Saving the Liberal Brand, Research Time, 25/11/2016

I’m not talking about the Liberal Party here in Canada, though I might spin out a Sunday post if I have time this weekend about the debate that’s been stirred this week on the future of Canadian public broadcasting. That’s for another time.

Also, I want to see the next few days of yelling in the media about it, to see what new trajectories of public conversation emerge from it. Where our popular opinion seems to be going.

Liberalism as a program of practical governance is in crisis. We're seeing
what I hope is the climax of a process of decadence. Liberalism's
superficial public image of social progressivism is an increasingly
inadequate response to real political conflicts and problems.
I’m talking right now about my relationship with liberalism as a political philosophy and broader social morality. And how it’ll function in Utopias. It can mean many things in our popular culture and conversations. But I’ve talked a lot about liberalism on this blog.

Specifically, think about everything I’ve written about Robert Nozick, Freidrich Hayek, and other elements of the libertarian tradition. Liberalism as politics today is in a weird, fallen, broken state.

Libertarian thinking is the last branch of liberal politics with any idealism or popular energy at all. Every other path of mainstream liberal politics is either hopelessly corrupt or is so wedded to muddling consensus thinking that it can’t deal with true challenges.

You know, like mainstream centrist political parties. Take the Democratic Party in America as an example of corruption. Their leadership is a self-absorbed closed circle of professional electioneers and party staffers.

The Democratic Party of Hillary Clinton, Donna Brazile, and Debbie Wasserman-Schultz is so obsessed with their high-level power brokerage that their entire grassroots electoral machine has collapsed.

This years Presidential election in America was the picture-perfect
narrative of liberalism's collapse in the face of nationalist politics. Hillary
Clinton's public image as the principle-free middle ground of inoffensive
good and stable governance (at the best of times) proved inadequate to
the rise of nationalism in the United States.
The federal Liberal Party in Canada is in a similarly hypocritical position, even though they’re in a dominant position. Justin Trudeau and his party was elected on a platform of socially progressive values. But they’re turning away from all of the most meaningful reforms to the Canadian state that they promised. As well, they’re continuing the destructive fiscal and military policies of the Harper years.

Mainstream liberal political thinking also depends on a principle that can’t work as politics, especially in a volatile, dangerous time like the 2010s. That principle is reconciliation at all costs.

This is an idea I found at the heart of a book of essays by Chantal Mouffe, The Return of the Political. They were written over the 1990s, criticisms of mainstream liberal politics at a time when liberal capitalism was so triumphant in global politics that some called it the end of history itself.

The end of fundamental conflicts over the nature of the human project. We had settled on our human project, and it was called liberal democratic capitalism. Of course, that didn’t work out for many reasons. One of them is this fundamental flaw in the practical actions of liberal politicians.

The common joke today is that the far left is the side obsessed with political correctness, and that political correctness is nothing but the profusion of feathery technical talk, replacing more ordinary language for discussing race and gender. And the punchline is that all this is to avoid upsetting people.*

Liberal politics can't really deal with radical nationalist politics like the
politicized racism of Richard Spencer and the alt-right movement.
Liberalism in state politics is about smoothing away and minimizing
differences for the sake of co-existence. Yet the only co-existence
possible with alt-right nationalism – which explicitly calls for
ethnically cleansing the United States of non-white people – is to
accept its program, but to smile while you deport millions.
* No, not as a long-running experiment in different ways to talk to each other and live together in ways that don’t cause systematic discrimination. That would just be silly.

The irony is that this is what mainstream liberal political principles are all about. The principles that drove Bill Clinton and Tony Blair’s economic policy approaches – the “Third Way” between socialism and piracy capitalism which ended up enabling the worst piracy capitalism in human history.

Smooth away differences, goes the mainstream liberal philosophy. Split the world into the public realm of politics and the private realm of individual autonomy. Identify every piece of identity, ideology, and idealism that could conceivably cause conflict between people, then put it in that private realm.

Leave the public realm, where legitimate political discussions happen, to the topics where people generally agree. Here’s a typical example of good liberal public politics. Business is good, and while we can disagree over which policies make for a productive business environment, those technical differences over stuff like interest rates and securities law won’t ever become existential threats.

The decadent liberal politics of today is the pursuit of omni-partisan consensus. The only legitimate mainstream political voices become those who already agree on enough fundamental principles that conflict becomes impossible. But this isn’t peace and justice in society. It’s sweeping problems under the rug.

Never thought something as arcane and dull-as-shit as securities law would become an existential crisis in your society? How about when your securities laws that were produces of that omni-partisan consensus become the conditions for what was almost a global economic collapse? Like eight years ago.

We democrats will need to engage, refute, and fight the ideas of radical
nationalism. Which means we have to study radical nationalists, know
them better than they know themselves so we can learn best how to
defeat this force forever. If only I could find an English translation of
Aleksandr Dugin without ending up on a watch list. I only want to find
it so I can know our enemy.
The liberalism of omni-partisan consensus can’t even deal with problems that come up in a country’s arcane and technical financial laws. It’s completely fucked trying to deal with radical nationalism, mass scale racist targeting of war refugees, or religious fundamentalism.

All these movements fundamentally disagree with consensus liberalism because they refuse to accept its standards for consensus.

Nationalism refuses to accept that notions of ethnic identity have no place in politics. A huge wave of desperate war refugees puts the entire consensus about citizenship and who deserves the care of the state into question. Religious fundamentalism explicitly politicizes the demands of people’s divine laws.

Liberalism is bankrupt in the face of these problems. We can see that obviously now that all these problems have erupted throughout our society. So it’s interesting to read these essays from Mouffe and see her making these exact criticisms at the moment of liberalism’s apparent triumph.

What’s necessary are looking at how she discovered a liberalism that can actually take on our current challenges of extremism and justice that were embryonic 20 years ago.

I’m going to get into this idea over the next few posts.

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