Liberalism has been catching a lot of shit of late. The most recent entry into the genre is this article – “What Bernie and the Left Need Now: A Radical Enlightenment” – from Harrison Fluss and Landon Frim. While I’m often sceptical of liberalism myself, nobody likes a pile-on.
The basic problem with left-wing politics, according to Fluss and Frim, is liberals’ stubborn clinging to the value-neutral, procedural liberalism of John Rawls, which attempts to provide a framework for how to run a state in which different people have competing sets of values. Because BDSM enthusiasts and arch-Catholics must live in the same country without killing each other, Rawls suggests that the state should be a more or less neutral arbitrator between competing value-systems, endorsing none, and making sure that no one violates anyone else’s rights. Sounds reasonable, naja?.
Fluss and Frim think its not, because neutrality is bullshit! Elevating the rights of the individual above communal or familial or class obligations is already a value-laden decision! You can’t escape ideology! Or, I’m assuming that’s their claim, because what they actually say is that Sanders’s supporters are low-energy compared to Trump’s, and that this might be because Trump expresess a coherent Weltanschauung of white supremacy while Sanders stands for a sort of weak tea Rawlsian, pluralist humanism. Or maybe Trump supporters are pre-gaming rallies with hunch punch and Everclear, who knows. The takeaway is that “perhaps one does need a coherent worldview to undergird a consistent, emancipatory politics.”
Gewiss. So what’s on offer? Their preferred replacement is a “radicalized” version of Jonathan Israel’s Radical Enlightenment, which refers, for Israel, essentially to the philosophy of the 17th century Dutch materialist Baruch Spinoza (and assorted disciples), who, Israel believes, Got It Right in a way that no one before or since has. Samuel Moyn quotes Israel on the values of the Radical Enlightenment: “democracy, racial and sexual equality; individual liberty of lifestyle; full freedom of thought, expression, and the press; eradication of religious authority from the legislative process and education; and full separation of church and state.”
As Moyn notes, this Enlightenment is “simply those principles deemed worthy of rescuing from the past,” and the authors’ decision to “radicalize” Israel’s version with the addition of French and Haitian Jacobinism, plus Marx, make me suspect that they are leafing through the history of philosophy in search of whatever metaphysical bric-a-brac flatters the politics of radical Ph.D candidates. But however they got there, they end up with a system of five intelocking elements:
- Rationalism – “the universe is essentially knowable and that all limits to knowledge are merely provisional.”
- Materialism – “Human beings are not a special “state within a state,” but are thoroughly part of nature. Intelligible laws of cause and effect determine human beings and social behavior no less than other natural phenomena. This colors how we think of social and political problems, as not stemming from unnatural and wicked desires, but instead from perfectly comprehensible causes.
- Humanism – “Since all people are conditioned by common, natural laws, then there can be no stark separation between different peoples, sexes, races, etc. Diverse needs, desires, and conditions of flourishing are ultimately translatable across all parochial boundaries.”
- Hedonism – “Against the otherworldliness of the Middle Ages, which saw humanity’s bodily nature as “corrupt,” hedonism asserts that we need not fear the “garden of earthly delights.” This ethical naturalism is a departure from the exaggerated humility, chastity, and pious shame of an earlier worldview which still haunts us today.”
- Perfectionism – “combines all four of the above principles into a philosophy of history and action. Humanity, through common reason and a desire for happiness, is naturally capable of solidarity for the achievement of overarching projects—i.e. the increasing “perfection” of our worldly lot.”
Of course, aside from one and two, there’s no actual argument for why these five elements go together. Is Spinozan rationalism still defensible after 300-odd years of critique? Does this fit with what we know from contemporary science? Is there a subject-object problem? Is humanism, as they define it, logically deductible from rationalism and materialism? Does gravity imply human rights? Do human rights and gravity imply our power to perfect the world? Does one system of ethics, alone among all others, proceed not from specific, historical cultural practices, but from the fundamental structure of the universe? Who told Fluss and Frim? God? Jonathan Israel!?
I’m sure there is a way, however torturous, to provide foundations for Spinozan perfectionism, but unfortunately Fluss and Frim can’t be buggered. But what’s the practical upshot of this yes-we-can rationalism? If we weren’t such effete liberals, what would our politics look like? Well…
Rationalism implies that people ought to have conscious control over the greater part of their lives, the perfection of their talents, the ways they contribute to society, and how they cooperate with others. In the twenty-first century, as a matter of fact, the majority of most people’s waking hours are spent at their job. Thus, a Radical Enlightenment ethic as applied to today means the democratization of daily economic life: not just redistribution, not just state ownership of large industry or banks, but the conscious, democratic control over people’s own workplace. This includes not only long-term production plans, but also discretion over daily necessities: everything from staples and spreadsheets, to hiring and firing.
But of course. The hypothetical capacity of humans to attain perfect knowledge of the universe implies an economic system that tends to implode at any level of complexity higher than a co-op. The non sequiturs start in the first sentence – why would rationalism imply a need for conscious control over anything? Reason could perfectly well demonstrate that markets maximize welfare when people don’t exercise democratic control over staples and spreadsheets, and in fact that’s what economics has done over roughly the last century. Go ahead and argue if you like – economics has no theory of value, or economics is an unreal abstraction, or economics is bourgeois false consciousness – but don’t tell me that according to natural law I need to consult the fucking demos before I grab a stapler out of the supply closet.
The authors cite Samuel Moyn’s harsh review of The Radical Enlightenment in the article, but they don’t seem to have actually processed the substance of Moyn’s criticism. Moyn notes, for one, that there is no necessary connection between metaphysical naturalism and any sort of ethics whatsoever. Hobbes endorsed rationalism and materialism, and supported Leviathan nonetheless. More importantly, the Enlightenment idea that you can use reason to derive absolute ethical and political principles from the structure of reality has had what we might generously call mixed results. More Moyn, citing Dan Edelstein’s The Terror of Natural Right:
To craft his argument, Edelstein combines a long-range depiction of Enlightenment fantasies of a polity based on nature alone with an intrepid study of what happened beginning in 1792–93, when Louis XVI was tried and executed—an event that set the stage for the Jacobins to come to power later. Edelstein grippingly shows that because the earlier tradition of “natural law” allowed for the identification and destruction of nature’s enemies, it was tempting for Jacobins building a natural society to deem threats real and imagined inimical not to themselves alone but to humanity in general—outlaws of nature to be put to death…
If Edelstein is right, calling for Enlightenment redemption, and the saving truth of nature, is never going to be enough on its own.
Incredibly, however, after ‘acknowledging’ Moyn’s critique, Fluss and Frim’s solution is not to address these concerns, but to expand Israel’s Spinozan Radical Enlightenment to include French and Haitian Jacobinism. So, to review:
A: We’ve revived radical naturalist ethics!
B: Be careful; radical naturalist ethics were the justification for bloody Jacobin political purges!
A: No problem, because we’ve expanded our radical naturalist ethics to include Jacobinism!
B: What the fuck?
Now, Rawlsian liberalism has come in for a lot of criticism. Some of it I’m sympathetic to. I think that, at the end of the day, it is probably helpful for a political community to endorse some definite conception of the good that can serve as a frame of reference for political debate and a legitimate end of state policy, provided that adequate protections are maintained for individual and group rights. But, it’s worth noting that Fluss and Frim’s natural law Jacobinism is exactly the sort of stuff that Rawlsian liberalism was invented to deter; that is, you can’t go forcing revolutionary transformation on a diverse society just because some clever grad student thinks he’s figured out how the world works.