Liberalism and the Left

Bloom Briefing 56: Response to American Purpose's Symposium on the Future of Liberalism, Part 2

Last week, I reflected on the relationship between conservatism and liberalism, focusing on the part of the conservative critique of liberalism that is most important for liberals and leftists.  This week, the focus is on the relationship between liberalism and the left.

Liberalism’s critique of the left is ill-founded

The genesis for the symposium in American Purpose on the future of liberalism was an essay by Francis Fukuyama, Liberalism and its Discontents: The Challenges from the Left and the Right.  That seems reasonably straightforward.  In his titling of the essay, Fukuyama posits a clear challenge to liberalism from the left.  Let’s see how he describes it.

The complaint of the left is different in substance but similar in structure to that of the right: Liberal society does not do enough to root out deep-seated racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination, so politics must go beyond liberalism. And, as on the right, progressives want the deeper bonding and personal satisfaction of associating—in this case, with people who have suffered from similar indignities.

This instinct for bonding and the thinness of shared moral life in liberal societies has shifted global politics on both the right and the left toward a politics of identity and away from the liberal world order of the late 20th century… Thus in the United States, arguments between right and left increasingly revolve around identity, and particularly racial identity issues, rather than around economic ideology and questions about the appropriate role of the state in the economy.

There are two important features of the way Fukuyama identifies the illiberalism of the left.  First, his complaint is not with redistributionist economic policy—a key target for conservative economic liberals—but with identity politics, or what we might call the identitarian left. 

The cynic in me finds a lot to be skeptical about regarding an attack on the identitarian left.  The same people (or people of the same ideological persuasion) critiquing the identitarian left today were the ones arguing that redistributionist economic policy would be liberalism’s downfall a generation ago.  It seems that with the bogeyman of the Soviet Union gone, these liberals have simply invented a new ominous threat to go after. 

The second feature of the Fukuyama excerpt to which I would call your attention is how he talks about out-group identity formation: “Progressives want the deeper bonding and personal satisfaction of associating—in this case, with people who have suffered from similar indignities.”   

This formulation gets a lot wrong.  Who are these progressives he speaks of?  Young woke white upper-middle-class folks haven’t “suffered similar indignities” but many of them would certainly consider themselves progressive.

There’s also a rhetorical sleight-of-hand in describing the suffering in the past tense.  The formation of group identity associated with suffering indignities isn’t a one-time thing or a past-tense thing.  Group identity here forms because the threat is ongoing.  If police killings of unarmed BIPOC men, women, and children (rest in power, Duante Wright and Adam Toledo) weren’t ongoing, there wouldn’t be any infrastructure or organizations designed to protest these outrages and push for change.  It is the ongoing nature of the indignities that strengthens group-based identity formation.

The direction of causation here is important.  To whatever extent group-based identity formation is illiberal (and, here, I would posit that such a definition is going to have a lot of issues not just with racial justice advocates, but with any religion whatsoever too), its illiberalities are an outgrowth of exclusion and marginalization, not some a priori set of principles.  As Ian Bassin wrote in one of the stellar responses to Fukuyama:

Communities of color have spent decades, even centuries, trying to assimilate into the American mainstream, only to be denied that opportunity by the formal and informal barriers erected by white supremacy. Eventually, rather than acquiesce to the designation of minority identity as a mark of subordination, these communities embraced their difference as a mark of pride.

Black Americans… given neither the benefits of liberalism nor democracy, nevertheless fought generation after generation to deliver to this country the ideals of both.  If the barriers erected by systemic racism are lowered, delivering on the promise of liberal democracy for all citizens, the identitarian Left is likely to support the system.

The left is primarily concerned with freedom

One thing many liberals do in the process of critiquing the left is fail to correctly identify the left’s goals.  And if you read literally any political theorist of the left, the first goal is obvious: freedom.

Let’s start with Marx.  Marx is concerned primarily with how capitalism alienates workers.  What is alienation?  Alienation is the process by which capital compels workers to work towards an end other than that of their choosing, and as such separate themselves from what is human about themselves. 

As a result, therefore, man (the worker) no longer feels himself to be freely active in any but his animal functions—eating, drinking, procreating, or at most in his dwelling and in dressing-up, etc.; and in his human functions he no longer feels himself to be anything but an animal.

Marx sees this exploitation as the result of conflict between classes.  Capitalists and workers are inherently at odds with each other as capitalists seek to exploit workers and workers (eventually, in Marx’s vision) revolt in pursuit of the freedom of communism. 

I won’t go through the nearly two centuries of leftist thought since Marx, but suffice it to say that leftist political theorists, from abolitionists to socialists to anarchists to communists to progressives to Black Nationalists are all concerned principally with the question of how to produce freedom.  Importantly, the left evolves from Marx’s understanding of power specifically in economic or material coercion into all sorts of other sources of coercion. 

Foucault, another leftist thinker whose liberal caricature often involves charges of illiberalism, is also principally concerned with freedom.  Foucault turns Marx’s “class conflict” into the subtler “power relations.”  This could be economic, or it could be governmental, or it could be in basic ideological categories like the distinctions between the sane and insane, the criminal and the good, or the sick and the healthy.

Foucault argues that we ought to pay more attention to categories like legal and illegal and how we define what exists within the two.  The systems that enforce these distinctions are a form of coercion and oppression.  In Foucault’s own words:

My objective… has been to create a history of the different modes by which, in our culture, human beings are made subjects.  My work has dealt with three modes of objectification that transform human beings into subjects.

Here, Foucault’s reflection on his work is that he has been trying to document how people have been made un-free, and how we may break free of these systems of power. 

I’m belaboring the point, but I want to make it abundantly clear that the notion that the left is somehow unconcerned with freedom is a load of malarkey.  The left has always bought into the fundamental insight of liberalism – that individuals ought to be free to pursue their vision of the good life.

So what distinguishes liberals and leftists?

If both liberals and leftists are committed to individual liberty, why do many liberals accuse the left of being illiberal?  One way of understanding the divide between liberals and leftists is that liberals are focused on a procedural understanding of individual liberty and leftists are focused on an outcome that maximizes total individual liberty. 

Tax policy is probably the easiest way of understanding this divide.  Extreme classical liberals such as some modern-day libertarians posit that all taxation is effectively theft.  Just because the people (collectively, through the action of government) want to use some of your money to provide certain functions doesn’t give them a right to take some of your earnings.  This is, in their view, an unjustified incursion into your relationship with your employer. 

Leftists, in contrast, think that even if people are procedurally free, this freedom is purely theoretical without sufficient resources to take advantage of it.  Consider for the moment a sharecropper who is perpetually indebted to the landowner or an industrial-era miner who only earns enough for basic subsistence.  Are such people free?  Most people would say not really.  When survival is the absolute most that someone can hope for, procedural freedom is insufficient.

In practice, few people are either absolute proceduralists or absolute consequentialists about individual liberties.  Liberals have mostly agreed with the left’s arguments about the need for some basic services (like education and healthcare) to be available to everyone, and they are totally comfortable limiting one person’s freedom when it protects another’s (e.g., people aren’t free to murder).   At the same time, most leftists aren’t looking to abolish private property.  They acknowledge that a lot of inequality is an inevitable byproduct of a free society. 

But leftists, to a greater extent than liberals, seek to understand individuals in society.  We exist in a world of conflict between classes of people (Marx) who approach that conflict situated in specific relations of power (Foucault).  The contemporary left emphasizes the fact that if relations of power are wildly unequal, then people are not really free. 

What I hope this makes clear is that the left isn’t inherently illiberal in the way Fukuyama (and many other contemporary liberals) contends.  Most leftists are deeply committed to individual liberties.  As Samuel Moyn writes, in another excellent response to Fukuyama:

He sees progressive theory as a grim vision of woke tyranny. But when it comes to the universities today, this story is mostly a dangerous slander, masking a defense of a liberalism bent on avoiding its own past mistakes. Beyond the university, the Left and Right are far less symmetrical than in Fukuyama’s portrait. If he cites no example of progressives actually shutting down a liberal society, it is far more because they lack the desire than the power to do so.

Liberals and leftists both believe people ought to be able to think, worship, say, dress, and broadly do whatever they want.  There is no difference there.  But the left recognizes a problem (wildly unequal relations of power) that liberals don’t want to deal with.  To describe the left’s interest in addressing that problem as “illiberal” fundamentally misunderstands the project.  After all, liberalism’s emergence came from this same problem: wildly imbalanced power relations that threatened an individual’s ability to think, worship, and speak as he chose.

Given that (virtually) no one is an absolute consequentialist or an absolute proceduralist about freedom, what we’re talking about is the negotiation of boundaries between maximizing freedom through some curtailment of power and ensuring liberal enough rules such that everyone is guaranteed a certain amount of non-interference. 

How ought we to negotiate this boundary?

Instead of illiberalism, leftists are engaged in a constant navigation of a boundary between procedural and consequentialist freedoms.  Are there times when slightly differential processes designed to curtail power can produce more freedom as a result?  And are we comfortable with the slight illiberality of the process? 

This might mean that some private institutions don’t allow certain forms of speech (e.g., epithets).   It might mean considering histories of illiberalism (slavery, sharecropping, red-lining, voting restrictions, etc.) and trying to remedy them.  Things like affirmative action or the Rooney rule are procedurally illiberal but serve a purpose of correcting for historical illiberalism.  It’s not like you can call a footrace fair if one runner breaks another’s kneecaps beforehand and the third guy doesn’t have any shoes. 

To echo Moyn, the left doesn’t have an issue with liberalism, and as such, there is really no threat to liberalism from the left.  There is, however, a serious threat to liberal democracy from the right.  Whether you call it the liberal part or the democratic part of liberal democracy, what’s increasingly clear is that the political right doesn’t believe in the equal exercise of power or in free and fair elections.  As Jeet Heer describes in his excellent response to Fukuyama:

Fukuyama worries about the dangers to “liberalism,” yet I think the true threat is to democracy. In the United States, the “small-d” democratic parts of the political system consistently constrained Trump (he twice lost the popular vote, met with constant popular protests and citizen-driven litigation, and was impeached by the House of Representatives), while the anti-democratic or “small-r” republican parts of the political order empowered him (the Electoral College turned his popular vote defeat into a victory, Trump benefited from the Senate’s skew toward less populated states, and his ability to appoint judges was a major source of political power).

Many Republicans simply no longer believe in liberal democracy (I have written about this here and here).  Whether it’s new restrictions on voting targeted at Democratic-leaning voters, curtailing the power of elected Democrats, or overriding the votes of a constituency that votes for a Democrat, many Republicans simply don’t believe in allowing Democrats to govern.  This is the threat to liberal democracy. 

The left’s threat to liberalism, as described by liberals, is either premised on a misunderstanding or an intentional misreading designed to deflect charges of being anti-conservative. 

In fact, it is more accurate to see the contemporary Left across the world as finally setting out on a last rescue mission to save liberalism, an operation needed long before its current “crisis.” Progressives share Fukuyama’s sense of the blooming symptoms of a longstanding disease, but they have a different diagnosis and cure (also from Moyn).

It is possible to be both a liberal and a leftist.  The two go naturally together.  A commitment to liberalism ensures a certain amount of freedom to experiment with different ideas of human flourishing.  A commitment to the ideals of the left ensures that no individual or group accumulates so much power as to make the entire endeavor impossible for other individuals or groups.

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Additional Reading

In the New Yorker, Louis Menand writes about campus activists in the 1960s.  It’s fascinating to note here that leftist activism emerged in response to campus administrators’ attacks on free speech—a clear example of people both leftist and liberal in persuasion.

Also in the New Yorker, Sheelah Kolhatkar writes about the economies of trailer parks.  As the parks get bought up by private equity companies engaged in increasingly predatory behavior, tenants, whose mobile homes are surprisingly (to the uninitiated) immobile, are stuck in a set of power relations that no one would describe as free.  Liberals would have no issue with anything transpiring, but leftists recognize exploitation in the form of “free” relations of people with wildly imbalanced power.

On her Substack, Anne Helen Peterson wrote about the (costly) things people do to maintain the perception of middle-class status.