In watching the flow of events since the turn of the century, even the casual observer cannot help but be struck by the divergence of opinion about their meaning. The title of this essay gives the reader notice of the direction of my thinking, namely, that these several decades constitute the serial unfolding of two competing party understandings—one from conservative Republicans, the other from progressive Democrats, of the meaning of history, each of which guides domestic politics and foreign policy into definitive and sometimes procrustean channels. While the conservative version has recently foundered and its adherents are seeking to find their voice anew, progressives celebrate the seeming inevitability of their vision (as did conservatives after 1989). But they approach a shipwreck of their own.
The conservative version failed because it was predicated on a fixed and unwavering understanding of human nature that was supposed to be true for all peoples, at all times, in all places: Liberal Triumphalism. The historical task, many conservatives thought, was to order politics and commerce in accordance with that vision. At home, this vision has not prevailed, and what remains of it is under escalating attack by progressives who have been emboldened by their hold on political power and nearly all the other institutions in society. Abroad, the failure—ideational, not military—in Iraq and Afghanistan to transform authoritarian regimes into liberty-loving ones has raised deep and troubling questions about how universal this particular conservative vision of human nature really is.
The conservative “end of history”—ended. In the progressive moment that is now upon us, progressives argue for a new version of the end of history. Categorically opposed to Liberal Trimphalism, progressives offer up a vision that is nevertheless naive, unworkable, and dangerous. Where conservatives largely sought to extend their own fixed understanding of human nature abroad, progressives have sought, with some success, to overwhelm longstanding political, commercial, and societal understandings at home. Divided by what they oppose, conservative Republicans at the end of the Cold War and progressive Democrats today have nevertheless been united in their belief that an “end of history” of their own devising is, in principle, possible to engineer and to manage.
This brief sketch has a certain heuristic elegance. It does not, however, fully canvas the facts and ideas that swirl about us “like mental dust”, as Alexis de Tocqueville called them, when describing the status of ideas in the democratic age.1 A more nuanced reading of the contemporary moment and describes three different paradigms that organize the facts and ideas around us and vie for our allegiance. The reason is that not all conservatives, and not all progressives, fit neatly within one or another of the two basic paradigms; the Venn diagram overlaps—within the minds of conservatives and progressives, and within the parties of which they are members—complicate matters. This is especially true today for conservatives, because recent failures have brought certain background strands of thought to the forefront,2 whose proponents now seek to offer them up as the organizing center for the next generation of conservative thinkers and politicians. But this is true also of progressives, whose recent victories have prompted some to wonder, as E.J. Dionne recently put it,3 whether we are witnessing an “acceleration of history.” This question, unthinkable while conservatives dominated the field after 1989, will invariably set modest progressives against the more emboldened sorts, and divide a now ascendant progressive party over the question: Just how fast is America as we have known it, and the world beyond its borders, bending to the will of progressives—or, rather, to the will of history itself?
The three paradigms that vie for our allegiance, therefore, are: Liberal Triumphalism; the anti-Liberal Politics of Identity; and The Great Exhaustion.
This paradigm emerged as a political force after 1989 and the end of the Cold War, but its first formulation arrived much earlier. Its more humble antecedents—“Liberal” without the adjective “triumphal”—can be coherently traced to Locke in the 1680s, to Kant in the 1780s, to Tocqueville in the 1830s, to Mill in the 1860s, and to a host of other important figures before and after. The focus below is on the more humble Liberal understanding; only after considering that can we consider how it morphed into Liberal Triumphalism, and on what basis its appeal rests.
The two central ideas of Liberal thought are that reason and freedom are coterminous, and that the individual—rather than the family, tribe, or community of which the individual is a part—is sovereign. The Liberal account is that the meaning of history is the slow, halting, and perhaps impermanent emergence of the sovereign individual, in whom reason dwells and for whom freedom cannot be alienated.
Liberals believe that politics is not a venue for glory, oratory, magnanimity, or heroic virtues—as it was in the ancient world, say, for Aristotle. Rather, politics is that forum through which the sacrosanct votes of sovereign rational individuals—attenuated by institutional arrangements that meliorate the dangers of democratic excess—establish plausible wagers about possible futures toward which the polity legitimately aims. All this until the next election cycle, when that wager is reaffirmed, modified, or rejected. Being reasonable, individuals can be persuaded through conversation; being free, political legitimacy requires that persuasion occur through those citizen conversations rather than by the threat of force or its actual use.
Liberals believe that commerce should be set up so that there are no permanent winners or losers established by law, as it was with ancient slavery and with the medieval guild system. Rather, through a market pricing mechanism, entrepreneurs and buyers make wagers about possible futures. Strictly speaking, with market commerce there is no such thing as The Economy, because the term supposes a comprehensive and knowable whole that is anathema to the very idea of market commerce.4 The task of those who oversee market commerce is to assure citizen-participants that the national currency is not debased, that lawful contracts are honored, and that price discovery is possible. All this, so that citizens concerned with the real needs of their households may make reasonable decisions about the next purchase they make.
In a world characterized by scarcity, market commerce does not bring suffering and deprivation to an end. Through it, however, suffering and deprivation can become less extensive than they otherwise would have been. Market commerce is not, therefore, an unmitigated “good.” Rather, it is less bad than the alternative—a top-down command economy in which winners and losers are determined in advance, often in the name of the common good, though seldom to that effect. In commerce (as in politics), the Liberal always thinks in terms of provisional answers, adequate for the moment, each sowing the seeds of their own modification or destruction, each preparing the way for the next set of provisional answers, ad infinitum. That is why the Liberal is opposed to the slave economy, the guild economy—and, in our own day, why the Liberal is opposed to crony capitalism and corporatism. Each of them arrests history, so to speak. Each specifies in advance what the good is. The Liberal knows that our reach always exceeds our grasp. We may know that there is a good, but we can seldom agree with our neighbor about what it is. That is why Liberal commerce (and politics) is set up to make only provisional wagers about the future. “Let us be satisfied with taking the next step, and arrange a world were reasonable and free sovereign individuals can contribute to deliberating what that next step might be”, says the Liberal.
Liberals believe that society must be ordered with a view to encouraging sovereign individuals to develop their reason, so that they may be free. Yet the Liberal knows just how mysterious and ineffable are the invisible threads that hold society together. The ordering that is needed is not always forthcoming, and it cannot be easily managed even when it is. When that ordering is absent, it can seldom be engineered from above. The hallowed institutions that make such education unto reason and freedom possible are the family, churches and synagogues, local schools, a free press, and civic associations—all of which form citizens-in-training so that they become fit for self-governance. This, in turn, makes citizens governable by a modest national power that understands that the institutions of society accomplish vital pre-political and pre-economic tasks necessary for Liberal politics and market commerce to work at all. Nowhere is this more apparent than in that most fragile of matters, verbal consent—without which rational and free sovereign individuals cannot take responsibility for themselves or for others. Without the fragile third rail that is society, the political manifestation of consent (the sacrosanct vote), and the economic manifestation of consent (the transaction and the contract) cannot fully develop, let alone become second nature.
The interlocking Liberal vision of politics, economics, and society does not suppose that human beings and their institutions are perfectible, only that they can be modestly improved. It does not begin from the fugitive standard of perfection and measure its successes and failures accordingly; it rather begins from the fact of the violent passions of war, the darker allegiances of family name and tribe, the propensity toward patronage, and the sometimes dead-weight of history, and asks, “What might the next step be in order to improve our lot, to help us achieve a sovereignty for which we often long, yet which eludes us.”
The Liberal vision is aspirational, to be sure, but it is not confident; it offers a wager, not a proof. It rests on hope, not on certainty. Liberal Triumphalism emerges onto the scene when aspiration gives way to confidence, when wager gives way to proof, when hope gives way to certainty. Tocqueville thought this need for a comprehensive, certain, and unitary theory-of-everything was one of the great scourges of the democratic age.5 The world is ineluctably plural and non-parsimonious, and will not yield to efforts to make it pure and stain-free. The democratic self, Tocqueville thought, would demand that it be otherwise. Liberal Triumphalism is in this sense a “democratic” version of the more modest Liberal vision. Not content that the world’s troubles can, at best, be ameliorated, Tocqueville thought that in the democratic age, we would come to see the world before us in terms of “problems” that need and can have “solutions”—and simple, unequivocal ones at that. Liberal Triumphalism is, or rather was, the conservative Republican iteration of this democratic demand for parsimony and certainty.
The Politics of Identity
The anti-Liberal Politics of Identity is a response to the perceived scandal of the two central ideas of Liberal thought: that reason and freedom are coterminous, and that the individual is sovereign. The intellectual roots of this attack on Liberal thought date to Rousseau in the 1750s; the attack then develops on a number of differing fronts: Marx in the 1840s; Nietzsche in the 1880s; Freud in the 1920s; Heidegger in the 1930s; the Frankfurt School in the 1940s and 1950s; and in the rest of the 20th century by postmodern derivatives of their thinking. “What if reason is the condition of our bondage”, asks the anti-Liberal. “Might it be that freedom consists in our liberation from reason, in the embrace of sentiments and desires that well up against reason”, the anti-Liberal wonders. “Might the ‘individual’ be but a fiction, invented for the dark political purpose of serving a specific racial (white), class (bourgeois), or gendered (male) interest”, the anti-Liberal asserts. To come to its central thesis today: Might pre- or supra-rational “identity” be the answer to every vexing question of domestic politics, of commerce, and of society?
Anti-Liberals do not all have an explicit politics; some anti-Liberals are expressly anti-political. Insofar as anti-Liberals do have a politics, they do not begin, as Liberals do, from the presumption of a plurality of individuals who are capable of exercising their reason (even if they do not always or often do so), with a view to representing their will in policy and in action. Their politics begins with the suspicion that reason is a subterfuge, a veil, a self-deception. Early anti-Liberals sought to show that “merely” rational, individuated selves could find themselves only by being lifted up beyond their small and eviscerated lives, and that politics was the venue for doing that. However different, the anti-Liberal political project of Rousseau and of Marx both propose that we are lost to ourselves unless politics reformulates who we are, unless it shows us, through force, that we are more than merely rational individuals. Anti-Liberal politics doesn’t represent us, as Liberal politics does; it saves us from our diminutive and alienated selves.
Later anti-Liberals, fatigued by the violence of the two Great Wars of the first half of the 20th century, have worked relentlessly within Liberal regimes to undermine the Liberal belief in the sovereign individual within whom both reason and freedom reside. Anti-Liberal politics after World War II does not seek to lift us up, through violence, beyond our shallow Liberal selves; it moves in the other direction, and incessantly reminds us that beneath our much vaunted reason and freedom lies our identity in race, class, and gender. The task of politics, therefore, is not to adjudicate rational interests within the constraints of a constitutional framework; rather, its task is that of bean-counting, of making sure that all “identities” are equality represented, so that “justice” may prevail. There are no sovereign individuals, only bearers of this or that “identity.” The Liberal constitutional framework, the rule of law, the fixation on procedure, the long labor by which merit distinguishes some from the rest—these are but obstructions on the way to a more “equitable” world. The anti-Liberal today does not destroy Liberal institutions from without, but rather uses those institutions to undermine the Liberal political order from within.
Anti-Liberals do not all have an explicit plan for commerce; what they share in common, however, is a dubiety about the supposedly rational and free sovereign individual who would want to engage in it. Where anti-Liberals do have a plan for commerce, they begin, not as Liberals do, from the supposition that scarcity can only be diminished when the tyranny of man is checked by market commerce operating within the framework of the rule of law; but rather from the supposition that scarcity can be overcome only if we attend to the tyranny of need. For the Liberal, we are not only free; we are, in addition, disposed to abuse that freedom. For that reason, Liberals argue, market commerce, in which no entrepreneur can be a permanent winner, is less tyrannical than is a command economy, in which a permanent 1 percent always seems to hover over the remaining 99 percent. The anti-Liberal believes that “freedom” is a class prejudice, perhaps even a racial prejudice; therefore the Liberal warning about the tyranny of crony capitalism and corporatism must be dismissed as a bourgeois prejudice or, more recently, a “white” prejudice—hence the palpable sentiment among some anti-Liberals that “only white Tea Party Republicans could believe in free markets.”
Because freedom is a fiction of the class or the racial mind, anti-Liberals think they can ignore it, and get down to the real business of overcoming scarcity. Here, too, the post-World War II anti-Liberal fatigue with the project of violent overthrow is instructive. Who, today, among anti-Liberals, has the stomach for Marx’s revolutionary fervor? Instead, polite anti-Liberal company converses about “sustainability”, “food security”, and the like, with the intention not to overthrow global commerce but to coopt it.6 If freedom is a class or a racial fiction, then there is no need to worry about the tyranny of transnational agencies whose task it would be to assure that our resources are well-used and that everyone is fed, no need to worry that powerful corporations will coopt them so that just their products, their procedures, their ways of doing business, become the global standard through which their competitors are hobbled and eliminated. There is, in a word, no need to worry about the abuse of power that always seems to emerge when commerce is guided from above, by a visible hand.
Commerce based on slavery, the Liberal notes, was set up so that a few would profit at the expense of the many; the medieval guild system was also set up so that the few would profit at the expense of the many. And, so, the Liberal asks, “Why would it be different this time? How do we know that the establishment of transnational agencies who will offer the 99 percent the right to food and water and shelter will not do so by establishing a 1 percent class of winners, who, in ‘stabilizing the economy,’ will destroy the market competition that leads to the improvements and to the increases in the standard of living that the 99 percent actually need?”
The anti-Liberal answers: “Because the tyranny of need, not the tyranny of man, is the singular problem we face.” If compromises have to be made along the way—say, by allowing corporate pharmacy and hospital giants to have a strong hand in writing the Affordable Care Act—these inconveniences must be borne in order solve the problem of the tyranny of need, from which every other problem flows. Crony capitalism and corporatism need not worry us, really, because we stand on the precipice of a post-market-commerce-stage-of-history. We who have seen this future (and who benefit from crony capitalism and corporatism now, or who will when we graduate from our elite, anti-Liberal, universities), have something higher and nobler in mind than unsavory market commerce, which is based only on the lowest common denominator of human greed. We have in mind the eradication of the scarcity and selfishness that market commerce itself has caused. Unwilling to believe either in individual freedom or in the institutional arrangements that must be in place to check its abuses, the anti-Liberal believes that the tyranny of need authorizes a post-Liberal order, in which the Liberal (and probably irreducibly “white”) fiction of freedom that has immiserated a vast swath of humanity is finally and fully repudiated.
Anti-Liberals do not view society as a fragile domain through which families, churches and synagogues, local schools, a free press, and civic associations bring forth citizens and entrepreneurs. Rather, they argue that these institutions have produced the prejudices that must be eradicated in order for a full-throated anti-Liberal politics and commerce to prevail. Society, for anti-Liberals, is not fragile, it is too strong; it stands in the way of the needed political and commercial transformation that will save Liberals from their prejudices, and save the rest of the world from Liberals. To the great and central question of our day, “does society lead or does it follow politics and commerce”, the Liberal gives one answer and the anti-Liberal gives another. For the Liberal, society must lead; for the anti-Liberal, society must follow.
The Soviet Union sought to reshape society through political means during the Cold War. Commerce never having approached the independent power it achieved in America, it could neither forcefully act in concert with politics against society, or with society against politics. Politics alone was the vanguard. In America, for better and for worse, commerce did achieve a certain independence from politics. Anti-Liberals in America who believe society should follow politics have therefore been able to enlist the commercial sector to bring society in line with anti-Liberal sentiments in ways that were unavailable to the Soviet Union. In America today, politics and commerce are the vanguard. The Soviets would have been envious. Whatever your views of gay marriage and the Confederate flag, if you are a Liberal you are bound to be uneasy that both political and commercial pressures have been brought to bear against longstanding sentiments in society. The issue, for the Liberal who is ever concerned with procedure, is not the substance of the matter, but the implication of the two-fold attack on society. You may like the result at the moment; but what happens later, when you happen to believe in things that political and commercial pressure tells you are ruled out? Where will you go when politics and commerce are allied against you?
As crony capitalist collusion between politics and commerce increases at the national level in America, society will be under increasing attack from both politics and commerce. The Liberal who defends limited national government and market commerce (rather than crony capitalism) knows that only through diminished political and commercial power does society have a chance to be relatively independent. The anti-Liberal who is currently gleeful that longstanding sentiments of society have been for the moment silenced does not know what trouble lies ahead. The Liberal idea of checks and balances between politics, commerce, and society may not help you and your cause today, but because it will help you tomorrow, the far-seeing Liberal argues that you must defend the idea today.
Before turning to The Great Exhaustion, there is something to be said for the better sentiments that underlie the anti-Liberal politics of identity. Anyone who has taken the time to carefully read Rousseau, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, and Heidegger knows that whatever their failings may have been, they sought to illuminate those domains of human experience that many Liberals did not, or could not, explore. While the most subtle Liberals understood that reason, freedom, and the sovereign individual were aspirations, set against the backdrop of an intransigent world that often militated against them, Liberal Triumphalism was, and is, an easy temptation for those looking for a parsimonious world. It is against this certainty—that we are reasonable, that we are free, and that we are sovereign—that Anti-Liberal thought achieves its purchase.
Indeed, anti-Liberalism’s formidable power lies in reminding us that Liberal Triumphalism is not the final word about who we are. Allied against a triumphalist view of reason, freedom, and the sovereign individual are the insights of Rousseau (that in society, especially the more civilized it becomes, we may still be lost to ourselves), of Marx (that human alienation is deeper than market commerce can solve), of Nietzsche (that deeper than our rationality may lie resentment and smallness of soul), of Freud (that there are upwelling and un-namable desires that reason wishes to suppress), and of Heidegger (that in our restless and never-ending activity we are closed off to a deeper dimension of existence). Not by accident do all of these writers except Rousseau write in the aftermath and shadow of Hegel, the first Liberal Triumphalist. And Rousseau, notwithstanding his many failings, saw it coming before Hegel penned it.
We must nevertheless ask how successful these various anti-Liberal projects to remake politics, commerce, and society have been. Without exception, they have been disastrous. Liberal thought, whatever its limitations—or rather precisely because it conceives of the human situation in terms of limitations—does not offer a program that promises to end human alienation, nor does it bestow the bliss of trans- or sub-rational ecstasy. It does not promise to bring an end to human suffering, or to fully solve the riddle of human inequality. It does not promise complete justice in our time and it does not seek to transform politics, commerce, and society in the name of “fairness.” All these things are promised by one or another strand of anti-Liberal thought.7 When Liberal thought goes rogue, so to speak, when it morphs into Liberal Triumphalism, it becomes, as Fukuyama noted at the conclusion of his seminal essay, “boring.” Brought to bear in parts of the world that have little familiarity with the vast set of preconditions necessary for Liberal politics, commerce, and society to work together, Liberal Triumphalism is far less benign, as we have painfully discovered in the Middle East. It will never, however, produce true believers of the sort that anti-Liberal thought routinely does.
The Great Exhaustion
As for the third paradigm that vies for our allegiance, Tocqueville saw it coming already in 1840:
If citizens continue to shut themselves up more and more narrowly in the little circle of petty domestic interest and keep themselves constantly busy therein, there is a danger that they may in the end become practically out of reach of those great and powerful public emotions which do indeed perturb peoples but which also make them grow and refresh them. . . . I cannot help fearing that men may reach a point where they look on every new theory as a danger, every innovation as a toilsome trouble, every social advance as a first step toward revolution, and that they may absolutely refuse to move at all for fear of being carried off their feet.8
What Tocqueville understood over and above his contemporaries was that while the transition to democratic social conditions is always tumultuous, once they have settled in, a new sort of problem emerges: Citizens will lose faith in liberty and no longer labor to maintain and defend it. Instead, they will prefer a quiet, purportedly beneficent equality in servitude, a despotism that assures them that they have security and adolescent entertainment: Facebook, Twitter, never-ending video games, and the titillation of ever more mesmerizing gadgets. This delivers them from the specter of anxiety and the burden of freedom. The democratic age ends, neither with robust Liberals striving in a forever imperfect world, nor with defiant anti-Liberals striving to perfect the world, but rather with The Great Exhaustion. Striving, uncertainty, risk, labor, suffering, insult—these become too much for our fragile constitutions to bear. Above all, in the time of The Great Exhaustion, no one wants to “feel uncomfortable” and, so, we conspire to organize the world so that it is without duress or hardship. The 1 percent political and commercial classes are happy to oblige.
The Great Exhaustion appears today in many guises, some subtle and some overt. In our primary schools, the attempt to make distinctions based on merit and intelligence, so that our children may be better equipped for the long, difficult, civilizational labor ahead, is superseded by the attempt to socialize and domesticate (especially our boys). Having arrived at the place where no further great leaps forward are possible or even desirable, what purpose do those distinctions serve? In the time of The Great Exhaustion, EQ, not IQ, matters. “Sharing and caring” become paramount; Big Bird and Barney become our philosophers. Everybody gets an “A” because everybody is special in their own way. If we “feel good about ourselves”, isn’t that enough? Preparation for a hostile and ever-changing external world gives way to the celebration of a self-satisfied inner world. “Finding ourselves” becomes more important than building a world. The long chain of generations has already done that for us. Now let us play.
On our playgrounds, everybody gets a trophy. The great and unresolvable tension within a democracy—between the permanent equality that the democratic self wants and the impermanent inequalities of success and failure that alone allow market commerce to bring about improvement—is decided in favor of equality. When on the playground everyone gets a trophy so that “no one’s feelings are hurt”, it is but an easy step to adult sensibilities that insist on holding together a world that is “too big to fail.” Mal-investment (which is to say, failure) not having been allowed to clear, the economic growth needed to support the middle class nowhere appears, no matter how much central bank bond-buying drives money into now crash-prone equity markets. The intention to save us from suffering prolongs and deepens it—except for wealthy investors whose net worth continues to rise. The growing disparity brings forth the call for yet more governmental intervention so that “fairness” can be achieved.
In our colleges and universities, the very stones cry out9 for “social justice”, and for the elimination of suffering. The long, hard, civilizational journey ahead was but a Liberal fiction. We have solved the problem of scarcity—we just need to redistribute the wealth that we already know how to produce. Marx wrote of the need for revolution to end alienation and scarcity. But that’s too hard. We are all bourgeois socialists now. Nietzsche, too, is too hard for us to bear. Suffering, he wrote, is not an argument against life; but in the time of The Great Exhaustion, suffering is an argument against life, and must be completely eradicated by the coordinated efforts of politics and commerce. We read Marx; yet we are bourgeois socialists. We read Nietzsche; yet we do so from the comfort of our living room couch. In our colleges and universities, we invoke Marx and Nietzsche to critique the Liberal world that still nominally surrounds us; but our interest is to use it, not to overthrow it. To build a world from scratch—that requires that we believe in something worth laboring to build.
In our domestic politics, citizens become “the folks.” With this fundamental transformation, we concede that the long labor of political contestation has become a sideshow, mere entertainment, or a costly distraction. Whereas citizens elect legislators whose laws move the levers of politics, “the folks” idly stand by as bureaucracies and executive orders move the political levers without their mediated participation or concern.
In our daily lives, we dwell on gadgets. Distractions have always been with us. In the time of The Great Exhaustion, it is their scope and place in the ecology of daily life that is new. For the Liberal, the future is secured through property and the generative family. If any time or money remains after property and family have been secured, distractions can be fleetingly entertained. In the time of The Great Exhaustion, however, this relationship is reversed: property being a burden, we rent; the generative family being an archaism, we have fewer children or none at all. Neither is thinkable unless the present takes precedent over the future—a thought that can only seriously enter the mind when we are convinced that the beneficent state will provide for our security and care for us in illness and in our dotage. The gadget, once a distraction, now becomes the center of gravity around which those other, once-central, concerns distantly orbit. Here is the urban life of 400 square foot apartments built for “the folks” who do not own a car or a bicycle, but may rent one from time-to-time. They look up to the state, whose power grows as property and family recede.10 And they look down to “browse” on their mobile phones and tablets, whose unit sales proliferate in proportion as they do not.
In our thinking, we are either “pro-” or “anti-” with respect to all things. In the time of The Great Exhaustion, there are no longer any serious questions about which reasonable citizens can disagree, no merely provisional answers in a plural and non-parsimonious world with which we must be content. Once, both Liberals and anti-Liberals believed that we live in a world where good and evil are mixed together, and which required labor and suffering to separate. The Liberal labored to shift the balance between the two; the anti-Liberal thought that through the agonizing work of revolution, the balance might finally tip to the side of the good, however conceived. In the time of The Great Exhaustion, the balance has been tipped (though without the revolution), and woe to those who disagree or have even the slightest doubt about wherein righteousness lies. “The folks” with un-reconstructed minds are not sent off to the Gulag, as they were in the former Soviet Union; they are publically shamed, and then have the good sense to disappear. When you do not accord with public opinion in America, Tocqueville writes, “you can keep your life and property and all; but from this day you are a stranger among us.”11
Those who still believe we live in a world where good and evil are mixed together, and who raise doubts about any univocal position that the righteous declare—concerning affirmative action, abortion, gay marriage, Islam and, most recently, transgenderism or the Confederate flag—are said to have “phobias”, or to suffer from some other sickness of mind. The much-needed conversation about these difficult issues that have no easy resolution, to which this Liberal-minded group could contribute immensely, therefore never occurs. Most interesting of all, however, are those who want to be among the righteous, but who suffer from “micro-aggressions” they themselves seek to expose and correct. Through the online tutorials their universities and corporations beneficently provide, they hope to be saved. The time of The Great Exhaustion is the time of the harvest, where the wheat and the tares have been finally separated. And not God, but rather the righteous, are the harvesters.12
In our conscience, we demand cleanliness. Nowhere does this occur more prominently today than with the issue of “climate change.” There are good reasons to reduce our reliance of fossil fuels, which borders on addiction: In the Middle East, the rentier economies underwritten by them have produced a hyper-modernity that is unsustainable and which promulgates Islamic re-enchantment movements in response to it; at home we are a nation whose movements are measured almost exclusively by automobile odometers. What kind of civilization can we build if we must rely on 4,000 pounds of steel, aluminum, plastic, and glass to move our increasingly obese frames everywhere we think we need to go?
These are political reasons to reduce our use of fossil fuel; they presume that citizens can ask, and provisionally answer, the question about how they should live. “Climate change” arguments, however, are not based on the uncleanliness of our difficult freedom, but rather on “necessity.” They presume that the use of our liberty can only lead us astray. In the time of The Great Exhaustion, what need is there, really, for freedom? Our conscience can now finally be clean, if only we live in accordance with necessity. And that necessity—Planetary Necessity, let’s call it—is the reduction of our “carbon footprint.” Therein lies the path to a clean conscience.
In the 1970s, we were told that ever-increasing particulate matter in industrial smokestacks would diminish the solar radiation getting through to the earth’s surface and bring about a new ice age. The development of electrostatic precipitators put an end to that problem, but laid the groundwork for the one currently on our minds: carbon dioxide emissions. The alternative technology “solutions” to that problem, however, only sew the seeds of further crises: windmills that decimate birds-of-prey populations on a level that not even the wide-scale use of DDT in the 20th century could; solar panel and battery use of exotic materials that wreck havoc on biological systems (fortunately outsourced to the Third World so we don’t have to be troubled); “green” biofuels that increase the price of food stocks, made possible by unsavory political arrangements; the development of “Smart Grid” technology that leads to energy efficiencies, but which are vulnerable to cyber-attack, to name but a few.
A clean conscience, the Liberal notes, is not possible. To be human is always to wrestle with trade-offs, with the agonizing choices that should prompt us to ask if the lives to which we aspire warrant the use of nature’s bounty that such lives would entail. In the time of The Great Exhaustion, however, we are not stewards of the earth, daily faced with the burden of our freedom amidst nature; we are “environmentalists” looking for a clean conscience. This we will achieve through transnational agreements that bind the hands of nations and every sub-unit below them. In short, this we will achieve by rendering sovereignty and human freedom obsolete.
In international relations, there are no more alliances, only “partners.” Alliances presume a dangerous world in which war will break out, even if we know not when. A nation, to protect itself, forms alliances with other nations. Because alliances suppose that one nation’s blood and treasure will be spent on behalf of another, they require a regular show of good will, preferential treatment, and other evidence that when strife does appear, their ally will not disappear. In the time of The Great Exhaustion, however, there will be no more wars and untidy aggressions. This is, after all, the 21st century.13 History itself has conspired to eliminate war; therefore in international relations we only have “partners.”
And because in the time of The Great Exhaustion there are neither great loves nor great hatreds, not only are alliances obsolete, but so, too, are enemies. When there are no enemies, there is no need to encourage dissidents within regimes that have openly declared us to be their enemy.14 When there are no enemies, national borders and immigration policies predicated on “rule of law” become inconvenient anachronisms. When there are no enemies, a merit-based domestic polity that rewards competence rather than encourages “fairness” is no longer needed. Without enemies, after all, what goad is there that would require the former? When there are no enemies, finally, there is no longer international politics—that use and abuse of power between nations. In the time of The Great Exhaustion, the task set for international relations has moved beyond politics and the human freedom to abuse power that it presupposes. Freedom, that Liberal prejudice, is behind us, even if a few cleanup projects remain from the mess it has produced. The biggest threat to humanity now, to which those concerned with international relations must give their utmost attention, is the Planetary Necessity that is “climate change.”15
The Liberal Triumphalism of conservative Republicans is behind us. Into the breach have stepped progressive Democrats who have a different version of the end of history. Liberal Triumphalism occurred because the need, in the democratic age, for a comprehensive, certain, and unitary theory-of-everything transmuted the modest aspirations of Liberal thought into certainties about the end of history. The progressive Democratic version, it may be said, emerges out of a similar democratic need for a comprehensive, certain, and unitary theory-of-everything. It is constructed, however, not out of modest Liberal thought, but rather out of immodest anti-Liberal thought. The result, the discerning reader will have already intimated, is The Great Exhaustion. As with Liberal Triumphalism, the presumption is that here, at the end of history, the answers we need are self-evident, and plainly given for all to see.
Understanding the past several decades as the serial unfolding of two competing party understandings of the end of history allows us to make sense of a number of the developments we have witnessed. Because Liberal thought labors over politics and commerce, but leaves society alone, when conservative Republicans held the Executive Branch, domestic society was not the object of their labor, but rather international affairs—for there, after 9/11, the Middle East provided the most obvious challenge to Liberal Triumphalist certainty that reason and freedom are coterminous and that the individual is sovereign. In short, the real labor of Liberal Triumphalism occurred abroad. Progressive Democrats now hold the Executive Branch. Because the anti-Liberal thought that orients them supposes that society must be transformed in order to fall in line with its political and commercial program, the focus has been more domestic than international. The recent rainbow illumination of the White House after the Supreme Court Obergefell v. Hodges gay marriage ruling is only conceivable within the anti-Liberal universe, wherein the business of politics is the business of fundamentally transforming domestic society.
In international affairs, progressive Democrats have sought, first and foremost, to assure the world that the Liberal Triumphalist agenda abroad has come to an end. The modest Liberal would, in part, welcome this; for the modest Liberal understands that the reach of Liberal Triumphalism exceeded its grasp. The anti-Liberal political vision, however, is a post-Westphalian vision, where no one nation-state leads. The legitimate form of international action for the progressive Democrat therefore consists only of coalition partners.16 In the time of The Great Exhaustion, there is, at best, an uncomfortable recognition17 of a national burden to shape the international order, not least through naval power, so that the world’s shipping lanes remain open for commerce and legal migration. That burden fell to the British Empire prior to 1945; afterward, it has fallen to America. In the time of The Great Exhaustion, it should fall to no one. Where Liberal Triumphalism overextended America abroad, the corrective action of progressive Democrats suffers a serious, indeed grave, flaw: It presumes that history itself is now on the side of peace; that allies and enemies are antiquated categories; that the burden of leadership can be shared or avoided; and that an outstretched hand and an American apology will give the final nudge that history needs to arrive at world peace.
If in international affairs progressive Democrats believe the lion is on the verge of lying down with the lamb, at home they are contemptuous of a society that still obstinately clings to the Liberal idea of autonomous individuals who are reasonable and free. The relentless invocation of “identity” is the heavy artillery with which they batter down all Liberal walls. “Identity” is, first and foremost, a strategy of resistance against reason: “I am this or I am that; and therefore no reasoned discussion or argument you might offer need trouble me, for deeper than my capacity to reason is who I am, and who you are—‘white,’ ‘black,’ ‘male,’ ‘female,’ ‘heterosexual,’ ‘homosexual,’ ad infinitum.”
To this declaration by which we remain self-enclosed is added the fateful moral vocabulary of purity and stain, which is nowhere more excelled than in still-Puritan America. Thus, the conclusion: “because I am this and you are that, I am pure and innocent and you are guilty and stained.” John Dewey, the great 20th-century progressive, would have been dumbfounded. The experience of suffering, he wrote, drives us onward to create a world together. Through identity politics, however, the spur of suffering is supplanted by the satisfactions of innocence, which provide a warrant to remain unmoved. Together, then, are gathered a Coalition of Innocents, which tallies the moral debt points each member is owed by their common enemy.18 The Liberal often counts money. The progressive Democratic always counts unpayable moral debt, which is the currency of justice in the time of The Great Exhaustion. Because purity and stain are linked to identity itself, there can be neither penance nor forgiveness, which are (mere) changes of heart that in no way bear on who we irremediably are. The progressive Democrat proclaims that by this calculus of debt, justice shall be measured. The modest Liberal replies that however ineffable they may be, if individual acts of repentance, forgiveness, charity, trust, goodwill, neighborliness, and hospitality are not our measures, we will live in a world that verges, not on justice, but on retribution.
And so we come to the central paradox of the progressive Democrat in the time of The Great Exhaustion: The purpose of politics is to put an end to politics as the Liberal understands it. In the time of The Great Exhaustion, human freedom, which only leads us astray, is too large a burden to bear, hence the need to finally and fully repudiate it. In international affairs, the final political task is to act with a view to Planetary Necessity; in domestic affairs, the final political task is to act with a view to “identity.” The progressive Democrat purports thereby to redeem the world (to save it, as we now say), and to justly order domestic affairs around the “identities” from which we, in fact, cannot be redeemed. The progressive Democrat frees us from the burden of freedom in international affairs and in domestic affairs alike, with the hammer of Planetary Necessity and the sickle of “identity.” To the modest Liberal, the progressive Democrat says, “let us earnestly and singularly attend to just these two things, for they are the final tasks of human history, which now stand self-evidently before us.”
To this declaration, the now incredulous Liberal gently replies, “it was not within the purview of Liberal Triumphalists to bring about the universal reign of freedom; and neither is it within yours, anti-Liberals in the time of The Great Exhaustion, to declare and to oversee freedom’s end. Our world is more mysteriously constituted than we can know; and it will no more accommodate your progressive Democratic pride than it accommodated the pride you mock and deride in the conservative Republicans who came immediately before you.”
1Democracy in America, Vol. II, Part I, Chapter 1.
2After the New Deal, American conservatives did not return to pre-New Deal sources in America for their ideas, but rather turned to European sources, notably Edmund Burke, whose Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) sets up the opposition between “tradition” and the Jacobin forces of equality. William Buckley’s God and Man at Yale (1951) and Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind (1953) provided the Burkean cohesion for the nascent post-New Deal conservative movement in America—which to this day remains in an uneasy tension with what could be caricatured as the unbounded optimism of The Chicago School of Economics, that other flank of the Republican Party. Not to be ignored in this mix is that Buckley and Kirk were both Roman Catholics, with a rather ambivalent assessment of modernity. Roman Catholics today are a powerful force within the conservative movement; some have pre-Vatican II sympathies, and some found in Pope John Paul II and his successor, Pope Benedict, a way to engage the modern world, though still from a critical distance. (Pope Francis, with his “social justice” sensibilities, is another matter altogether.) The end-of-history conservativism, which I am calling Liberal Triumphalism, was not theirs. The conservative Roman Catholic understanding of “reason” is grounded in natural law, not on the Anglo-American tradition that discovers and subsequently develops the field of political economy.
3Washington Post, June 27, 2015.
4In The Wealth of Nations (1776), Adam Smith never uses the term “the economy.”
5Democracy in America, Volume II, Part I, Chapters 7–8, 20.
6If television is the artistic idiom through which the real though unarticulated crises in society are serialized, then the current, wildly popular, “zombie” television series can be understood as the venue through which this cooptation is being worked out. These series are a forum for the catharsis that will be necessary for the cooptation of Liberal institutions to be finally and fully publicly accepted.
7Anti-Liberal promises of redemption invite comparisons to the Christian understanding of promise, which comports more with Liberal thought than with its adversary. Here, Martin Luther King, Jr. is emblematic of the distinction. Among the most important events in America in the 20th century, King’s August 28, 1963 “I Have Dream” speech took the form of a Jeremiad that illuminated the wound of injustice and implored that the people of the American covenant not lose sight of God’s providential plan—that we are, finally, to be judged on “the content of our character.” King, the Moses of the African-American community, knew that governmental programs alone could not overcome the wound of slavery and its aftermath. It is in society that the hard work begins, in the churches. Government intervention may be also necessary, but as a supplement to the work that must be done in society. In this sense, King remains a Liberal. In the hands of anti-Liberals, King is presented each year, on Martin Luther King Day, as an occasion to demand more government programs, and more attention to “race” in America. Nowhere does the mystery of God’s Providence, the problem of sin, the need for prayer, the call for repentance and forgiveness, appear. For the anti-Liberal, government alone is the Holy Father—who, alas, judges the wound, but never heals it.
8Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Volume II, Part III, Chapter 21.
10In The Second Treatise of Government, Locke writes that we have a natural right to life, liberty and property. Having and exercising this pre-political right places a fence around the sovereign individual, against which the state cannot encroach.
11Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Volume I, Part II, Chapter 7.
12Matthew 13: 24-30.
13As Secretary of State John Kerry put it with regard to Putin’s annexation of the Crimea on “Face the Nation”, March 2, 2014: “You just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on a completely trumped up pretext.”
14Hence, the deafening silence of the Obama Administration during the Green Movement at the time of the Iranian national elections in June 2009.
15See Secretary of State John Kerry, Remarks at NYC Climate Week Opening Event, Morgan Library, New York City, September 22, 2014: “Importantly, climate change, without being connected in that way to everybody’s daily thinking, in fact, ranks right up there with every single one of the rest of those challenges. You can make a powerful argument that it may be, in fact, the most serious challenge we face on the planet because it’s about the planet itself.” See also President Barack Obama, Weekly Address, of April 18, 2015: “Hi Everybody. Wednesday is Earth Day, a day to appreciate and protect this precious planet we call home. And today, there’s no greater threat to our planet than climate change.”
16Because coalition partners, rather than America alone, undertook the military strikes in Libya in March 2011 that led to Qaddafi’s overthrow and death (in October of that year), progressive Democrats feel no moral sting about the chaotic and violent aftermath of his deposition.
17President Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech of December 10, 2009, is notable for its exploration of the ambiguous place of war in human history: “the instruments of war do have a role to play in preserving the peace. And yet this truth must coexist with another—that no matter how justified, war promises human tragedy.”
18This tidy ledger where The Pure are on one side and The Stained are on the other has already started to unravel, as it must. Just under the veneer of unanimity, members of the Coalition of Innocents are tallying the moral debt points one member owes another. Who, for example, is the Innocent with greater purity: the white homosexual male or the African-American heterosexual female; the Hispanic lesbian or the African-American homosexual; the white transgendered or the Asian heterosexual female? And what of the white female who self-identifies as African-American; does she receive debt points or does she owe them? Do “black lives matter” more than the lives of progressive white female Democrats or Hispanic male Republicans?