Two weeks ago I began discussing some of what I see as the flaws in the left critique of (neo-)liberalism, beginning with the charge that liberals lack imagination, and that liberalism as a political philosophy stunts or enfeebles the political imagination. Today I’d like to advance that idea a little further, once again making use of Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism and thinking about the possibility that the perspective or ethos which Fisher calls by that name might be treated a little more respectably as an expression of what Judith Shklar named the liberalism of fear.
The pertinence of this connection, I think, ought to be clear, as I am writing the day after Marine Le Pen was soundly beaten but still managed to carry off about a third of the vote in the second round of the French presidential election. The most common response was relief, but relief of two kinds. One might be represented by Yascha Mounk, who wrote even before the first round of voting that a Macron win would be a “sensation.” The other variety seems to be represented well by this tweet by MSNBC host Chris Hayes, which is almost a year old but which I see retweeted almost every time now that an election occurs with a similar cast of characters:
I don’t want a future in which politics is primarily a battle between cosmopolitan finance capitalism and ethno-nationalist backlash.
— Christopher Hayes (@chrislhayes) June 24, 2016
Briefly in what follows, I want to explore the meaning of those first three words: “I don’t want.” For in a very real sense, the division we see between someone like Mounk and someone like Hayes is activated by a difference in taste, by a kind of aesthetic judgment about the liberalism of fear. Is there something distasteful about having to vote for an unappealing candidate in order to block a serious threat to democracy and minority rights?
Max Lerner Roundtable Part One: On Revisiting America as a Civilization (Guest Post by Sanford Lakoff)
Dear Readers: Today we begin a series marking the 60th anniversary of the publication of Max Lerner’s America as a Civilization, a work of remarkable sweep and ambition now largely neglected by intellectual historians of the United States. We start with a guest post from Sanford Lakoff, Professor Emeritus of Political Science, at the University of California, San Diego and the author of many books, including Max Lerner: Pilgrim in the Promised Land (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989). Professor Lakoff’s entry marks the first in a three-part series here at the blog on Lerner’s America as a Civilization. Our roundtable continues next week with an entry from Stephen Whitfield, and concludes the following week with an entry from Peter Kuryla. Professor Lakoff’s entry offers us a fine introduction to both Max Lerner and his “opus magnum,” including some thinking about its relevance for us some sixty years on from when it first appeared.
Re-reading Max Lerner’s opus magnum sixty years after it appeared – and even longer since being assigned draft chapters as an undergraduate — is to marvel anew at its remarkable scope and at how thoughtful and sometimes troubling many of its insights remain.
Lerner was acutely aware that he was following the trail blazed by Alexis de Tocqueville over a century earlier. He too set out to identify and describe the design – “the figure in the carpet” –in the country’s ways of life, expressed in its politics, economy, culture, and mores. Relying both on his own observation and a wealth of historical and empirical studies (all cited and discussed in an appendix called “Notes for Further Reading”), he provided astute accounts of many facets of American life. These include the successful if hardship-laden assimilation of immigrants; the persistence of regional character despite homogenizing forces; the movement from agriculture to industry, and with it, from farm to city and suburb; the role of the courts and the interplay of interest groups and parties in defining and redefining the Constitution; the decline of the traditional patriarchal family; and our unique contributions, especially in the first half of the twentieth century, to literature, architecture, and both the fine arts and popular culture. And he recognized, fully and candidly, the “massive fact” that America remained “a divided society” in which racial and ethnic minorities still faced exclusion and hatred.
[Editor’s Note: The following is a guest post from Jesse Lemisch, New Left historian and author of, among other things, “Jack Tar in the Streets: Merchant Seamen in the Politics of Revolutionary America,” “The American Revolution Seen from the Bottom Up,” and “On Active Service in War Peace: Politics and Ideology in the American Historical Profession.” He is also a longtime friend of S-USIH and of this blog. He has, in the past, written a number of guest posts for the blog, including, most recently “Naomi Weisstein: Psychology, Science, and Women’s Liberation.” This post has been updated at the author’s request. — Ben Alpers]
Back in the Sixties (and again today), there was much talk about the duty of left historians to “serve the movement” and come up with a “usable past.” I disagreed. My side seems to have lost. Let me explain.
At various times, people have confused me with another New Left historian/activist, Staughton Lynd. (Here is a 2013 instance, in which David Greenberg is similarly confused.) Admiring Staughton as I do – yea, even revering him — I’m usually happy enough with that confusion. (Don’t we New Left Historians all look the same?). However: In the May 8/15 issue of The Nation, Richard Kreitner presents “A Usable Past: A Conversation on Politics & History with Eric Foner” Foner, whose important work I admire, says in passing:
The “usable past” is a term that became popular in the late 1960s. Howard Zinn used it; Jesse Lemisch used it. Radical historians began talking about it. I like the term because the past should be usable.
As a prefatory remark—in order to be abundantly clear—what follows is not about the ignorance OF history. While some of the points below cross over and apply in certain ways to knowledge deficits in history, the focus here is on talking about moments and formations of ignorance in history. The operative question is this: How do we conceive of, and talk about, moments of perceived ‘ignorance’ in history?
In many of my conversation circles, confessions of ignorance constitute a moral failing. (more…)
What follows is an interview I conducted with Jim Livingston over email. Livingston, Rutgers historian, author most recently of No More Work, and longtime (feisty) friend of the blog, has been having an ongoing debate on his Facebook page about why the left seems to be so anti-liberal, a problem for him. Although these FB threads are revealing if often overheated, I thought that Jim was hiding the history behind his argument–history that he’s been trying to work through for several decades, at least since his 1994 book Pragmatism and the Political Economy of Cultural Revolution. As I had hoped, a few pressing questions from me motivated him to undertake a much more thorough, historical, and theoretical elaboration of his position. Enjoy. And fight back if you disagree.
AH: You’ve been arguing about the history, legacy, and meaning of the left in relation to liberalism with many people on your Facebook page for the past week. It seems that many on the left are heavily invested right now in distinguishing their political tradition from the liberal tradition. I argue that there are historically good reasons for this—that the American left has long defined itself in opposition to American liberalism in large part because Hartz was right, or at least seemed right, that the liberal tradition was the only game in town. But you seem to think that such hard-and-fast distinctions speak to sectarianism. Are those the stakes as you see them? And why have you been using the “Alt-Left” label to describe the anti-liberalism of the left? In doing this you seem to equate the far left and far right, or the “Alt-Right” that people have been fretting about since Trump’s election. Is this useful? It seems to me a move back to the Vital Center or the horseshoe theory, and frankly I don’t see any use in that. (more…)
Following E. P. Thompson’s work on the British working class in the 1960s historians of what we usually call the “new social history” have attempted to produce history that would not rest on texts authored by elites, but on other forms of evidence culled from the archive. Recently I have been preoccupied with the question if that is something intellectual historians should attempt as well. And if they do would it still be intellectual history?