Liberalism and Its Discontents
“Nobody knows, from sea to shining sea, why we are having all this trouble with our republic…” Thomas McGuane, Ninety-Two in the Shade.
“How has it happened that so many people have come to take up this strange attitude of hostility to civilization?” Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents.
The Upper West Side of Manhattan, off Riverside Drive, between Broadway and Harlem, in one of the great cities of the world in one of the wealthiest countries in the world, is home to two graduates of Harvard Medical School, husband and wife, both psychiatrists. In their respective private practices—as distinct from their hospital duties with more diverse and less affluent patients—it is strictly fee for service, no insurance accepted, no Medicare. Modern psychiatry is somewhat split between doctor qua analyst and doctor qua neurologist. In private practice, these two doctors primarily treat patients with psychoanalysis. This brings to mind Anais Nin and Henry Miller treating Otto Rank’s New York patients while Rank was in California establishing his office there. Whatever conclusions Fitzgerald and Hemingway may have reached about the rich being different from you and me, we might add that the rich have their troubles too.
In a suburban Southern California neighborhood, where the weather is almost always sunny and pleasant, all the better to enjoy its many parks, golf courses, tennis courts, and ballfields, one nevertheless encounters signs of discord popping up on the odd lawn here and there. A flagpole, topped by the Gadsden flag: a coiled rattlesnake prepared to strike, warning, “Don’t Tread on Me.” All right, we have already allowed that the rich have their complaints, so why should the middle-class be any different? What is difficult to comprehend, from any rational perspective, including standing on the street and observing the neighborhood, is the degree to which some people in this neighborhood feel their liberties are threatened. What could they possibly want to do, own, or think that is at risk of being denied them?
The title of Francis Fukuyama’s new book is an obvious nod to Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents. There is no direct mention of the book, and Freud’s name makes an appearance only twice in passing. What the two works share is the common ground of their subject matter: the relation of the individual to society, a sometimes fraught and contradictory relationship even when the culture offers a best practical case scenario for the population’s enjoyment of life and liberty. Dissent and disagreement are not unexpected, especially in a society that permits their free expression. Less accountable are the DSM-worthy cognitive distortions spreading so widely even among members of Congress. It is as if fish are revolting against the tyranny of water, with the resulting predictable stink.
Readers of Fukuyama will likely come to the book with a good general concept of what is meant by liberalism. Western-style liberalism is not, contrary to Donald Trump’s funhouse mirror Yogi Berra comment, about California Democrats, with the implication they spend their time at wine and cheese parties while Los Angeles and San Francisco go down the tubes. Rather, it is grounded in basic principles of a society and government that is transparent, adheres to the rule of law, and takes account of the popular will. Quoting the English political philosopher John Gray in the opening chapter, liberalism is individualist…egalitarian…universalist…and meliorist.” Fukuyama goes further: “There have been three essential justifications for liberal societies put forward over the centuries.” They are a pragmatic means of maintaining order among diverse populations. “They are moral…protecting basic human dignity…” And, liberalism delivers the goods: economic growth with all the trimmings while securing property rights.
While often referred to as liberal democracy, the two are distinct concepts. There can be a liberal autocracy, as well as an illiberal democracy—an often cited contemporary example is Hungary under Viktor Orban, and the concern that the United States is vulnerable to the same fate should Trump or a Trumpist GOP return to power. Another distinction is between liberalism and neoliberalism. The latter focuses on economics, with an ideal of free markets unfettered by government interference, an Adam Smith free-for-all. (It might be noted, however, that by the time The Wealth of Nations was published government chartered trading companies already exerted outsized influence on the markets.) Liberalism’s economics are a mean assailed by the extremes of fascism’s control of industry on the right and communism’s nationalization of private industry and state owned means of production on the left.
Liberalism and its Discontents presents a compete, compact argument, clearly defining terms, discussing challenges faced by liberalism, and offering remedies. Fukuyama embodies the Aristotelian golden mean. He is a reasonable individual who understands objective truth and can honestly deal with competing theories. It is not necessary to agree with all his conclusions to comprehend either the basic validity of his premises or the issues they raise. Fukuyama’s body of work is substantially about political theory and its practical application. Liberalism examines one concept in a specific context. It is perhaps better understood as part the same discussion as Identity, The End of History and the Last Man, and Fukuyama’s two volume work on political order and decay, as well as the larger canon of political theory. Some study of Hegel would be helpful; the end of history and the last man are essentially the first and middle terms of a Hegelian dialectic. To rely on any one theory, orthodoxy, or worldview is to fall prey to The Folly of the Pure Model; to neglect a credible model is pure folly.
Liberalism, particularly as defined by Fukuyama, is more about form than content. It asserts basic principles, as mentioned above, but can be interpreted and implemented to adapt to the current and changing specifics of society. The focus on individual liberties, indeed on the concept of what it means to be a unique individual, represents a stage in the progress of consciousness. At the same time, for humans as a social species, it has resulted in alienation from the group. Hence, discontent.
People want what they want—not the tautology it seems, rather a remnant of the toddler’s pre-Copernican worldview. On the cultural and political right, there is the somewhat contradictory assertion of individual liberty and traditional values, even if this means minority rule and denying the will of the majority. On the left, self-definition of the individual likewise mixes with the assertion of rights for newly defined groups. In both cases, the result is a pulling away from the center, a weakened shared national identity. A properly functioning liberal society accommodates both the needs of the individual and the group, the will of the majority and the rights of the minority. This demonstrably creates confusion and discontent among those who want what they want just how they want it.
The problem is how to manage a diverse society, to balance liberty with order, group cohesion with individual choice, and to do so reliably into the future, why a peaceful transfer of power is so important. Again, a mean that makes competing versions of society possible versus opposite poles that would eliminate all but the prevailing extreme if it gained power.
Liberalism has been struggling to revive a casualty of this conflict, truth. Darkness at Noon, Arthur Koestler’s 1940 novel set amid the Stalinist show trials, read in our current context is shocking, but rather because of what does not shock us. The denial of the verifiably true that unfolded in plain view, the conspiracy theories, claims of stolen elections, and recasting of the events of January 6th have all so inured us to a corrupted version of the truth that the distortions of the Stalinist era no longer shock. What the Trump right fails to grasp is that should their version of government succeed, the very protections of liberalism that made their movement possible would be replaced by a system in which such dissent at odds with the official line would no longer be tolerated. If the other side regained power, Donald Trump would risk a perfunctory trial, at which he would be found guilty, to be escorted to an elevator down to the basement and into history, if history mentions him at all.
At the end of Chapter 8 of Liberalism and its Discontents, Churchill’s comment on democracy that has been anticipated since the first chapter is paraphrased, “…liberalism is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” This is essentially an End of History argument. In Aristotle’s world, states would bring in an expert to write their constitutions. Aristotle and his students studied 158 different constitutions—he had an extensive basis for comparison when he recognized that each state will require a form of government that best suits it. And, that was for the ancient city-state where citizens were in the minority, not large and diverse modern states.
“A feature, not a bug.” Western liberal government, on one hand, accommodates both individual expression and multiple group identities, but on the other hand, this very openness can weaken a shared national identity. What are the alternatives, a dictatorship, civil war? Humans are a naturally social species. We seek ways to create group identity, whether the family or nation, religion or sports team, to the degree that we will go to war for the group. We have likewise evolved with a capacity for individual identity and expression. And everything in between. There are a third of a billion people in the United States. Good luck pleasing them all.
M. P. Ross 05-20-2022