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The Future of Liberalism Hardcover – Deckle Edge, February 3, 2009
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From Publishers Weekly
With one eye toward the Enlightenment and another toward contemporary politics, Wolfe (Does American Democracy Still Work?) mounts a passionate defense of why liberalism—broadly defined—continues to be relevant and essential in this thorough, scholarly text. The author refers to liberalism both in its classical and modern sense, emphasizing its commitment, from its emergence to the present, to the two goals of liberty and equality. Despite the title, the book takes a primarily historical approach, surveying a multitude of liberal thinkers from John Locke to John Rawls—drawing especially heavily on the works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill—applying their theories to both historical and contemporary political issues. The author uses the frame of liberalism to examine terrorism, globalization and the politics of religion. Wolfe ruminates on conservatism's hand in the Hurricane Katrina debacle and, in his musings on globalization, focuses on how liberalism prescribes a philosophical commitment to global welfare rather than parochial concerns or national protectionism. More a work of political theory than a policy text, this book will strongly appeal to readers interested in the tradition of Western liberal thought. (Feb.)
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In Return to Greatness (2005), political-science scholar Wolfe criticized his fellow liberals for losing their vision for the U.S., substituting impulses toward multiculturalism, isolationism, and identity politics instead of a coherent agenda intended to unify the country behind common ideals. His latest book aims to remedy this lack of vision and reinvigorate liberals by presenting a philosophy of liberalism that advocates a decisive and confident return to first principles (namely, those articulated by the classical liberals of the Enlightenment), calibrated to address the crises of the twenty-first century. Drawing on Locke, Mill, Kant, and a handful of contemporary commentators, Wolfe argues that liberalism represents a commitment to cultivate equality, individual autonomy, and openness; having arisen alongside the first stirrings of modern society, liberalism is the political philosophy that is morally and pragmatically best suited for today’s irreversibly modern world. Discussing Rousseau and the persistent strains of Romanticism, however, Wolfe observes that liberalism may be challenged not only by conservatives but by the impulse, prevalent on the Right and the Left, to reduce human agency to acts of nature. Erudite and insightful. --Brendan Driscoll
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Top customer reviews
It is interesting that conservatives, given their insistence that they are the prime promoters and guardians of freedom, see rights as being no more than those existing in a pre-social natural order, which are quite elementary. All man can do is distort that natural order when it comes to enhancing rights. That perspective has much in common with the view that a religious order defines one's place in society. Either perspective supports the various hierarchies of society, where natural leaders by natural right have more of everything, including money and power. In essence, man cannot and should not escape his natural place - quite a limited view of freedom.
But conservatism is a philosophy that is at odds with the tremendous progress that has been made by the average man in Western liberal democracies over the last couple of hundred years of vast technological and social change. Much to the dismay of conservatives, enlarged, powerful states have created and enforced rights that have enabled large percentages of their populations to make advancements, while curtailing the prerogatives of elites. The rigid dependencies of traditional societies - families, serfs (employees) and lords (CEOs), etc - have been tempered and lost legitimacy. Despite claims to the contrary, conservatives also favor a large state with considerable police powers to enforce social hierarchies, that is, the privileges of elites.
While certainly a concern of the author is the "future" of liberalism, a great portion of the book is devoted to its history: its key proponents and their arguments, as well as its critics. Basic to this discussion is the disagreement between Rousseau and Kant over two centuries ago concerning the legitimacy of a social versus a natural approach to human affairs. Civilization and the requirement for cooperation basically infringes on the essential nature of man according to Rousseau, while Kant holds that man can advance beyond a primitive state only through such socially enhanced constructs as freedom and equality. The author also refers to other giants of liberal thought like John Stuart Mill and Benjamin Constant.
A fundamental aspect of being able to truly exercise freedom is the absence of significant dependencies. The basis of Jefferson's belief in democracy was a nation largely made up of self-sufficient farmers. However, the complete transformation of the US economy, after industrialization to one where most people are employees and are subject to the capriciousness of markets, necessitates, according to the author, a welfare state. As the author notes, the welfare state "is an exercise in self-governance," because it gives individuals a basic level of autonomy in making choices regardless of current standing, especially employment status. The conservative dream of cutting back the welfare state would restore a so-called natural order where elites can dictate to the disadvantaged.
The author heads off any suggestions that liberalism is an ideology, akin to fascism, communism, and even nationalism with all of the extremism and rigidity that pertains. In the words of philosopher Richard Rorty, "The social glue holding together the ideal liberal society ... consists in little more than a consensus that the point of social organization is to let everybody have a chance at self-creation to the best of his or her abilities, and that that goal requires, besides peace and wealth, the standard `bourgeois freedoms'." Liberalism seeks to be situated in the "vital center" and be the reasonable approach in contrast to the emotions and dangerous consequences of various forms of romantic utopianism, such as market fundamentalism or trying to install democracy in some of the most backward places in the world. Unfortunately, democratic debate often seems to get short shrift when elites are determined to follow agendas of dubious validity.
The author offers few prognostications concerning the future of liberalism; however, he makes clear that the American public has suffered greatly from the meagerness of conservatives. Conservatives basically do not have a coherent public philosophy, including the role of government, which is readily seen in their unconscionable handling of the natural disaster Katrina and their permitting Wall St. and multi-national corporations to act with no regard for the consequences on our economy. Their essentially anti-government approach is well put by a pundit: "From a liberal perspective, conservatives cannot govern for the same reason that vegetarians cannot prepare a world-class boeuf-bourguignon; if you believe that what you are called to do is wrong, you are not likely to do it very well."
The modern world is far too complex and interdependent for the simplistic approaches of conservatives. "Survival of the fittest" thinking and its variants are utterly irresponsible in the modern civilized world. Government must not only take the leading role in managing all of this complexity, but must also be a "countervailing" power, primarily towards huge economic entities. And that is in addition to performing the broader role of ensuring that citizens truly have equal opportunity and the wherewithal to make choices. However, "the essence of conservatism is that it wants to limit the reach of liberty and equality while the essence of modernity is to expand them." As the author says, "Modernity cannot be managed by pretending that modernity never happened."
Liberalism is a philosophy, but it is people, some of whom may be self-classified liberals, who actually vote. Most people are not philosophers, but they are heavily influenced by the many forms of media and educational and religious institutions. There is no doubt that the conservative surge in the last few decades has been aided by a tremendous propaganda campaign fueled by rich conservative donors. An artificial reality has been constructed that obviously has wide appeal. Government in all of its manifestations is demonized and corporations become benign entities. In addition, fears and prejudices are pandered to. The author is so focused on liberalism that this propaganda onslaught goes virtually unmentioned, which is by far the greatest enemy of liberalism.
The following two chapters are interesting though they have their flaws. Wolfe wants to convince that equality is inevitable without really discussing what he takes the word to mean and his plea to reign in passion in politics in the end feels rather like an appeal for the abolishment of it. However, his discussion of ‘political romanticism’ is an original addition.
However, from this point onwards Wolfe slowly stops talking about liberalism in the universal sense and progressively turns inward to liberalism in the United States. As a European this didn’t appeal to me too much. More importantly though the book becomes less convincing from that point onwards, because this is the moment when Wolfe begins to juxtapose liberalism with its contestants.
This is where several flaws of Wolfe become apparent. In general he has a tendency not to take his opponents seriously enough. He often does not (fairly) describe the arguments of the authors he criticizes. When it comes to his more abstract antagonist “conservatism” I felt like that he often gives in to putting up a caricature. Moreover, he has a certain penchant for dichotomies and thus ignores or marginalizes other aspects. Worst though is that at times, especially in the last chapter, Wolfe simply contradicts himself.
His focus inward on the US make for several other features of the book. One is the tautological argument that liberalism is especially fit for modernity by describing modernity as it is in liberal societies. However, the reality of illiberal modern societies such as Singapore puts into doubt the self-evident nature of this argument. Likewise he wrote the book at the height of the Pink Tide in the Americas, but consistently dismisses socialism as irrelevant. In addition, I feel that his argument on religion is only compelling to liberals or those religious which are of a (liberal) protestant persuasion. At the end of it I found myself thinking “but what if I’m a Catholic?”.
A third, though minor, criticism I have is the sometimes uncritical historical arguments he makes. Wolfe portrays the New Deals as something which liberals enthusiastically adopted while his almost namesake Richard Wolff (and others with him) argues the exact opposite. In addition, having recently read “Medieval Foundations of the Western Intellectual Tradition”, his description of pre-modern and medieval times seems riddled with platitudes.
In the end The Future of Liberalism is a mixed bag of some excellent arguments, but too many mediocre ones. I would certainly recommend reading parts of it, but on the whole this book had a potential which it didn’t reach.
Most recent customer reviews
The Future of Liberalism is a competent history of core liberal ideas. It is wide ranging, in both the issues and theorists it addresses.Read more