Why is liberalism so often dismissed by thinkers from both the left and the right? To those calling for wholesale transformation or claiming a monopoly on “realistic” conceptions of humanity, liberalism’s assured progressivism can seem hard to swallow. Bleak Liberalism makes the case for a renewed understanding of the liberal tradition, showing that it is much more attuned to the complexity of political life than conventional accounts have acknowledged. Amanda Anderson examines canonical works of high realism, political novels from England and the United States, and modernist works to argue that liberalism has engaged sober and even stark views of historical development, political dynamics, and human and social psychology. From Charles Dickens’s Bleak House and Hard Times to E. M. Forster’s Howards End to Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, this literature demonstrates that liberalism has inventive ways of balancing sociological critique and moral aspiration. A deft blend of intellectual history and literary analysis, Bleak Liberalism reveals a richer understanding of one of the most important political ideologies of the modern era.
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About the Author
Amanda Anderson is the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Humanities and English at Brown University. She is the author of several books, including, most recently, The Way We Argue Now: A Study in the Cultures of Theory.
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By Amanda Anderson
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2016 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
One of the more basic judgments typically made about authors and texts concerns ideological stance. In both casual intellectual conversation and formal scholarship, the designation of ideological position often plays a significant orienting role, as premise, flanking assertion, or conclusion. The primary characterizations, of course, are conservative, liberal, and radical, but there are an infinite number of shadings and qualifiers, to which the art of analysis is irresistibly drawn: liberal communitarian, Left conservative, Tory radical. If we relax the parameters a bit further, we can include such designations as angry communitarian, charismatic proceduralist, or anti-anticommunist. Indeed, in humanistic analysis, ideological designation tends to take on a descriptive density that allows for the finer discriminations we associate with interpretive insight and individual variation, however fundamentally we may regard the divide between Left and Right. Which is to say ideological designations often take on the quality of more nuanced understandings of embedded character, in that they refer to style and disposition as much as to position or platform.
One doesn't need adjectival flags or descriptive refinements to recognize that the appeal to the character of political ideologies has a long and significant history. In fact, underlying the impulse to finer differentiations are basic assumptions that are themselves characterological. In much intellectual and political discourse, as I discussed in the introduction, liberalism is assumed to project a fundamentally optimistic attitude while conservatism is seen as either realistic or stoical and radicalism as utopian and dogmatic. My claim here is not simply that humanistic analysis tends to accord psychological and ethical nuance to existing political stances, but rather that political orientations and commitments can never be understood or grasped — or even made manifest in the first place — except through forms of human expression that also reflect, and are routinely taken to reflect, attitudes, dispositions, and characterological elements.
Ideology critique, a key practice in the Left academy with a strong influence on trends in the humanities, axiomatically privileges interests over character and aims to remind us that it is necessary to understand the complexities of human response in relation to socioeconomic position. An attention to individual variation typically appears as a feature of any extended ideological analysis of specific thinkers or texts, but imagining that variation is itself a value would be seen as something of a misstep, one associated with the particular ideological blindness of liberalism. I mention this because it is important to recognize at the outset that attention to finely differentiated character is itself associated with the political ideology of liberalism, especially in its aesthetic dimensions. But of course there is also a field propensity in humanistic studies, and probably preeminently in literary studies, to produce variation in scholarship precisely through descriptions that presuppose a near-infinite multiplicity of individual cases of ideological form and expression.
I am not particularly interested in dwelling on this dizzying irony, but I am interested in what it says about the peculiar position of liberalism in much current humanities scholarship. It is well known that liberalism serves negatively to define many theoretical positions in the humanities, not only because it is associated with two faulty ideals, the autonomous individual and the free market, but also because it is seen as a particularly pernicious and efficacious ideology, one that disavows its own interests and violence and perpetuates forms of subjectivity and thought that entrench established interests and mask operations of power. In this sense liberalism is not an ideology; it simply is ideology and therefore supersedes individuals completely. To the extent that it is lived, it is a structuring illusion. That is, while liberalism historically has accorded value to individual experience and variation, the critique of liberalism has tended to stress its distance from anything we would recognize as authentic experience. To this extent, liberalism is often perceived by the radical Left as worse than conservatism, in that it is seen to legitimate rather than lament capitalist modernity and as failing to capture fundamental human and social needs.
To focus on individual character as an ideological element of a benighted liberalism is to fail to acknowledge the informing textures of liberalism's own characterology or its status as an affirmed stance with its own forms of lived complexity. This chapter will seek to recapture and reframe liberalism as a body of thought and as a lived political commitment, and in doing so it will argue for a more differentiated understanding of both the history of liberalism and its ethos, or character. The chapter will focus especially on liberalism's sense of the challenges it faces and on the cautions it sounds in light of those conditions and forces that threaten its aspirations. I will pay special attention to persistent efforts to expand liberalism beyond the boundaries of what we think of as classical economic liberalism, to acknowledge the limits of reason, and to explore artistic and literary means for expressing political experience. The chapter will explore twentieth-century liberal formations in some depth, largely because liberalism of the interwar, war, and cold war era manifests with striking intensity the features I wish to underscore throughout the book. As I will argue, the liberalism of this era — bleak, chastened, and invested in complex aesthetic expression of its aims and experiential depth — is best viewed not as an anomaly within the history of liberal thought but rather as a heightened example of persistent features of liberal thinking and art. Since this book will culminate in two chapters on the literature and aesthetic theories of this era, this opening chapter importantly sets the stage for both the book as a whole and the final chapters. My hermeneutic wager is that the profound disenchantment of twentieth-century political thought helps light up a persistent feature of liberal aspiration, and this chapter therefore returns to nineteenth-century thinkers only after a discussion of the mid-twentieth century. At the conclusion of this chapter, I will address the relation of neoliberalism to the broad formation of bleak liberalism I am aiming to reconstruct. The final section has two aims: to directly confront the challenge that neoliberalism poses to the project of traditional political liberalism, and to characterize the informing aims and principles of the critics of neoliberalism, who, I will argue, share important features of the bleak liberal tradition and thus could be considered to extend it, if ambivalently.
Before I continue, however, let me provide a brief note on my use of "ethos" and "character." I use these terms throughout the book both to emphasize their close interrelation and to suggest that it is not coherent to treat "ethos" as a valorized term, as much anti-humanistic discourse does, while banning "character." "Ethos" is doubtless privileged by some because it seems to denote habits and practices — or ways of being — without invoking the unified self many associate with "character." And in its meaning as "culture," it also crucially allows for characterizations that extend beyond the individual to the collective or community at large. I will employ both terms because I believe that using "character" along with "ethos" helps us think through the ethical and existential dimensions of intellectual and political positions, precisely because terms we associate with character (particularly adjectival and adverbial ascriptions) often signal moments where the lived aspects of theory are making their force felt. My aim in using both terms is thus to illuminate the way various forms of thought imagine how ideas and commitments might be enacted and lived. In this sense, the characterological dimensions of thought infuse it with experiential vividness, but they are not equivalent to the characterological attributes of a person. My focus here is on the character of forms of thinking as they express what might be called their existential dimensions.
Liberalism's own character can be discerned, I will suggest, only if one sees liberalism not just as a philosophy aiming to set out first principles but also, and almost from the start, as a situated response to historical challenges. Ironically, the recent academic framings of liberalism effect a denial of liberalism's own internal history, even as those who dismiss it call for a careful attention to the situated nature of all thought. From its inception, liberal thinkers were aware of the tension between the abstract value of liberty and the problem of social and economic equality, and that awareness prompted significant systematic shifts in liberal thought beginning in the later nineteenth century. The New Liberalism in Britain associated with T. H. Green, L. T. Hobhouse, and J. A. Hobson involved an attempt to articulate the principles of socioeconomic justice, and the scope of government action, that would allow for any meaningful achievement of liberty within the conditions of the modern economic state. And on the political front, the development of the welfare state in Europe and the New Deal in the United States constituted a major redirection of the liberal project toward social democratic policy. These changes in philosophical outlook and political program also led to replacing the emphasis on the isolated individual with an emphasis on individuals as socially embedded and interdependent. From the organicism of the New Liberals to the pragmatic holism of John Dewey and the communicative ethics of Jürgen Habermas, a major strand of liberal thought foregrounds the embedded nature of social life and the impossibility of imagining an individual agent who can be cleanly separated from the rest of the polity. Moreover, the processual nature of political liberalism, whether viewed as a neutral proceduralism or as a commitment to a positive conception of liberty founded on discussion in the service of assumed values (characterological, intellectual, or political), is fundamentally open-ended and reflective, displacing the passive conceptions of market liberalism and rational self-interest as the guarantors of systemic progress.
Liberalism's self-correcting movements do not merely reflect a progressivist confidence, though they have often been seen that way. On the contrary, the self-critical and transformative nature of liberalism throughout its history, its responsiveness to ethical, philosophical, and historical challenges, brings to the fore an entirely different facet of the liberal character that has been present since the beginning — a pessimism or bleakness of attitude that derives from awareness of all those forces and conditions that threaten the realization of liberal ambitions. This is not to dismiss the exclusions that have attended liberalism throughout its long history, exclusions based on many forms of ascribed and chosen identities. To reconstruct the ways liberalism has engaged recalcitrant social and psychological problems is not to aim to dissolve the differences between consciously avowed problems and those that are ignored or disavowed or even actively created. Figures discussed in this chapter, including preeminently Mill and Trilling, displayed forms of bias and exclusion especially when it came to race. And of course liberalism's advances don't always come from internal questioning but also arise from external pressure. Many accounts of liberalism to date have given great emphasis to these shortcomings, and some have seen such exclusions as constitutive of liberalism. I do not adhere to that view, seeking rather to reconstruct liberalism's doubts about its own project and its understanding of the ways it remains an unfinished project. Elements of internal blindness and identity-based exclusions require acknowledgment, however, and they will come up in several of the writers included here. The discussion of Ralph Ellison and Doris Lessing in chapter 5 will return us centrally to the unaddressed problem of race in many of the liberals of the postwar era.
As I discussed in the introduction, to duly acknowledge liberalism's own internal struggles, its historically situated forms of self-criticism and self-transformation, is to disclose a philosophical and political orientation that has more existential density than it is often presumed to possess. This fact also has significant implications, I will show, for the range of aesthetic forms and effects we associate with liberalism. The complex range of stances and affects manifest throughout liberalism's history is attributable not merely to a governing flexibility of mind that might be classified under the rubric of the liberal temperament, but also to interacting forms of analysis and human response that typically express a dialectic of skepticism and hope. On the one hand, one encounters bleak sociologies, sober psychologies, historical pessimism; on the other, commitments to freedom and equality, to individual and collective self-actualization, to democratic process and the rule of law. To begin to recognize these shaping tensions of liberalism therefore can prompt new ways of thinking about both the liberal ethos and the liberal aesthetic. In this sense, a renewed understanding of liberalism promises to move beyond a restrictive association with a narrow, and ideologically blinkered, valorization of temperament and character. It does so not by dismissing the importance of character in relation to ideology, but by trying to give a fuller understanding of the specific character of liberalism's ongoing relation to its own project.
As I have suggested, this constellation of concerns is perhaps nowhere more evident than in the liberalisms of the twentieth century, particularly in what often goes under the name cold war liberalism. Cold war liberalism is often assumed to simply confirm the bid for power, and the exercise of force, that is perceived to underlie liberalism's disavowal of the fact that power structures all relations and institutions. But a closer look at this passage in the history of liberalism, including the debates that arose in the thirties and forties (in advance of the cold war proper), reveals a complex and considered response to a set of factors: the rise of fascism, the entry into World War II, and the profound disappointment of the Soviet experiment. Many of those who entered the debate, it is striking to note, were as interested in aesthetics, particularly literature, as they were in politics.
The debates that developed in the pages of Partisan Review and elsewhere among the group known as the New York intellectuals are generally underrepresented in histories of twentieth-century criticism, and certainly in theory anthologies, which tend to elevate the New Critics as the key precursors to the rise of theory in the sixties, while the frameworks for discussion of aesthetics and politics are drawn from the Frankfurt school, the New Left, and British cultural studies. Tellingly, the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism includes entries by only three figures from this intellectual context, none of whom were cold war liberals: Leon Trotsky (an important figure in this cultural milieu, and one whose works appeared in its journals), Irving Howe, and Edmund Wilson.
Two forces have contributed to this occlusion: the bitter relationship between the cold war liberals and the New Left, and the rise of theory itself, which incorporated a structuring critique of humanism and liberalism. That many of the cold war liberals had earlier subscribed to more radical positions, either as self-identifying communists or as fellow travelers, has reinforced a common sense on the left that liberalism is itself fundamentally conservative. To adapt the title of a book on Trilling and Whittaker Chambers, everyone seemed to have made a "conservative turn." One cannot emphasize this too sharply: the axiomatic view on the left is that liberals are conservative. And the New York intellectuals as a socio-intellectual and cultural-political phenomenon seem to underscore this point in such a way that the actual content of their debates ends up getting nullified. The move from radical to conservative (or neoconservative) is seen as at once a personal autobiographical tendency and a historical trend, both of which reinforce each other and in turn justify a larger tendency to collapse liberalism and neoconservatism. Thus Alan Wald, in his history of the New York intellectuals, asserts that Irving Kristol "personally embodied neoconservatism's continuity with Cold War liberalism."
Excerpted from Bleak Liberalism by Amanda Anderson. Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents
1 Bleak Liberalism 18
2 Liberalism in the Age of High Realism 46
3 Revisiting the Political Novel 78
4 The Liberal Aesthetic in the Postwar Era: The Case of Trilling and Adorno 99
5 Bleak Liberalism and the Realism/Modernism Debate: Ellison and Lessing 115