Lately – and probably in no small part due to the US presidential race – I’ve been thinking about the extent to which the robustness of liberalism as a political ideology depends on the forces pressuring it from the left.
Today, when pressed on questions of economic justice, many liberals respond with tired market dogma, redbait, or simply wilt. Some try and conflate a caricatured “political correctness” with “cultural Marxism”, as if class politics are just an organic extension of the cultural politics found today on many campuses (or vise versa).
In the 1960s liberalism was deeply engaged with questions of economic and distributive justice. The patron saint of liberal political theory, John Rawls, wrote a hugely influential book on the subject which even conceded some ground to socialist theories of public ownership (revealingly, Rawls’ second major book – published more than two decades later – virtually abandoned economic issues and instead attempted to reconcile liberal and communitarian identity politics).
The political and economic backdrop for Rawls’ thinking was very different from what exists today: the US (and most liberal democracies) still had relatively powerful labour movements; the civil rights and antiwar movements loomed large; New Deal welfarism had yet to collapse; Keynesianism was still the economic orthodoxy du jour; a good portion of the world was officially committed to communism and Western socialist parties were still present as both a political and ideological force.
By the 1990s liberals no longer had to engage with communism, socialism, or social democracy out of necessity and responded to the right instead. The resulting political settlement combined the neoliberal economic theories ascendent since the 1970s with a cultural politics that broke with conservatives in some respects around issues of pluralism and identity, while globalization and the resulting upward redistribution of wealth continued apace. The social bases and institutional structures that had sustained and empowered the left for generations, so brutally and effectively assaulted by the right throughout the 1980s, withered.
In other words, liberalism seems to be at its most robust when it’s been forced to grapple with a strong and mobilized left for an extended period of time: In the absence of one, it sets itself in opposition to the right (a much easier and more comfortable task); when suddenly confronted with one (as it’s starting to be now), it is unprepared and retreats into tired old truisms and cliches.