- The American Conservative - https://www.theamericanconservative.com -

Liberal Critics of Liberalism

Slouching Towards Utopia: Essays & Reviews, George Scialabba, Pressed Wafer Press, August 2018, 224 pages [1]

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 A world where Angela Davis gets awards rescinded for being insufficiently progressive and prominent liberals are protested at commencements is very different indeed from the heady 1960s and 1970s.

Advertisement

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.”

change_me

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 [2], “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.

10 Comments (Open | Close)

10 Comments To "Liberal Critics of Liberalism"

#1 Comment By Kent On January 21, 2019 @ 7:50 am

There is a small branch of folks, myself included, who claim to be conservative, but believe in small government. Small government doesn’t mean a weak government, only that power and spending should be vested in the closest government possible: municipalities and counties, not states and the federal government.

We inherently distrust an organization that is so vast and distant that it doesn’t have to see the pain it causes. In that sense, we distrust big government, big business, big labor, and big military.

Scialabba would be welcome in my conservative world. We would find our differences were minor in comparison to our agreements.

#2 Comment By marku52 On January 21, 2019 @ 12:03 pm

Kent: Why do you think a small government can regulate big business? The idea that the free market can successfully regulate corporate behavior has been rather catastrophically disproven.

Now perhaps, if labor had countervailing power similar to capital’s, then maybe smaller government would work. But again, that government needs to be large and powerful enough to guarantee labor’s rights.

#3 Comment By Bonehead647 On January 21, 2019 @ 4:05 pm

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.”

I won’t argue with the thesis that mass production – A.K.A “La Machine” – has transformed many of us into apathetic and ignorant consumers. Even so, I suspect that the word “largely” is the key word here. The following passage from Emerson’s “Self Reliance” indicates that the problem is much older than we may think:

The civilized man has built a coach, but has lost the use of his feet. He is supported on crutches, but lacks so much support of muscle. He has a fine Geneva watch, but he fails of the skill to tell the hour by the sun. A Greenwich nautical almanac he has, and so being sure of the information when he wants it, the man in the street does not know a star in the sky. The solstice he does not observe; the equinox he knows as little; and the whole bright calendar of the year is without a dial in his mind. His notebooks impair his memory; his libraries overload his wit; the insurance office increases the number of accidents; and it may be a question whether machinery does not encumber; whether we have not lost by refinement some energy, by a Christianity entrenched in establishments and forms, some vigor of wild virtue …

But when did these “establishments and forms” begin to enervate us? The first two words — “civilized man” — provide the clue. The great transformation of humankind began long before the industrial age.

In the second part of his Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, Rousseau argues that metallurgy and agriculture were the catalysts for a great transformation, and I suspect that these two discoveries have shaped modern life more than mass production — indeed, I suspect that the latter is but a further development, or rather an intensification, of the former. Take away the metals with which we build our machines, take away the means of efficiently feeding those who both operate and benefit from these machines, and the industrial age would never have occurred.

Let us keep in mind that mass production is not the only wyrd that has beset us. In this respect we would do well to meditate on the first part of the Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, in particular Roussea’s comparison of man in his natural state with socialized man. When the two are placed side by side, the latter is revealed as a weak, fearful, and servile creature. Is this a far cry from the passive, apathetic, ignorant consumers to which Scialabba refers? Who among us — we who are “civilized” — has not turned his back on nature? Who has not suckled from society and its comforts as “un débauché pauvre qui baise et mange / Le sein martyrisé d’une antique catin”?

#4 Comment By Mintcondition On January 21, 2019 @ 5:32 pm

Kent: You say:

“We inherently distrust an organization that is so vast and distant that it doesn’t have to see the pain it causes. ”

This is ironic since historically, it is often state and local governments which are most corrupt, most beholden to special interests and political bosses, most authoritarian, and most likely to cause pain.

You also say “In that sense, we distrust big government, big business, big labor, and big military.” This is absurd. For example, do you want an effective military or a smaller, useless one? And of course, originally, the founders of America distrusted standing armies and navies. The size of the military was not an issue.

The real issue is how to best get an effective government. Some insist on seeing size of government as a proxy for efficiency, but this is incorrect.

#5 Comment By Mark VA On January 21, 2019 @ 5:40 pm

Excellent article, Scialabba makes a lot of (common) sense!

I think the concepts such as “Conservative”, “Liberal”, “Libertarian”, etc, have outlived their usefulness. Today they either distort, or illuminate our present situation less and less;

I favor Positivist and Romantic (not to be confused with mere Romance) frames of reference. Of these two, there are healthy and pathological varieties;

For example, in my book, the crusading political Transgenderism is pathologically Romantic. The gender dysphoria that seeks psychological or psychiatric help is Positivistically healthy.

#6 Comment By DRZ On January 21, 2019 @ 8:09 pm

The author writes, “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.”

Where the author says, “individualistic,” I’m inclined to say, “narcissistic.” Still, all the more reason for me to read Scialabba. Good thing I still haven’t used that $100 Amazon gift card yet.

#7 Comment By Thrice A Viking On January 21, 2019 @ 9:04 pm

It seems to me that Scialabba is a progressive who isn’t a liberal, rather than the reverse. Marku52, I agree that big business needs either big labor or big government – or both – to be properly regulated. But what if the big government saw to it that as many large businesses as possible were forced to cede most of their authority to local branches, rather than the top-down approach prevalent now – and then got out of the way of the local authorities, would that work for you?

#8 Comment By marku52 On January 22, 2019 @ 11:51 am

Good idea. It might be that the only large fields of government required inside the country would be:
Pollution control
Worker Safety
Very robust Anti-Trust.

#9 Comment By Fran Macadam On January 22, 2019 @ 1:07 pm

“Very robust Anti-Trust.”

Given that Big Government’s main purpose is to dispense lucrative favors to Big Business, its donors and owners, oh yeah.

#10 Comment By C. L. H. Daniels On January 22, 2019 @ 1:46 pm

We inherently distrust an organization that is so vast and distant that it doesn’t have to see the pain it causes. In that sense, we distrust big government, big business, big labor, and big military.

Hallelujah. It’s “big” that is bad, not government. Big business is quite as bad as big government, and possibly worse.

Now perhaps, if labor had countervailing power similar to capital’s, then maybe smaller government would work. But again, that government needs to be large and powerful enough to guarantee labor’s rights.

I see the problem differently. We need big government as a reaction to and check on the excesses of big business. No more big business, less need for big government (and big labor!). Ergo, the solution for both liberals and conservatives is to make antitrust great again and break up all the big businesses into chunks that can be regulated far more easily and at more local levels, and that don’t have overwhelming power in both labor and consumer markets. Then you’re free to start shrinking the federal government’s oversight role, apart from antitrust enforcement which must needs remain both watchful and powerful.