The End of History Liberalism??

k=liberalism

My work for the last 20 years or more has generally had a connection to concerns related to sustainability (better, unsustainability). I am finding my basic ideas have relevance far beyond this topic. The central critique of modernity, fueling my work, arose out of looking for a way to explain both the existence and persistence of growing departures from the vision behind all modern cultures: progress and the perfection of the human being. It all comes down to two related ontological beliefs that are no longer driving the modern engine in the right direction. I hesitate to label these beliefs as flawed because they have produced such wonders for centuries, but they do not fit the present world sufficiently well enough to avoid unintended consequences so large that they threaten to destabilize the Planet.

These two beliefs are:

  1. The objective reality of Descartes and his related methodological reductionism as the way to know that reality. This belief leads to the view of the universe as a vast machine, the parts of which are knowable and analytically describable. And with another nudge, this leads to the idea that with all that knowledge, humans are able to control the machine or, in the words of Francis Bacon, make nature our slave. Said a little differently, we are culturally technological optimists, believing that some marvelous innovation that will save us from impending doom will always be lurking just around the corner.

  2. The self-interested, economistic, rationalistic, autonomous model of human beings. This belief leads to the view of humans as insatiable optimizers, always acting to acquire pleasure-giving goods, limited only by the extent of their resources Here, too, with another nudge, this leads to individualism as a cultural attribute.

The combination of the two forms the modern view that we can find answers to all our problems through the application of reason. Reason, coupled with good science, can explain everything about both the material world and the immaterial word of human affairs. The United States, which was expressly founded on the basis of these beliefs and their derivatives, such as the natural rights to life, liberty and so on, is the best example of these beliefs in action, among modern nations.

In this epistemologically accessible, reason-driven world, there is, in theory, a single truth to every question. An apple always falls down because of gravity. All explanations have this same form. X does Y because Z. Moral questions, similarly, can be answered as A should do Y in cases of Z because X. Even if the situation is very complicated and we are stuck to find answers in these forms, we argue that they must exist, but we haven’t found them yet.

In a perverse turn, this set of beliefs that was thought to free humans from the chains of dogma contains, in itself, an intrinsic dominating potential. Humberto Maturana, the Chilean biologist who shows up often in this blog, is concerned that the Cartesian dualistic explanation neglects the biology of the observer, without whom science wouldn’t work. He writes:

There are two fundamental kinds or manners of listening for explanations [the “becauses” in the two canonical forms above] that an observer may adopt according to whether he or she asks or does not ask for a biological explanation of his or her cognitive abilities. These two manners of listening define two primary, mutually exclusive explanatory paths that I shall call the path of objectivity without parentheses (or the path of transcendental ontologies), and the path of (objectivity) in parentheses (or the path of constitutive ontologies)…..In this (transcendental) path, an explanation operationally entails the implicit claim by the explaining observer that he or she has a privileged access to an objective independent reality, and that it is this objective reality that gives validity to his or her explanations. Due to this circumstance, any disagreement between two or more observers always takes the form of a dispute in mutual negation… In this explanatory path, a claim of knowledge is a demand for obedience.” (“Reality: The Search for Objectivity, or the Quest for a Compelling Argument.” Irish Journal Of Psychology 9(1): 25-82.)

The transcendental character of capturing the objective (external) reality in our non-physical mind has puzzled scientists and philosophers ever since Descartes proposed the split between the outside world (res extensa) and its image in our minds (res cogitans). Since Maturana wrote this in 1988, neuroscientific findings indicate the brain works without what was called the mind. Antonio Damasio puts it very clearly in one of his books, The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness.

The term mind, as I use it in this book, encompasses both conscious and unconscious operations. It refers to a process, not a thing. What we know as mind, with the help of consciousness, is a continuous flow of mental patterns, many of which turn out to be logically interrelated. The flow moves forward in time, speedily or slowly, orderly or jumpily, and on occasion it moves along not just one sequence, but several. Sometimes the sequences are concurrent, sometimes convergent and divergent. Sometimes they are superposed. (note 7 to Chapter 1) (My emphasis)

Maturana’s constitutive ontology corresponds to the social constructionist viewpoint, which admits to a real material universe, but restricts any meaningful interpretation to human expressions. The difference between these two ways to hold reality is critical. Maturana says, in the clearest form I know, that the Cartesian transcendental view leads to domination. The title of his paper suggests that reason, rather than producing truths, is a hidden form of persuasion, designed to dominate or compel. I draw the same conclusion from the work of Richard Rorty, who wrote

We need to make a distinction between the claim that the world is out there and the claim that truth is out there. To say that the world is out there, that it is not our creation, is to say, with common sense, that most things in space and time are the effects of causes which do not include human mental states. To say that truth is not out there is simply to say that where there are no sentences there is no truth, that sentences are elements of human languages, and that human languages are human creations.

Truth cannot be out there - cannot exist independently of the human mind - because sentences cannot so exist, or be out there. The world is out there, but descriptions of the world are not. Only descriptions of the world can be true or false. The world on its own-unaided by the describing activities of human beings - cannot. (Contingency, Irony and Solidarity p. 4-5)

The second belief in the above list is derivative of the first. If the universe is a vast machine, and humans are a part of it, they, too, can be described in the same way, that is, by a set of inherent properties and operational laws. Specifically, the result was the economic model of human being, and also the idea of natural rights, and objective moral values like goodness and truth. All of this was a great revelation at a time when the Western world was ruled by absolutes: religious dogma and monarchical, feudal hierarchies.

We are or should be aware of a serious problem connected with these beliefs. They have stopped producing wonders and started producing negative effects, and no longer appear to moving progressively forward. I have written this many times before, but usually with some connection to unsustainability. I have been taking a course on the “essence of liberalism,” and now see these beliefs as the core of this idea, and, consequently, as a shaky foundation for this central theme of most Western nations. I have hesitated to delve into the area of political theory because I am only marginally knowledgeable about it. I suppose that could be said on many of the topics I think about. So I might as well plunge into it.

I have leapfrogged this area by jumping directly to thoughts about human ontology and argued that the second belief is incorrect. Humans are not some autonomous machines, programmed to maximize their pleasure by, in our current version, the acquisition of material possessions. They are caring creatures, aware of their interconnections to others and to the rest of the world, as they understand them within their historical, cultural context. If we must find a way to rate the human condition, it should be connected to this “nature.” I have offered flourishing as the proper concept for such an assessment. Some of my recent blogs have elaborated this idea.

Today, I want to focus on the problematic foundations of American exceptionalism. Our course assignment for next week includes an article by Mark Lilla, published in the New Republic, with the title, “The Truth About Our Libertarian Age.” I found it stunning and the best critique of the current political scene in the US (and other places, too) and of our current foreign policy. His main point is that the ideology of liberalism, a living set of ideas and institutions, has morphed into a lifeless dogma.

Yet our libertarianism is not an ideology in the old sense. It is a dogma. The distinction between ideology and dogma is worth bearing in mind. Ideology tries to master the historical forces shaping society by first understanding them. The grand ideologies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries did just that, and much too well; since they were intellectually “totalizing,” they countenanced political totalitarianism. Our libertarianism operates differently: it is supremely dogmatic, and like every dogma it sanctions ignorance about the world, and therefore blinds adherents to its effects in that world. It begins with basic liberal principles—the sanctity of the individual, the priority of freedom, distrust of public authority, tolerance—and advances no further. It has no taste for reality, no curiosity about how we got here or where we are going. There is no libertarian sociology (an oxymoron) or psychology or philosophy of history. Nor, strictly speaking, is there a libertarian political theory, since it has no interest in institutions and has nothing to say about the necessary, and productive, tension between individual and collective purposes. It is not liberal in a sense that Montesquieu, the American Framers, Tocqueville, or Mill would have recognized. They would have seen it as a creed little different from Luther’s sola fide [faith rules]: give individuals maximum freedom in every aspect of their lives and all will be well. And if not, then pereat mundus [the world perishes].

As dogma, it fits Maturana’s definition of objective reality without parentheses, that is, without any conditional statement about the possibility of contingency or error. I find Lilla’s finding highly ironic because liberalism rests solidly on the idea of reason. The conversion of reason to dogma is not a surprise; cultures become ossified over time. So do human beings. Our beliefs fade from consciousness. Our norms become merely habits. We act without reflection. For collectives, the power structures become rigid and not subject to much change.

I have my own views about what has to happen to break this downward spiral. Chuck the two beliefs above and replace them: objective reality by some form of social constructionism, and the mechanistic, greedy humans by a caring, empathetic creature. This will go a long way to eliminate domination. Further replace the analytic, deterministic machine model of the universe by a complex system model. Since such a model precludes predictions based on scientific investigations as the means of control, we must shift to pragmatic inquiry and adaptive complex system governance. Pragmatism is, inherently, a form of social construction—a way of coming to consensus about how to understand some problematic part of the universe and what to do about any problems associated with it. Maturana has something relevant about this too, “Reality is an explanatory proposition that arises in a disagreement as an attempt to recover a lost domain of coordination of actions or to generate a new one.” A non-philosopher’s way of describing what pragmatism does.

This means that liberalism, in all of its hydra-like forms, has to go, because its roots will not grow in the soil of present-day modernity. Humans cannot flourish as entirely autonomous individuals. Greed empties the caring center; some might even use the metaphor, soul. Flourishing rests on rooted understanding and meaningfulness, not on detached, abstract analytical knowledge. Care for others cannot co-exist with fully developed negative liberty, the freedom from any encroachments except those that would cause harm to others. Pluralists, who see the impossibilities in such pure forms, argue for some form of toleration as a means to mitigate the absolutism of extreme libertarianism, but tolerance is impossible without some form of care for the other. Maybe even impossible without love for the other. I go again to Maturana and his definition of love, which fits here.

Love is the domain of those relational behaviors through which another arises as a legitimate other in coexistence with oneself under any circumstance. Love does not legitimize the other, love lets the other be. Through seeing the other, entails acting with the other in a way that they do not need to justify their existence in the relation.

Let me end this long, serious post with the concluding paragraph of Lilla’s article. It’s worth reading the whole piece. While all is relevant, I have bolded the one sentence that I find most striking. Understanding requires the willingness to forego or, at least, bracket one’s present beliefs and make room for new ones.

The libertarian age is an illegible age. It has given birth to a new kind of hubris unlike that of the old master thinkers. Our hubris is to think that we no longer have to think hard or pay attention or look for connections, that all we have to do is stick to our “democratic values” and economic models and faith in the individual and all will be well. Having witnessed unpleasant scenes of intellectual drunkenness, we have become self-satisfied abstainers removed from history and unprepared for the challenges it is already bringing. The end of the cold war destroyed whatever confidence in ideology still remained in the West. But it also seems to have destroyed our will to understand. We have abdicated. The libertarian dogma of our time is turning our polities, economies, and cultures upside down—and blinding us to this by making us even more self-absorbed and incurious than we naturally are. The world we are making with our hands is as remote from our minds as the farthest black hole. Once we had a nostalgia for the future. Today we have an amnesia for the present.

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