Liberalism gets a pretty bad press these days. That shouldn’t bother me too much – as an ex-Marxist, left-wing agrarian populist now swelling the ranks of the petit bourgeoisie in my capacity as a propertied small-scale farmer, it’s not a political tradition that ought to move my soul. Yet I feel the need to put finger to keyboard and offer a few mild words in its favour in the light of John Michael Greer’s latest gleeful epitaph for liberalism. And – talking of epitaphs – I guess this post stands as an epitaph of my own for taking Greer’s political analysis seriously as anything much more than another iteration in the long and inglorious history of right-wing populism.
Let me outline a few aspects of Greer’s article. He starts by suggesting that liberalism is now in the throes of a terminal decline, after dominating US politics for two centuries. Then he reviews some historical aspects of US liberalism, focusing in particular on the abolition of slavery, the prohibition of alcohol and the improvement of women’s legal status. These, he says, shared a common theme in configuring politics as an expression of values – a new departure in politics, which hitherto had been a more instrumental business of ‘to the victor, the spoils’, in which those who were elected distributed political favours to their supporters. Greer then warns us not to be judgmental about this older and more instrumental approach to politics, because that would involve ‘chronocentrism’ (others call it ‘presentism’) – judging the past by the values of the present.
Greer proceeds to analyse the way that liberalism went about installing its more-or-less egalitarian values with respect to race, gender and class historically within the US state, despite other values-based political challenges from left and right. Then he says that the tacit US policy of allowing unlimited illegal immigration impoverishes “wage-earning Americans” – something that he claims you can’t say “in the hearing of a modern American liberal” without “being shouted down and accused of being a racist”. He postulates that this is because liberalism is dominated by the affluent classes, who “benefit directly from the collapse in wages that has partly been caused by mass illegal immigration”. Ironically, then, a movement that began by advancing values over interests has ended up using values (anti-racism) to mask interests (economic preferment of the affluent over the working class). And this, he says, is its death-knell, because such easily-detected subterfuge destroys the doctrine’s credibility.
Let me work through this. I have to begin by noting that terms like ‘liberal’, ‘conservative’, ‘progressive’ and the like are so accreted with complex and contradictory meanings that it’s very difficult to identify any coherence to them for analytical purposes, a point that Greer himself has expounded as well as anyone. But I think there’s a necessary distinction between ‘liberal’ referring to those who believe in the need for a substantial equality of all people undergirded by the state, and ‘liberal’ (or ‘neoliberal’) referring to those who believe that private markets should be free to allocate goods and services as they will. I won’t cavil at Greer’s history of US liberalism as a basic account of liberalism in the first sense – except in his claim that liberalism involved a novel injection of values into instrumental politics. Because the fact is, going right back to the first complex agrarian civilisations of antiquity, politics has always been about values. The idea that might makes right rarely works for long as a political project. Rulers have always invested their power with a larger sense of legitimacy extracted from the sphere of values, and although that process admits to a certain amount of manipulation (the ‘real’ interests behind the ‘ideological’ smokescreen of values) in truth the interests, the ‘real’, are moulded by the values, the ‘ideological’, emptying the real-ideological distinction of meaning.
Machiavelli’s The Prince was among the first ‘modern’ works of political philosophy. Its cynical view of power – rulers should do whatever works best to prolong their rule – invited almost immediate censure after its publication in 1532, precisely because it advanced interests over values. Actually, Machiavelli was a subtler thinker than his villainous reputation suggests – a large part of his analysis was devoted to political corruption, which he defined as a politics of pure self-interest. J.G.A. Pocock’s influential book The Machiavellian Moment argues that the founders of the independent USA, attuned for obvious historical reasons to the dangers of particular interests overcoming the general interest, framed the politics of the new country in terms of classical ideas of republican virtue lifted from Machiavelli’s ruminations on statecraft1. If it’s true that actual US politics quickly degenerated into the instrumentalism of ‘to the victor, the spoils’, it’s not committing the sin of chronocentrism to say that this was a corruption of the republican ideals of the time.
So prior to 1812, Greer’s take-off point for the rise of US liberalism, politics was every bit as soaked in values as it later was under a liberal guise. Much of Greer’s article is taken up with a discussion of what those liberal values were, but I think a more important point concerns what liberalism has had to say about the form of politics rather than its content. And in a nutshell, that form is – argue your point peacefully, using reason; if you lose, accept that you’ve lost peacefully, with grace; and don’t intrude on things politically that have nothing to do with public wellbeing, such as the private pursuits of the individual that affect no one else. In order to realise that political form a lot of work was needed to create a public sphere where people met as citizens and equals, and could expect even-handed treatment by the state. What united the struggles over slavery, gender, class and race wasn’t the fact that they brought values into politics but that they sought to create a universalist public sphere. And, clearly, some semblance of that public sphere must have been there in the period of supposedly instrumentalist politics Greer identifies prior to the emergence of liberalism – otherwise nobody would tolerate losing an election and not getting their share of the spoils.
Let’s now turn to Greer’s indictment of contemporary liberalism for invoking racism as a cloak for class privilege in the context of immigration. No doubt this occurs, though I suspect more among members of the neoliberal business class whose politics are ‘liberal’ only in a rather restricted sense. But the liberals I think Greer probably has in mind are more of the left-leaning, public sector salariat kind. I’d guess that these folks may be a bit insulated (though for how much longer?) from the kind of market ‘discipline’ that has ravaged the wage-earning working class, and I’d guess too that some of them may be a little unaware of their class privilege. Still, I’m not persuaded by Greer’s argument that such people invoke racism to silence debate about their class privilege. I think they invoke racism because racism is usually worth invoking whenever somebody claims that the immiseration of ‘wage-earning Americans’ has been caused (wholly or ‘partly’) by immigration. I think they invoke it because the real cause of immiseration among ‘wage-earning American’ and illegal immigrant alike is a racialized global labour process that pits different segments of the working class against each other and works against their common interest to unite against economic exploitation – an economic exploitation that has doubtless affected ‘wage-earning Americans’ more than the average liberal, but has also affected illegal immigrants more than the average ‘wage-earning American’. That is the context in which blaming immigrants for the erosion of economic wellbeing tends towards the racist.
It also tends towards the analytically vacuous. For one thing, the racialized globalization of the economy is a neoliberal project, not a project of the ‘liberals’ in the first sense of the term I outlined above who appear to be Greer’s main target. But more importantly, what is Greer actually saying – that liberal politics has failed in practice to deliver liberalism’s highest ideals? Well, no doubt – but the same is true of socialism and conservatism in relation to their ideals, and of right-wing populism too, if it has any. No modern political programme has succeeded long-term in delivering widespread prosperity and economic growth without prompting social conflict and environmental degradation. Highlighting supposed hypocrisy among contemporary liberals does not amount to a persuasive analysis of liberalism’s failings as a political doctrine, or even as a contemporary political movement.
Still, there’s no doubt that liberal politics is in crisis and, for all its partiality and superficiality, maybe Greer’s account does help explain the rise of populist figures such as Donald Trump as an alternative claim on the working class vote. So, given Greer’s empathy for the travails of the US working class, I continued reading his article, waiting for the killer paragraph that would go on to nail the fanciful idea that Trump truly represents the interests of the low waged.
It never comes. Instead, you get this: “Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, in stark contrast to Clinton, have evoked extraordinarily passionate reactions from the voters, precisely because they’ve offered an alternative to a status quo pervaded by the rhetoric of a moribund liberalism.”
Maybe other people can help me interpret this sentence. Donald Trump certainly offers an alternative to the rhetoric of a moribund liberalism inasmuch as he offers a rhetoric all his own. I don’t suppose you could call it a ‘moribund’ rhetoric either, if only because such proposals as to improve the lot of the working class by building a wall to keep out Mexicans were never alive in the first place. But let’s be clear – a President Trump won’t build that wall. And even if he does, it won’t keep out illegal Mexican migrants. And even if it does, it won’t significantly alter the larger forces in the global economy conditioning the situation of the US working class, which is where any serious analysis aimed at improving that situation has to start. As David Roberts has argued, Trump’s rhetoric is wholly geared to dominating whatever argument he’s embroiled in. It has no referents to real-world policy.
However, I don’t think Greer is just saying that Trump talks a better game than the liberals. In that sentence he seems to be saying that Trump (as well as Sanders) has some kind of actual political programme that will benefit the working class. Donald Trump, champion of the precariat. Seriously?
When I wrote a previous critique of Greer’s fondness for right-wing populism, I was admonished for supposing that he was any more taken by it than by liberalism – rather, I was told, he sees the whole sorry mess as exemplary of the kind of wholesale cultural decline foreseen by Oswald Spengler. OK, but then where are the articles excoriating the decline of US politics across the board? From FDR to Hilary Clinton would be one story to tell. From Abraham Lincoln to Donald Trump would be another one just as good. Or bad. For me, Greer’s relentless, one-eyed skewering of liberalism alone from the perspective of a kind of working-class ressentiment places him firmly among the right-wing populists2.
But Greer’s personal politics aren’t the main point I want to stress. Though I don’t think right-wing populism has much going for it, and I’m not persuaded that Spengler’s thought has a whole lot going for it either, I agree that a ‘decline of the west’ of some sort is probably underway. The kind of words that resonate in Greer’s political writings are ones like ‘moribund’, ‘decadent’, ‘shopworn’, and I think these accurately capture something of our contemporary politics. But I suspect that in the future a lot of people will look back nostalgically to our present ‘moribund’ and ‘decadent’ politics. Because what matters more than whether right-wing populism, left-wing populism, liberalism, or any other political doctrine represents the best diagnosis of our times is the relatively safe space of the public sphere in the west within which these politics are debated – a public sphere formed to a large degree in the crucible of liberalism, and one that’s threatened when would-be politicians start suggesting that they may not respect the outcome of elections, or that it’s the ‘real people’ of the country who really matter. Populist critiques of liberalism come ten a penny. More to the point are post-liberal critiques of populism.
Greer writes that the post-liberal politics of the future is going to be a “wild ride”. The metaphor betrays a buried liberal presupposition. A wild ride is the kind of thing you have at a theme park – scary and unpredictable, perhaps, but not truly fearful because you know that ultimately someone with your wellbeing at heart is controlling the parameters, allowing you essentially to be a spectator of your fears. In western politics, that someone has for a long time been the liberal public sphere. But it probably won’t outlive liberalism – in which case post-liberal politics won’t be a ‘wild ride’. It will just be wild, and therefore truly scary. Spectating will not be an option.
Ah well, as Joni Mitchell so perceptively sang, “Don’t it always seem to go, you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone”. And as Bert van den Brink wrote, albeit not quite so lyrically, liberalism involves tensions and conflicts which are “tragic insofar as they confront [it] with the dilemma that in trying to reach for its highest aim – letting the interests of all citizens in leading a good life matter equally – it sometimes cannot but undermine this very aim”3. That is, despite trying to uphold the equivalence of all values, liberalism has to define itself normatively against illiberal political positions. Van den Brink’s point isn’t that liberalism therefore involves contradiction and should be jettisoned. By that logic, we’d have no politics at all – doubtless a tempting prospect for those weighing up the choice between Clinton and Trump, but not ultimately a feasible position to take. His point instead is that we should learn from liberalism’s contradictions and try to create a better politics that’s aware of these predicaments. All political positions, I think, involve tragedy in the sense of plural and irreconcilable moral imperatives. As Machiavelli recognised, the better ones acknowledge their contradictions and make the best they can of them, rather than papering over them in service of particular interests. In contrast, superficial forms of populism represent a kind of political Gresham’s law – bad politics chase out the good. Which is why in the present Machiavellian moment of western politics, this particular left agrarian populist will stand with the liberals for the public sphere and against the Trumps, the Greers and all the other cheerleaders for a simplistic right-wing populism.
- Pocock, J. 1975. The Machiavellian Moment, Princeton Univ Press.
- I can’t claim to have read his oeuvre in its entirety, however. If anyone can point me to a more even-handed political analysis by Greer, I’d be grateful.
- Van den Brink, B. 2000. The Tragedy of Liberalism, SUNY Press, p.6.