Friday, January 22, 2016

No Escape from Politics

Adam Kirsch:

What escapes Losurdo is the fact that all the evils he attributes to liberals—colonialism, racism, slavery, class oppression—were overcome, after great struggles and suffering, precisely in the liberal West and nowhere else. And by the end of his book, Losurdo more or less admits that his historical critique of liberalism makes sense only according to the values of that same liberalism. His real complaint is that the most advanced progressives of eighteenth-century Europe and America did not share the moral intuitions of the average citizen of today’s West. But it was precisely the progressive energy of liberalism that is responsible for the difference. Far from retarding the movement of history, liberalism—the politics of freedom, fairness, and human rights—has been the great engine of social progress, as it gradually overcame what Losurdo calls the “exclusion clauses” that marked its origins.

Part of the strength of that liberalism has been its power of self-criticism. As Fawcett insists throughout Liberalism: The Life of an Idea, what differentiates liberalism from socialism and premodern conservatism is its conviction that there is no permanent solution to the problems of politics: “The task of containing and utilizing conflict was never over, just as the task was never over of resisting power. For liberals . . . there was no escape from politics.” This Isaiah Berlin–like conclusion means that liberalism is seldom celebratory. Today, Fawcett concludes, we may have to make do with a “liberalism of melancholy,” as we come up against environmental and economic limits to progress. The conclusion is premature. Much of the globe still lacks the freedom that the West takes for granted; and it is precisely at moments of discouragement that liberalism itself is most vulnerable to attacks from more confident and simplistic ideologies. The beleaguered tradition needs, and deserves, not just critics but celebrants.

Of the three books being reviewed here, Losurdo's is the only one I haven't read, but it sounds as worthless as most left-wing perspectives, so I doubt I'm missing much. Kirsch's article, on the other hand, was absorbing. I read the whole thing and went back for seconds and thirds. I'd recommend reading it in conjunction with the Yuval Levin article I linked to recently.