On the Crisis of Liberalism

Eric Schliesser in Digressions & Impressions:

Regular readers know (recall) that I believe the second wave of liberalism+ has ended and that it may not survive the present darkness. (In brief: first long wave: 1776-1914; second wave: 1945-2009. Some readers will say, good riddance, and to you I say, I hope you do better.) The present crisis is much visible in our daily politics (and headlines), shifting public norms, and the rising confidence of regimes and thinkers who, again, openly espouse hierarchical, ethnic, zero-sum, eugenic, and violent solutions to present conflicts.* While there is much urgent, practical work to be done to salvage institutions that may be at the core of a renewal, some reflection away from daily politics is also required. Perhaps, a way forward can be found if we articulate and invite reflection on unresolved short-comings of the liberal tradition today. I think this is urgent not just because we need polities that make minimal decency possible,** but also because we need (or so I assume today) liberal institutions to meet humanity’s great challenges — environmental disaster, genetic engineering, drone warfare — ahead.

Before I do so I mention two qualifications: first, even though there is no shortage of criticism, much of it has been calling attention to features not bugs of liberalism: that it is disruptive of tradition, that it embraces markets, that it is cosmopolitan, that it prefers muddling through and compromise over decisive action, that it requires living with uncertainty, and that it effaces any distinction between higher and lower pleasures and goods. The critics who complain about these features can show us what is found unattractive in liberalism, and surely teach us much about the costs of embracing liberalism, but they cannot point the way to a better, revived form of liberalism.

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