Monday, February 28, 2011

Generational Shift

Seeing as part of my Toward Utopia project is concerned with the subject of historical causation from the standpoint of the effects of intellectual movements on the whole of societies (which ends up pushing me toward the sort-of uncomfortable position of making Toward Utopia partly about itself), I cannot help but notice that America is headed quite irresistibly toward a new political paradigm that usually goes under the heading of "libertarianism."

By "libertarianism" I mean a political philosophy more or less espoused by our country's Founding Fathers, characterized by emphases on the dignity of the individual human being, individual rights (including property rights, i.e., capitalism), and governments essentially limited to protecting those rights. (I'll set aside for now the long-running and not-going-away-anytime-soon debate over "anarcho-capitalism" vs. laws being defined and enforced by a state.) In terms of concretes, of advocates of this idea, it has been set forth in varying terms in the writings of such figures as Ayn Rand, Ludwig von Mises, F. A. Hayek, Robert Nozick, Murray Rothbard, Milton Friedman, David Friedman, James Buchanan, George Reisman, John Hospers, Richard Epstein, Randy Barnett, Eric Mack, Douglas Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl, Loren Lomasky, David Schmidtz, and Chris Matthew Sciabarra. Based on the limited evidence, the late David L. Norton apparently gravitated toward this political idea as well.

I'm quite firmly of the belief that if an intellectually-curious reader were to thoroughly take in the works of all the above figures - including and especially the comprehensive philosophical visions provided by Rand and Norton - the reader pretty much can't but help coming away a libertarian.

So why aren't we there already?

To answer that requires some investigation into historical causation with respect to the American intellectual scene. That will set the context for understanding. That intellectual tradition is markedly different from that of Europe, which has shown greater affinity toward statism, socialism, communism, fascism, Marxism, existentialism, subjectivism, nihilism, postmodernism (the "cashing-in" of all that, to use Rand's phrase), and the various sub-postmodernisms and post-postmodernisms that stink up the fucking place with anti-Aristotelian stuff. Given the ruling paradigms going on there, Rawlsianism looks relatively sane, and Europe's intellectuals can at least relate to that, the way they can at least relate to President Obama. But Ayn Rand? It's like she's on another planet. If "Europe's leading intellectual" of today (supposedly, and now that the post-post-post-realist Derrida has left the scene), Slavoj Zizek, is any indication, that assessment seems to hold up.

(The abstract for Zizek's asinine article in JARS is as follows: "SLAVOJ ZIZEK argues that Rand's fascination for male figures displaying absolute, unswayable determination of their Will, seems to offer the best imaginable confirmation of Sylvia Plath's famous line, "every woman adores a Fascist." But the properly subversive dimension of Rand's ideological procedure is not to be underestimated: Rand fits into the line of 'overconformist' authors who undermine the ruling ideological edifice by their very excessive identification with it. Her over-orthodoxy was directed at capitalism itself; for Rand, the truly heretic thing today is to embrace the basic premise of capitalism without its sugar-coating." Oh, brother. Ain't the jargon of post-whatever just so precious? The "cashing in" is on p. 225 of that article. Did the journal's editorship accept this article to illustrate a point, i.e., of just how off-the-rails the currently-fashionable Euro-intelligentsia has gone? That's a sympathetic spin on this farcical event. To be somewhat less damning of the European intellectual scene, I'll mention Habermas, but - and this ties directly into my present analysis, as I will expand upon below - have you noticed how old Habermas is now? Who is he being replaced by in the younger ranks? [One of his students, Hans-Hermann Hoppe, left for the States and has been advancing a hardcore Misesian-Rothbardian view.] Besides, ethics is primarily about eudaemonia, not discourse. ;-) )

Okay, so the American intellectual tradition is just markedly more friendly toward things like libertarianism, eudaemonism, Aristotelianism, realism, etc. What about the current dominant mainstream of the American academic humanities? In political philosophy, it's been dominated for the last four decades by Rawls, but my thesis here is that this paradigm is on the outs. Lemme explain.

In the mid-20th century, the political debate in this country was shaped essentially by the opposition between Americanism (framed in terms of "liberal democracy") and Communism. Marxism was the dominant ideology of the times. The adherents of Marxism were just waiting things out the way certain Christian sects hold out for the Rapture. The collapse of capitalism was going to happen any time now. Mises was a reactionary confined to a teaching post at the business school of the not-at-the-time-prestigious New York University. You can get a picture of just how insane the whole intellectual scene was by reading Rand's letters from the '30s and '40s. Then there was Galbraith - remember him? Is he even mentioned in economics courses any more? Well, he was a big deal in American economics in the '50s and '60s. William F. Buckley was heading up the conservative movement and made sure (much to the detriment of his eventual historical reputation) to set himself apart from Rand. Milton Friedman's Capitalism and Freedom, published in '62 after a seeming decades-long drought of pro-capitalist literature as far as the mainstream was concerned, became a leading text for the pragmatic Right.

Basically, the debate, as it was framed then, was far removed from what it is today. Marxism is now a defunct ideology. Yep. It's done. It has run its course. It had considerably less of a foothold in America than it did in Europe - it could hardly ever get a foothold in America, save for its universities. If you're a Marxist in this day and age, you are . . . a reactionary. The same is going to be case, I believe, for Rawlsian liberals. Rawlsian or left-liberalism is on the way out as well.

Rawls's A Theory of Justice was published four decades ago now. My analysis leads me to the conclusion that it, too, is about to run its course and be supplanted by libertarianism, because, well, this is America. America is just too libertarian for statism in its various guises to maintain a foothold. Rawls's liberalism is a statism - a toned-down, less toxic form of statism than Marx-inspired statisms, but a statism nonetheless - and it just won't hold up in this country. The "overlapping consensus" his project aimed for is simply too unstable. The discourse is now dominated too much by consistent adherents of original American liberalism for it to hold up. The advocates of left-liberalism are now turning into dinosaurs, into . . . reactionaries.

Look at the intellectual scene on the American Left today. Just what figures dominate it? Rawls has passed on, and it's been a whole four decades since his most influential work hit the scene. There are more radical Leftists who will cite Chomsky, but if you hadn't noticed, his most influential work was done way back in the '50s, and that work wasn't even in political philosophy. He is also getting up there in years. The radical Left continues to hold onto Chomsky like a security blanket, operating under the Rapture-ready-like delusion that his analysis of the American corporate complex will vindicate a radical-Left vision rather than a consistent libertarian-capitalist one. (I may have more to say about the delusions of the "left libertarians" and "libertarian socialists" in due course. It strikes me as more wishful-thinking, security-blanket stuff. If these so-called libertarians want socialism, they're gonna have to get it within the Nozickian framework outlined in Part III of Anarchy, State, and Utopia, that is, in voluntary hippie communes under a framework of libertarian-capitalist law. That's the best deal Chomsky & Co. are gonna get.)

It's worth pointing out that in the '50s and '60s, the Marxists were laboring (heh) under the delusion that Marxism would be vindicated soon. Little did they expect that in under 50 years, their whole worldview would be defunct. Analogously, the left-liberal community is operating under the delusion that their vision of liberal justice is going to be viable for the foreseeable future. But they have missed one crucial thing: just who in the younger generation is going to replace Rawls and his groupies (as I like to call them; Nagel & Co.) as they pass on? Just who is around to carry on the torch? I ask this, because from what I can tell, Rawlsian liberalism was a halfway-house measure, a kind of stopgap, a soft-landing device, between mid-20th-century American statism in its then-paradigmatic opposition to full-on Communist statism, and a return to original-style American libertarianism.

The Rawls groupies are not getting any younger themselves. Nagel is now in his 70s and his most influential work was done more than 30 years ago. G. A. Cohen has passed on, marking the official end of Marxism. Thomas Scanlon is now in his 70s. Dworkin is well into his 70s and I don't know what influential work he's done since the mid-'80s. Sen is pushing 80. Parfit is pushing 70. So who is left, and - more importantly - just what up-and-comers show any promise of replacing them in their efforts to keep the left-liberal paradigm going?

In answer to that, I have no idea, really. (Does Krugman count?) If you look out onto the blogosphere for any indications, you find that the most mainstream of discussions there occurs on Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish, and the figures influencing him most are Hayek and Oakeshott, and he's pushing a pragmatic conservative-libertarian-"liberaltarian" line. (He comes from Britain, where Rand's ideas are still quite alien, but Hayek is pretty paradigmatic now as far as "pragmatic liberalism" goes.) Greenwald confines his discussions primarily to civil-liberties issues, where he fits right in with the American mainstream. But what left-liberal intellectual figures alive and not in their 70s or 80s are providing American left-liberals with fuel these days? Is it possible - nay, likely - that the best young intellectuals of the previous and current generation have found libertarianism too appealing to dismiss, and gravitated in that direction? Do today's left-liberals have any idea of the generational shift that has happened and is happening in the American intellectual scene?

[EDIT: Some research on contemporary left-liberalism turns up a familiar name I've been meaning to follow-up in due course: Martha Nussbaum, who isn't quite yet pushing 70. Oh, great, now I'm going into an obsessive-completist-perfectionist exercise in research into what important figures on the Right and the Left I may be missing. Does Scruton count as a prominent and influential conservative? What about the role in American intellectual life of Irving Kristol, Russell Kirk, Frank Meyer, George Gilder, George Will, Dinesh D'Souza, Robert Bork, Antonin Scalia, or The Wall Street Journal? This is why the book keeps getting delayed. Research to cover bases, integrate cross-currents, sub-currents, undercurrents, etc.]

One thing I do know is that my own intellectual energies have been put into service of essentially Randian ideas, and not Rawlsian ones. I can't think that Toward Utopia is going to help the left-liberal cause any. And I've been spending too much time fortifying my ideas against potential left-liberal-type objections to believe they're going to come back with anything all that strong as an alternative, without presupposing the very ideas they'd be objecting to. (I've discovered this myself when it comes to Rand. If I find Rand's ideas wanting in some fashion or other, I can't escape her implicit and explicit advice to perfect upon whatever shortcomings there are in her writings. You can't refute perfectionism, see.)

Speaking of American intellectual and political movements, I find what passes for conservatism these days to be defunct as well. Unless you count Andrew Sullivan as a conservative, you have - as far as I can see - an intellectual void on the Right. Buckley was the leading animating light of conservatism in the second half of the 20th century, but he passed on and . . . what is he being replaced by? Talk radio isn't exactly reputable intellectually; Limbaugh is passe', Glenn Beck is a big mixed bag who may as well throw up any white flags of surrender to Ayn Rand, and phenomena like Palinism can't with a straight face be called intellectual ones. Thomas Sowell is now in his 80s. Hell, if there was any person that could be called a leading light of conservatism aside from Buckley, it would be Sowell. I think if there were other leading lights out there right now, I'd have noticed mentions on the Daily Dish from time to time. But, nope. It looks like the leading younger minds of today who might identify as conservative, are gravitating more and more toward libertarianism - and even with the religious conservatives, there is a shift away from any theocratic impulses.

Even the financial crisis and Great Recession haven't stifled the increasingly popular anti-statist sentiment. There aren't any Marxists around to urge the overthrow of capitalism as a solution, like there were in the '30s. There aren't influential left-liberals around who are shaping public opinion toward a more European-style social-democratic model.

Long story short, America is ripe for a full-on shift toward libertarianism in politics, and, soon enough, Randism as a dominant mainstream cultural force. Randism is already making some headway in the universities, with no effective opposition. Eudaemonism in ethics has no effective opposition there, so things are ripe for a surge in Norton studies, too. The economics profession is already under the influence of Mises, Hayek, and Friedman. In the area of law, the ideas of Hayek, Barnett, Epstein and David Friedman are increasingly mainstream. Mack, Lomasky, Schmidtz and the general flavor of things going on in the Social Philosophy & Policy journal are already providing effective counterweight to the Rawlsian-dominated Philosophy & Public Affairs crowd.

One thing to mention about the major libertarian figures I've been mentioning are that they, too, are either deceased, up there in age, or getting up there in age. The youngest of the bunch, Schmidtz, is now in his mid-50s. Inevitably this raises the same question: who in the younger generation is going to replace them, and what work will carry on theirs? You can take it from there.

[Continued in my next posting.]

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