There may be other Chronicles on this subject. Much more could be said of the Bronx Romantic‘s disillusionment with liberalism.
The academic, especially in the humanities, swims in a sea of liberalism. I too was a liberal once–we all were. There nevertheless exists a recognizable, if small, school of “neoconservatives” who have abandoned the liberalism of their parents and their youth. American liberalism as we know it is a product of the Depression; its politics of compassion was meant to provide a safety net for those unable to cope with the crises of the market system. Hence the original impetus of Rooseveltian liberalism is to promote the egalitarian moral ideal in market society as equality not of results but of opportunity. But what has not been sufficiently appreciated is that, like the Romantic utopianism derided by Marx, liberalism cannot perpetuate itself beyond its founding generation without this original intention becoming a source of “perverse incentives.” An act of compassion can promote the general welfare only when it is unanticipated by its recipients. As soon as its gift becomes an “entitlement,” it perverts the unspoken presupposition of liberalism that aid is a temporary boost designed to get its recipients back on their feet so that they may continue functioning within the market system, except when they are unequivocally incapable of doing so for reasons congenital or environmental.
The neoconservative reaction against liberalism is not simply the result of my generation’s natural aging process; it is a reaction to the degradation of the liberal ideal. Indeed, those of my parents’ generation remained to the end unrepentant Rooseveltian liberals in a world where Rooseveltian liberalism was no longer conceivable. The neoconservative has lived through and registered the postmodern triumph of the victimary, a triumph facilitated by but ultimately incompatible with liberalism. Rush Limbaugh may not be a subtle thinker, but he has a firm grasp of the essence of post-Rooseveltian liberalism. For Limbaugh, the liberal’s promotion of real or symbolic equality for his social inferiors is in the first place a quest for moral superiority in relation to his peers. But what Limbaugh misses is that this sense of superiority is not merely a source of self-satisfaction but an epistemological guarantee. The sense that one is, however homeopathically, sacrificing what is generally considered to be one’s self-interest has become the sole proof of the rightness of one’s deed. Putting the victimary other’s needs above my own may or may not be its own reward, but it is its own justification, whether or not the other is really helped by my gesture.
Back in the late sixties, I was a tardy member of SDS just before it entered the (Weather) underground. As a radical, I thought of liberals as hypocrites, incapable of following to the end the logic of their moral ideas; later I realized that the New Left was but a bloodier form of liberalism. The essence of both is the conviction that the results of historical human interaction, in particular those of the market system, are morally inferior to the models constructed by their individual moral judgment. Instead of taking the system of human exchange as a source of ethical truth, the liberal sees it as a necessary evil. He respects the radical’s faith in socialism, but considers humanity to be “not good enough” for the lofty socialist ideal, as though an ethical idea could be both valid and inapplicable at the same time. His is Hegel’s schöne Seele, the beautiful soul unreconciled to human reality.
The central affirmation of GA is that our faith in our moral intuition is ultimately a faith in the moral model generated at man’s historical origin. The resentful sense of injustice that provides the energy for our drive toward moral equality is a unique product of human language and culture that has no counterpart anywhere else in the natural universe. The liberal’s self-effacement before the Other implies an ontology in which the human alone, by virtue of its use of representation, has access to the transcendental moral realm.
Yet as an heir of the Enlightenment, the liberal prefers to deny any essential difference between man and animal, even between man and Turing machine. The Enlightenment idea that we need not believe in any historically revealed truth but can place our faith in the instrumentalism of natural science is expressed in E. O. Wilson‘s sociobiology or Steven Pinker‘s evolutionary psychology. (Please see Chronicle 135.) Whatever the value of studying either bonobos or artificial intelligence, what liberals seek in these investigations are the means to disprove any claim of human uniqueness. Their hostility to the divine guarantees offered to this uniqueness in the Western religious tradition suggests the mimetic origin of their desire. This denial of human difference was not an original component of liberalism. It reflects the postmodern exacerbation of the contradiction inherent within all human society between each individual’s absolute and certain link to the originary generation of transcendence and his relative and error-prone relationship to historical human exchange. Both morality and market exchange are products of the originary scene of representation. In its inability to bear the post-Holocaust tension between them, liberalism subjects the historically human to a moral critique beyond history.
Liberal ethical thought contains a blatant contradiction. The liberal is a disciple of Nietzsche who believes that there is no qualitative difference between the human and the natural, and that God’s election of man is a man-made myth. In the latter’s view, the ideas of God and morality were successfully imposed by a weak but clever priesthood on strong but unsophisticated warriors. But although the authority of the Genealogy of Morals is in high demand in today’s academic marketplace, even the most Nietzschean academic liberal writes not to affirm his “will to power” but, on the contrary, to denounce all such wills in the name of a victimary version of equalitarian morality. Nietzsche was anything but PC; he was, on the contrary, the true father of Nazism, not because he endorsed antisemitism, which he abhorred, but because he denied the validity of our equalitarian moral intuition–the very intuition that his “followers” today unreflectively deploy as an all-purpose weapon against “patriarchy,” “phallogocentrism,” “eurocentrism,” “orientalism,” and what have you. Liberals are Nietzscheans in ethics, but Christians in morality: they apply “genealogy” to the former to the greater glory of the latter.
Conservatives, in contrast, generally believe in the qualitative human difference guaranteed by God’s creation of man “in his own image.” Although some of those who have turned away from liberalism wholeheartedly accept this religious view, I think GA’s minimalism is more congenial to the neoconservative spirit. The originary hypothesis makes no postulations of supernatural powers; it “believes” only in the simultaneous emergence of God and man, the human and the sacred, the minimal conditions for which it seeks to define. The great spiritual need of our time is to bridge the gap between the historical particularism of revealed religions and the liberal-positivist denial of the central problematic of all religion: the deferral of mimetic violence. The genuine humility of which peace is made does not consist in setting ourselves on the same level as chimpanzees or dolphins, but in understanding the precariousness of the chance for self-understanding that our potential for mimetic violence has given our species, and that its danger to our survival obliges us to take.