Liberalism in theory and practice

“Liberalism dominates, but without confidence or security; it knows that its victories at home are tied to disasters abroad; and for the élan it cannot summon, it substitutes a blend of complacence and anxiety. It makes for an atmosphere of blur in the realm of ideas, since it has a stake in seeing momentary concurrences as deep harmonies. In an age that suffers from incredible catastrophes it scoffs at theories of social apocalypse—as if any more evidence were needed; in an era convulsed by war, revolution and counterrevolution it discovers the virtues of “moderation”…Liberalism as an ideology, as “the haunted air,” has never been stronger in this country; but can as much be said of the appetite for freedom?” – Irving Howe

One of the major points of division between liberal and left thinking, it seems to me, is evident in how each side perceives liberal democratic institutions and how they function in practice as opposed to theory.

A particular memory from grad school comes to mind. I recall participating in a discussion of John Rawls’ political thought that after half an hour or so felt completely divorced from reality. It wasn’t that those assembled didn’t understand Rawls – on the contrary, they were incredibly knowledgeable about his work and the innumerable theoretical debates surrounding it. What struck me was that they were discussing these debates in tones that strongly implied contemporary political institutions actually, albeit in varying and imperfect degrees, embodied the idealized speculative versions sketched out in Rawlsian and other neo-Kantian thought.

This is visible in more banal, less esoteric contexts too. A big part of what animates mainstream liberal opposition to the Trump administration – let’s call it the hashtag resistance – is an underlying notion that American institutions more or less functioned harmoniously, or at least in a manner not completely dissonant with what they’re supposed to be on paper, before Trump and his brigands crashed the gates.

The general left view of liberal institutions, on the other hand, is a lot more pessimistic about how they actually work and, in particular, how they work relative to what liberal intellectuals have told us we can expect from them – furthermore to what extent they can conceivably be expected to fulfill even their most basic assigned functions against the backdrop of a political and economic system in which “democracy” has such narrow applicability.

Oddly enough, this all came to mind because of some work I’ve been doing around employee pension plans in Canada – among the biggest and most profitable companies criminally underfunded despite huge dividends continually being paid out to shareholders since the financial crisis. As we’ve recently seen with Sears, this means that the pensions of a huge number of Canadian workers aren’t safe and could more or less vanish into thin air if their employer suddenly goes into insolvency. Why? Because shareholders at big companies have been allowed to cannibalize billions of dollars even if it’s meant worker pension plans run deficits in the hundreds of millions. Even in the wake of the Sears debacle, the reaction of Canada’s Liberal government has been extremely tepid. Justin Trudeau, our great and progressive leader, has said “his heart goes out” to laid off workers at Sears but nothing about concretely guaranteeing pensions in the future and has uttered not a single word of censure towards Sears executives and the bonuses they’ve received despite crashing one of the country’s flagship retail chains (and biggest employers). His Finance Minister, meanwhile, wants to help employers permanently shift potential liabilities onto workers by replacing Defined Benefit Pension plans altogether.

I bring this up because it seems like such a clear demonstration of liberal institutions’ structural inadequacy but also their failure to reflect the basic principles of economic pluralism and democratic representation we’re told they exist to guarantee, expand, and protect. Here you have a clear and present issue of basic justice, around which there are strong incentives for the government to act – the Liberals, after all, talked about protecting pensions in opposition, and a visible move on behalf of ordinary people’s retirement savings would undoubtedly be popular – and the best a supposedly progressive, liberal PM with a massive parliamentary majority can offer is his best wishes.



Liberalism without the left

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.


The British general strike, 1926

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.