Liberalism, classic 19th century liberalism, is being promoted by scientifically-minded Republicans as a way to pull their party back from its strange precipice of millenarian, racist insanity. The best parts of conservatism itself, an historically-aware aversion to risk, has been scuttling around under other labels for most of the past 50 years. Terms like “moderate”, however, have given over to “sane”, then to “former”. For those trying to resurrect the best of both conservatism and liberalism among the Fox Generation, leftism has become the third wheel they can distinguish themselves from, usually with cheap insults.
The problem is that like liberalism and conservatism, leftism also plays a vital role, and for the past thirty years that role has also fallen to ruin.
Leftism, at its best, organizes society against injustice, fighting the visible wrongs that society allows. At its worst leftism prosecutes a radical Jacobin urge toward revenge. At best, liberalism reforms onerous rules for individuals and applies those rules more equally in society as a whole. At worst, liberalism becomes a coöpted structure of rhetorical justifications propping up the authoritarian rule of establishment elites, the “most equal” individuals. Conservatism, at its best, argues for trying out new reforms in limited ways, risking as it were only a hidden corner of the upholstery. At its worst, conservatism throws itself wholeheartedly into radical, reactionary oppression of anything not aligned exactly with the long-established institutions of the ruling regime.
The worst of all three go together in a mutually supporting soup of discursive shit: the worst of liberalism uses caricatures of radical leftists and reactionary conservatism to label itself the responsible “third way”. In return the worst of conservatism and leftism portray liberals as venal if not explicitly corrupt and uncaring of What Really Matters. All three isms have their place and their dangers. Any public figure who cannot express the urge toward the best parts of all three impulses should be actively frustrated in their attempts to gain and exercise power.
The science fiction writer and scientist, David Brin, recently wrote:
Leftists tend to prefer state/socialist/paternalist approaches to everything. They also tend (with much variation) to want to “equalize outcomes.” Hence they are direct enemies of Adam Smith, who taught that competition is the root property that enables human beings to create wealth and solutions to problems. He also taught that competition without careful tuning and regulation is doomed to be suborned by cheaters…[the ellipses are Brin’s, not mine]
.Liberals tend to accept Adam Smith (“the first liberal”) in his essence, though millions have been talked into thinking he preached cut-throat, social-darwinism (an outright lie). Liberals know that market capitalism created the cornucopia of overall wealth that made all our subsequent do-gooder efforts possible (e.g. taking on racism and sexism and poverty and environmental neglect). They do not want to kill the golden-egg-laying goose, however many times Hannity repeats that slander.
While it seems as though Brin is couching that attack on leftism as a paraphrase of Hannity-isms, he doesn’t even allow a Hannity paraphrase of liberalism to be repeated without rejoinder. Suddenly, David Brin’s evangelism for liberalism comes clear. He’s not writing for the future or for a general audience, but to coax insane people on the right back from the cliff-edge of anti-science nutjobbery. Brin is attempting to get the unwashed Angry White Males to take on the idea that liberalism is not evil, and that science—the science of climate change—is their friend. The downside is that Brin shoves that pesky left in the general direction of oncoming traffic. If I were to give him the benefit of the doubt, he writes this because he doesn’t trust the audience he’s playing to, the folks who populate his blog’s comment section, to ever come away from the stone inscription that declares “leftism is of the debbil.” In the rhetoric of the third way, leftism is always and ever a Jacobin terror. If I don’t give Brin the benefit of the doubt, well, he becomes a kind of punchline himself. That’s not really my purpose here.
Brin’s trick may be useful rhetoric for restoring science to the GOP, but to simply retransmit Hannity-esque criticisms of the left betrays the fundamentally lazy triumphalism of contemporary liberalism. I’m not sure how much Brin himself believes this caricature or whether he’s being deliberately vague to ingratiate himself with the Fox Generation, but the lazy re-transmission deserves a more general answer, somewhere. Maybe that answer needn’t endanger Mr. Brin’s local experiment of engagement.
More recently, Brin writes:
Look, I am conservative enough to prefer a budget that’s close to balanced, and libertarian enough to think government should be very tightly scrutinized and always need to satisfy a burden of proof, that its services would not be better performed by… us [again, his ellipses]
The problem is that this is just half of a conservative-liberal stance, the dog-whistling and mostly incorrect half crafted for red-baiting public-relations campaigns. The other half of the conservative-liberal point-of-view is that sovereign debt is necessary for an economy to actually operate, even for day-to-day functions like having a currency, long before you get to issues of responding to crises, economic development, public goods and dealing with negative and positive externalities. These latter issues are only controversial, economically speaking, from the standpoint of dead philosophers who lived between eighty to nine hundred years ago. These proven functions of currency, public debt, and government do remain controversial from a reactionary, theological point of view, but when theological dogma threatens to roll back centuries of progress, how should a conservative and/or liberal, scientifically-minded person respond? With cynical re-transmission of dog-whistles and red-baiting?
To be kind to Brin (and why not? I like his fiction), The Fox Generation of graying Reagan-Bush voters include a large number of Heinlein botherers and partisans of Orson Scott Card who have found themselves at odds with much of the SF&F world in the last ten to fifteen years. It is a market that considers itself underserved. Perhaps Brin has some mercenary interest, but a market is a market, and good for him for engaging with it without accepting all its tenets.
Either way, it’s snake pit many of us won’t test directly. Brin is probably welcome to the neo-paleo-classical-liberal congregation he’s building, but outside that pit of deadenders is the rest of the world, and liberalism without leftism tends toward an uncreative slide into a world dominated by undemocratic, ungoverned elites. In that world, crafting liberal justifications for ignoring injustice is a growth industry.
David Brin may find it acceptable to participate in anti-Jacobin scapegoating and write off leftism. He seems to be genuinely trying to rebuild an aesthetic of reform under scientific liberalism, but he’s a creative person. There is a fundamental problem with a creative person possessing a political conscience finding ways to ignore injustice. Despite his liberal pretensions he’s denying altogether the opportunities of accepting leftist criticisms and creating liberal solutions to injustice.
See also Brittney Cooper, today, on the dismissal of non-white leftists. There’s more to be said in response to Brittney, but her article was more of a spur to finish this post, not an inspiration to create it.
But not see Ross Douthat, a couple days later, on how liberalism needs pluralism (but titled Why Liberalism Needs Pluralism), as if that wasn’t already part of the package of liberalism. Liberalism is about disseminating rules more or less equally throughout society. Liberalism without pluralism isn’t really liberalism any more. Douthat’s apparently still in the conservative quagmire of confusing liberalism with his demonic caricature of leftism.