On Liberalism

Writing in response to a liberal criticism of a bill that “would make illegal the use of any ‘diversity, equity, and inclusion [DEI] statements’ as part of the hiring, promotion and tenure process,” a  philosophy professor at Brown, Felicia Nimue Ackerman, argued  that “making such statements part of the hiring, promotion and tenure process is also an aggressive effort to politicize higher education. Both sides, while accusing their opponents of subordinating education to partisan ideology, are doing precisely that themselves.”

A clearer example of bothsidesism would be hard to invent. But to go into it further requires serious analysis of the background question of liberal tolerance and its limits.

Two decades ago I wrote an article for The Nation titled “A Few Kind Words for Liberalism.”  A “few”, not “Many,” though presumably more than “Several.”  I haven’t re-read it, and don’t intend to: a lot of water has spilled over the dam since then. 

Chiefly, both practitioners and critics have appropriated the term “neo-liberalism,” as though it were an updated version of the original–say of John Stuart Mill, or FDR, or LBJ. It isn’t; not in any way. It’s enough to say here that none of them believed in the utility of an unregulated market for either money or commerce. 

In any event, but in order to skip all parti pris appropriations I’m considering liberalism as an ideology rather than a mode of governance; the former may be steadfast, the latter is subject to the vagaries of history, of necessity.  For example, Erdogan is a loathsome autocrat, but it’s not his fault that Turkey is having severe earthquakes; nor is it Biden’s fault that Russia Invaded Ukraine.

As for “Ideology” the term has many definitions.  My own, is that ideology in general is “the ensemble of beliefs and practices that support a (partially) fictitious sense of community among any organized human group.”      

What this definition implies, and is meant to imply, is that all political and moral doctrines are in some sense or another “ideological.” The most common response to this assertion is one that I satirized years ago as the title of an essay in The Massachusetts Review “I Have A Philosophy, You Have an Ideology.” From world-wide religions to team sports, even including what Terry Eagleton called “The Ideology of the Aesthetic,” all assertions of “community” fall under this rubric.  

Viewing liberal pluralism as an ideology,  at  first glance here seems to be something perverse in the disdain (from the Left) often amounting to hatred (from the Right) that today’s liberalism  evokes.  How, why?

Some  comparisons,  then.  For the first half of the 20th Century, Marxism and versions of Nationalism competed for power in the intellectual world, and among European nations and rebellious colonies of the West (or North, really).  Marxism today has virtually no political influence in the U.S. and only minor intellectual influence.  Here, only vague references to “socialism” stand in arenas where Marxism was once central; I’m that kind of “socialist” myself.

There are, rather, three ideologies competing for power among us: Christian Nationalism, which is also predominantly racist; familialism, which might be described as old-fashioned conservatism in which women “know their place;”and is particularly strong in the anti-choice movement;  and liberalism, which also comprehends the dominant version of feminism,  and the identity politics of minorities, or those among them, who feel excluded from the White, straight, majority (or plurality).

Liberalism, unlike the other two seems to comprehend the social order not as a united community, nor as a collection of families that also  have their own local affiliations, but as a populace of individuals with rights whose central obligation is to “ tolerate” each other. (Thus the contrary intention of Ron DeSantis is to subject the rights of teachers to the control of “parents.”) Tolerance and inclusion, or as we could also call it “multiculturalism” –what its enemies call “cosmopolitanism,” with its barely hidden invocations of anti-Semitism–are, if genuinely practiced under the “equal protection of the law,” what  hold together  what would otherwise seem to be an ungovernable whole–and often is.

Historically, both the theory and practice of liberalism extend and advances until no one, in an ideal world, is left out–all individuals. (Skeptics are fond of joking, or half-joking, that only pedophiles remain to be granted liberal tolerance; it’s probably no coincidence that on the Internet Right pedophilia is alleged to be the real heart of present-day liberalism.)

Is this really the case? Thus, “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed with certain inalienable rights, that among these rights are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”  Men?

But no, anyone  today who doesn’t immediately acknowledge and insist that “all men” means “ all persons–if only in some cases with a certain wryness–is like someone who’s missed the last train out of Dodge City; or is wearing ripped jeans and sneakers to a wedding reception at the Ritz-Carlton.  Not to mention that slave-holders such as Jefferson who were in on liberalism’s founding manifesto, are given a kind of latter-day invitation to the wedding, so long as their descendants renounce their racism on their behalf.

So liberalism, at first glance, is the only  one of these ideologies that’s egalitarian, and yet  is often scathingly criticized by other egalitarians; that is all-inclusive: except that as we shall see it isn’t;  and that  makes almost no demands on its  upholders:  except that the one demand it does make is deeply offensive to millions. Are believers who endure attacks from both Left and Right to think, as the cliche goes, that “we mut be doing something right?” Or is that an over-simplification?  What’s going on here?         

I’m going to begin an answer in the standard, indeed  irreplaceable manner, by looking at two passages from John  Stuart Mill, specifically Ch. 2 of On Liberty,  “Of Liberty of Thought and Discussion.”  The most famous passage from that chapter is the one in which he says that if all of mankind minus one were of one opinion, and that one of a contrary opinion, it would have no more right in censoring him than he would have in censoring mankind.  Unfortunately, that thought immediately calls to mind the Unibomber, and I’m not going to go into it any further–except to say that it’s impossible to imagine a more demanding constraint on any population.

Further on, though,  as to the moral order In general, Mill vehemently  argues against an early version of prohibition in the U.S. (from Pennsylvania, I believe) in the strongest possible manner. To use his language, any  belief  that a state should be governed by, or incorporate  a  punitive religious orthodoxy,  is a  “monstrous”  principle: the worst violation of freedom imaginable.  

This is the ultimate argument for liberal tolerance: the Separation of Church and State that incorporates diversity, inclusion, and equal protection of the Law. By this standard the theocrats  of today, represented on the Supreme Court by the  six Roman Catholics, are thus enemies of liberal  rights in Mill’s version, because they always subject those individual rights to the demands of their orthodoxy. I absolutely agree. But wait.

Writing a century after Mill, the theocratic political philosopher Willmoore Kendall, in an original contribution to political philosophy,  called the liberal attack on the political status of orthodoxy “just another orthodoxy,” which blacklists illiberal orthodoxies; and is a subversion of communal life to boot. Does he have a point?

A personal answer: the liberal hero of my teen-age years was an apostate theologian named Paul Blanshard, whose mega-critique of Roman Catholicism– American Freedom and Catholic Power (1949)was serialized in the then spear-carrier of liberalism, The New York Post. (Yes!) As he argued it, the two terms  were absolutely incompatible: the Church was the sworn enemy of liberal Separation.  

Again, I absolutely agree.  When I read of another reference by the American Council of Bishops or whatever they call themselves, to abortion as “The holocaust of the Nineties,” I want to put them all on a ship that will be scuttled at the North Pole, with the brethren who’d deny communion to Joe Biden and Nancy Peosi tied to the anchor.

The peculiar thing about this conflict of ideologies, however, is  that there is also a serious attack on the philosophy of liberal tolerance from the Left; and, even more peculiarly, that the Left and Right critiques are both based on the same claim: that liberals are indifferent to the real roots of inequality in structures of social class…  For the Left, the failure is one of indifference and complacency;  for the Right, it’s hypocrisy and what Kendall describes as falsity. (He was, by the way, the mentor of William F. Buckley Jr., and therefore to some extent the Godfather of today’s Right, but not the extreme Right, that has gone beyond communitarianism into the nihilism of individual “freedom.”) 

I’m going to consider the Left critique first, in that as the author of “a few kind words for liberalism,” as well as essays in favor of socialism, I feel a pang of self-division here and elsewhere.       

The classic Left critique of liberal individualism, or the politics of tolerance at its root, is found  in the three essays collected under the title of A Critique of Pure Tolerance (1965). Robert Paul Wolff, in the introductory essay, asserted that liberal pluralism is actually neither; neither liberal nor pluralist. (That case had been put earlier by Senator Estes Kefauver, who called so-called pluralism “a dance of elephants among the chickens.”) That assertion is the central insight of the Left critique

Of these three, though, it is the contribution of Herbert  Marcuse, “Repressive Tolerance,” which is the most well-known–and notorious. Its simple thesis is that tolerance in the abstract means the toleration of the repressive forces in capitalist society; a free ride for the politics of exploitation. 

Rather, Marcuse argues, (with some foreshortening  by me) that “the realization of the objective of tolerance” requires “intolerance toward prevailing policies, attitudes, opinions, and the extension of tolerance to policies, attitudes, and opinions which are outlawed or suppressed.” He calls this “liberating tolerance”, which would consist of intolerance to right-wing movements and toleration of left-wing movements. “

“(…within)) a repressive  society,”” he continues, “even progressive movements threaten to turn into their opposite to the degree to which they accept the rules of the game…the exercise of political rights…testifies) to the existence of democratic liberties which, in reality, have changed their content and lost their effectiveness. In such a case, freedom (of opinion, of assembly, of speech) becomes an instrument for absolving servitude.” (pp. 109-111 My emphasis) .

Thus Mill’s version of tolerance, Marcuse allows, would make sense in a truly free society.  But in an inegalitarian society marked by repression, it simply hides the truth about the real order of things.

The case that “tolerance” is not what it seems has been more recently updated and restated by the political theorist by Wendy Brown, as in the assertion that  “tolerance as a political practice is always conferred by the dominant, it is always a certain expression of domination even as it offers protection or incorporation to the less powerful”. (Brown goes on to argue at length that neo-Liberalism has aggravated the worst failures of tolerance in service to the forces of globalization; see my vigorous dissent at the beginning of this essay.) 

This then is the Left critique of liberal tolerance.  And it is a substantial critique, and certainly applicable in many circumstances: as when corporations start using the language of tolerance to create a picture meant to counter the fuller picture of the way they treat their employees, or the way Black people are truly  treated in local law courts.

In fact, the best statement of this argument I’ve ever encountered came in an episode of a British TV series, “Blind Justice”, which was modeled on a notorious and deadly IRA bombing in a Birmingham tavern.  The barrister assigned to defend the alleged bombers finds out that the cell leader actually has an unbreakable alibi, and rushes to inform him: “all you have to do is get on the stand and tell the Court, and we’ve got the documentation to back you up.”  “No,” says the defendant, I will not take the stand!” “What,” says the barrister, why not?” “Never,” is the reply.  “For me to testify on my own behalf would be to acknowledge that an Irishman can get justice in a British Court.” No more than an accused Black man can expect justice in a White-dominated court, when striving for exceptions absolves the reality of domination, as Brown incisively puts it.

However, there are two serious difficulties with this  as a general statement of principal.  The first is its abstraction.  It’s not clear what exactly is being tolerated by liberal tolerance. What is the subject matter of the Marcuse/Brown complaint?  “Liberalism,” apparently. But if we are to avoid relying on liberal tolerance, what are we to put in its place?  

Marcuse’s suggestion that the oppressors should be prosecuted (by whom?) is breathtakingly naive. Brown, and her collaborator on this project, Slavoj Žižek, are more straightforwardly resisters against the status quo, of inequality; but even so, how does non-tolerance hasten that goal: who against whom?  What is missing here are the specific  needs and interests of real people, who disappear beneath the weighty concepts of “repression”and”domination.”

Should members of a truly active Left never invoke the First Amendment for their own protection or that of their comrades?  Or conversely, never defend the civil liberties of reactionaries, as the ACLU has done?  I have a confession here: I resigned from the ACLU over its position in Citizens United, defending the First Amendment rights of big donors  as though spending money were an instance of “speech” that liberal principles should protect. That was because their version of “free” speech was “breathtakingly naive,” not to mention heartless and obfuscatory. 

On the other hand, who dissented from the majority opinion?  Every “liberal” on the Court, agreed with the concurring opinion of John Paul Stevens that the decision was an attack on democracy.  Does his opinion deserve the strictures of Marcuse and Brown? This question brings up the second and  more concrete diffulty with the anti-liberal argument of the Left. 

Wendy Brown and I are both members of the Coastal multi-cultural elite, or however today’s insult is couched. We are certainly not among the “less powerful.” The latter aren’t professional academics teaching (or having taught) at high-class institutions of learning.

But at the same time, neither are  we, among “the dominant.” The second difficulty, then, is that it’s not easy to say at whom this criticism–of complacency about being among the dominant–might be aimed, in that it’s understanding of the social order is now, I fear, wholly anachronistic. (Thus the passage about dominance is from Regulating Aversion: Tolerance in the Age of Identity and Empire, published in 2006).

Rather, in the United States today liberal democracy is under siege. Equality before the law is under siege.  Women generally, but especially poor women and non-White women, are under siege.  The concepts of social justice and the Rule of Law are under siege.  Persons whose gender or sexuality do not fall under  the social or religious vision of the theocratic neo-Fascists are under siege. “Free and fair” voting is under siege. Most of all, people who do not carry deadly weapons around are under daily threat from people who do; what’s the economic value or the social class designation of an AR-17?

At this juncture, therefore, those who  practice or preach  “tolerance” are  labeled as hypocrites by the neo-Fascist (or Neo-Nazi) Right precisely because that language implicitly (or explicitly) functions as a critique of autocracy,  male hegemony, and the bigotries of orthodoxy. So Kendall was right after all–the liberal tolerance of Mill is indeed incompatible with the orthodoxy, not of “community “, but of exclusion, persecution, and the celebration of violence.  

As a socialist and a feminist, I cannot conceive of an approach to social justice that does not condemn, without respect for or tolerance or recognition of,  those “monstrous” ideologies and actions. But this stance in no way implies the complacency of satisfaction with the injustices of capitalism or neo-colonialism.  

What,  though, of the Right’s invocation of words like “hypocrisy,” and “elitism,” to characterize the practice of liberalism? Why do I say that Left and Right seem to share a view of liberalism that’s anchored in a conception of class-consciousness, when we and they come from such different positions in the political milieu?  

The answer here is given in the third and lesser-known essay of the Critique, by the sociologist Barrington Moore. In it he takes exception to Mill’s glorification of “free speech,” according to which truth will eventually win out in the arena of debate. (This assertion later became the guiding belief of Justice Holmes, in his defense of free speech “for the ideas we hate.”).  And his response–which has become the major intellectual battleground in today’s assault on democracy–is that the  moment when “scientists” or other students of empirical reality recognize a “truth” is the moment when it becomes, pace Mill, undebatable.  

Liberalism, that is, is not neutral on the value of science and its methodologies or historical writing and its documentations. It is not just pro-tolerance, but also and necessarily pro-truth:  and thus the scientific approach to the empirical world, when properly applied is comme il faut. Creationists, e.g., are wrong: to teach their doctine in any class on biology or statigraphy, etc., is to lie to their students.

When a supposedly religious doctrine becomes inseparable from irrationality and is at war with the status of the rational, what are we to do?  Some years ago – at a colloquy on democracy in fact –I came across a book of essays on creationism, edited by a high-school teacher of biology, who insisted without equivocation that anyone teaching that doctrine in a “science” class (such as her own) should be fired. Indeed.

That is the way I feel, to take a familiar example, about the doctrine that the fetus is “ensouled” at conception and therefore…therefore I consider that anyone who proceeds from that doctrine to the punitive doctrine it supports in today’s politics is indeed an enemy of not just of rationality but of human decency, and should never be employed in any institution dedicated to knowledge (as opposed to dogma).  A liberal should–and will–defend their right to speak, but nothing more than that; to teach in a place of learning that promotes their views without getting public support, all right; but never voluntarily given a platform in public education. 

All in all, the ideology of liberalism depends for its force on the rejection  of, intolerance toward, all social and political beliefs that depend for their standing on the falsification of the world. What the Bigot-in-Chief of Florida calls “woke” is nothing more than the truth about race and racism–much of which depends  on verifiable truths.

So liberals can give their overt assent to conventionally honored buzzwords such as “family” and “community,” and their sympathetic attention to those who live and die by those concepts; but when push comes to shove, liberals cannot give equal respect to patriarchal families that oppress women, or to communities that practice bigotry and exclusion. Liberalism is hopelessly cosmopolitan in a world of parochialisms; tolerant of every deviation imaginable but scornful of intolerance, even when intolerance of one kind or another is the way of life of the ordinary person; respectful of religious diversity but unable to respect dogma or fanaticism. So be it.

To return then to the critiques by Marcuse and Brown: how and whether such  actions and messages should be tolerated, whatever that might imply, is a  question, to take a much-discussed contemporary issue, that is not in any way illuminated by analyzing the class position of Trump voters in the last two Presidential elections, but rather by returning to the exposition of Barrington Moore, which turns out to be more relevant to current politics.. 

What we know, in short, is that the usual measures of working-class SES identity (Socio-Economic Status) take a back seat to exposure to higher  education as an indicator of political affiliation and the ideas supporting it. This has been true for decades (see the analysis by Lewis Lipsitz in Philip Green and Sanford Levinson, Power and Community1970). It marks what is now the familiar specter of “culture” rather than “income” as a perceived mark of social status, and thus the primacy of anger at what has come to be felt as disdain and neglect by less-educated workers.

That outcome  is also the a direct statement  of Moore’s that liberal tolerance ends where knowledge begins, an outcome never imagined by Mill. In this version of social ordering, there’s apparently close to a 45 line from education to rationality  And that puts an advocate of liberal tolerance such as myself on the spot.

The liberal position now becomes exactly what Kendall said it must be.  Tolerance of the intolerant is a contradiction in terms. It lasts only until the moment when the intolerant one picks up a gun; or passes a law such as the abolition of abortion rights, or promotes deadly weaponry as a social good, or insists on some religious basis that the totally false is what’s true. In that sense tolerance in general is a an ideology looking for a subject matter. That is the first conclusion of a critique of pure tolerance.

The second conclusion, that follows from the first, has quite a different salience. Marx and Lenin were wrong about the nature of domination; and so are Marcuse and Brown.  “The State” is not merely an ideological superstructure built atop the  material reality of  an essential or fundamental class struggle.  It is condensed power, and how that power is used, and by whom, that often determines the contours of our history. 

Thus the neo-Nazis who see contemporary progressivism as a shell game run by the Jew George Soros reveal the nature of politics when a state is  in the hands of what is still best described as “The Authoritarian Personality.”  You put on a MAGA cap, get hold of a semi-automatic rifle and an ammunition belt, run for County Commissioner, and start implementing ways to keep black people from voting. The goal is to destroy the liberal democratic state. It’s the long-run goal of wealthy persons devoted to keeping their wealth and not much else: you get the boil of your hatred lanced; they get the policies that they want.  Two classes, one goal, one autocracy. Who are the “dominant”or the “repressive” is up for grabs.

Not only does the State matter, but so too does the behavior of institutions. Not every capitalist society impinges on its inhabitants in an identical manner. To return to the letter I opened  with, there is nothing in  common between the promotion of DEI, and the abolition of DEI.  As for the former course of action, who is harmed in any concrete way by inclusion, or equal rights, or diversity; by non-discrimination, in other words.? No one. The latter, though, directly  implies an intention to discriminate. An Ivy League Philosopher ought to know better than that.  

Philip Green is a former member of the editorial board of The Nation. He taught political science for many years at Smith College. His most recent book is American Democracy: Selected Essays on Theory, Practice, and Critique (2014). His blog is Taking Sides.                                                                 


Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

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By Michael Ruse: Anti-Vaxxers And The Covid Crisis: The Sorry Story Of The Pernicious Influence Of A Pseudo-Science

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By Firoze Manji: Amílcar Cabral And The Politics Of Culture And Identity

By Andrew Feenberg: The “New” Lukács

By Bill Fletcher, Jr: The Continued Relevance Of W.E.B. Du Bois, Sixty Years On

By Philip Green: On Liberalism

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By Kurt Jacobsen: John Nichols, I Got Mine: Confessions of a Midlist Writer (Albuquerque: High Road Books, 2022)

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By Sarah Kamal: Eben Kirksey, The Mutant Project: Inside the Global Race to Genetically Modify Humans Bristol: Bristol University Press, 2021.