With apologies to Francis Fukuyama, is it time to declare the end of the end of history? Are we witnessing the exhaustion, or tragic collapse, of the once-vital liberal tradition that supported our politics, both progressive and conservative, and which made politics a (relatively) civil enterprise, and compromise a desirable outcome of that enterprise?
The questions are urgent and the stakes are high, not only for America and other liberal democracies, but also for a global order built on faith in the universal worth of liberal principles.
The Hedgehog Review, an interdisciplinary journal published by the University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, addresses these questions in six essays that form the thematic core of its fall issue, “The End of the End of History?”
Leading off in his essay, “Liberal Democracy and the Unraveling of the Enlightenment Project,” UVA sociologist James Davison Hunter asks how we make sense of a political moment characterized by deep partisan divisions, a debased public discourse and increasingly dysfunctional governance. Challenging the quick fixes proposed by self-styled pragmatists, he argues that the problem is more intractable: “The cultural logic of the Enlightenment project has lost credibility, and the liberal – a genuinely liberal – regime it inspired is collapsing. … [W]hile the procedural republic can address certain matters of power, it cannot address matters of identity and collective purpose. It cannot tell a compelling story that binds a community in common purpose. The cultural logic that underwrote liberalism exists only in fragments, and it is not likely to come together again in any coherent way.”
“Liberalism is failing not because it fell short,” writes political philosopher Patrick J. Deneen in “The Tragedy of Liberalism,” “but because it was true to itself.” By liberalism, Deneen means both the conservative (“classical liberal”) and liberal (“progressive liberal”) strains of that dominant tradition. And while most Americans focus on the political conflicts between these strains, few consider whether the larger tradition itself may be in trouble. “The bifurcation within liberalism masks a deeper agreement that has led to the working out of liberalism’s deeper logic, which, ironically, brings us today to a crisis within liberalism itself that now appears sudden and inexplicable.”
Liberal internationalism – that is, liberal principles scaled up to the global level – is the subject of “Not Melting into Air” by political scientist John M. Owen IV. “Here, at the close of the second decade of the 21st century, old solid particularisms are not melting away, and the sacred is having its revenge,” he asserts. In fact, he argues, the resurgence of both may challenge the liberal international order as much as the earlier threats of fascism and communism did. We are now witnessing widespread opposition to what Owen calls “third-stage liberal internationalism,” a resistance marked by resurgent nationalism, assorted populist movements and resentment toward a universalist culture that many see as elitist.
“Imagine there are no countries,” proposes historian Wilfred M. McClay in “Why Nations Matter.” “Very well, but it is not so easy to imagine what could take their place as a locus of our political identities and loyalties, and our communities of memory.” Indeed, we have found no adequate substitute for the nation-state, which in spite of its acknowledged problems still has the merits of encouraging the idea of citizenship and civic participation. “Without a particular system of laws and governance that citizens have had the opportunity to deliberate upon and assent to, within which they are accountable to one another, and by means of which their governments can be made formally and functionally accountable to them, ‘citizenship’ becomes an empty word, interchangeable with ‘consumer’ or ‘subject’ or ‘personnel.’”
“What many defenders of liberal democracy fail to realize,” observes cultural historian Jackson Lears in “Technocratic Vistas: The Long Con of Neoliberalism,” “is that they are no longer defending either liberalism or democracy; the forms of elite rule that provoke popular anger are merely the husk of liberal democracy.” Pundits call for a national conversation to fix our broken system, but what they fail to understand is that the very word “democracy” has been co-opted by the technocrats: “The once-vital discourse of liberal democracy has been hollowed out and transformed into a language of managerial technique – a technocratic jargon used to legitimate the spread of free-flowing capital.”
In “What Is to Be Done?” political scientist William A. Galston acknowledges the challenging nature of our times but argues that the resilience of democracies endows them with “a unique capacity for self-correction.” All such nations must now find a workable balance between the past, present and future. But “investing in the future,” he writes, “is a tough sell in democratic politics … where short-term gains usually enjoy an advantage over deferred consumption in the name of future improvement.”
Beyond the thematic section, several other essays and reviews address a range of topics.
Thirty years ago, University of Chicago academic Allan Bloom published “The Closing of the American Mind,” a high-toned masterpiece of despair that became an instant best-seller. In “Melancholy Mandarins: Bloom, Weber, and Moral Education,” historians Paul Reitter and Chad Wellmon revisit the Bloom phenomenon to consider why the stock of the humanities has continued to fall. “The modern university and its ideals of pure research and academic autonomy may have helped free the humanities,” contend the authors, “but they also paved the way for another master: specialization.” The authors suggest recasting the long debate over the purpose of the modern university not in terms of scholarly methods versus the pursuit of knowledge, but, as Max Weber counseled 100 years ago in his landmark speech, “Science as a Vocation,” with a return to the empathetic imagination.
“Do we any longer use the term ‘vulgar’?” asks essayist Robert Boyers in the review’s regular Signifiers feature. What was once beneath contempt is now considered a kind of performance, and to condemn it is to be out of step with the spirit of the culture. “The ‘accreditation of the subversive’ to which Trilling referred more than a half- century ago has truly taken the edge off our experience even of clearly transgressive works.” Is our greatest loss perhaps our unwillingness to admit that vulgarity even exists?
Books reviewed in this issue include “Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don’t Talk about It),” by Elizabeth Anderson; “Oneida: From Free Love Utopia to the Well-Set Table,” by Ellen Wayland-Smith; “Blood in the Water: The Attica Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy,” by Heather Ann Thompson; “The Happiness Philosophers: The Lives and Works of the Great Utilitarians,” by Bart Schultz; “South and West,” by Joan Didion; and “Henry David Thoreau: A Life,” by Laura Dassow Walls.
The Hedgehog Review is published three times a year by UVA’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture. The Spring 2018 issue (out March 1) will look at the human and the digital.
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