The Malaise of Liberalism

by Alex Knepper

See also: The Malaise of Conservatism

There are few things clearer in contemporary politics than the need for an alternative vision to homo economicus, in both its liberal and socialist manifestations — man with neither roots nor telos but content merely with animalized comfort — and the right’s proposed flight back into the inadequate and unbelievable claims of the ancestral. It is also clear that there is no faction in American politics which can obviously serve as a vehicle for this alternative.

The right, even while holding political power, seems to understand itself today as the losers of recent history, and is resorting to tactics meant primarily to agitate, disorient, and inflame the winners; they are absolutely blinded by resentment, and no meaningful attempt at governing can be made until it is past this phase and reconciles itself to where we have arrived. So the way forward right now must come from the liberals, exhausted as they are — and despite that they are perhaps the least-inclined to recognize the gravity of the crisis. Why is liberalism once again susceptible to morphing in the direction of ideas it thought it had eliminated — socialism and nationalism? Victory in war, hot or cold, however dazzling, was clearly not sufficient to forever suppress the power of these ideas. Both promise a variety of security — economic and identity-based — against the rapid flux of things under liberal-democratic techno-capitalism, and the pace and intensity of that change has only grown faster in recent years. And a ‘globalized’ world of mass-communications is not just economically disorienting — it is spiritually disorienting, for young and old alike, the former of whom have not known a world unlike this, and the latter of whom have and are aghast at its disintegration. The greater the depths of disorientation, the greater the potential heights of reactive fanaticism. As we have said: people like Donald Trump simply do not come to power when people are not hurting, and badly.


Liberals need to be able to answer the question: Why liberalism today? What kind of life does liberalism help to enable, and why is it desirable? There is no doubt that liberalism benefits certain small groups in large ways — the bourgeois professional class continues to thrive materially, and writers and artists will always have a special appreciation for the liberties of free speech, religion, and association, for instance. But if we believe Aristotle that good government necessitates a balance between the needs of the few and the needs of the many, liberals have to be able to provide some account of what a good life under liberalism looks like for the ordinary citizen. With ideals of religion, race, education, property, family, marriage, and sex all unusually unstable, we are in dire need of a coherent blueprint for what life under liberalism ought to look like in the 21st century. A requirement of this project would be to acknowledge and adequately address the challenges posed by Nietzsche and Marx — it need not ‘rebut’ them, but it must address them — and would itself be tantamount to a long-needed contemporary defense of liberal democracy — a defense of the idea that it is capable of providing decent and substantive lives for the many.

Of course, liberalism has been in need of such a defense for quite some time, and little has been forthcoming. Perhaps liberal democratic capitalism has lurched through the generations out of sheer inertia and material might, the beneficiaries of a historical head-start. That variants of the zombie ideologies of socialism and nationalism are coming back to torment us again suggests that the need for a recuperation and rehabilitation of liberalism has reached a fever pitch.


In Praise of Colorblindness

by Daniel Clements

In the summer of 2009, I was banned from stocking sodas at my job at a Shell station. I had unintentionally integrated the Code Red Mountain Dew and the regular Mountain Dew, the Orange Fanta, and the Pineapple Fanta. Over the weekend, I was delighted to (belatedly) discover EnChroma had developed glasses to correct colorblindness — yet I was disheartened Monday when so many of my friends expressed to desire for a pair of societal EnChroma glasses.

These friends repeated an argument that is gaining strength on the left: that “colorblindness” is a subtle form of racism. It should go without saying that we can agree on colorblindness as an ideal and still debate policies like affirmative action — yet these friends were flat out decrying colorblindness even as a goal. This is because white Americans apparently can never genuinely understand what it’s like to be a black American. I was dismayed that this was how Martin Luther King was being remembered.

Our country was founded on the proposition that all men are created equal and endowed with the same rights. The modern idea of equality is based on the notion that people should be treated as persons first, not primarily as lord or serf, Catholic or Protestant, Roman or barbarian; that no one is “more human” and deserves special treatment. Aristotle claimed that what makes us humans is the ability to speak — but specifically, to give reasons for what is just and unjust. We each have our own unique experiences, but reason can bridge this gap and allow us to form societies based on justice. This was at the heart of Martin Luther King’s project. I’ll let him speak for himself:

“How does one determine when a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law, or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas, an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.”

The Civil Rights movement only came to be because of the solid reasoning that segregation was unjust — reasoning that any person, no matter their color, can understand. It only succeeded because it managed to persuade people who hadn’t experienced the horrors of Jim Crow. Martin Luther King fought so that black Americans would be treated like everybody else. Abandoning colorblindness is unavoidably to ask us to judge people by the color of their skin, not the content of their character.


Depreciating reason in the name of experience or history has been used to justify horrific things. Slavery itself was frequently defended by the claim that the Declaration of Independence didn’t express timeless truths and doesn’t have any relevance to the present. Lincoln cleverly rephrased this interpretation as: “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all British subjects who were on this continent eighty-one years ago, were created equal to all British subjects born and then residing in Great Britain.” He argued against this:

“The assertion that ‘all men are created equal’ was of no practical use in affecting our separation from Great Britain; and it was placed in the Declaration, not for that, but for future use. Its authors meant it to be, thank God, it is now proving itself, a stumbling block to those who in after times might seek to turn a free people back into the hateful paths of despotism.”

To claim that experience creates an unbridgeable gap is to argue that some of us really aren’t fundamentally equal after all. The logical conclusion would be some form of segregation, or a caste system with different classes of citizens. We should not back away from the ideal of colorblindness any more than religion-blindness or wealth-blindness. Of course, we should open our hearts and minds to those who have experienced injustice and who are suffering — but we should not let it deter us from our goal of equality.

Ed. Note: A big welcome to Daniel Clements, who will be joining us as a regular contributor, along with Penn Bullock. Read about them both on the Our Writers page.

The Return of the 1960s

By Alex Knepper

More than a few commentators have decreed that the seeming madness of this election cycle is unprecedented, or simply chaotic. Certainly my friends and family seem to think so; many have remarked to me that they have “never seen anything like it.” I think they are wrong. I think we have seen something like it: the 1960s. Again as in the 1960s, America is experiencing major political and social movement, the emergence of radical new communication tools, a series of contentious campus controversies, the victory of a major civil rights movement, suppressed racial tensions rising back to the surface, a rising young left dissatisfied with the center-left Democratic status quo, and a conservative revolt against Republican elites for their failure to meaningfully halt the march of progressivism.

Of course, Black Lives Matter is not like the Black Panthers. There’s no heated MLK/Malcolm X divide. Today’s campus controversies, inflamed as they are, can’t match those fomented by the New Left. Hillary Clinton won’t be dropping out of the presidential race like LBJ did. Gays and lesbians don’t hold the same status in American history as black people. An the ‘establishment’ may yet prevail in the GOP race. But the parallels are there, and they are striking.


The root of this chaos, I believe, is the gradual emergence, especially among the young, of a new way of thinking about the world: one in which authenticity is prized heavily, the essential fluidity of all concepts is embraced rather than resisted, and ‘the right to form one’s own conception of existence’ is held up as a supreme virtue. In other words: the young are adopting a sort of vulgarized, democratized version of ideas found in the writings of Martin Heidegger. If our culture has been animated by vulgarized Nietzscheanism for a while — obsessed with the analysis of power, taking a delight in unmasking ulterior motives, and wantonly accusing institutions of illegitimacy on the basis of their being historically constructed — maybe now we’re looking at vulgarized Heideggerianism coming to a head. Maybe it just takes about a century or so for the popular horizon to catch up with the horizon of the greatest of thinkers. It is undoubtedly so that the shattering impact of the financial crisis of 2008 accelerated the sense of urgency among the young of the need to dis-cover and implement a new way of thinking and living — but our culture has been traveling down this road for decades. If the 1960s were the decade in which America realized the Nietzscheanism inherent in its Lockeanism, maybe the 2010s ought to be viewed as the decade in which America realized its inherent Heideggerianism.

Maybe it’s not so much, then, that we’re going through something like the 60s again, per se, but rather that social change in America tends to follow certain patterns, a certain generalized ‘rule book’ intrinsic to the logic of our self-understanding and our history. The convergence of science and technology, libertarian and egalitarian ideals (which are always in tension), our uniquely fraught racial history, and Lockean governmental structures must result in something like this — our democracy at work.