The Missing Liberal Canon

A Slate article by Beverly Gage with the unfortunate headline “Why Is There No Liberal Ayn Rand?” crossed my sight earlier today, inspiring the question “Why should anyone wish for one?” But the article’s actual question is a better one. Conservatives tend to cite a fairly narrow range of texts that sum up their philosophy of government: The Road to SerfdomAnarchy, State, and Utopia; The Book of Virtues, Witness, A Vindication of Natural Society, The Bible, and so on. By contrast liberals, a less unified lot in general, tend to pull their intellectual influences from so wide a range of thinkers that it’s hard to get them together to produce what could be described as a unified canon of liberal thought.

The article points out that this is reflective of liberal political movements generally, which tend to fragment into issue oriented advocacy on behalf of groups within the coalition, without taking the time to build a language common to all factions. While there have been texts from leftist writers that have made claims to universality–The Communist Manifesto, On Liberty, A Theory of Justice–none have held the undisputed title for long in liberal circles. (Marx has taken a particular hit for having been associated, fairly or not, with the 20th century political tyrannies that claimed to be based on his ideas.)

Gage argues that this lack of a canon is a problem for liberal intellectuals.

Some of this imbalance is due to the relative weakness of the current American left. Liberals are not the logical counterweight to conservatives; leftists are, but they are few in number. Still, we have the political spectrum that we have, and liberals fail to take up the intellectual challenge at their peril. Conventional wisdom suggests that Romney may have doomed his electoral bid by choosing an ideologue—one who likes to go on about Ayn Rand!—as his vice presidential nominee. Yet it seems equally possible that Ryan’s nomination will do just what Romney wants: mobilize a base of committed activists who share most of Ryan’s basic ideas.

The default mode for liberals and progressives in such situations has often been to celebrate “diversity”—intellectual, racial, sexual, and of most other sorts. In many ways this is for the best. Nobody wants to return to an era in which politics and political ideas were dominated by a handful of white men, however thoughtful. Yet we rarely pause to consider what liberals have lost by neglecting a common intellectual heritage and by attempting to win political success without a political canon. At its best, a canon helps people put the pieces together, offering long-term goals and visions that sustain movements through periods of trial and defeat. Without those visions, liberals have no coherent way of explaining where we’re headed, or of measuring how far we’ve come.

I agree with Gage that the left is moribund in U.S. political life, and that we’re probably past due for someone to develop a new Grand Unified Theory of the the left that takes on issues of racism, sexism, environmentalism, class struggle, economic growth, and globalization. Where trouble comes is in figuring out how all of these different, sometimes incompatible parts, can be fused in a way that advocates for each the various causes liberals care about can respect.  The liberal coalition’s diversity is the barrier to the project. The more diverse a coalition is, the easier it is to stir up arguments within it. Whoever frames the big idea for the left would have to find a way to defend it from attacks not just from conservatives, but from liberals annoyed at perceived slights to this or that faction.

It’s this tendency among denizens of the left that make this scene funny:

By contrast, the conservative coalition, in the U.S. anyway, is uncomplicated, with few moving parts. Conservative libertarians and conservative Christians may love laissez-faire capitalism for different (and sometimes contradictory) reasons, but their adoration of it is sufficient for them to tolerate disagreements in other areas. (This is why conservative libertarians cede ground on social issues to conservative Christians: so long as the libertarians get their tax cuts and their slashed regulations on business, abridged rights of women or the long jail sentences served by drug users mean little to them.) Conservatives also tend to be culturally and ethnically homogenous in the U.S., which gives them fewer areas for disagreement and eases their acceptance of common authority. It’s little wonder that conservatives agree on a canon, with so few reasons to disagree on one.

So, at the risk of bringing Lenin into it, I’ll ask, what is to be done? Obviously, if a project to intellectually unify the left in the 21st century were easy, someone would have done it by now. It’s likely that each of the texts from which we’d draw would annoy someone enough to disqualify it. Das Kapital‘s analysis of the economy is out of date and unsuited to late capitalism; John Kenneth Galbraith’s Affluent Society is a handy general description of the modern economy but lacks rigor. Can all current questions of race really be submitted to the works of Martin Luther King, or of sexism to Betty Friedan? Maybe, but probably not. The works that unified the left in the past came from contemporary voices arising from contemporary conditions. They may have drawn inspiration from their past, but they were addressed to their now. So must it be with any new unifying text for the left. Don’t look for it on the bookshelves or in libraries. It hasn’t been written yet.

Oh, and if you think you’re in the process of writing it, stop reading my blog and get back to work. The people need you.


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