system (endnote citing Andreas Malm here). “Liberalism,” in the sense in which I have been using the term in this book, is committed to the inviolability of individual taste and opinion, the need to protect maximum unfettered individual choice, and free enterprise.  Anyone who, in our world, can see a viable path from this conception to a situation in which we can avoid ecological disaster has a much sharper vision than mine.”

But “we have no choice to act because of the people we are.”  And we can do this through the “ethos of the Enlightenment” if not the “doctrines of the Enlightenment.  This comes from Foucault (who in this context might be understood through Undoing the Demos by Wendy Brown).  The “ethos” designates “a set of dispositions and habits of mind and action which are centered around investigating the world around us, reflecting on experience, and questioning the beliefs people hold and the claims they make (including our own), and, if necessary, criticizing them.”  This is the ethos of the true scientific method, which is a product of the Enlightenment and Liberalism.  The “doctrines” are a “set of assumptions about science, progress, human psychology, the nature of goals of human society” – basically the excuses by which we live in the world of Late Neoliberalism.  We can cleave to the first without necessarily endorsing the second.  This is recognized by precious few scientists these days.

And this we must do.  Despite The Struggle for a Decent Politics: On “Liberal” as an Adjective (emphasis added; Michael Walzer, 2023), Liberalism is the solution to nothing we face in this changing world that Liberalism hath wrought.  We have work to do.

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  1. Palm & Needle

    Read Lenin. Hands down, the best antidote to liberalism that I have come across. A good “little book” as a first read is State and Revolution.

    1. Palm & Needle

      I forgot to add: for those who like a longer read, I also recommend Liberalism: A Counter-History by Domenico Losurdo.

    2. Alice X

      State and Revolution – his most anarchist inflected work. Some Bolsheviks claimed he had thrown in with them. Too bad it was far from true; the state did no withering, he kept the Tsar’s secret police and he used them.

      But otherwise it’s a good read.

  2. John R Moffett

    Excellent discussion. I too have been a scientist all my professional career, and have observed much the same thing. What all of my colleagues who are neoliberals have in common is getting their information from the Corporate Owned News, rather than digging around for themselves. What is so odd about that is that scientists dig for information as part of their job. I can spend hours a day searching PubMed for relevant articles on the current topic of research. I do the same when I am trying to find out what is going on in the world. I go to news sources outside the mainstream, including overseas websites. I rely on websites like Naked Capitalism, Consortium News and a host of other small, independent websites where there is no corporate or State Dept. influence. So it has remained a mystery to me why scientists would all act like sheep when it comes to understanding the current state of the world. It is a mystery that I may never solve.

    1. Samuel Conner

      > So it has remained a mystery to me why scientists would all act like sheep when it comes to understanding the current state of the world.

      “Is this true?” is an easier question to ask, and answer, with a narrow focus. To question the “doctrines” that shape the entire social world within which one is embedded, and on which one’s prosperity is perceived to depend, is much more difficult. I think it’s not that surprising that people can think like scientists about “small” issues but revert to tribal ideology about “big” questions.

      Trying to ask “is this true?” about bigger questions has been socially destructive for me, as it has significantly narrowed the range of people to whom I can honestly express what I’m thinking; NC and its community have been very helpful as other connections have frayed. (This is a good reminder to me that it’s time for to send my annual contribution.)

      1. Carla

        “Trying to ask “is this true?” about bigger questions has been socially destructive for me, as it has significantly narrowed the range of people to whom I can honestly express what I’m thinking.”

        Ding! Ding! Ding! Despite living in a really great and interesting neighborhood, and having good neighbors and some wonderful friends, I can only talk with one or two of them about what I REALLY think. It’s lonely out here, and I am so grateful for the Naked Capitalism community. My deepest thanks to you all. (Monthly subscription and annual fundraiser donation already sent. If/when I can scrape up more, I shall.)

        1. Neutrino

          Perhaps you have had an experience like the following:

          Some seem to be holed up in their ideological fortresses, unable or unwilling to begin to consider that there might be alternative explanations to anything. The prospect of attempting to understand the other side, meaning anyone not espousing their views, is terrifying and therefore unacceptable. It must be killed with fire, friendly or otherwise.

          One quick tell is the immediate disqualification from consideration due to a default AXALT view. That kills dialogue or sharing of ideas.

    2. NotTimothyGeithner

      This is a case of not doing full blown research but refusing to acknowledge they haven’t done the minimum required to be a good citizen which is to be informed. Joe Biden is predictably awful. Age is bandied about as an excuse, but he is who he is.

      How could one know? Scanning his Wikipedia entry? This is it. Obama is shallow. Read one of his speeches. He speaks in fluff. The show is fun but fluff. The Clintons are corrupt. I use the term Team Blue because we’ve seen degeneracy of politics and citizenship to sports fandom. It’s like the home town reaction to Kobe Bryant and Ben Roethlisberger. They can throw a sportsball.

      It’s not like Bankruptcy Biden is just widely known rumors in certain circles. He has advocated wretched policies for decades. We aren’t getting to the level of the HMO Act of 1973 where people aren’t rent entirely aware of it or Ted Kennedy’s role in it. We aren’t talking about public stuff.

      I go back to wiki. Half these politicians are just loathsome beyond belief on their wiki pages. It’s just they don’t bother with the bare minimum. Instead, they will use Ted Turner’s infotainment onslaught or moments lost in time on the Nice Polite Republican radio as proof of being informed, but because all those moments are lost in time or can be explained away as not hearing correctly, they don’t have accountability for their positions the way they would if they read written text. To recognize other evidence, they would have to recognize their failures as citizens. We stylized DC on Roman temples to create the idea the Republic is sacred.

  3. wellclosed

    Stephen Jay Gould often criticized pop depictions of evolution such as the “tree of life”. Implicit is that we, at the end of our branch, are doomed. Fittingly, the resurgence of “meritocracy” coincides with a general unwillingness to address creeping purity.

  4. Rob Urie

    This is a very interesting piece. The author is obviously educated in Western philosophy.

    Question: what is it about science that would tie it to liberalism? The author seeks to avoid metaphysics, but science is embedded / embodied metaphysics. I lay this out in my book Zen Economics.

    For those who find my writing terse, Scottish commie Alasdair MacIntyre does a decent job in his After Virtue. link: https://archive.org/details/4.Macintyre.

    Thomas Aquinas either translated, or commissioned the translation of, Aristotle’s Metaphysics from Arabic to Latin and applied it to his conception of God, for which he certainly would have been hung if the Church had read the work.

    Theodor Adorno was partially funded by the CIA as part of a decades long effort to create an ‘anti-communist’ Left in Europe and the US. Link: https://thephilosophicalsalon.com/the-cia-the-frankfurt-schools-anti-communism.

    With the Democratic Party perennially described as ‘the left,’ the CIA appears to have won on this point.

    Robert Paul Wolff wrote the anarchist classic In Defense of Anarchism, but if memory serves, has self-identified as Marxist for decades. Link to book: https://archive.org/details/indefenseofanarc0000wolf_b6t2

    Finally, the piece, as is true of almost all Western critiques of liberalism, is written from within the Liberal frame. For instance, a Marxist analysis might have looked at the economic relations that make connected (employed) technocrats the propagators of ruling class ideology.

    But the piece is very good.

  5. James E Keenan

    I see footnote references in the main text … but no footnotes. What am I missing?

    Also: the hyperlink in Yves’ intro to ‘Fit vs Fitness’ brings up a security warning in my browser.

    1. KLG

      Notes. They were probably hidden behind a page break during posting. Here they are as a comment:

      [1] I am currently out of the lab and the library for the most part, but I shall return. In the meantime, we are working on a project about the identification of superior applicants to medical school, and one of these days we expect to make an unwanted splash. More on that early in 2024.

      [2] I will generally capitalize “Liberal” here, as the product of John Locke, Adam Smith, J.S. Mill and the Enlightenment. Liberal and conservative as synonyms of the Left and Right lost all meaning to me a long time ago. Both are members of the Uniparty that rules the Global North, complementary and not opposing wings of the same bird of prey. Their differences in this neoliberal era are matters of taste and predilection and mostly performativity. There is no “liberal” Left with agency that is all that different from the current “conservative” Right. When I began reading Dissent and Michael Harrington in the 1970’s I did have hope. I still do, which is why I am still here.

      [3] Trump Derangement Syndrome, well known to this community. Yes, Donald Trump is crass and lives to shock tender and not-so-tender sensibilities. No, Donald Trump is not the solution to anything but profits for the legacy news media, print and broadcast. The primary difference I see between the Donald Trump of the Captains Ahab (who seem not to have read to the end of the book or watched what happened to Gregory Peck at the end of the movie) and our other politicians, is that Donald Trump says the quiet parts out loud. When I very occasionally make a comment to this effect, crickets. Modern Liberals want their liberal politics, conservative and liberal, to be calm above all. Substance matters not.

      [4] Cornel West was a student of Raymond Geuss and Sheldon Wolin.

      [5] This collection is edited by Leon Wieseltier. After leaving the New Republic, where he was literary editor for more than 30 years, he founded the quarterly Liberties: A Quarterly Journal of Culture and Politics. I happened across the announcement of its first issue and became a charter subscriber. The journal is never uninteresting, and it is the best current representative of High Liberalism (in the United States) today. The very first article was an entertaining rant by Michael Ignatieff, “Liberalism in the Anthropocene.”

      [6] I read The Best and the Brightest as the proverbial college freshman. It made the scales fall from one’s eyes, never to return. A leading character in that story was Professor of International Law at my university during the last few years of that war; he was often seen walking about our very peaceful North Campus.

    2. Rolf

      The link is merely to a downloadable pdf; the security warning may come about because that original link is http:// versus https://

      Try this for the secure (SSL-enabled) equivalent .

  6. Retired Carpenter

    Seems that, due to excessive use, the terms “Science” and “Scientist” are tending to become ill-defined pejoratives, just like “Democrat” and “Liberal”.
    Retired Carpenter
    P.S: IMO Graeber’s books and essays, as well as those by Christopher Lasch need to be included in this essay.

    1. Rolf

      IMO Graeber’s books and essays, as well as those by Christopher Lasch need to be included in this essay.

      Strongly agree, Lasch’s The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy has a lot to say on the issue of meritocracy, money, competence, and democracy.

      1. Yves Smith Post author

        One essay can only cover so much ground. Lambert also discusses the fallacy of criticizing a book about the Galapagos for not being about penguins.

        And KLG is not primarily a political theorist, historian, or sociologist. I suggest you make additions rather than play armchair critic.

        1. wellclosed

          Sorry to flog a dead SJG but he spent much effort debunking the outsized influence of Court Scientists – not too dissimilar from the current crop of climate change denialist – both of them.

  7. Watt4Bob

    One of my most deeply held convictions that have turned out to be, as Mark Twain put it;

    “What We Know For Sure That Just Ain’t So”

    …is that we live in a ‘self-correcting‘ culture. Owing to our democracy, our democratic values, it’s only amatter of time before we come to our senses and vote ourselves a better life for all.

    I should have long ago realized how that belief is related to the theories used to justify the Chicago School’s efforts to dominate.

    It’s embarrassing to find one’s self, late in life, clinging to obvious fallacies.

    I find myself grateful that my adult children seem un-encumbered by many of my generations most deeply held delusions.

    My kids would laugh at the notion that we live in a meritocracy, or that they can expect “our democracy” to deliver what it promises.

  8. Camelotkidd

    I’ve come to believe that the Democratic Party’s turn away from the New Deal and pander to the professional/managerial/class PMC’s was partly due to the end of the Cold War. The Democrats could simply take working-class Americans for granted. After all, as Margaret Thatcher proclaimed–There is no Alternative.

    Unfortunately, liberals inside the blue bubble cannot allow themselves to be conscious of this. Their whole worldview depend on this not being true. In fact, as we have seen since Trump’s election, and like the Bourbons, they will learn nothing and forget nothing. They will double-down on the very arrogance that got them to where they are now.

    Since 2015 liberals have been insisting that Trump’s election would spell the end of American democracy and would turn the United States into a Nazi dystopia with white supremacists rounding up minorities for concentration camps. On top of that they have been insisting that Trump is a secret agent working for the Kremlin and that Vladimir Putin was secretly operating as the de facto president of the United States and Trump’s secret gay lover.

    Meanwhile, these same liberal factions have been working with real Nazis in Ukraine to weaken Russia and regime-change the hated Putin administration.

    Good times.

    1. Feral Finster

      Now that the Soviet Union is gone, and People Of Influence And Authority no longer have to toss the masses a bone or two, they would much prefer that we dissipate our energy on dreary arguments about cultural appropriation and how many LGTBQXYZPDQ can dance on the head of a pin, endless and endlessly performative struggle sessions, rather than raise questions about how the economic pie is sliced.

      Put another way – to paraphrase Chris Hedges – elites will gladly discuss race, they will decry gender inequality most piteously, they will demonstrate a touching sensitivity to the rights of sexual and gender minorities so oppressed that they have not been discovered yet. Call yourself a member of a different species and they will play along with the charade, and woe betide anyone who questions this.

      Those same elites will not readily discuss economic class.

      Or, in the negative formulation – if businesses were to stop opposing unionization of their workers, the result would be a transfer of wealth, of concrete material benefits, to brown and black and yellow and white working class people greater than all the allyship statements ever penned, all the diversity committees ever instituted, all the preferred pronoun tags ever attached to a corporate email. Which is precisely why they will not do this.

      1. LifelongLib

        And then those working class people would come back to the businesses as customers with money to spend. But that’s down the road. The business people of my acquaintance seem only to think ahead as far as the next payroll.

  9. Aurelien

    Historically, there was a very close connection between the rise of science and Liberal thought, since both were based, formally at least, on the virtues of rationality and the overturning of religion and superstition. (There’s a good and highly enjoyable treatment of these issues in Neal Stephenson’s “Baroque Cycle.”) The philosopher John Gray has gone so far as to argue (several times, including in a very recent book) that the Liberalism of the French Revolution, which aimed at a completely rational reorganisation of society led ultimately to the crimes of Stalin, which were an attempt to force principles of disinterested rationality on the confusion of real human societies. (The idea isn’t entirely new, it has its origins in the interpretation of the French Revolution formulated by Francois Furet some decades ago.)

    It seems natural to me that a scientist would be attracted to a view of the economy structured by inviolable, quasi-scientific economic laws, and capable of being reduced to equations, especially if that encouraged a sense of elitism and access to specialised knowledge, and of course benefited the class of which the scientist was part. By a sleight of hand, “laws” of economics can be postulated that resemble laws found in science.

    As well as Gray, Losurdo, mentioned above, has been a trenchant critic of Liberalism, but I think he’s guilty of special pleading and cherry-picking sources. He rarely gives the context for quotes from Liberal thinkers, and citations from Locke, for example, are all from his collected works, without an indication of where they come from and when they were written. By contrast, I think it’s hard to disagree with Patrick Deneen, that what we’re seeing is not the failure of Liberalism today, but its success, in achieving what it originally set out to do.

  10. genezip

    I always like to recommend people read Helena Rosenblatt’s Lost History of Liberalism (also, Samuel Moyn’s recent Liberalism Against Itself looks good although I haven’t read it yet).

    Early liberalism – starting in the aftermath of the French Revolution, *not* with Locke – stressed duties and obligations to society, not simplistic individualism. Economic libertarianism was not a central component of these philosophies. This tradition was suppressed during the Cold War; the concept of “classical liberalism”, with its Locke-Mill-Hayek trajectory, is Mount Pelerin propaganda.

    19th Century liberalism isn’t perfect – no 19th C ideology was – but it’s good to remember that what used to be called liberalism was considerably more collectivist than its current shadow.

    1. JBird4049

      The last paragraph of KLG’s post explains well the differences of liberalism, and science, when compared with the modern aberrations of neoliberalism and scientism. The former are ideas on two different sets of tools with one used for a functioning, non violent, humane society, and the other for investigating the world, which do not necessarily have to be used together; the latter are more like two religions that have fused into a new, third religion.

      Similar to how the corruption of the many political, social, and economic words or terms, have made them increasingly useless, so too have the ideas of liberalism and science that have been pushed together in the new religion. When a conservative like Joe Biden can seriously be called a socialist, we will have problems communicating.

      My question is how much of the corruption of meaning was accidental and how much was intentional?

  11. Susan the other

    “We have work to do.” I noticed a year or so ago that Putin told the Valdai Club that Liberalism had become a failed ideology. I noticed it because he did not use the term “neoliberalism.” The Russians are practical people. They gave communism their best shot and it also failed. So now they appear to be following China’s model of capitalism with their own characteristics. Everything evolves. Liberalism and the enlightenment had the dreadful grist of hideous religious and feudal oppression to define itself against. Today Liberalism doesn’t have the same definition. In our capitalist world it appears to look like destructive permissiveness. So yes, it’s a good place to deploy the scientific method. To seek the truth and put it to good use. I should probably give my church lady a rest here, but I won’t: Liberalism isn’t the real problem, the definition of value is the problem. Imo money really is the root of all evil, but it is so useful we consider it to actually have a value of its own and we proceed to devastate the planet for… money. For me the problem is that capitalist liberalism is in full denial of true value. And “work” is probably the key word because to define and protect true value requires some serious work these days.

    1. Tom Pfotzer

      StO: one your best posts lately. “full denial of true value”. and …

      another keeper:

      ” to define and protect true value requires some serious work these days.”


  12. Feral Finster

    “To a person they are also paid-up, lifetime members of the PMC – Professional Managerial Class – and TDS [3] seems to be only getting worse among them. That anyone could be anything other than a liberal Liberal is anathema to them. Such is the way of their world in which something called “Democracy” is under constant threat from Donald Trump and apparently him alone.”

    The PMC is currently the hegemonic class, with the upshot being that PMC values are considered normative.

    “Robert Paul Wolff, on the other hand, is a philosopher for our time. He recognized early on that meritocracy is a trap. Those members of the PMC who use the term today with such ardor seem to not have read The Rise of the Meritocracy, which was written in postwar Britain by the sociologist Michael Young as a dystopian novel with the subtitle “An Essay on Education and Equality.””

    Even if every last member of PMC were to have read had read and even memorized this novel by heart, they would not care.

    Sociopaths only like games that are rigged in their favor.

    1. JBird4049

      >>>Sociopaths only like games that are rigged in their favor.

      There is much of that, but only if it was entirely true. However, it is not true. Perhaps it is more like Senator John C. Calhoun and his insane notion that slavery was “a positive good,” or the members of the Victorian middle and upper classes who commonly used the idea of the “deserving and undeserving poor” to justify the paltry aid to the poor in the great slums in the industrial cities as well as the famine victims in Ireland and India.

      People do not want to believe that they are a part of a great evil and even less that they are personally evil. Rather than deliberately choosing to be evil, people will hide from it, letting it run wild. If they cannot see it, they do not have to face it and change. An individual will go to extreme lengths to justify his actions or lack of them, and a great many, perhaps a majority of people, will go to lengths just as extreme to ignore the others, especially if they like them.

      If you read about historical justifiers, you will often find that on a personal level, they were good people. Good members of their families, communities, and religion. Often charitable, militarily or socially brave, sometimes even reformers. And yet, once you pull back, you can see their justification for, or even the commission of, what we would call evil.

      To quote Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn:

      “Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains … an unuprooted small corner of evil.

      Since then I have come to understand the truth of all the religions of the world: They struggle with the evil inside a human being (inside every human being). It is impossible to expel evil from the world in its entirety, but it is possible to constrict it within each person.”

  13. Jeremy Grimm

    I became confused by the congeries of books and philosophies this post assembles to consider this observation about scientists: “Most of them are now enamored of Neoliberalism, or what can be called Market Fundamentalism, and in what follows I don’t distinguish between the two versions of Liberalism.”
    I confess I have not read any of the books referenced, but I do not understand how Scientists accepting and adopting Neoliberalism should be thought mysterious. Although in theory the process of Scientific discovery is built upon a devotion to open inquiry by an open mind, in practice scientists are human, and subject to bias and sway by propaganda and adherence to existing dogmas especially those dogmas like Neoliberalism backed by significant ‘sticks and carrots.’ Scientists often resist scientific discoveries that run contrary to the existing scientific doctrine. Antagonism to new discoveries often continues well after a discovery has been thoroughly validated using the Scientific Method. Is it any wonder that in a society like ours — so steeped in Neoliberalism — they should accept the philosophy of Neoliberalism along with so many others?

    I also object to using the terms ‘Liberal’ and ‘Neoliberal’ interchangeably. The word ‘Liberal’ has degenerated in common usage to a vague category like the terms ‘populist’ or ‘conservative’. I believe ‘Neoliberal’ is still a very particular variety of philosophy based on writings of Hayek and the Mount Perlerin Society, and the the many schools of thought conjured and expounded from those writings by the worldwide hundreds of Neoliberal think tanks the monied Elites have so generously funded. I should observe that the hundreds of Neoliberal think tanks successfully spread an entire range of philosophies — some of them contradictory, that very deliberately present Neoliberalism as a hydra, with multiple heads all growing from the same poisonous body — all presented for test in the “Market of ideas.” The philosophy of Neoliberalism is already too often confused with ‘Libertarianism’ and ‘NeoKeynesianism’ without adding ‘Liberal’ to the mix.

    1. JBird4049

      What you say is true, but that does not change the fact that most people are thoroughly propagandized with Neoliberal BS. It seems necessary to me that the words Liberal and Neoliberal must be brought up for comparison and contrast in any writing or speech dealing with one or both of them. This is the same with words such as communism, socialism, social democratic, conservatism, even the Democratic and Republican political parties, and this is just a start.

      For roughly a century, there has been a deliberate effort to corrupt the meaning of many words especially political, and it has sped up the over the decades creating a situation where we cannot have a conversation on anything except what’s for dinner; only by reaffirming the original meaning of these words will we be able to have our voices back.

      1. Jeremy Grimm

        I am not sure the original meaning of ‘Liberal’ could be resurrected as it has been so thoroughly polluted. I am just advocating that ‘Neoliberal’ not be thoroughly polluted, especially by equating it with ‘Liberal’.
        I believe Mirowski has crafted a clear and distinctive definition of Neoliberal in his writings [though I am at a loss to cite a reference for this comment].

    2. Zen

      Yes, the use of terms neoliberal and liberal is rather vague. The issue is also that the “liberal” as the “free individual” is conceptualised as antagonistic to social/communal values. While now in capitalist “democracies” this certainly seems to be the case as this article demonstrates quite well, this was not the case in some native-american societies and does not need to be the case for a fairer and more ecological future.
      The above mentioned David Graeber for instances described the transmission and transformation of ideas about individual freedom from some tribes of native americans to French enlightenment thinkers in 18th century. For the former, the “free individual” was a precondition for a community based on equity: the leader had to convince members of the community to act in a certain way through argumentation. Yet if the “free individual” was a culprit of some socially undesirable action, the community as a whole had to make amends for the culprit’s offences.
      In other words, a very different way of conceptualism the “free individual.”

      1. Jeremy Grimm

        I have listened to an audiobook version of of Graeber and Wengrow’s “The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity” and was similarly impressed with its message. I fully agree that the concept of a “free individual” is not “antagonistic to social/communal values” — although being a “free individual” sometimes means deviating from social/communal values, If I remember accurately from past readings [an even bet at my age], I believe the Sioux concept of a ‘Contrary’ may partially represent this concept.

        Your focus on “free individual” as related to Neoliberalism bothers. I do not believe that is a concept that concerns Neoliberalism to anywhere near the degree that it exercises Libertarians. Neoliberalism is NOT the same as Libertarianism.

        Neoliberalism is concerned with the decisions of the Market as a final determiner and decider of TRUTH.

    1. Jeremy Grimm

      ????? How does your comment relate to the post?????
      Are you saying that meritocracy which quite naturally lends itself to argue for nepotism — thereby begets a philosophy of eugenics — or that a philosophy of eugenics and inflated self-valuation begets eugenics and nepotism?

      I think the actualities of nepotism often serve as a cogent argument against eugenics.

  14. Luke

    I don’t remember the source, but deem this highly apt here:

    “One of the things that most sharply divides the conservative from the modern “liberal” is the liberal’s reckless willingness to level what took centuries or longer to grow in public soil, his propensity to pollute religion, poison morals, despoil culture, & upset the delicate balance of our old-growth Constitution. We conserve paintings & manuscripts, furniture & buildings, churches & liturgies, forests, rivers, lakes & shores [affirming] conservative principle.”

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