Liberal Critics of Liberalism
George Scialabba continues to work in a political-literary vein almost forgotten in our partisan times. Along with Todd Gitlin, Thomas Frank perhaps, Jedediah Purdy (who introduces this volume), and a few others, Scialabba is a liberal without being progressive, in solidarity with workers against the capitalists rather than “woke” activists aligned with corporate interests, and respectful of tradition while also criticizing the past’s faults.
The last two years have seen a drastic realignment of conservatives, where the stranglehold free-market and interventionist conservatives had has been loosened. Arguments from traditionalists such as Russell Kirk are being heard once again, and new voices are rising against Conservatism, Inc.
But the debate among liberals is just as interesting, if not more so, because of liberalism’s own dominance over the media, academia, and entertainment. They are fighting in public, whereas conservatives mostly argue in the corners of the internet. A new generation of activists and progressives disdain the liberalism espoused by their once-radical elders. A world where Angela Davis gets awards rescinded for being insufficiently progressive and prominent liberals are protested at commencements is very different indeed from the heady 1960s and 1970s.
This new progressivism is sincere, but largely performative. It is too often in service to an individualistic view of the self and lacks the solidarity Scialabba sees as one of the strongest points of the Left. Resistance is a workers’ collective, not a world in which choice—mediated by corporations and advertising—is king. Identity politics are no help here either. Indeed, to Scialabba, they are part of the problem because they are too easily coopted by capital: “Identity politics are an essential component of neoliberalism, the extension of market relations across borders and into all spheres of life. …When rewards are assigned efficiently in proportion to merit, then not only is total output maximized, but the winners feel no qualms about the plight of the losers.” Corporate power sees no distinction between funding diversity efforts and pursuing profit, becoming “woke” through advertising.
This collection covers what may broadly be called questions of political culture. Like the best philosophical critics, Scialabba wants to know how we can live our common life with dignity and justice. He considers writers like Ronald Dworkin, Christopher Lasch, Yuval Levin, Michael Sandel, and others to probe how best to achieve public goods. The goods Scialabba advocates, it should be obvious, are not aligned with mainstream conservative goals. And one can argue with Scialabba’s romance with a non-market economy in which redistributive justice has pride of place. The “utopia” toward which we are slouching is remote indeed.
But perhaps not that remote. In an interview republished here, “America Pro and Con,” Scialabba praises the “vigorous self-assertion of working classes and small proprietors, which I think as close to mass democracy as the world has come, was transformed, largely by the advent of mass production, into a mass society of passive, apathetic, ignorant, deskilled consumers.” That vision would attract not a few Benedict Optioners, and not only them.
Scialabba has harsh words for Republicans—the free market Paul Ryan types and the later MAGA incarnations. These comments are less interesting, and not just because they are unsurprising. It is more because Scialabba realizes the problem is more nuanced than just bad Republicans. Most of the elite Left and Right is in thrall to capital, and he can be as harsh on liberal autonomy as any conservative. In an essay titled “Ecology of Attention,” which discusses Simon Head’s Mindless: Why Smarter Machines are Making Dumber Humans and Matthew Crawford’s The World Beyond Your Head,he writes: “Seeing past this liberal model of individual autonomy might also mean recognizing that consumerism can have civic consequences. Just as atmospheric fine particles can clog our lungs and impair our society’s physical health, an unending stream of commercial messages…can clog our minds, fragment our attention, and, in the long run, impair our society’s mental and civic health.”
Drawing on a long left-wing tradition, he disputes the liberal capitalist view of people as those who simply seek to maximize their own individual gain (in wealth, pleasure, or status, for example). Rather, he says we are “situated beings” with our own pasts. In a perceptive, sympathetic piece on Leszek Kolakowski, the “Conservative-Liberal Socialist,” Scialabba catalogs the failings of “existing socialism” that the Polish philosopher so ably described. However, Scialabba cannot find much in that critique today. Soviet socialism may have been rotten, but the liberal capitalism that has been triumphant since the 1980s in the West “has seen the rampant financialization of the economy, the pulverizing of organized labor, a drastic increase in economic inequality, the capture by business of the regulatory system, and the growth of the national security state.” Scialabba instead reaches for the anti-capitalist and anti-Stalinist Left as a possible source of solutions for these ills. But the problem with this resort is the same as the neoconservatives’ attachment to an abstract capitalism. The dominance or liberation of private life by the state is no longer the most pressing issue: media (especially social media) and the supremacy of the “self” against all forms of community are the new challenges.As Shadi Hamid has written recently, “It is difficult to think of a time less suited to Marxist economism than the current one.”
But back to Kolakowski. Scialabba nevertheless praises him for his willingness to be a debunker of the debunkers, rejoicing in his affliction of “the comfortable unbeliever.” Although Scialabba cannot ultimately follow Kolakowski either in his political or religious beliefs, nonetheless he praises Kolakowski for two things: the skepticism that allowed him to break free—and break others free—of the illusions of totalitarianism, and a recognition of the limits of that skepticism. Scialabba concludes that “as he continually reminded rationalists, the skeptical impulse can’t be sustained indefinitely or directed toward everything simultaneously. We need traditions too.”
It is premises like these that make Scialabba interesting to conservatives. Because beginning from those premises Scialabba goes in directions conservatives typically do not follow. Because he opposes liberal capitalism, he is fond of unions. Because he believes we cannot completely extract ourselves from our cultural, ethnic, and religious inheritances, ingrained injustices must be recognized and remedied. Because he believes we are situated beings with traditions, we must construct an economic system that serves our nature rather than invent abstractions that we then serve. A defender of America’s middle-class (described here, in reviewing a book by Alan Wolfe, as on the whole “generous, trusting, and optimistic”), nevertheless he faults them for being too gullible in responding to the call of capital and the military-industrial complex. But he also faults the Left for failing to understand that their fellow Americans are, in fact, decent, and, for the most part, tolerant people.
Scialabba might be surprised that he has sympathetic readers on the Right, or even that a form of nationalism might work with his premises. This possible compatibility isn’t to ignore that American nationalism can and has been racist and inhospitable to minorities. But the conclusion that there is an “America” that has meaning beyond being simply a machine to generate GDP (on the backs of workers, perhaps, here or elsewhere) could fit, even if not fully comfortably, within Scialabba’s generous intellectual world.
While not quite a utopia, it would be a start.
Gerald J. Russello is editor of The University Bookman.