May 10, 2003

a bit of this way and that

In picking up on my reading of some favourite weblogs I missed whilst on weeks holiday in Mallacoota I came across this paragraph from Invisible Adjunct's great blog on the influence of the Straussians in the US. It says:

"One thing I do know: Liberalism has taken quite a beating of late: we liberals have been kicked around the block and back again more times than we care to mention. I think the time has come -- indeed, the time has almost come and gone -- but there is still time for a bold re-assertion of the principles of the Enlightenment. Never mind "refusing the blackmail of Enlightenment." There's no blackmail: you are free to accept or reject its tenets as you see fit. But you do have to take sides, sometimes there is no other option than to take a side. I propose coming down on the side of freedom, equality, material progress, and a resolutely this-worldly orientation toward politics."

These fighting words should be read in the context of a recoil from a Leo-con conservatism. I have a lot of sympathy for the words even though as a good lefty, I've done my bit to give liberalism a bit of a beating for its univeralism, abstraction and individualism.

I find the tendency to abstraction in this post. Who on the centre left would not come down on the side of "freedom, equality, material progress, and a resolutely this-worldly orientation toward politics"? Who on the centre left would embrace unfreedom, inequality, material regression and utopian politics? Do I sense a bit of blackmail here?

The question we should ask is: what is the content of the Enlightenment's material progress in the late twentieth century. This is what I judged it to be. The equivalent in the US would be the damming of the Columbia River. As with River Murray in Australian many Americans hold that the Columbia is now environmentally threatened and that drastic action should be taken to reverse the changes made to the turn the Columbia into an organic machine.

Its a quick hit I know. And the Soviets were even worse. But that is what the liberal Enlightenment historically meant as a resolutely this-worldly orientation toward politics concerned with material progress and human betterment. Human betterment meant more than wealth; it also included freedom and equality. The liberal Enlightenment has historically stood for environmental destruction as the price for human wellbeing. Liberalism deserves a beating for the way that it has turned nature into an industrial machine. Tis liberalism as a way of life that needs to be placed under the critical eye.

Nor is it a simple matter of being free to accept or reject liberalism's tenets as you see fit. These tenets are part of are heritage; deeply embedded in our culture and practices and very difficult to shake off. The public policy debates largely take place within liberalism and so are largely family quarrels. Step outside the horizons of liberalism and you step into a big black hole and so are not heard. Such is the way of things for those like Mr Jones who go to Canberra.

Don't we need a little bit more of this and that? A little bit more of an immanent critique of liberal reason? A critique that is part of the Enlightenment tradition but is deeply critical of it? We could with a bit of Hegel to counter Strauss and Mill/Locke and to help us ask what sort of freedom are we talking about? A bit of Nietzsche to take a hammer to the idols of modernity? And a little bit of Marx to ask what sort of equality are we talking about here would not go astray?

And just to put the cat amongst the pigeons I have always been very partial to Carl Schmitt's critique of liberalism. See here and here.

Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at May 10, 2003 01:47 AM | TrackBack

I agree lots with this post, I am not even sure of the questions to ask to move the critique into a wider debate,

risk and management seem to be keyed into query here, but how exactly?

planning and values

agent/principle hortatory laws
and rhetorical self-regulation??

are up for grabs

while paranoia and conspiracy take the hindmost...

Posted by: meika loofs samorzewski on May 10, 2003 11:39 PM

How about for starters:

Can we be severe critics of the liberal Enlightenment whilst using the tools of the Enlightenment to do so?

Posted by: Gary Sauer-Thompson on May 11, 2003 07:00 PM

My $0.02US would be that it's impossible to critique it any other way. Enlightenment is totalitarian (thank you, Messieurs Adorno and Horkheimer); I don't think one can opt out of it. Attempts to opt out or attack it, like Leo Strauss', still use its tools or preserve some of its goals.

Posted by: Curtiss Leung on May 13, 2003 10:54 PM

I'm inclined to agree.

What about Alasdair MacIntyre though or Catholics who go back to Aquinas?

Critiquing from within is more likely to get you a hearing in a liberal society because you are talking the liberal language and so you have more chance of being heard because you are talkign a common language, or working within the family.

Posted by: Gary Sauer-Thompson on May 14, 2003 09:44 AM
Post a comment