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.
Here 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
We’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.
In 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.
In 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.
Last year, while working on a review essay, Markets and Morals: The Limits of Doux Commerce, I was introduced to the work of the late intellectual historian, Istvan Hont. Hont’s work focused, among other things, on the role of commerce in Enlightement thought. For Enlightenment figures like Adam Smith, commerce promised to promote a culture of religious tolerance and political pluralism. The doux commerce thesis they advocated has been important in liberal thought ever since.
Hont’s work was helpful in explaining Enlightenment thought to me, as I’m sure this new collection of essays on his scholarship would have been, had it been out in time! The book, from Harvard University Press, is Markets, Morals, Politics: Jealousy of Trade and the History of Political Thought. The editors are Béla Kapossy (University of Lausanne) and others. Here’s the description from the Harvard website:
When Istvan Hont died in 2013, the world lost a giant of intellectual history. A leader of the Cambridge School of Political Thought, Hont argued passionately for a global-historical approach to political ideas. To better understand the development of liberalism, he looked not only to the works of great thinkers but also to their reception and use amid revolution and interstate competition. His innovative program of study culminated in the landmark 2005 book Jealousy of Trade, which explores the birth of economic nationalism and other social effects of expanding eighteenth-century markets. Markets, Morals, Politics brings together a celebrated cast of Hont’s contemporaries to assess his influence, ideas, and methods.
Richard Tuck, John Pocock, John Dunn, Raymond Geuss, Gareth Stedman Jones, Michael Sonenscher, John Robertson, Keith Tribe, Pasquale Pasquino, and Peter N. Miller contribute original essays on themes Hont treated with penetrating insight: the politics of commerce, debt, and luxury; the morality of markets; and economic limits on state power. The authors delve into questions about the relationship between states and markets, politics and economics, through examinations of key Enlightenment and pre-Enlightenment figures in context—Hobbes, Rousseau, Spinoza, and many others. The contributors also add depth to Hont’s lifelong, if sometimes veiled, engagement with Marx.
The result is a work of interpretation that does justice to Hont’s influence while developing its own provocative and illuminating arguments. Markets, Morals, Politics will be a valuable companion to readers of Hont and anyone concerned with political economy and the history of ideas.
One of the many enjoyable nuggets in Patrick Deneen’s new book on liberalism is this one: John Stuart Mill, that great exponent of tolerance, argued that the West should impose liberalism on “‘uncivilized’ peoples in order that they might lead productive economic lives, even if they must be “for a while compelled to it,’ including through the institution of ‘personal slavery.'” By contrast, the Christian conservative Edmund Burke insisted, at an earlier moment in imperialist history, that colonial powers should allow local, non-European religious cultures to continue–as in India, for example. The difference is worth remembering, when people tell you how liberalism inherently promotes neutrality, and conservatism, bigotry. Things are a lot more complicated.
I thought about all this while reading the announcement for a new book from Harvard University Press, Boundaries of the International: Law and Empire, by University of Chicago political scientist Jennifer Pitts, which discusses both Mill and Burke. Looks interesting. Here’s the description from the Harvard website:
It is commonly believed that international law originated in relations among European states that respected one another as free and equal. In fact, as Jennifer Pitts shows, international law was forged at least as much through Europeans’ domineering relations with non-European states and empires, leaving a legacy still visible in the unequal structures of today’s international order.
Pitts focuses on the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the great age of imperial expansion, as European intellectuals and administrators worked to establish and justify laws to govern emerging relationships with non-Europeans. Relying on military and commercial dominance, European powers dictated their own terms on the basis of their own norms and interests. Despite claims that the law of nations was a universal system rooted in the values of equality and reciprocity, the laws that came to govern the world were parochial and deeply entangled in imperialism. Legal authorities, including Emer de Vattel, John Westlake, and Henry Wheaton, were key figures in these developments. But ordinary diplomats, colonial administrators, and journalists played their part too, as did some of the greatest political thinkers of the time, among them Montesquieu and John Stuart Mill.
Against this growing consensus, however, dissident voices as prominent as Edmund Burke insisted that European states had extensive legal obligations abroad that ought not to be ignored. These critics, Pitts shows, provide valuable resources for scrutiny of the political, economic, and legal inequalities that continue to afflict global affairs.
At the Liberty Law site today, I have a review of Nate Oman’s important new book on markets and morals, The Dignity of Commerce. The book is a great contribution to contracts scholarship, thoughtful and beautifully written. Nate and I have a friendly disagreement, though, about the cause-and-effect relationship between markets and morals, so it’s no surprise that I find myself disagreeing with one of the book’s main claims:
Liberals maintain that markets create wealth, promote mutual gain, and unlock talents and resources in individuals and nations. And, they say, markets have political benefits. Since the Enlightenment, liberals have argued that markets promote civic pluralism by making people more reasonable and prudent; less given to political and, especially, religious enthusiasm; and eager to avoid divisive debates about deep commitments.
That markets have these advantages is known as the doux commerce thesis. (That’s doux as in soft, or having a softening effect.) The thesis is most closely associated with the Baron de Montesquieu and Voltaire, though David Hume and Adam Smith endorsed it, too. In a very fine new book, The Dignity of Commerce: Markets and the Moral Foundations of Contract Law, contracts scholar Nathan B. Oman advances a version of the theory, updated to take account of current contract doctrine. Oman, a law professor at William and Mary Law School, combines immense learning and sophistication with a lightness of touch that makes his book a pleasure to read.
All of that said, I remain unpersuaded about doux commerce. Edmund Burke had it right, I think. Markets don’t inevitably lead to liberalism. Rather, the liberal tradition itself creates the sort of markets liberals admire.
Speaking of classical liberalism, here is a new book from the most prominent libertarian voice in the American legal academy, Richard Epstein, The Classical Liberal Constitution: the Uncertain Quest for Limited Government (Harvard). It certainly seems the case that many disputes over religious liberty today result from expanding governmental control over aspects of life the framers of the Free Exercise Clause could not have imagined — the Contraception Mandate, for example. Readers can decide whether that expansion, and the attendant conflicts over religious liberty, are the inevitable consequences of modernity or, as Epstein suggests, the result of an an unnecessary ideological project unwisely endorsed by the Supreme Court. The publisher’s description is below.
American liberals and conservatives alike take for granted a progressive view of the Constitution that took root in the early twentieth century. Richard A. Epstein laments this complacency which, he believes, explains America’s current economic malaise and political gridlock. Steering clear of well-worn debates between defenders of originalism and proponents of a living Constitution, Epstein employs close textual reading, historical analysis, and political and economic theory to urge a return to the classical liberal theory of governance that animated the framers’ original text, and to the limited government this theory supports.
Grounded in the thought of Locke, Hume, Madison, and other Enlightenment figures, the classical liberal tradition emphasized federalism, restricted government, separation of powers, property rights, and economic liberties. The most serious challenge to this tradition, Epstein contends, has come from New Deal progressives and their intellectual defenders. Unlike Thomas Paine, who saw government as a necessary evil at best, the progressives embraced government as a force for administering social good. The Supreme Court has unwisely ratified the progressive program by sustaining an ever-lengthening list of legislative programs at odds with the classical liberal Constitution.
Epstein’s carefully considered analysis addresses both halves of the constitutional enterprise: its structural safeguards against excessive government power and its protection of individual rights. He illuminates contemporary disputes ranging from presidential prerogatives to health care legislation, while reexamining such enduring topics as the institution of judicial review, the federal government’s role in regulating economic activity, freedom of speech and religion, and equal protection.
Well, this looks depressing. In a new release from Yale University Press, The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues, and the Coming Dark Age, author James Kirchik sees a dark time looming ahead for Europe, in which religious bigotry and nationalism will return to poison the good work of the post-war era. Liberalism is under a lot of stress in Europe right now, and liberalism’s inability to resolve religious tensions is one of the main reasons. Still, I don’t think it’s fair to link Brexit, which seemed more about national sovereignty than anything else, with rising anti-Semitism. Readers can judge for themselves. Here’s the description from the Yale website:
Once the world’s bastion of liberal, democratic values, Europe is now having to confront demons it thought it had laid to rest. The old pathologies of anti-Semitism, populist nationalism, and territorial aggression are threatening to tear the European postwar consensus apart. In riveting dispatches from this unfolding tragedy, James Kirchick shows us the shallow disingenuousness of the leaders who pushed for “Brexit;” examines how a vast migrant wave is exacerbating tensions between Europeans and their Muslim minorities; explores the rising anti-Semitism that causes Jewish schools and synagogues in France and Germany to resemble armed bunkers; and describes how Russian imperial ambitions are destabilizing nations from Estonia to Ukraine. With President Trump now threatening to abandon America’s traditional role as upholder of the liberal world order and guarantor of the continent’s security, Europe may be alone in dealing with these unprecedented challenges.
Based on extensive firsthand reporting, this book is a provocative, disturbing look at a continent in unexpected crisis.