Illiberalism or Postliberalism?

It’s the turn of a year, and something of a turn in my career at the moment too, so this is going to be another ruminative one.

This past semester I taught a course in a new discipline at a new institution for me: one of the core humanities classes at University of North Carolina Asheville. The outline of the class is firmly established so I followed its course much as my students did, uncovering its twists and turns as the semester progressed. Soon I realized that the class, “The Modern World,” was essentially teaching students the dialectic of enlightenment. It follows liberalism, its discontents, and its wreckage, from the seventeenth century to World War II.

The students, and by extension myself, were left to reckon with the legacy of modernity. How do we reconcile liberal imperialism, capitalism, and the fascisms that they incite with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, or Obergefell v. Hodges, or the music and poetry of the Harlem Renaissance?

As you might guess, the students had a great deal of faith in the promise of those things in the latter column. As do endless commentators in the press these days, those that might be described as “centrist” (a label that conceals more than it reveals) or liberal or neoliberal. They see Trump as an aberration, a wayward digression from the promises of globalization and free market capitalism. For liberals, those promises are underwritten by the faith that though globalized capitalism might be unruly, it can be tamed and made to serve the interests of the people through a realization of a rights-based liberal governance that liberates through an egalitarianism of identity. (NB: this vision of liberalism, though attendant to identity, is distinct from a politics that might confer “group rights.”)

At the same time, it’s important to acknowledge that even the most radical of leftists don’t discount the power of identity, the lived experiences of precarious people, the experience of living as an individual in a world that ascribes us as such, and the promise of expression through what Stuart Hall described as the “secondary universes” that exist apart from the workplace and class identity. And everywhere in between, the lines between liberal and left get tied up; for example, historian James Livingston pens passionate defenses of liberalism even as he draws from anti-humanist thinkers like Judith Butler to argue that the liberal conception of the self is ill-suited to our age.

OK, so where am I going with all of this? I think it’s that the rhetorical distinction between “liberal” and “illiberal” needs to be challenged. And in doing so, we can have our cake and eat it too. We can have the Harlem Renaissance and an end to concentrated capital accumulation. We can have not just political change, but epistemic change too.

These days few things goad me more than the deployment of the word “illiberal.” And its use has flourished since the election of Donald Trump. My sense is that most commentators don’t know what it means, but smart people use it too: those that defend both liberal philosophy and the liberal order, but also its critics like Shadi Hamid and Elizabeth Bruenig. Unfortunately, it’s nearly impossible to figure out what people are intending when they use it in a sentence. Furthermore, I think it implies something normative about liberalism, where all that is not liberal is aberrant, and hence illiberal.

Part of the problem with the concern with that which is illiberal, I suspect, is that the phrase “liberal democracy” is too well-worn, abstract, and ubiquitous as well, and the result is that liberal becomes synonymous—rather than concomitant, as liberal thinkers would have it—with democracy. Or maybe the concern is that an illiberal democracy would resemble some kind of nightmare Rousseauian setup where individual preferences are subsumed to the “general will,” and that taken to extremes, such a society would only be a tyranny of the majority.

I have taken my share of opportunities to argue that liberalism is bad. But I wonder if a practical solution might be to fashion a new rhetoric of “post-liberalism” that would exist alongside critiques of liberalism. Such a rhetoric would act as a kind of shield against the charges that critiques of liberalism from the left are authoritarian or undemocratic. It would be a way around the misleading binary of liberal vs. illiberal.

And frankly, it would also reassert what we already know: that to critique liberalism is not to look to the feudal past for some kind of older model of the self or plan for society. It would extend the work already being done; Post-liberalism, to me, would simply extend the logic behind the existing philosophies of anti-humanism and posthumanism. After all, if enlightenment humanism is a philosophy of the self from which liberalism, a philosophy of social relations, springs, why shouldn’t posthumanism birth a postliberalism?

For a start, postliberalism might take the posthumanist attention to the place of systems and structures in fashioning both material circumstances and identities and look to build a society that doesn’t write off those identities and experiences as inauthentic, but instead in seeing those things as the products of society, seeks to take responsibility for their belonging. It might take the posthumanist rejection of liberal notions of agency and productivity, and seek to build a post-work economy that instead of abolishing markets—such a notion is ridiculous—would ensure that the exchanging of goods and services are done for the benefit of people, and that a continual process of the socialization of capital would occlude the fetishism of commodities and alienation of labor.

Don’t worry, I still write about popular culture. I still believe that art is one of the means that will be necessary for the “passive revolution” required for epistemic change.

Master of None had one of my favorite post-liberal moments this year: the “I Love New York” episode.

And it turns out I’ve written about some of these ideas over the past year. On liberalism and humanism, I wrote a forthcoming peer-reviewed article about Jews and the Biblical epic movies of the 1950s. On posthumanism, I wrote a web-published essay on the movie Moonlight. And I wrote about a number of aforementioned ideas, including how we might think about a post-work economy, here on my blog.

My new year’s resolution is to think and publish more along these lines. I’ve been trying for a while to work out a piece that would use popular culture to think about what I’m calling “liberal realism,” a kind of corollary to Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism.We’ll see if it gets anywhere.In the meantime, happy new year!