Nth Comment at Crooked Timber on Schmitt-Brooks and the End of History

(revisable version of comment at Crooked Timber)


the problem for liberalism has always been this: how does liberalism deal with its “illiberal” opponents and yet still “incorporate” them under liberal rule or hegemony[?]. At some point, “illiberal” means must be deployed, which is deeply corrosive of such “liberal” hegemony.

I grant you that the above effectively summarizes the typical appearance of the problem, but it does so in a way that conceals or only partly and inconsistently acknowledges internal contradictions that bear directly on the matter in question, or effectively comprise the matter truly in question.

To state and address the matter sufficiently clearly, we will need to abide by a sufficiently strict definition of terms. If we define modern liberalism as the doctrine of the primacy of the universal rights of human beings, for early modern theorists of liberalism the “natural right” or “inalienable rights” of “men,” there can be no “liberal rule” or “liberal hegemony” or liberal “incorporation” of the illiberal. There will be only intrinsically non- or anti- or illiberal or always incompletely or qualifiedly liberal arrangements that may be more or less conducive to the liberation or fuller liberation of human beings, or to the full realization or flourishing of human beings as free and equal individuals.

In other words, strictly speaking there is not and cannot be a “liberal state” as such, in the sense of a political administrative state whose principles of organization will be strictly speaking liberal principles. We may imagine that the universal uncompromising adoption of liberal doctrines would produce a “liberal state of things,” and we can argue that different governmental orders will promote, foster, safeguard, protect, and allow for liberal aspirations more or less successfully than others, but whatever political-administrative state there is, to whatever extent it is at all, will be non-liberal on its own terms, and “anti-liberal” in the sense that its ordering principle will be contrary to, place limitations upon the liberties or otherwise free pursuit of happiness of equal individuals.

So, we can re-phrase your statement as follows: The problem for liberals has always been this: How much illiberalism must really be tolerated or which illiberal means must be employed for the sake of whatever best achievable realization of liberal ends?

In this form the question re-states and expands upon the classical political question on human flourishing or the best society or the good by giving modern natural right a privileged position, but it also allows for realism, or for cognizance of the reality of illiberal or pre-liberated or constrained, etc., social, political, and economic relations and environments: the liberalist version of The First Noble Truth.

We could, as some have, seek to dispense with every form of natural right, aka bourgeois values, but we mostly, even in these relatively radicalism-friendly parts, remain visibly and even dramatically reluctant to do so. Even among those ready to put all systems of social, political, and economic relations as they understand them in question, I think we today will find few speakers, even here, ready to surrender freedom of speech and conscience, or truly prepared to dispense entirely with the modern idea of the individual, of of individuality as a form of life worthy of respect and protection. So they or we are still children of Locke and nieces and nephews of our Uncle Sam to that extent, or in other words we are mostly still meaningfully liberals whether or not under socialistic or other advisement. In that connection, according to this same theory of the necessarily hybrid character of all real-existing liberal political orders this side of the apocalypse, all liberals will always remain liberals only under advisement.

Since we, as individuals and in all real existing societies, are always also at least potentially, more likely flagrantly, “illiberal” in at least some respects regarding free realizations of some conceived interests of others – in murdering their rivals, say, or in stealing from their neighbors, or in abusing or effectively enslaving their employees, or in disposing of waste upstream from us – a second perhaps equally valid, or at least impartial way of re-phrasing the main question arises: The problem for us all has always been this: How much liberalism must really be tolerated, or which liberal means must be employed, for the sake of whatever best achievable realization of our not necessarily or entirely or simply liberal ends? (To declare this question impermissible would be to declare oneself an ideological or committed liberal, but illiberally, as an illiberally liberal liberal.)

In other words, the problem for the doctrines following from the asserted primacy of modern natural right under whatever name or configuration, including all of our very post-modern or supposedly post-modern but still recognizably and in the final analysis typically modern configurations, will always remain a matter of reconciliation of contradictory commitments, specifically commitments to the good of and for individuals as individuals and the good of and for collective or social entities.

The early modern political philosophers, I will maintain, did rather exhaustively examine these questions and the related ones on the nature of power or the origins of authority that you also raise. They did provide answers. They knew we wouldn’t all like them or fully understand them. Indeed, to a very significant degree the early modern philosophers not only acknowledged, but rather depended on the latter – on general incapacities of understanding. They hoped and trusted that enough of us would accept and implement their proposals under well-considered modifications. If we are in fact still living with those answers, showing no sign of succesfully implementing alternative ones, then Hegel was right, as far as we can say, to claim that in his time humanity had reached the end of history in principle.

The problem for Schmitt – who in some ways ironically, in other ways perhaps quite accurately was later charged with the crime of Hegelianism by his Nazi comrades – as for us in relation to Schmitt’s thought, or for that matter in relation to Brooks’ thought, is the simultaneous emergence into consciousness and into politics of a fundamental, or foundational, element of that answer, which upon every re-statement seems to re-embroil us in paradoxes and unacceptable logical as well as moral contradictions, for instance as the assertion of the actual rationality of acceptance of the seemingly irrational or perhaps never fully rationalizable – of that which, if ever actually fully rationalizable or fully thinkable, will remain not fully thinkable or rationalizable on terms accepted or understood by the same multitude, and by its tribunes, upon whose acceptance its success, to their benefit, would depend.

For related reasons, whoever presumes to think through these matters openly, honestly, and impartially, is likely to be greeted (if recognized and heard at all), by some or perhaps a large measure of opposition and incomprehension, while being left to wonder which is worse.

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