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Liberalism Going Forward

Liberalism Going Forward

What’s becoming apparent to anybody without some form of clinical myopia is that American liberalism is struggling to deal with certain broad political developments. Consider societal virtues characteristically American—public, often free form political discussion; individualism; egoism; checks-on-power; short-lasting and directly-elected representatives—these things are not conducive to a fast-acting political system and consequently make our “American Experiment” not particularly well equipped to handle recent forces such as the biblical COVID-19. The real problem, though, is that other systems of government are well equipped.

For instance, lacking certain (in this case) restrictive American principles, China was able to effectively control the virus through a combination of mass surveillance and quarantine measures implemented quickly from the top-down. China behaves very much like an animal, willing to self-amputate limbs if caught in a bear trap. There are no questions of principle in the liberal sense, no considerations of rights, and any “communistic” principles espoused by the government are spurious. Cold, systemic efficiency—this is what the Chinese government advertises with its authoritarianism, this is what it believes in, and it’s already using this efficiency to gain clout on the world stage by mass producing medical equipment.

China is emblematic of a phenomenon Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek characterizes as the end of the marriage between democracy and capitalism. China exhibits in idiosyncratic ways forms of capitalism —whether it be Chinese billionaires or venture capitalists—unmarred by authoritarianism. How can liberal capitalist nations respond to Zizek’s “problems of the commons” such as COVID, or ecological destruction? It’s clear that individual-oriented responses to these issues are specious—most fossil fuel emissions are the product of merely 100 companies, who remain entrenched in the legislative system, and a hands-off approach to the pandemic is currently failing in several states. Illiberal capitalist countries can always point to their aforementioned animal efficiency. What will liberal countries do when, facing imminent ecological destruction, Chinese-style authoritarianism is seen as the only viable method of fast action?

Smug, turgid defenses of liberal values which idealize theoretical virtues but mask an underbelly of elitism and hypocrisy do no good. Reflect on arguments given by Steven Pinker, and Adam Gopnik. Where do they leave us? All they do is laud liberal values of tolerance and enterprise, forever looking back on “’formal’ victories of liberal democracies” as opposed to “the lived experience” of many people. Where is the urgency to acknowledge the failure of liberal countries regarding, say, the devastation in Yemen? Or to acknowledge the United States’ complicity? Where is the addressal of arguments which fueled right-wing momentum in 2016? The most recent American reactionary movement and its subsequent mainstream manifestations (Bannon et al.) are reactions to real problems—the withering of the American rust belt as a result of globalization, America’s perceived failure to maintain a hegemonic position, the failures of liberalism with respect to social mobility, etc.—that offer false solutions. Trade wars and performative, petulant diplomatic shenanigans are not going to re-establish American liberalism as hegemonic. But the points outlined by many liberal apologists are trite.

A detractor may claim that here I’m just stating problems without providing solutions. This is unequivocally correct. The analysis is descriptive, not prescriptive. I’m writing this piece as all politically plausible (meaning election-winnable) solutions to these problems, both internal and external to liberalism, fail to hit the mark, opting for either lip service or suicidal death-drive nihilism. Members of the younger generation are scared—it’s an abstract yet ambient terror that people my age feel talking about the state of the art so to speak with respect to liberalism and the sustainability of capitalist democracy.

When forced, however, by circumstance to engage with these problems prescriptively, the correct response is not to advocate for knee-jerk reaction or to settle for apologetic self-assurance. It is not immediately obvious that there are quick solutions, and I advocate for a brand of armchair theorizing which may be derided as unpragmatic by some in support of the aforementioned clinically myopic positions. But this piece is highly interrogative because asking questions is important. Simply identifying the problems, taking them seriously, and engaging with them theoretically is a step above-and-beyond a large number of both those championing liberalism regardless of its faults and those offering regressive solutions via nativism and blatant ignorance.

If liberal capitalism is to survive the century then it must confront itself, expand its imagination, and most importantly stop being overconfident and cavalier about its ability to self-correct in dire straits. Because with daunting alternatives clambering up over the horizon and making jarring amounts of headway, even after the triumphant and meant-to-be-epochal victory of western liberalism at the end of the Cold War, certainty is an intellectual sin.



Alexander Scherman

Alexander Scherman is an undergraduate student at the University of Chicago. He is studying Philosophy, Linguistics, and English. For article inquiries and blog discussion he can be reached at: [email protected]

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