Liberalism’s Greatest Critic
George Scialabba is an unabashed admirer of socialism who believes that economics is as much a political question as a mathematical one. He has little patience with the idea that there is a “free market” that must be allowed to operate without political intervention or moral principles. In an earlier day, this would have been enough to strike him from any good conservative’s reading list. What about price discovery? Spontaneous order? Creative destruction? The right’s ideological gatekeepers would at one time have barred Scialabba from conservative publications or attempt at finding common ground. It is perhaps a hopeful sign that the intellectual disarray of conservatism provides an opportunity to consider friendly critics like Scialabba anew.
Scialabba has become an increasingly visible presence among the cognoscenti, writing for the Atlantic and N+1 on a range of political and literary subjects. A native of East Boston and Harvard graduate, Scialabba fell out with the Catholicism of his youth in college—after an affiliation with the strict practices of Opus Dei—over, as he tells it, his reading of modern intellectual history. He has never been an academic or a professional journalist or editor. Indeed, he credits even the ability to write as he does to the fact that he has a day job unrelated to the vagaries of small magazines and editorial politics. This gives his writing a practical edge and a widely accessible style.
What’s more, Scialabba comes from a rapidly diminishing line of liberal critics of liberalism. In the Age of Obama, no one wants to notice that liberalism is the party in power and its concerns have become largely cultural—favoring certain privileged classes—rather than economic. For liberals of Scialabba’s stripe, that needs to be corrected. As Scialabba puts it in his careful evisceration of Stanley Fish in these pages: “The debunking of liberalism is urgently necessary.”
But it is a particular kind of liberalism that deserves debunking. This liberalism is the posturing of celebrities who opine about injustice while they benefit from the commercialization of culture; it’s the ideology of business concerns that use culture wars to prevent the populace from noticing their servitude. There is in Scialabba’s analysis much with which to disagree: no conservative, for example, could accept his prioritization of materialism over ideas as the driver of culture, for example.
Yet Scialabba recognizes progress’s trap: in his consideration of the anti-progressivism of D.H. Lawrence and Christopher Lasch, he writes, “every liberation can be captured and exploited. We had better stay inside our own skins—and even, perhaps, within traditional social forms—until we are sure that it’s safe to discard them.” Nevertheless, where a conservative would defend such traditional social forms, Scialabba sees them only as protection for the “squalid, savage-looking peasant”—in the words of Henry James—who has not yet been enlightened, as Scialabba was, by On Liberty and Middlemarch.
For the Republic is an explicitly political collection in which, through studies of a number of thinkers, Scialabba lays out his indictment in characteristically graceful prose. Given their origins as reviews and short essays, only a few of the pieces here allow Scialabba to really expand his cultural critique. Nevertheless, we get from his choice of subject matter a sense of where his sympathies—and antipathies—lie. These essays range from reflections on the 2000 election and considerations of heroes (Orwell, Christopher Lasch, Ralph Nader) and villains (Irving Kristol, Fish) to an overall concern with what Scialabba sees as our nation’s “long descent into soft authoritarianism and cultural debasement.”
Moreover, he has a healthy impatience for what Russell Kirk might have called “defecated rationality.” In an essay on Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel and competing theories of justice, Scialabba comments: “Correct reasoning can help us define and discriminate among our obligations. But without humane feeling on our part, no obligation will have much force. Solidarity and generosity are the root of the matter, not Socratic dialectics, however, stimulating.” This neglect of solidarity and generosity includes our treatment of economics: capitalism dominates democratic politics and allocates power to those few who set the public agenda and “manufacture popular consent.”
Traditional conservatives share some of the central points of this diagnosis, which is what makes Scialabba one of the few liberal critics worth reading consistently. He is far better, for example, than Christopher Hitchens (another hero) on American culture. Scialabba does his part to further a cultural critique that is the left-wing version of the “middle American republicanism” fostered by writers like Bill Kauffman. Scialabba shares with Kauffman a fondness for Gore Vidal—for both, Vidal is America’s novelist of empire, and of its costs. In his condemnations of crony capitalism, Scialabba finds common cause with conservatives like Timothy Carney. And he has praised Wendell Berry, the localists’ lodestar, in interviews. In his critique of Sandel he writes, “it is not our theoretical confusion that renders us passive and condemns billions of our fellow humans to needless agony; it is our indifference. Where there’s a moral will, there is a political way.” That is awfully close to a left-wing defense of what Russell Kirk called the moral imagination.
One need not overplay the similarities. Scialabba and I once had an exchange in which he separated himself from what he saw as Kirk’s antiquated traditionalism. He is no conservative, for reasons best explained in a personal essay where he distinguishes his rational humanism from the ‘“amoral familism” of his Sicilian background. For a conservative, preference for one’s kin over abstract humanity and a suspicion of authority—especially governmental authority—are features that protect people from tyranny and encourage human flourishing. And as one who shares the Sicilian heritage, I have a more favorable view of that world and don’t think bloodless British utilitarianism or the bloody history of the French Revolution necessarily the better choice. But Scialabba’s critique is valuable precisely because he reminds us that this view can be harmful to the civic culture that is Europe’s great achievement. That civic culture is based on a level of trust of strangers and market relationships that an amoral familism, unchecked, can destroy.
Contrary to Scialabba’s usual commonsense approach to economic justice and inequality, a couple of these essays indulge in the left-wing fantasy of completely reworking society. If only we could have proportional voting or “sortitionism” or massive new social programs—this time properly funded!—things would work out. He also displays on occasion a too-generous view of some rather sinister figures. One can defend, for example, a humanitarian agenda on the part of the world’s great powers in favor of aiding poorer nations without relying on the musings of Peter Singer, who has little interest in protecting defenseless infants.
What is missing from these essays is the same thing that is missing from a lot of right-wing paeans to capitalism: a sense of scale. Our national conversation is predicated on the assumption that centralization and nationalization are best, and whether different structures might be suited for different levels of society is rarely considered. If socialism (or capitalism) is good for one community, it must, therefore, be good for a nation of 300 million. This failing is not Scialabba’s fault—the authors he discusses are captive to the same nationalist dream. But it does limit the areas in which he might make common cause with conservatives. His disdain for the amoral familism of many of his fellow citizens tends to diminish confidence in his faith that the “real” democracy he champions will prevail.
Yet that Counter-Reformation papistry with which the undergraduate Scialabba wrestled leaves its mark on these pages still. These writings reveal the same struggle to reconcile the demands of those closest to us with our obligations to our fellow man simply by reason of our common humanity. Many conservatives find a balance in religion and tradition. The author of For the Republic, fully aware of that approach, has taken a different path, one imbued with enough humanity and decency that conservatives need to understand its appeal to otherwise sympathetic thinkers like George Scialabba.
Gerald J. Russello is editor of The University Bookman.