Next Month in Rome: “Liberalism’s Limits”

Next month in Rome, we’ll celebrate 10 years of cooperation with our colleagues at Universita LUMSA with the latest in our conference series on comparative law and religion: “Liberalism’s Limits: Religious Exemption and Hate Speech.” (Hard to believe we’ve been doing this for 10 years)! The conference description is below and details are here: If you’re in Rome, please stop by and say hello!

Liberal democracies historically have prized autonomy and freedom as fundamental political commitments. In doing so, they also have emphasized the individual’s freedom of religion and freedom of speech as sitting at the core of their political systems. Yet in religious exemption — the right of individuals to receive an accommodation from complying with generally applicable law on the basis of religious scruple — and in what some in these polities call “hate speech” – speech conveying deeply insulting, vilifying, discriminatory views against a target group – liberal regimes face serious challenges to their own core principles. This conference will examine the problems posed by these issues for the continuing viability of liberalism in Western democracies.

Of Montaigne and Liberal Tolerance

Following on Marc’s recent posts on skepticism and knowledge, here is an interesting-looking new book from Notre Dame Press: What Happened to Civility: The Promise and Failure of Montaigne’s Modern Project, by philosopher Ann Hartle (Emory). As Donald Frame once observed, Montaigne expressed skepticism about customs and culture (“Que sais-je?”), but never about the ultimate authority of the Church and its teachings about eternal life. In fact, accepting certain background assumptions about eternal truths may have allowed Montaigne space to tolerate diverse opinions about wordly things. In her new book, Hartle suggests that what she calls Montaigne’s project of “civility” depends on taking “sacred tradition” for granted. Perhaps, as a practical matter, liberal tolerance requires that a society accept certain assumptions without debate, so that doubt can be expressed on other subjects. What do I know? It’s worth thinking about.

Here is the publisher’s description:

What is civility, and why has it disappeared? Ann Hartle analyzes the origins of the modern project and the Essays of Michel de Montaigne to discuss why civility is failing in our own time.

In this bold book, Ann Hartle, one of the most important interpreters of sixteenth-century French philosopher Michel de Montaigne, explores the modern notion of civility—the social bond that makes it possible for individuals to live in peace in the political and social structures of the Western world—and asks, why has it disappeared? Concerned with the deepening cultural divisions in our postmodern, post-Christian world, she traces their roots back to the Reformation and Montaigne’s Essays. Montaigne’s philosophical project of drawing on ancient philosophy and Christianity to create a new social bond to reform the mores of his culture is perhaps the first act of self-conscious civility. After tracing Montaigne’s thought, Hartle returns to our modern society and argues that this framing of civility is a human, philosophical invention and that civility fails precisely because it is a human, philosophical invention. She concludes with a defense of the central importance of sacred tradition for civility and the need to protect and maintain that social bond by supporting nonpoliticized, nonideological, free institutions, including and especially universities and churches. What Happened to Civility is written for readers concerned about the deterioration of civility in our public life and the defense of freedom of religion. The book will also interest philosophers who seek a deeper understanding of modernity and its meaning, political scientists interested in the meaning of liberalism and the causes of its failure, and scholars working on Montaigne’s Essays.

On Corporate Activism and American Polarization

In First Things today, I write about recent corporate activism and what it reveals about our deep cultural polarization. More and more, employees and customers expect that firms will take stands on contested political issues. This wasn’t supposed to happen. According to liberal theory, the market is supposed to diminish conflicts over religion and big questions. What’s going on?

All this is happening because, contrary to the doux commerce thesis, people do not easily check their values at the door when they enter the marketplace. And in a society as evenly divided and politically saturated as ours, it’s only natural that many people will want the firms for which they work or with which they do business to reflect their side in public debates. “Employees today…want to know what you stand for,” one CEO recently told the Wall Street Journal. That goes for customers, too. In fact, firms may no longer have the option of staying silent on public controversies, since customers increasingly expect corporations to have political and social commitments. “[I]n these fraught times,” a corporate lawyer recently explained at Harvard Law School’s Forum on Corporate Governance, customers often construe silence on a political controversy as itself “a statement.” 

Liberalism depends for its success on habits of mind that liberalism itself cannot create. The doux commerce thesis works fine where people mostly agree on public controversies, or where people believe they can safely remain indifferent to them. In a society like ours, though, where views are polarized and politics is everywhere, it is naïve to think the market will be an exception, or that commerce will somehow cause people to forget about their deep disagreements. Until America reaches a new social equilibrium, our market is likely to be as contentious as everything else.

You can read the essay here.

Too Much Liberalism or Not Enough?

Our friend and Tradition Project member, Patrick Deneen, argues that America’s cultural crisis, and the West’s more generally, reflects an excess of individualism that is liberalism’s inevitable consequence. A new book from Encounter, Burdens of Freedom: Cultural Difference and American Power, maintains that our problem is the opposite. America’s cultural decline reflects not an excess but a lack of individualism or, more precisely, an inability to deal with the challenges posed by cultures and peoples who do not endorse can-do individualism the way that America does. (The point about the salience of cultural differences reminds me of Huntington, though Huntington didn’t draw normative lessons, at least not in The Clash of Civilizations). Readers can make up their own minds who has the better argument, though I side with Deneen, myself. The author of the new book is Lawrence Mead (NYU). Here’s the description from the Encounter website.

Burdens of Freedom presents a new and radical interpretation of America and its challenges. The United States is an individualist society where most people seek to realize personal goals and values out in the world. This unusual, inner-driven culture was the chief reason why first Europe, then Britain, and finally America came to lead the world. But today, our deepest problems derive from groups and nations that reflect the more passive, deferential temperament of the non-West. The long-term poor and many immigrants have difficulties assimilating in America mainly because they are less inner-driven than the norm. Abroad, the United States faces challenges from Asia, which is collective-minded, and also from many poorly-governed countries in the developing world. The chief threat to American leadership is no longer foreign rivals like China but the decay of individualism within our own society.

The great divide is between the individualist West, for which life is a project, and the rest of the world, in which most people seek to survive rather than achieve. This difference, although clear in research on world cultures, has been ignored in virtually all previous scholarship on American power and public policy, both at home and abroad. Burdens of Freedom is the first work to recognize that difference. It casts new light on America’s greatest struggles. It re-evaluates the entire Western tradition, which took individualism for granted. How to respond to cultural difference is the greatest test of our times.

Mitchell, “The Limits of Liberalism”

9780268104290Everywhere today, thinkers are evaluating the continued viability of the liberal project. Some argue that liberalism has run its course, the victim of its own success; others, that liberalism still has something great to offer, if we can salvage it; and others, that the crisis in liberalism is exaggerated and that liberalism is still the only political game in town. A new book from Notre Dame Press, The Limits of Liberalism: Tradition, Individualism, and the Crisis of Freedom, by government professor Mark T. Mitchell (Patrick Henry College), seems to fall in the first camp. Mitchell argues that liberalism’s rejection of tradition has created a false conception of the self, which has led to a false conception of liberty. He argues for a reconstruction of tradition as an antidote to liberalism’s failings. Looks very interesting, especially for those of us involved in the Tradition Project. Here’s the description from the Notre Dame website:

In The Limits of Liberalism, Mark T. Mitchell argues that a rejection of tradition is both philosophically incoherent and politically harmful. This false conception of tradition helps to facilitate both liberal cosmopolitanism and identity politics. The incoherencies are revealed through an investigation of the works of Michael Oakeshott, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Michael Polanyi.

Mitchell demonstrates that the rejection of tradition as an epistemic necessity has produced a false conception of the human person—the liberal self—which in turn has produced a false conception of freedom. This book identifies why most modern thinkers have denied the essential role of tradition and explains how tradition can be restored to its proper place.

Oakeshott, MacIntyre, and Polanyi all, in various ways, emphasize the necessity of tradition, and although these thinkers approach tradition in different ways, Mitchell finds useful elements within each to build an argument for a reconstructed view of tradition and, as a result, a reconstructed view of freedom. Mitchell argues that only by finding an alternative to the liberal self can we escape the incoherencies and pathologies inherent therein.

This book will appeal to undergraduates, graduate students, professional scholars, and educated laypersons in the history of ideas and late modern culture.

Deneen and Munoz in New York Next Month

Forum readers in the New York area should try to attend a fantastic-looking event here next month. Our friend at the University Bookman, Gerald Russello, is co-sponsoring a discussion between Patrick Deneen and Phillip Muñoz (both Notre Dame) on “The Crisis of Liberalism.” Patrick, Gerald, and Philip are all participants in our Tradition Project, and Phillip, whose work was the subject of a symposium here on the Forum last year, will also present a paper in our law-and-religion colloquium later in November. But we like to spread the wealth around. Details about the event, to take place on November 6, can be found at the link.

Kotsko, “Neoliberalism’s Demons”

pid_29538Here is a new book from Stanford University Press that argues that neoliberalism is a kind of religious commitment; that it has extended its domain to all manner of private and public choices; that it has enabled right-wing populism, which mimics neoliberalism’s worst features; and that it needs to be resisted in the name of race, gender, and sexual identity. The first two points seem right to me, but not the second. It’s very hard to see how populism is not at least in part a rejection of the economic inequalities that neoliberalism creates. And my impression is that neoliberalism quite easily accommodates identities. In fact, it commodifies them.

Readers can judge for themselves. The book is Neoliberalism’s Demons: On the Political Theology of Late Capitalism, by Adam Kotsko (North Central College). The publisher’s description follows:

By both its supporters and detractors, neoliberalism is usually considered an economic policy agenda. Neoliberalism’s Demons argues that it is much more than that: a complete worldview, neoliberalism presents the competitive marketplace as the model for true human flourishing. And it has enjoyed great success: from the struggle for “global competitiveness” on the world stage down to our individual practices of self-branding and social networking, neoliberalism has transformed every aspect of our shared social life.

The book explores the sources of neoliberalism’s remarkable success and the roots of its current decline. Neoliberalism’s appeal is its promise of freedom in the form of unfettered free choice. But that freedom is a trap: we have just enough freedom to be accountable for our failings, but not enough to create genuine change. If we choose rightly, we ratify our own exploitation. And if we choose wrongly, we are consigned to the outer darkness—and then demonized as the cause of social ills. By tracing the political and theological roots of the neoliberal concept of freedom, Adam Kotsko offers a fresh perspective, one that emphasizes the dynamics of race, gender, and sexuality. More than that, he accounts for the rise of right-wing populism, arguing that, far from breaking with the neoliberal model, it actually doubles down on neoliberalism’s most destructive features

Schindler, “Freedom from Reality”

P03373We’re late getting to this, but last year the Notre Dame Press released a new treatment of Locke’s concept of liberty, Freedom from Reality: The Diabolical Character of Modern Liberty, by D.C. Schindler (John Paul II Institute). “Diabolical” makes it sound worse than it is; the author uses the word in the sense of “divisive” and “subversive” rather than “Satanic”–though of course the author may have the latter meaning in mind, too! The book is one of a series of recent works critiquing classical liberalism as paradoxical and, ultimately, the source of its own destruction. It looks like a useful addition to the conversation. Here’s the description from the publisher’s website:

It is commonly observed that behind many of the political and cultural issues that we face today lies an impoverished conception of freedom, which, according to D. C. Schindler, we have inherited from the classical liberal tradition without a sufficient awareness of its implications. Freedom from Reality presents a critique of the deceptive and ultimately self-subverting character of the modern notion of freedom, retrieving an alternative view through a new interpretation of the ancient tradition. While many have critiqued the inadequacy of identifying freedom with arbitrary choice, this book seeks to penetrate to the metaphysical roots of the modern conception by going back, through an etymological study, to the original sense of freedom.

Schindler begins by uncovering a contradiction in John Locke’s seminal account of human freedom. Rather than dismissing it as a mere “academic” problem, Schindler takes this contradiction as a key to understanding the strange paradoxes that abound in the contemporary values and institutions founded on the modern notion of liberty: the very mechanisms that intend to protect modern freedom render it empty and ineffectual. In this respect, modern liberty is “diabolical”—a word that means, at its roots, that which “drives apart” and so subverts. This is contrasted with the “symbolical” (a “joining-together”), which, he suggests, most basically characterizes the premodern sense of reality. This book will appeal to students and scholars of political philosophy (especially political theorists), philosophers in the continental or historical traditions, and cultural critics with a philosophical bent.

Congdon, “Solzhenitsyn”

7652In 1978, as an exile from the Soviet Union, Alexander Solzhenitsyn gave the commencement address at Harvard University. The address shocked many people and remains bracing even today. His audience no doubt expected him to praise the West for its individualism and commitment to human rights. He did, to a point. But he also offered a critique of Western materialism and legalism. “A society which is based on the letter of the law and never reaches any higher,” he said through a translator, “is taking very scarce advantage of the high level of human possibilities.” His critique resonates with many current critiques of liberalism, which seems to be at a crisis point.

The Northern Illinois University Press recently released an interesting-looking new book on Solzhenitsyn’s thought, Solzhenitsyn: The Historical-Spiritual Destinies of Russia and the West, by James Madison University historian Lee Congdon. Here’s the description from the publisher’s website:

This study of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918–2008) and his writings focuses on his reflections on the religiopolitical trajectories of Russia and the West, understood as distinct civilizations. What perhaps most sets Russia apart from the West is the Orthodox Christian faith. The mature Solzhenitsyn returned to the Orthodox faith of his childhood while serving an eight-year sentence in the Gulag Archipelago. He believed that when men forget God, communism or a similar catastrophe is likely to be their fate. In his examination of the author and his work, Lee Congdon explores the consequences of the atheistic socialism that drove the Russian revolutionary movement.

Beginning with a description of the post-revolutionary Russia into which Solzhenitsyn was born, Congdon outlines the Bolshevik victory in the civil war, the origins of the concentration camp system, and the Bolsheviks’ war on Christianity and the Russian Orthodox Church. He then focuses on Solzhenitsyn’s arrest near the war’s end, his time in the labor camps, and his struggle with cancer. Congdon describes his time in exile and increasing alienation from the Western way of life, as well as his return home and his final years. He concludes with a reminder of Solzhenitsyn’s warning to the West—that it was on a path parallel to that which Russia had followed into the abyss. This important study will appeal to scholars and educated general readers with an interest in Solzhenitsyn, Russia, Christianity, and the fate of Western civilization.

Gillon, “Separate and Unequal”

9780465096084In the past few years, a number of commentators have begun to question the continuing viability of liberal democracy. If, in fact, liberalism is reaching its end–which is not at all clear–it’s useful to wonder why this has happened, to figure out where things began to come apart. A new book by University of Oklahoma historian Steven Gillon, Separate and Unequal: The Keener Commission and the Unraveling of American Liberalism  (Basic Books), argues that a turning point was a 1968 government report on race riots. Here’s the description from the publisher’s website:

In Separate and Unequal, historian Steven M. Gillon offers a revelatory new history of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders–popularly known as the Kerner Commission. Convened by President Lyndon Johnson after riots in Newark and Detroit left dozens dead and thousands injured, the commission issued a report in 1968 that attributed the unrest to “white racism” and called for aggressive new programs to end discrimination and poverty. “Our nation is moving toward two societies,” it warned, “one black, and one white–separate and unequal.”

Johnson refused to accept the Kerner Report, and as his political coalition unraveled, its proposals went nowhere. For the right, the report became a symbol of liberal excess, and for the left, one of opportunities lost. Separate and Unequal is essential for anyone seeking to understand the fraught politics of race in America.