Reading over Will’s post about Geert Wilders’ manifesto to save Western Civilization got me thinking. Not so much about Wilders or the actual manifesto, given that I think he is a Class A wackjob, but it brought to better articulation something that was on my mind (vaguely) in the recent dustup between Brs. Freddie and John Schwenkler.
Their debate started on the issue of Campaign Finance but then broadened to an interesting discussion of competing political philosophies. The poor man’s version of that debate goes as follows:
–Freddie pointed out that the best intentioned aim of something like a campaign finance law is to prevent a plutocratic form of moneyed interest dominance in governance. He went from there to say (I think correctly) that libertarianism as a political philosophy does not have built in mechanisms to protect workers/lower classes.
–John then responded (also correctly) by pointing out that the business class would not be interested in a whole swath of other libertarian policies: i.e. no bailouts, tax loopholes, or favored industries etc.
Now at the risk of roiling the waters here, it was my sense that neither of them was really willing to acknowledge the valid elements of the other’s point of view.
And part I think of why the lack of recognition takes place has to do with power. Which brings us back to wacky Wilders. Amidst his xenophobia, racism, and felonious crimes against fashion, he was actually onto a legitimate question, a question which I think will be a very important one for 21st century governance. Namely, at what point does a philosophy that aims for non-coercive behavior and attitudes need to apply coercion to protect the already well-established levels of non-coercion against coercive (illiberal) realities? Is there ever such a point? And I don’t mean this in some fantastical Jack Bauer/Dick Cheney ‘we need some to walk on the dark side’ kinda thing. Nor do I mean in some Mark Steyn hysteria-fest about how the evil Muslims are going to take over Europe and destroy civilization. Nor less the even more ignorant and irrational fear of some worldwide clash against Islamo-whateverism.
There are no Soviet commies around anymore, fascism is dead and gone. The democratic powers of the world are not seriously threatened by some rising league of autocracies. And even the global terrorist threat while able to land horrible attacks cannot and does not threaten the US government–unless of course we over-react in response to an attack and choose a path of soft authoritarianism. [Which btw was precisely Woodrow Wilson’s point about making the world safe for the liberal democracies in existence].
We live rather in a post-ideological age with no alternative economic system to dominant capitalism. So on one level, the question about the degree to which Western governments need to face their own limits to power takes place in a somewhat more relaxed environment. On the other hand given the nebulousness, the ambiguity of this age and its players, it is a somewhat more difficult (and therefore I believe more pertinent) discussion to be had.
By examining one’s own coercion, I mean it both more prosaically (with the plethora of daily level stultifying regulatory nonsense) as well as more dangerously realistic (e.g. to publish or not publish photos of torture?) than the fantastical hyped scenarios.
Modern liberalism from Wilson to FDR to Obama today arose claiming there were (at least) two main holes in classical liberalism (today: libertarianism). 1. Classical liberalism lacked a strong foreign policy, security framework for a world of global trade (that it had helped instituted)* 2. Classical liberalism had no apparatus to protect working classes because of its focus on contractual contexts (e.g. private property) and lack of focus on industrial-working contexts and the potential loss of real freedom that would accrue from the later contexts. To the first modern liberalism offered liberal internationalism. To the second, the Welfare-New Deal Regulatory State.
But both of those came at the cost of a huge increase in governance and the inevitable merger of corporate interests with government interests (and versa vice), what is called the (modern) liberal synthesis. Schwenkler’s point here is valid: once that blob is released from the sewers it will grow and continue to expand.
As but one example, movement conservatism which began as a critique of essentially liberal Republicanism (Rockefeller Republicans) eventually sought to actually implement its ideas (thereby needing to exact force with plenty of coercion to be sure) and in the process became swallowed and converted to the blob itself. Bush and the Republican Congress did not stop the growth of government, its cost, nor its reach. Argubaly people felt they didn’t get competence in their growing beast nor enough bang for their buck and therefore the moveme-cons got booted, imploding in self-contradiction and reduced to nothing more than incoherent babbling.
What I’m trying to get at is that the various liberal traditions, to me, do not come face to face with the reality of their own coercive power. Libertarianism is not surprisingly uncomfortable with the term because it claims its aim is non-coercion. And modern liberalism generally (though not always) ducks the question by pointing rather to other forms of coercion that the state regulatory system is preventing from occurring. Now I’m far too overly generalizing here of course. Also, Freddie and John are as able as proponents of their various positions as you will find; I don’t want it to seem I’m cookie-cutting them. But I think there’s a strong kernel in here to what I’m saying.
Foucault understood that any form of knowledge is intrinsically suffused with power (and coercion). To say that is not to say that knowledge is nothing but the rationalization of power (that’s a very poor interpretation of what Foucault was saying. He was far subtler than that nonsense). I suppose that my adherence to that interpretation is why I get labeled a conservative. Though I learned it from Foucault (not exactly a conservative he), which is why I find myself rather uncomfortable with the label myself.
As much as some of the modern liberal synthesis I think was inevitable given the state of technology/industrialization, John has a real point. The buildup of such a governance-laden world is not without huge cost. Freedoms protected through such governance undoubtedly lead to the loss of other freedoms. Rather than face that dark-side, liberalism tends towards optimism. Whether that optimism is of state regulation (modern liberalism), markets (libertarians), or the National Security State/Military/Democracy (Neoconservative Liberals).
The inability to face one’s own coercive reality–and therefore the intrinsic (though necessary) self-contradictory elements within liberalism–comes I think metaphysically from an ontology of already achieved completeness. A pre-set worldframe in which therefore there is one political position which from all time-space has the widest view, the perfect observational political Archimedian point upon which to turn the entire political world. Even if one believes that we can never fully realize or comprehend or reach that position, it is still assumed to be there. That perfect observational position (called the Myth of the Given in philosophical-ese) is a form of a political salvation-myth. It is not just the perfect view, the final one right political position which one then defends from attack and undercuts all others, but is also redeemed of any coercion it must use, any self-contradiction. Hence it is so seductive.
If however there is no there there, no final set cosmological-political order, then choice comes into the fold and with choice, limitation, power, and inevitable selling oneself out in order to achieve anything of lasting value.**
Wilders, like a moth to the flame, was howevering over the right question. But took the ‘easy’ route out of facing what was staring him in the face. He just blamed ‘them’ (the evil bloodthirsty darkies in his case), and heaved all the evil onto their shoulders, quite oblivious to his and quite obvious to anyone with any self-awareness.
I don’t have an answer to this conundrum. More it’s just that I find myself having a very hard time nowadays reading much political that doesn’t reveal any glimmer of awareness this inherent double-bind. Recognition of this bind comes from realizing the space undergirding the space in which we argue.
* A possible retort on the security front would be Kant’s work on Perpetual Peace or Leibniz’s discussion of a pan-European political entity (in the 17th century!!!) but both of those arguably are much more in the small ‘r’ republican tradition not the liberal one. See Daniel Deudney for this distinction.
On the regulatory side, one could return to Adam Smith’s original understanding of a commons and tight regulatory frames laid down the government limiting the scope/reach of the market. In this sense some of the libertarians of today may not be the best followers of their own tradition. Wilkinson’s liberaltarianism attempts to revive Hayek’s version of a social safety net thereby combining the freedom side of libertarianism with the safety net of liberalism. For that frame tp be sufficient I think requires a Neo-Commons.
** This would be a whole separate post to explain, but in short, my cosmological view comes from A.N. Whitehead who I think came closer to balancing freedom (liberalism) with a tragic sense. A tragic sense to life which he saw through the beauty and the pain that all of us always perpetuate since all life in his understand had consciousness. Therefore to live required killing. But even Whitehead was somewhat afflicted with this Geertian dilemma as he focused exclusively on “persuasion” and not coercion, a liberal trope that is often unconsciously hiding/rationalizing away its own coercive underbelly.