Wednesday, July 06, 2022

A classical liberal confronts left-modernity

I've just read an interesting piece by Eric Kaufmann, titled "Liberal Fundamentalism: A Sociology of Wokeness".

Kaufmann is a classical liberal who believes that liberalism took a wrong turn and is responsible for some of the worst features of what he calls "left-modernism".

This starting point means that Kaufmann's analysis is different to that of mine or, say, Patrick Deneen's. Deneen and I argue that the problem with liberalism stems from core aspects of its philosophy, including its understanding of freedom as maximum individual autonomy. The more that liberalism is true to itself, the more apparent will be its failures.

Kaufmann, in contrast, defends a liberal ideal of freedom as "negative liberty", i.e. the right to do what you want provided you don't interfere with the same right of others. As nice as this might sound, it lacks a concept of the good that a society might uphold and it is particularly weak in upholding significant goods that require trust and cooperation (e.g. communal traditions, family commitments). It is difficult to assert the existence of worthwhile objective goods in a society that limits itself to the formula of negative liberty, as there will be pressure on individuals to hold their beliefs as pertaining only to themselves, i.e. as subjective preferences only.

Nonetheless, there are aspects of Kaufmann's analysis that are useful for traditionalists to consider. Kaufmann has written a book, The Rise and Fall of Anglo-America, which traces in some detail the intellectual shifts that produced the modernist mindset. He is therefore in a relatively strong position to describe the distinct inputs of liberalism and Marxism into modern day woke culture. He also has an interesting account of how small numbers of activists are able to swing things their way within institutions. 

It is Kaufmann's view that liberalism was the original impetus for the left-modernism that reigns today. Marxism did also have an influence, but it came later. Kaufmann asserts that liberals have developed an identity that is in conflict with liberal principles. This identity emerged in the later 1800s and is focused on a contrast between minorities in need of protection and majorities who are thought of in negative terms as potential oppressors. Kaufmann sees this minoritarian outlook as forming the emotional reflex of modern day liberalism:

The emotive pairing of majority with malice and minority with empathy began this way. What started as a modest habit of mind has deepened into a reflexive demonization of majorities and lionization of minorities, which is the “elephant” driving the “rider” of contemporary left-modernism.
According to Kaufmann, this reflex has its origins with liberal Progressives such as John Dewey and Jane Addams, and freethinkers like William James and Felix Adler. They began to adopt a cosmopolitan outlook, which by 1910 had influenced the Federal Council of Churches. The avant-garde in Greenwich Village are perhaps the first, though, to sound truly like modern leftists. Randolph Bourne, for instance, in 1916 was already pushing the idea that Anglo-Americans had no culture, unlike vibrant immigrant cultures. Bourne wanted Anglo-Americans to give up their cultural identity, but urged the immigrants to retain theirs.

This is where Kaufmann's analysis becomes particularly interesting:
The result is what I term asymmetrical multiculturalism: ethnicity as wonderful for minorities, poisonous for majorities. This contradiction in the worldview of the left-modernist bohemians established a minoritarian, anti-majority mold which occupies the very soul of today’s woke culture.

This asymmetrical multiculturalism is especially pronounced in Australia. Most prominently, you see it in the different treatment of Aborigines and Anglo-Celtic Australians. Leftists will stridently defend Aborigines as an ethnic people, with a long and proud history and with an enduring culture. Robert Manne, for instance, who describes himself as belonging to "the pro-Labor social justice liberal intelligentsia" once wrote about the Aborigines that,

...if the traditional communities are indeed destroyed, one distinctive expression of human life - with its own forms of language, culture, spirituality and sensibility - will simply become extinct. Humanity is enriched and shaped by the diversity of its forms of life.

This is true, but when it comes to other peoples the "pro-Labor social justice liberal intelligentsia" takes the very opposite view. If an Anglo-Celtic Australian were to defend his own traditional community along the same lines he would be thought to have committed the moral crime of racism, or even perhaps of white supremacism.

There is no rational or reasonable justification for the double standard. Kaufmann may well be right that it has its origins within liberal history but has subsequently taken on a life of its own by forming part of the emotional identity for the modern left:

Yet once the emotional valences had crystallized, the world became a much simpler place, where reflex rather than logic ruled.

The phrase "emotional valences" is important here. It means having an emotional aversion or attraction to a particular event or situation. The emotional valences for liberals came to be focused on the minoritarian identity. This makes a lot of sense to me: you just have to consider what is presented to us in the mainstream media or in classrooms - the aversion/attraction axis is often set up around such issues (think too of the oddness of women being classed as a minority group).

Kaufmann next discusses the distinction between Marxism and progressive liberalism in the mid-twentieth century. He notes that Marxists were for a time unreceptive to liberal minoritarianism because they envisaged an uprising by the working-class majority. At the same time, progressive liberals were put off by the doctrinaire politics of the Marxists.

This changed when the New York intellectuals abandoned Marxism at the time of the Stalinist show trials and gravitated instead "to an expressive liberal-cosmopolitan utopia". However, they brought with them the "purity tests" characteristic of Marxist groups and this, in Kaufmann's view, is the origin of woke cancel culture. 

The weakness of a genuinely conservative movement in the 1940s meant that there was little effective opposition to the growing influence of the left-modernists; the growth of the universities in the 1960s brought a new "knowledge class" which further aided the movement.

The attacks on WASP America then broadened into a hostility to white America more generally. Kaufmann summarises the contributions of liberalism and Marxism this way:

This development, it should be stressed, originates not with Marx­ism but with liberalism’s minoritarian sympathies and anti-majority ethos. In effect, liberalism’s categories of majority and minority cultural identities were plugged into socialism’s oppressor-oppressed terminal, filling the blank slots left by the bourgeoisie and the pro­letariat. While those who point to wokeness as a cultural form of Marxism are partially correct, these influences came later, and ferti­lized a preexisting liberal matrix.

Which leaves one great question unanswered. If much of politics is about the carrying over of liberal forms of identity, and of the expression of emotional valences, how do you go about changing things? Pointing out inconsistencies in liberal thought might be effective for a small number of people, but it doesn't directly confront the unprincipled arena of politics.

Kaufmann points out one of the difficulties that exists within liberal institutions, namely that a small number of more radical "moral entrepreneurs" will often set the terms:

Whenever an institution like a uni­versity or newspaper comes to be mainly populated by the cultural Left, value consensus is assumed and left-modernist moral entrepreneurs rise up to “outbid” others in their commitment to communal values. Even where centrists rather than extremists are dominant, appeals to the liberal identity—in which minorities carry a positive valence while majorities are viewed as threatening—are tricky for moderates to morally contest.

This is insightful. I have witnessed it over and over in my own workplace. When you have value consensus, i.e. it is simply assumed that everyone adheres to the same liberal values, including the minoritarian moral reflex, then a small number (even just a couple) of radicals can push things ever onward, even if they are juniors. There cannot be an "adult in the room" to stand up to them, not even their superiors who theoretically have the power to do so, because opposing the more radical implementation of the values would break the larger moral consensus.

So what does Kaufmann think can be done? He notes a weakness of woke morality, namely that many people feel compelled to go along with it in public, whilst not genuinely following it privately:

This produces Timur Kuran’s “private truths, public lies” in which public reality becomes the performance of a lie. The best the majority can do is to drag its feet or change the subject in the hope that activists will go away. They won’t.

On the one hand, the woke system is like the emperor’s new clothes, a fragile illusion waiting to be exposed. A critical mass of open dissenters can set off a cascade in which fence-sitters move, con­vincing the next set of undecideds, and eventually exposing the entire racket. Desacralizing wokeness is therefore partly a matter of suffi­cient dissidents raising their voices until a tipping point is reached

This is a little too hopeful. Some people do genuinely absorb the woke mentality. I've observed seriously Christian women who, gradually over time, enthusiastically embrace woke causes even if they directly contradict Biblical morality. I have also heard women say that they enjoyed listening to oppression stories: I think they enjoyed the emotional experience of feeling pity and outrage and empathy and were not very interested in independently researching whether these stories had any merit.

Nonetheless, Kaufmann is right that the aim is to break the consensus. There are perhaps two ways to do this. One would be to create parallel institutions. The other would be to launch a challenge from within existing institutions. The latter strategy is achievable, but would need more than "one brave individual" as Kaufmann puts it (I have tried this with zero success). It would need at least several people within an institution to carefully coordinate their actions to put the values consensus in question.

A useful point Kaufmann does make is that status matters in challenging the consensus. Appealing to patriotism or religion won't work, as these have been consigned as low status by the educated middle-class people powering wokeism. Kaufmann thinks it a good sign that edgy comedians have begun to push back (e.g. Chapelle, Gervais) and I would add that it's a positive sign that a growing number of academics are now challenging the modernist path. 

I'll finish by summarising what I think are the two key points in Kaufmann's article. The first is that most liberals do not act according to a formal theory, but according to an emotional valence, in which minority culture and rights have a reflexive moral and emotional appeal, whereas there is reflexive aversion to the majority culture. This liberal narrative developed fairly early on in liberalism's history:

When liberalism was about metaphorically slaying despotic elites, its narratives were grounded in ideas of “the people,” like democracy and nationhood. Once liberalism turned from defending the rights of disenfranchised majorities to protecting minority rights, the narrative shifted. When it came to the rights of Catholics and Jews (in Protestant countries), racial minorities, or homosexuals, the “bad guys” were the majority, who menaced minorities in need of protec­tion. 

Second, there is a logic by which a very small number of more radical liberals are able to successfully push their agenda in institutions through an appeal to a values consensus.

I don't believe that this explains all of the dynamic of liberal modernity, but it does seem to me to be part of it and it therefore needs to be understood. For instance, liberals have had many decades now to promote the aversion to the majority as a moral and emotional reflex. It has been so intense that even a three-year-old Australian girl is reflexively averse to her own existence:

How do we battle on this front, particularly when we do not have much influence over the levers of popular culture? There is clearly a need to promote a more positive reflex, but this isn't done as a matter of winning formal arguments, but of promoting achievements and a positive narrative.