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Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Jodi Dean on Michael Bérubé

Posted by John Holbo on 11/08/06 at 08:00 PM

Jodi Dean’s contribution to our roundtable is up here. A bit about ‘how to displace one’s enabling suppositions onto another’:

But, it’s not the kind of supposition of power that liberals typically want to ground their thinking in-instead, they prefer to deny their enabling suppositions, which seems to me to be why they are forced to project these suppositions onto others, and in Berube’s case, onto those he positions on the extremes of left and right in order to insert himself solidly in the middle ...

I’ll let Michael B handle himself here, but it seems to me Jodi makes a classic Zizek slip (which has been made by others before): she points out things that liberals assume as sort of obvious - namely, that liberalism is far from presuppositionless in various ways - and tries to fault liberalism for blindness to these things it perfectly well sees. More later, if I have time.


When a philosophy “presupposes” something, it’s pretty well understood that that something can’t be dealt with from within the philosophy itself; I don’t know what your liberalism looks like, but mine doesn’t assign to power the quasi-transcendental role she’s describing.

Besides that, what does it mean for liberalism to “see” some point of critique?  Does it suffice for one adherent of the philosophy to have heard the argument made against it?  Liberalism isn’t the sum total of all ideas current in a liberal society.

By on 11/09/06 at 03:51 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I was shooting a bit from the hip, Wade. (I wanted to get the link up for our event, then run off and teach all day, which I have now done.) Jodi thinks that naivete about power relations - that is, relations between power and knowledge - is more or less hardwired into liberalism. This I deny. But in denying it I may have sounded like I am assuming liberals all actually believe Jodi’s own favored flavor of power/knowledge analysis. That needn’t be the case, and will probably not be the case. Liberals need not buy any particular semi-transcendental, Foucauldian power/knowledge thing. But, in a general sort of way, liberalism is aware of these worries that philosophies - such as liberalism itself - are or can be, in effect, expressions and assertions of power. (That’s all I meant by ‘see’. You won’t blindside liberalism by approaching from this general direction.) Liberalism does not have perfect solutions to the sorts of concerns this line of thought may raise. Liberalism does not pretend to be a philosophy with perfect solutions generally.

Also, there is that dullest and dustiest of anti-liberal gotchas: liberalism may be intolerant of illiberal intolerance. Yes, yes it may. Quite so.

Also, there’s stuff like this:

“Berube wants a little bit more control over the extremes of wealth and poverty than he can get through liberalism alone, one, and that his social views (pro gay marriage) are more deeply held than liberal thought can account for - he thinks there is something deeply, morally wrong about a view that condemns same sex couples.”

That’s just wrong. If you don’t see how, say, J.S. Mill “On Liberty” is not merely consistent but positively encouraging of these sorts of deep commitments, then you simply don’t understand even the broad outlines of Mill’s view. Jodi is mistaking liberalism for some sort of wishy-washy multi-culty relativism. That’s a mistake Zizek makes, too. He attacks multiculturalism as though this is a good way of scoring points against liberalism. (Not that you can’t hit liberals who are mushy multiculti types. But you have to understand that the two views are continently related.)

By John Holbo on 11/09/06 at 04:45 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I hardly think that Jodi is pointing out the mere fact that Liberalism is ‘hardly presuppositionless’- this, indeed, would be rather banal and obvious. Isn’t it that there are certain specific suppositions that it has to deny. This doesn’t mean, I take it, that individual Liberals, when questioned, would say ‘yep, I deny that I have those presuppositions’; rather, Liberalism itself involves this denial.

By on 11/09/06 at 08:07 AM | Permanent link to this comment

What bothers me about Dean’s essay is that she’s not willing to admit that, say, the Ward Churchill left (like the Minuteman right) *is* in fact irrational. 

You can defend nonrational ways of knowing all you want—and most scientists will admit, for instance, that intuition is as important at the hypothesizing and experimental design stages as analytic thought—but Berube attacks those to the far left and right for their total falsification of evidence, for their complete denial of any standard of proof or argument. 

This is why Dewey is such an important philosopher for me, as he links procedural liberalism with a generalized form of the scientific method—and, in essays like “The Idea of Democracy,” makes the case that certain elements of substantive liberalism are necessary preconditions for procedural liberalism (i.e., you can’t have a free market of ideas when some people in the polity are sick or starving and so can’t express their ideas). 

Ulimately, I’d like to see Dean admit that she wants some centralized elite to make the important decisions governing a polis

By on 11/09/06 at 10:03 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther--I want to see a centralized elite making the decisions governing a polis. The thing is, I don’t want any old centralized elite, but a socialist elite ready to nationalize the auto industries and turn them into public transporation developers over the next ten years, cap all salaries and benefits, install national health insurance, that sort of thing. And, I recognize that this will no doubt lead to excesses--corruption, mismanagement. But, I bet that the corruption and mismanagement wouldn’t be worse than what we have. And, I bet the redistribution of wealth would make a lot of people better off.

I don’t think Ward Churchhill is irrational. And I think Berube’s discussion of him is lame--Churchill ‘s comment about little Eichmanns points to the banality of evil, nothing more or less. What bothers me the most is the way that the term rational is wielded like a weapon. It seems to me more important to demonstrate where reasoning falls short than just to claim that X is irrational. And, I think Berube’s demonstration of Churchhill’s fails because he overliteralizes Churchhill’s remark.

John--I’m not sure it’s productive to start going into a debate about liberalism willy-nilly; that’s why I focused on Berube’s text. On Mill, one of the interesting things in his thought is the tension between his liberalism and his utilitarianism. The latter seems to me more conducive to deep commitments than the former. But, a discussion that isn’t posturing I think needs to be tied more closely to a text.

On power: I take it that liberals emphasize choice over coercion. And, I take it that it is difficult to anchor freedom in choice if the situation of choice is constrained and the faculties necessary for choosing are produced through coercion. This is why, it seems to me, that Foucault and psychoanalysis pose difficulties for liberalism. If, I am wrong and liberalism can happily recognize these constraints, then it doesn’t seem like there is a disagreement.

By Jodi on 11/09/06 at 10:24 AM | Permanent link to this comment

John: “But you have to understand that the two views are continently related.”

Did you mean “contingently” related?  Or should we rev up the analytic vs. continental engine again?  (Oh, let’s do!)

By Dave Maier on 11/09/06 at 12:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Tho’ one might object to Ms. Dean and the Zizekians (and I do), decent reasons there are for objecting to Berube-style PCness and to the traditional Millian variety of populist liberalism. Consider for one, the popular vote, which dems continually assume to be essential to “liberal” politics. One doesn’t have to be Slavoj Zizek to perceive all the problems with a vote. Hobbes, Rousseau and many others--Condorcet, if not Plato himself--understood the absurdities of entrusting political decisions to the mob. Yet the new-school sort of postmods, like most liberals, refuse to broach such practical political issues. Perhaps there are pragmatist-pedagogue types who might ponder such things, but a Deweyan’s innate trust in the populace most likely keeps him from putting forth some workable alternatives to either Pelosism or the Schwarzeneggerian monarchy-lite, such as requiring some bare-bones standard of education for both voters and potential candidates for office (a BA/BS requirement for aspirants to public office, say), or involving the educated public in the legislative process to a much greater extent.

By Uncle Meat on 11/09/06 at 12:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Contingently, Dave.

By John Holbo on 11/09/06 at 07:08 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Jodi, you are right that there is tension between Mill’s utilitarianism and liberalism, but I fail to see why Mill’s liberalism - let’s just peel it off the utilitarianism for argument purposes - should be inconsistent with, or in strong tension with, Berube’s support for gay marriage, let’s say. Why should liberalism entail relativism, or lack of conviction? It isn’t supposed to. Mill actually more or less explicitly contrasts liberalism, at several points, with what you seem to think liberalism is supposed to be. Liberalism isn’t simply ‘indifferentism’.

By John Holbo on 11/09/06 at 07:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Does a math teacher ask for a show of hands for the answer to a trig. problem? No. However obvious that analogy seems, that is democracy in practice (i.e. the popular vote--a type of applied utilitarianism) And yet utilitarians and most liberals (not mutually exclusive terms) continue to think that there is some magic to consensus. And the good = pleasure axiom of act and rule util. is far from some clearly defined principle; not only might a majority define, say, ethnic cleansing as “good”, the consequences of some acts might be incapable of being shown to be “good"--as in many environmental situations (majorities might have defined the Fordian, mass-manufacturing of automobiles as “good” 80 years ago; tho a few modern 405 jams might prove otherwise).  Hobbes rests quite a few steps higher in Elysium than Mill and the gang.

By Uncle Meat on 11/09/06 at 08:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Dear Uncle Meat, your ignorance of Mill is appalling. Also, you are - I believe - the troll of sorrow. That’s two strikes against you. Go, and do not return, and - if possible - do not sin again. At least not in comment boxes.

By John Holbo on 11/09/06 at 08:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

John, you’re no fun anymore.  Besides, some of us want to see a ToS/Jacques A showdown, especially since others of us seem to think the two labels, as they say, co-refer.

By Dave Maier on 11/09/06 at 09:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Jodi, you need to read the published findings of the investigation of Ward Churchill’s CV and research.  He lied about his indian heritage (whatever that means); he falsified evidence; he made up historical atrocities, as if there weren’t enough committed against the native population; and he totally got the 9/11 terrorists’ motivation wrong (they are not anti-capitalist, they are anti-Western, pro-Islamic-imperial).  He also plagiarized.  As Walter Benn Michaels points out in his most recent book, Churchill is against “*both* Marxist and capitalism.” Instead, Churchill supports “indigenism”—which is a thoroughly illogical and moronic position (esp given his own lack of indigenism, and the fact that indigenism would wind up supporting indian casinos while condemning bankers to death).

By on 11/09/06 at 09:37 PM | Permanent link to this comment

John--if we go back to my point regarding Berube, I was emphasizing the fact that he finds something deeply morally wrong with opponents of gay marriage. It’s the depiction of his opponents that I take issue with--the depiction of his opponents as morally lacking rather than as simply disagreeing. This is what bothers me in liberalism: the claim of a moral high ground on the basis of superior reason. So the issue isn’t for that liberals have convictions and this is somehow illiberal. It’s the way they oppose their justification for their convictions against other’s convictions.

Luther--as you know, I was discussing Berube’s book and his discussion of Churchhill. Berube emphasizes the little eichmann’s remark and combines that with comments regarding Churchill’s irrationality (or something like that). He doesn’t address any of the other evidence that you raise to support your view of Churchill as irrational. I don’t agree with your claim regarding the motivations of the 9/11 terrorists (in part because it seems to me that it is difficult to separate the political policies of Western (or, more precisely, the US) governments from support for capitalism (particularly in light of the neoliberal orientation of the World Bank). But, even if I did agree with your characterization, that Churchill would offer another one doesn’t make him irrational. I would need to know more about “indigenism” to know whether I would share the view that it’s irrational.

What might be helpful here is a clearer notion of what rational means or how it is being applied. My sense of Berube’s application was that the term rational could not be applied to anything that he deemed extreme; a view characterized as extreme was by definition irrational.

By Jodi on 11/09/06 at 11:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Jodi, you are opposed to people claiming the moral high ground on the basis of superior reason? But don’t you do this - for example, in your post? You conclude that what you have said “demonstrates how liberalism is a political accomodation and arrangement of power, not a practice of reason or approach to governance rooted in critical deliberation).” By implication, there are other approaches - which you know of - that would be better. By implication, you have a healthier relation to critical deleration than liberals. Suppose I objected that it is self-righteous of you to say such a thing. Would that make sense? I take it not, but then how can your criticism of Bérubé make sense? You seem to be sidling up to the presumption that your view is superior because it wisely doesn’t presume it is superior. (Am I missing something?)

Also, what does Bérubé say that implies that anything extreme was ‘by definition’ irrational? Can you provide a cite for that, or at least an argument that he is committed? Wouldn’t it be more plausible to say: he’s looked at some views and found them to be 1) extreme and 2) irrational.

By John Holbo on 11/09/06 at 11:49 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Jodi, I recently read Berube’s book, and I don’t remember any claims “of a moral high ground on the basis of superior reason”.  He emphasizes the deliberative quality of liberalism, but that isn’t the same as rationality.  He also finds something wrong with opponents of gay marriage, yes, but he does not claim that this necessarily flows from procedural liberalism.  Given his commitment to antifoundationalism, which would seem to preclude the concept of a superior reason capable of deducing moral truths, I don’t think that you’re really addressing his book.

By on 11/09/06 at 11:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

John--why would my statement suggest that I am claiming the moral high ground on the basis of superior reason? That would be to think that critique necessarily has a moral claim in it. It also seems to imply that to criticize someone’s arguments is to say not simply that their arguments are weak but that they have inferior reason. I don’t think these are the same. So, I can, for example, critique Habermas or Agamben or Zizek without thinking that my reason is superior to theirs.

You say that if I think there are better approaches then I have a healthier relation to reason than liberals do and that this is self-righteous of me. I don’t see how you get to this at all. To think one has a better view is not to be self-righteous. To say that those who do not share one’s own view are irrational is (and I don’t think people who disagree with me are irrational).

Berube doesn’t say that these views are by definition irrational--rather, his argument that puts liberalism in the middle produces views at the extremes as irrational.

By Jodi on 11/10/06 at 12:02 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Sorry, Jodi, you have misunderstood the intended reductio quality of my comment. I don’t think it is self-righteous to claim that your argument (your reasons) are better than someone else. That’s just (potentially) healthy intellectual life for you. But I thought you were accusing Berube of being self-righteous just because he, obviously, thinks he is righter than those he thinks are wrong. (And he gives his reasons.) I was trying to bring out the problem with your approach by flipping it back and showing you how you wouldn’t accept your own argument, aimed at you. So maybe you shouldn’t aim it at Berube.

‘Superior reason’ needn’t be a moral claim, as you seem to assume. The phrase is sort of top-heavy, I grant. So let’s lighten it down to ‘better reasons’. If I claim that I have better reasons for my view than you have for yours, I am not making a moral claim (although I am probably patting myself on the back, admittedly.) This is the sense of ‘superior reason’ that is in question here. (It had better be, because this is the sort of thing Berube is talking about.) Turning the point around, if you critique Habermas or Abamben without thinking that you have better reasons for thinking they are wrong than they have for thinking they are right, then it seems to me a bit obscure why you are critiquing them. Critique is a normative (better/worse) sort of business. Not necessarily moral (although often so) but certainly normative.

To put it briefly, if you take seriously your own claim that ‘thinking you have better reasons’ does not equate to ‘self-righteousness’, then I think your critique of Berube collapses under its own weight. Because your only evidence of Berube’s self-righteousness is that he thinks he has better reasons. Right?

By John Holbo on 11/10/06 at 01:00 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Jody Dean, the college professor as intellectual self-pitying Goth.  But wait, isn’t being like, Goth, with all that moping and makeup, just another form of the liberal individualism that I’m like so disgusted by? So I’m disgusted by myself! But you should be disgusted by yourselves too! Why aren’t you disgusted by yourselves!

But no dear, they’re not. They read science fiction and hang out with political scientists. Methodological individualism is, like, their thing. So what you gonna do?

Me? Well Zizek will be back in town in a week or so, staying in my friend’s basement again.  The three of us are going to go out and get drunk. My friend will pay. He’s a millionaire, makes shitloads selling Picasso’s to Beijing. He thinks Zizek and me would get along swell. “You’re both ex communists!”
I’ve never read him but I saw him on Slovenian TV once.

By on 11/10/06 at 01:30 AM | Permanent link to this comment

“Why aren’t you disgusted by yourselves!” But no dear, they’re not. They read science fiction and hang out with political scientists.

Nonsense.  I write science fiction and I don’t believe I’ve ever shot the breeze with a political scientist.  Plus my self-disgust would give Jodi D.’s a run for her money any day.  Goth?  If this is the best ad feminam you can come up with, you may need to try harder.

By Adam Roberts on 11/10/06 at 07:44 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m curious about the basis for Jodi’s bet that her socialist centralized elite wouldn’t leave “us” worse off than we are. Both the empirical basis and theoretical basis for making the bet. How is this not a kind of utilitarian calculus (I’ll bet it would leave us better off on the whole)?

By Timothy Burke on 11/10/06 at 08:56 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Jodi: “Berube doesn’t say that these views are by definition irrational--rather, his argument that puts liberalism in the middle produces views at the extremes as irrational.”

Is that like the middle bear in “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” saying that to have a bowl of porridge too hot or too cool is irrational?

Even in haste to jam the book into a Foucouldian framework, I don’t think that you can ignore the common left-to-right metaphor in politics.  There is a narrative in which liberalism is sort of in the middle—although I note that you ignored Berube’s mention of libertarianism—but Berube did not invent this metaphor.

By on 11/10/06 at 09:24 AM | Permanent link to this comment

You guys are all crazy.

Question for John Holbo:  Have you ever read a critique of liberalism that, in your opinion, hit its target straight on?

By Adam Kotsko on 11/10/06 at 11:18 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Might it be worth re-grounding discussion in teaching *practice*?  It’s child’s play to get a given distinction to dissolve into your favorite totality at a suitable level of abstraction.  But the Michael argument surely does not hinge on a distinction like procedural/substantive being tenable in all frameworks.  It hinges instead on one’s ability to shape and maintain a special space in which certain kinds of communication and exchange are possible, a space that lets us ask questions and hold them open without collapsing into prefabricated positions, that lets us use critical and interpretive tools without constantly worrying that we might end up with a non-standard answer.  (Such a space might just let us see what certain common metaphors for politics elide.)

The Dean review is little more than an obstinate refusal of these distinctions, using Foucault crudely as an absolute rule.  It’s funny—one common worry I hear from some colleagues is (the misconception) that Foucault says we can’t have ethics, Foucault says it’s nothing but power.  Now I know where they’re getting that.

By on 11/10/06 at 01:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Tim--my wager for socialism is a wager, not a calculus. I think it likely to be better, because I think that unfettered capitalism is so deadly and dangerous. But, that’s a wager that could be wrong.

John--I don’t claim that Berube is self-righteous; that’s your word, not mine. My remarks focus on his denying of enabling suppositions, production of his view of liberalism as a middle by rendering extremes as irrational, and turn to love. I understand what we’ve been ‘discussing’ here as having to do with the argument that liberalism is a form of governance rooted in the exchange of reasons (I would call this deliberative democracy, but Berube doesn’t in his text) and depends on liberals arts as a way to teach/develop/inculcate this ability. And, I have 2 major concerns with this--first, the anchoring of the political practice of the exchange of reasons in university practice. I find this illiberal or in tension with liberalism’s reliance on a distinction between consent and coercion insofar as the very subjects of liberalism have to be produced in relations of non-freedom; if liberals say, no problem, then they accept that their notion of freedom or free exchange relies on an underlying concercion. And, if they accept this, I say fine, let’s talk about the ways that coercion is politically productive.

The second problem of the middle--no Berube did not invent the metaphor. He uses it, though, in support of an argument for liberalism as involving the exchange of reasons and those on the right and left as extreme and irrational. So, he doesn’t challenge the metaphor’s applicability today, or say that he is relying on tradition. In Publicity’s Secret, I have a long discussion/demonstration of the ways that political scientists discussions of pluralism relied on the exclusion of extreme views in order to produce a rational middle.

So, Berube invokes ‘the Monty python left, whose credibility is confined to obscure corners of a bunch of college campuases and a string of fringe organizations in major cities....’ He defines campus liberalsas civic-minded and well-informed (and likely to be policy wonks or potential moralists or potential selfless workers in refugee camps). Students on the left ‘become utterly indiscriminate about dissent’; it disturbs him ‘to find young people identifying with the left in such as way as to suspend their critical judgement about leftists who do take it [idea that US action is nefarious] axiomatically. And he worries about those on the left who ‘rally around’ figures like Michael Moore and Michael Parenti “either they will lower their intellectual and moral standards for such figures ... or they will realize at some point in their lives that some people who claim to be on the left are willing to line up with Milosevic in the name of anti-imperalism ...”

Conservatives, Berube describes, in three groups--the intellectually serious, the Bush supporters, and the Christian conservatives. It’s interesting, to me, that Berube defines these political groups with reference to a judgment about their mental capacities and practices. He doesn’t define them by their views. And, this definition then leads him to define the other conservatives as characterized as having a lack of this habit.

The libertarians, for Berube: are ‘generally confused but nonetheless rigidly dogmatic on economic issues, having little or no understanding of what unregulated, scorched-earth capitalism actually entials, and little or no concern about poverty or disability.” There are also the “Ayn Rand fanatics

By Jodi on 11/10/06 at 01:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

JD says: “I want to see a centralized elite making the decisions governing a polis. The thing is, I don’t want any old centralized elite, but a socialist elite....”

Okay, duly noted. Just as long as we’re all clear that this has nothing whatever to do with Karl Marx. It’s a lot more typical of the technocratic ideology of H.G. Wells and the like.

Some of us do still sing “The Internationale” with feeling, and take seriously that verse beginning:

We need no condescending saviors
To rule us from their judgement hall....

By Scott McLemee on 11/10/06 at 01:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Colin--are you talking about teaching practice or about ethics? I think it’s quite clear that Foucault has an ethics (particularly in his last 2 volumes of the history of sexuality). And, to say that there is power in the last analysis is not to deny ethics; it’s to consider the conditions of possibility for ethical claims. You must have misunderstood my contribution to the discussion of Berube’s book--I didn’t say that his account hinges on a distinction between substantive and procedural liberalism. My criticism concerns the move from exchange in a classroom to defense of a particular political formation.

By Jodi on 11/10/06 at 03:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Jody Dean, the college professor as intellectual self-pitying Goth.

Its irrelevance/tackiness/misspelling/etc. aside, this sentence - particularly the well-turned italics at the end there, all disgusted Victorian exhalation - is a damned fine thing.

By waxbanks on 11/10/06 at 05:37 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Let’s try another angle:
When European’s talk about Liberalism, there’re referring to the state of being of the modern bourgeoisie.
“Achh! you’re so bourgeois!” they say.
That’s the basis of every European conversation.
“Good morning”
“Achh! you’re so bourgeois!”
“Achh! you’re so bourgeois too!”
In America at least in big cities when we pretend to like foreigners, we talk about being Liberal instead of being bourgeois, because to attack liberalism seems to imply conservatism, or worse!  That puts people in the position of arguing that Gramma’s manicotti is really not as good as the frozen kind because Gramma was a peasant who went to Church three times an hour while waiting for the second coming, and frozen manicotti is the wave of the future and besides, it feeds the masses, but anyway you don’t eat frozen manicotti because you go to La Maison de la Casa House or some other such for manicotti that is better than Gramma’s and that only cost $40 so why not?  This is modern American liberalism.
“Achh! We must defend the collective!”
“My defense of the collective is better than yours!”
“The defense of the collective which is mine...”

And so your hero is the author of ‘The Selfish Gene” who argues that if the world was made up of atheists Donald Rumsfeld would never have been so stupid. But wait, does Donald Rumsfeld even go to church?  What’s the cure for the man who has faith in himself?
“Achh!! What’s the test for self awareness!?”

“Mature arguments in defense of Social Democracy or any other form of social organization come from the depths of that community and are spoken in its language. That language is proprietary to its people. It is not the language of dreamers and odd men out, or of social scientists and technocrats. Their languages are proprietary to them alone.
Social Democracy is not an invention, it is a fact of social behavior that was first seen in it’s latency, then described, and finally defended. Invention is the dream of Randians, Chicago School Liberals and vulgar Marxists. The Scandinavian “model” is no more of an invention than Swedish.”
“And Esperanto was a failure.”

In all the world Americans are the one group you can count on never to say in response to some absurdity or another
“Achhh! That’s so like us!”
I’ve spent the last months listening to people plan ways to direct the electorate and the country, and after tuesday trying to divvy up the credit and the blame.
The people who succeeded on Tuesday did so not because they were inventive but because they were observant.
If liberalism is the liberalism of Dawkins and the Chicago boys, and the liberalism of those who never look at themselves in the mirror (or those who never look at anything else)
than it has nothing at all to do with the liberal arts, and everything to do with what they oppose.

The election on tuesday was a small victory for Social Democracy because it marked a victory of the logic of convention over the logic of desire. Middle America has changed enough to accept things it hadn’t in the past. The Avant Garde really isn’t needed any more; so what does it do?  What has it done for a while?  It’s gone off to defend itself, technocracy and the elite.
Zizek and me?  Well, we’re just trying, rather awkwardly I must admit, to join the party (small “p")

By Iona Traylor on 11/10/06 at 05:49 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam, of course I’m not saying that no one has ever been able to mount a critique of liberalism that hits its target - its barn-door broad and clear enough. The anti-liberal literature is voluminous. It just seems to me that Jodi is following a pattern familiar from Zizek, for example - a pattern of missing the barn door.

It comes from overachment to acting as though liberals are blind to power relations, or as if liberalism is undone by the fact that liberalism is coercive. Whereas, in fact, liberalism - J.S. Mill, for example - is likely to accept the following two premises:

1) Government is neither necessarily good nor necessarily bad.
2) Government is necessarily coercive.

There are many problems with liberalism, but missing such obvious truths does not appear to be one of them.

Jodi says that her concerns about Berube are: “first, the anchoring of the political practice of the exchange of reasons in university practice.” But why should Berube be doing that? Berube is talking about university practice. And Berube does not take the ivory tower view that what he does in class is completely unmoored from the wider world of politics. How does it follow that he is ‘anchoring’ political practice in university practice? Why couldn’t he just be ‘illustrating’ or ‘making connections’ or what have you; or sayin that liberal arts pratices has ‘family resemblances’ to liberal politics? (I take it he is actually doing the latter, so what is your case that he is really making the university classroom the paradigm for politics generally?)

“I find this illiberal or in tension with liberalism’s reliance on a distinction between consent and coercion insofar as the very subjects of liberalism have to be produced in relations of non-freedom; if liberals say, no problem, then they accept that their notion of freedom or free exchange relies on an underlying concercion. And, if they accept this, I say fine, let’s talk about the ways that coercion is politically productive.”

But it’s trivial that the very subjects of liberalism have to be produced in relations of non-freedom. Adult liberals don’t spring from J.S. Mill’s brow, fully formed. Liberals don’t labor under some pathetic cabbage-patch myth about where adults come from. Children - as J.S. Mill will tell you - are subject to certain paternalistic regimes.  Mill also writes - extensively - about how liberalism needs a culture and society and educated populace of a certain source. You couldn’t just transplant it suddenly to a place where those conditions were lacking.

Now much of this is problematic. It’s not as though there aren’t a ton of problems with J.S. Mill, just sticking with this classic example. I just don’t think Jodi has pointed them out. You cannot helpfully start a discussion of liberalism trying to fault liberals for failing to see that in some sense free liberals are produced out of coercion - they grow out of children, they arise in society. Liberals are familiar with all that.

By John Holbo on 11/10/06 at 08:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Jodi: “The second problem of the middle--no Berube did not invent the metaphor. He uses it, though, in support of an argument for liberalism as involving the exchange of reasons and those on the right and left as extreme and irrational.”

No, I really don’t think that he does.  The “exchange of reasons” does not equate to rationality.  Once again, I think that you’re ignoring the large part of the book that is about antifoundationalism.  I can’t imagine Berube basing his value judgements on some kind of universalist, absolute rationality.

Sure, Berube takes swipes at the “Monty Python left”, at the right, and at libertarians.  In other words, he thinks that everyone except liberals is to some degree wrong.  This should not be surprising; if he didn’t think so, why would he be a liberal?

By on 11/10/06 at 10:49 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Have you ever read a critique of liberalism that, in your opinion, hit its target straight on?

Isn’t this a rather silly question to ask a liberal.  If he thought so, then he probably would not be a liberal.

By on 11/11/06 at 05:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment


I don’t know about that.  There’s a difference between finding a critique to be unconvincing and thinking that the critique is not responding to what it is ostensibly responding to.

It does seem as though any truly “effective” critique of liberalism would then be incorporated into liberalism, at least according to the way John presents things.  (He’s my only source on what liberalism is.  I’m not a liberal myself.)

By Adam Kotsko on 11/11/06 at 06:43 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"I’m not a liberal myself.”
So lets try to define liberalism.
Is it the liberalism that refers to the world as something knowable through reason alone, and that sees knowledge as cumulative and science of one sort of another as the measure?  Or is it the liberalism of the rule of law, which is based on the assumption of limitations and flaws in human awareness. A lawyer in a courtroom is under an obligation not to be objective but to be partial, so that he may be able to play his role in the rigorously formal structure known as the justice system.  A lawyer, under penalty of law, may not partake of the neutrality of an objective seeker of truth.

The Constitution like the Bible is a text.  Basing a system of government on a foundational document seems a rather sloppy way to run a railroad, especially since we all know where we want to go. But the founder and for years the one man band of the Philadelphia ACLU always referred to the ACLU as “a conservative organization.”

“The Liberal Arts” begin as the intellectual and historical study of various modes of craft-making, examples of which are seen as paradigmatic of certain modes of thought.  Intellectuals study objects often made without intellectual intent, but which are acknowledged well after the fact to be flush with intellectual complexity, an intellectual complexity often seen as outshining the works of the intellectuals themselves.  Liberals of a certain sort ask: “How can this be!?”

The rule of science opposes not only the rule of religion, but the rule of law, yet scientific doublespeak runs rampant. The notion, the dream, of objectivity makes as much sense as an ideal for journalism as it does for a courtroom, but somehow it’s accepted. “Meme“ is a weasel-word but somehow has become common usage, while the phrase “mistakes were made“ still comes in for abuse. Why the different reaction? “ideas happen.” “Mistakes Weere made”

Philosophers want to “know.” And they despise systems that allow them only to participate. A lawyer may not be a philosopher in the courtroom any more than an actor may be one on the stage. Those conversations begin after work is done for day.

All of you are liberals of one of these two sorts. Pick one.

By Miki Maus on 11/11/06 at 08:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Scott, right.  Because there’s nothing condescending about liberals.

By Matt on 11/11/06 at 08:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam, it’s a bit awkward perhaps for your one source of info on liberalism to grill you about your sources, but you write: “It does seem as though any truly “effective” critique of liberalism would then be incorporated into liberalism, at least according to the way John presents things.” Why would you think that? I mean: in a bad way. It’s clear that liberalism is a quite accommodating philosophy. That’s what it’s supposed to be. But it obviously has limits. And if it turned out that maintaining those limits was wrong, then that would be a problem for liberalism. It’s quite possible that liberals won’t find attacks on it ‘effective’, but that’s just like Marxists tending not to find attacks on it ‘effective’. The phenomenon is not exactly illuminating of the distinctive features of the philosophy.

Rich makes an important point about how Jodi is equivocating between ‘exchange of reasons’ and ‘rationality’. That’s actually a pretty key slip.

By John Holbo on 11/11/06 at 09:01 PM | Permanent link to this comment

So we have a few classes of critiques of liberalism (without any implication that this schema is unique to liberalism):
1. Critiques that do not accurately portray liberalism and thus miss their target (i.e., Dean’s typically Zizekian gambit)
2. Critiques that do accurately portray liberalism, divided into two subclasses:
a. Those that result in a change in liberalism itself—though not an “essential” change
b. Those that question the fundamental tenets of liberalism in such a way as to be unassimilable

From what I read of your materials—and again, you’re my only source on liberalism—it seems that we very, very frequently run into critiques of type 1.  Critiques of type 2a are reputed to be very plentiful, but I can’t remember any specific examples.  Just by the nature of the case, it seems like the potential critiques of type 2b are relatively small in number, since a certain flexibility is apparently one of the traits of liberalism—yet again, I can’t recall a specific example being given.  So that’s why I’m asking for examples.

Furthermore, the very properties that make for a high number of potential critiques of type 2a make it difficult to pin liberalism down and thus seems to me to open the door to hasty accusations that a critique is of type 1.  Which is not to say that Dean’s typically Zizekian gambit is not a critique of type 1! As I’ve said, I kind of have to take your word for it that it is.  Still, the danger seems to be there.

By Adam Kotsko on 11/11/06 at 09:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think the problem is that we’ve really only talked about Zizek vs. liberalism. Examples of 2b. Marxism. Certain kinds of communitarian critique. Certain forms of conservatism. Feudalism. Monarchy. Fascism. Plato’s political theory in the Republic. Certain readings of Rousseau. All that stray stuff you get in Nietzsche, whatever the hell it means. A variety of virtue ethics-based political views. A variety of theocratic possibilities. There’s loads of alternatives to liberalism. These may also be cases of 1, be it noted. There is no contradiction between being both 1 and 2b.

‘Assimilation’ isn’t exactly the verb we are looking for here. I think - brace yourself - ‘argument’ might be better. There are two levels at which a competing philosophy might encounter liberalism. It might meet it philosophy to philosophy, as it were. The level of argument. It might be a candidate for expressive inclusion in a liberal political order. So we have the question: can liberals profitably argue with Fascists? Do they have anything to say to each other? (That’s the argument question.) And then there is the addition question: can a liberal political order permit people to advocate Fascism? What limits may be imposed on attempts to bring about Fascism by means of the tools of the liberal political order? Different questions.

By John Holbo on 11/12/06 at 02:29 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Wasn’t the conflict between socialism and liberalism an example of 2a?  Contemporary liberalism (substantive as opposed to procedural) is pretty well commited to some version of positive rights, and that seems to me to be an outgrowth of the collision between socialism and liberalism in the early 20th century.

By on 11/12/06 at 02:36 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Matt—Not sure what your point is. My comment wasn’t meant in defense of liberalism. (There are worse things in the world than liberals, and they merit conjunctural defense, but that’s not what this was.)

On the contrary, the idea of a “socialist elite” is actually much closer in spirit to the kind of professional-managerial ideology that informed mid-twentieth century liberalism than it is to anything coming out Marx, who was a radical democrat.

Such distinctions have been very important in the history of the socialist left. Then again, it was probably a mistake to have brought this up in the present conversation, so I’ll just go back to lurking.

By Scott McLemee on 11/12/06 at 02:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Scott - my apologies, and point taken.

By Matt on 11/12/06 at 03:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

testing 1,2,4…

By Matt on 11/12/06 at 05:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment

What, the last one didn’t make the cut?
Just in case, we’ll post it again, and updated too.
But if we’re out, we’re out.

Iona, Mickey, William, Droopy, Spanky.

Liberals’ concern with positive rights means that they defend the institutionalization of Pity as the equivalent of the institutionalization of Concern, and this even though concern as a function of the social can not be institutionalized. 

But the doctrine of the primacy of ideas declares that if the mechanics are identical the results must be, so there’s no difference between repression and “condemning judgement,” and the words: “I don’t want to kill my father and sleep with my mother” have the same meaning whether said with a calm reserve or plaintive whine.  So generalization and bureaucracy trump specificity, whereas art always does the reverse.

The European left has always understood the arguments of the anti-bourgeois right. It’s the bourgeois right that comes in for contempt. We haven’t been so lucky, the bourgeoisie are all we have. We have no counterforce.
The primacy of ideas is the primacy of those who have them, while the possibility of the primacy of systems is looked on by American ‘progressives’ with horror, since it stands opposed to the freedom of the individual. But culture is more Burkean than liberal. The arts have always been conservative: they ‘conserve.’

By on 11/13/06 at 01:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Is there one decent definition of liberalism here, or one decent definition of a European liberal?

I’ll have Emma Bovary.

By Oooer on 05/07/07 at 04:48 PM | Permanent link to this comment

None that I’ve seen. But is Bovary a liberal?

By Automan on 01/26/08 at 06:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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