Mark Lilla and the crisis of liberalism

Samuel Moyn, Boston Review, 27 February 2018

Lilla - The Once and Future LiberalFor an author known for much of his career as a scourge of the left, Lilla’s reliance on Karl Marx to drive his argument is curious. Over the course of the short text, he makes not one but two section-length shout-outs to Marx—and they are utterly pivotal. Lilla appeals to ‘material conditions’ to explain what politics are plausible in any particular time period and—above all—how it was that progressives drifted into an unholy alliance with the right they were supposed to be fighting. Too bad Lilla does not follow through on that insight. If he did so, we would have more of the explanation we need, and the story of what happened between 1968 and Trump would be about economics and politics, and not solely about culture.

‘If an ideology endures,’

Lilla explains,

‘this means it is capturing something important in social reality.’

And in Lilla’s story, it was no accident that the left embraced an individualism—embarking on searches for meaning and obsessed with their personal identities—that atomized the country at the same time that the right championed a parallel economic libertarianism. Identity politics is ‘Reaganism for lefties,’ Lilla says, just with self-absorption rather than self-interest as the rationale. Beaten in their initial demands for a collective justice beyond the limits of the old welfare state, refugees from the 1960s took over the English departments and taught their students not communitarian politics but wounded narcissism.

Lilla is right that material conditions strongly affect the imaginations of reformers, even if they do not determine it. Marx made that point most famously, but it is the common coin of all who believe that no one makes history under circumstances of their own choosing. And we are living in times that force a new acceptance of this truth, even if we conclude that the imagination counts alongside interests (indeed, helps define interests) in the making of social reality. Our economically neoliberal age has shaped many of the most exciting causes progressives have embraced in recent decades, helping to tilt them in an individualist and meritocratic direction. These range from an affirmative action that has tended to help the best-off African Americans (along with recent immigrants and their children who fit the terms of the programs); to a feminism that honors the shattering of glass ceilings for elites but not the stagnation of the lives of middle-class and poor women; to an LGBTQ politics that lifted centuries of opprobrium by appealing to the libertarian instincts of constitutional judges.

Rorty.jpg

Richard McKay Rorty

Indeed, Lilla’s feints toward a politics of economic interests distinguish The Once and Future Liberal from other once-famous analyses and indictments of atomistic fracture and the ‘disuniting of America,’ of identity politics and liberal racism, ranging from Tocqueville himself to Daniel Rodgers or Richard Rorty or Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. But Lilla’s overall story of the United States and the Democratic Party is still far too much about the superstructure (in the relevant terminology). It needs more attention to the base. More importantly, it is too much about the wrong reformers, focusing on the New Left in humanities departments and omitting the actual governmental and party policies that have mattered most. Lilla intuits the limits of his culturalist analysis of narcissism, but he discards his newfound acknowledgment that structural forces matter.

Read the full article in the Boston Review,

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Related

  1. Mark Lilla on Identity Politics
  2. The Once and Future Liberal by Mark Lilla
  3. Mark Lilla – The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics
  4. On Mark Lillas critique of identity politics
  5. The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics by Mark Lilla
  6. The Once and Future Mark Lilla
  7. Censorship and the Liberal Arts
  8. Liberal identity politics
  9. Up for debate – The New Inquiry
  10. Chris Hedges and Identity Politics
  11. Chua, “Political Tribes”

1 Comment

Filed under Economical affairs, Lifestyle, Political affairs, Re-Blogs and Great Blogs, Social affairs, Welfare matters

One response to “Mark Lilla and the crisis of liberalism

  1. Pingback: Academic intolerance for dissenting views is reaching new highs | Marcus Ampe's Space

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