We Should Go Beyond Liberalism, Not Abandon It

The eminent philosopher Raymond Geuss wants us to think about ways of being that exist entirely outside of liberalism. But the most feasible egalitarian project is not one that rejects liberalism, but one that goes beyond it — through democratic socialism.

Picket in protest at a congressional probe of purported Communist influence in department store unions, at Gimbels department store in New York City, New York, July 1948. (European / FPG / Archive Photos / Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

“A liberal is a man too broadminded to take his own side in a quarrel.”

Robert Frost

I came to my own liberalism grudgingly and with about a million qualifications. Raised in a Roman Catholic family in a conservative town in Ontario and schooled at an artsy college where the local social democratic party was considered too square, my influences from either end kindled a skepticism of liberal nostrums.

In college, I learned about John Rawls, John Stuart Mill, Mary Wollstonecraft, and other liberal icons. But my early heroes were writers like Martin Heidegger, Søren Kierkegaard, Karl Marx, and Michel Foucault. Though there wasn’t much that linked these figures together politically, they just seemed more interesting, less conformist, less — if I’m being honest — dull. How could all the carefully worded arguments in the world for an “overlapping consensus” compare to “God is dead!” (Nietzsche) or one day “man [will] be erased, like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea” (Foucault)? They couldn’t. And the fact that they probably never will is something that no liberal, especially of the dogged centrist variety, will ever fully understand.

I provide these autobiographical musings in the spirt of Raymond Geuss’s fascinating new book, Not Thinking Like a Liberal. Guess, a professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of Cambridge, is writing at the end of a long career largely spent either criticizing liberalism or ignoring it. Such aloofness is extremely rare among political theorists today, who invariably seek to save liberalism, destroy it, or negate its limitations through a higher form of society.

Geuss simply feels underwhelmed — and he believes that outside the clamor of elite opinion, many other people do, too:

A certain kind of liberalism is the very air one breathes in most English-speaking countries, where a basic familiarity with Locke and J. S. Mill is very widely shared, and where features of what pass as their basic ideas are so deeply embedded in the political and social institutions and the public discourse that it can be difficult for someone who does not have a slightly deviant social position or education to get an appropriate cognitive distance from them, and thus to see some of their deficiencies for what they are. Adorno in Minima Moralia writes that ‘the piece of grit in your eye is the best magnifying glass.’ . . . My peculiar Catholic education was such a piece of grit.

Living a Nonliberal Life

Geuss’s book is not intended as a refutation of liberal theory, let alone a critique of its political and economic institutions. Occasionally, Geuss offers biting criticism of works by Rawls (once one internalizes his basic insights, “one would not be at all impressed by any of the increasingly complex epicycles that were added to the theory”) and J. S. Mill (“pathetically inadequate”). But Geuss’s main goal is to provide an “ethnological report” with a strong autobiographical element, drawing attention to both an individual life and forms of life that are nonliberal.

(Harvard University Press)

I say nonliberal because Geuss is not “illiberal” in the reactionary sense of being defined by his opposition to it. And he is certainly not attracted to any variant of authoritarianism; in one of the book’s most important passages, Geuss insists that a person can be simultaneously nonliberal and antiauthoritarian. Geuss is instead committed to ways of thinking that exist on the periphery of, or are entirely outside of, liberalism — to creating ways of being that show it is possible, even under the conditions of neoliberal hegemony, to lead nonliberal lives, and to do so with dignity.

Guess begins the book with a lengthy discussion of his education at a prestigious Catholic school, where courses in ancient languages and Virgil were par for the course. Contra the stereotype of Catholic schools as places filled with dull ceremonies at best and authoritarian sermons about the evils of human flesh at worst, Geuss writes that many of his teachers were broad minded and utterly engaged by human diversity. They were even tolerant of the more common sinful behaviors, viewing them as wrong but nevertheless inevitable consequences of all-too-human imperfection.

However, unlike liberals’ celebration of “experiments in living” and “toleration” for its own sake, Geuss’s teachers were anti-liberal in their conviction that “not all opinions, values, tastes, or lifestyle choices should be tolerated.” This included forms of expression that were not just statements of taste and opinion but acts. For many liberals, that kind of Catholic proscription is alarming. But Geuss argues that it shouldn’t be: almost every liberal draws the line at particularly odious forms of expression — child pornography, calls for mass violence in front of an “enraged crowd,” forms of libel and slander, and so on. The difference is that while Catholics have always understood that some things must be verboten, liberal thinkers have tied themselves into knots concocting ways to justify policies that restrict expression without calling them restrictions.

Geuss then proceeds to his postsecondary education, where he encounters an array of anti-liberal thinkers on the Left and Right. Strangely, he doesn’t discuss why his clearly formative Catholic upbringing didn’t mold him into a particularly good Catholic. (Though speaking from personal experience, the main takeaway from Catholicism is the conviction that you will never be a particularly good Catholic).

Instead, Geuss leapfrogs into a discussion of his mentors both living and dead, including the anarchist Robert Paul Wolff; the Voltaire of New York, Sidney Morgenbesser; and the phenomenologist Robert Denoon Cumming. Geuss paints all of his teachers in primary colors, which gives their tendency to yawn in the face of liberal dogmatics a vitality and even a joie de vivre. From them and others, Geuss discovered Heidegger’s sweeping criticism of modernity, Adorno’s relentless unmasking of cherished Enlightenment certainties, and Nietzsche’s proto-psychoanalytic deconstruction of the rational liberal individual.

Much as with Geuss’s discussions of his Catholic upbringing, there is gratitude and solemnity in his treatment of these teachers without any kind of reverence. Geuss clearly never wanted to be anyone’s disciple, even if he was willing to be their confidante. That reticence has theoretical implications, since at no point does Geuss’s ruminations on nonliberal horizons fuse into a single interpretation of the liberal tradition, let alone birth a systematic alternative to it.

While Geuss gives us many examples of living a nonliberal life, all are handled affectionately but not approvingly. Indeed, in the case of the early Catholic priests who influenced him, Geuss makes it apparent that he has apostatized quite happily and has no intention of going back. Remarkably, Geuss points out that if the aim of a nonliberal Catholic education was to encourage one to embrace a Catholic life, then his teachers undeniably failed.

Reading Not Thinking Like a Liberal as a manual on how to properly think like a nonliberal would be a mistake. It isn’t even a properly experimentalist text that asks us to consider possible nonliberal lives, not least because Geuss himself didn’t embrace them. Instead, it draws inspiration from past dead ends to hypothesize that the tediously straight road of liberalism may yet branch into more interesting directions.

In this respect, Geuss seems closest to Adorno, who saw the demand for either a final critique or final alternative as an authoritarian urge for certainty. One consequence of the liberal Enlightenment’s heritage is the conviction that what can be said rationally should be said plainly and hold universally. Yet Adorno always felt that it was forms of expression and life which rejected incorporation into totalizing forms of reason that held open the door to new possibilities, even if we couldn’t always understand or articulate plainly why.

At their most pretentious, these kinds of attitudes have yielded some of the most insufferable works of art and philosophy to ever be hurled at my kitchen wall. But in the hands of someone like Geuss, it takes on something like a religious quality: a willingness to accept our finitude with hope but not illusion. Understood in this way, liberalism’s boundless optimism in the transformative power of rational selfishness would undoubtedly seem the purview of so many hollow men.

German philosopher and critic of liberalism Theodor W. Adorno. (Jeremy J. Shapiro / Wikimedia Commons)

The Flaws of Liberalism

A book like Geuss’s is in some respect immune to strident criticism or endorsement, since it isn’t an argument so much as a quasi-account of living a nonliberal life. Of course, the liberal critic might shout that this is precisely the virtue of political liberalism: a person can choose to adopt a nonliberal life if she wants, as long as she doesn’t impose it on others. But liberalism has never simply been a neutral set of individual freedoms; it is also a way of ordering society. And to the extent that there is dissatisfaction with our social condition as dissatisfying, so too will there be highly individuated or localized efforts to reject, transcend, or ignore it — Much like those described in Not Thinking Like a Liberal.

However, the question then becomes how much these efforts could be extended to a more comprehensive and inclusive politics — and even more important, whether that is something to be welcomed. Geuss tends to answer affirmatively on both points:

Liberalism has begun to show itself in an increasingly unmistakable way to be at best irrelevant and at worst deleterious to human well-being. We live in a society in which we are under universal uninterrupted electronic surveillance which allows continuous tracking of virtually all of our movements, but also all our opinions and our desires to the extent to which they leave any visible trace in the world at all, and which makes the dystopian vision of 1984 look crude and underdeveloped by comparison. . . . Is liberalism committed to the lightest possible regulatory touch on the financial services industry and the respect for all existing forms of ownership and entitlement? The financial crisis of 2008 was a direct effect of the application of liberal doctrines to the banking system. The only remedies liberals seem to have in their medicine chest to prevent a recurrence of such a crisis seem toothless to the point of absurdity.

Except they aren’t. Geuss may have found Rawls — a war veteran who wrote extensively about his faith before losing it in the rubble of Hiroshima — tedious to read, but in fact Rawls developed a devastating critique of meritocratic mythology as part of his effort to move beyond even liberal welfarism. Slamming Mill as “pathetically inadequate” for endorsing utilitarianism ignores how carefully he rejected the idea that all life was just a pursuit of hedonistic pleasure, and how he linked his own arguments for socialism to both liberal egalitarianism and our communitarian need for solidarity. (Interestingly, Mill’s own Autobiography anticipates Geuss’s book in its genre-blending mixture of philosophical ruminations and soul-searching.)

The difference between Geuss and his counterparts is they felt the limitations of liberalism while recognizing that not just anything was fit to replace it. Heidegger and Carl Schmitt both offered damning critiques of liberalism but no decent person would want to follow them into their far-right abyss. Not all nonliberal philosophies are created equal. Some are simply illiberal and so cures worse than the disease.

Going Beyond Liberalism

At a certain point in my life, despite considerable queasiness and no shortage of reflection about the flaws of liberalism, I came to a similar conclusion. Freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, multiculturalism — these were simply too important to abandon for a theoretical nonliberal alternative. In fact, some of the maladies of liberal society — the criminal justice system, for example — flow from an insufficient commitment to liberal principles (in this case, a fair trial or humane punishment).

I didn’t want to jettison liberalism. I wanted to take the best of the tradition and leave the rest behind. And the name for that political philosophy, and the one that I still believe is the most compelling alternative for our moment, is democratic socialism.

Geuss doesn’t come down so definitively. Those looking for theoretical red meat will probably be disappointed by his lack of argumentative put-downs. But that would be to miss the extraordinary riches and, indeed, intellectual courage on hand.

Not Thinking Like a Liberal deserves to be a classic. It is at once relatable and profound, humane and auspicious. In his best moments, Geuss offers his own life as a challenge to readers to think differently and more imaginatively.

And ironically, that is very much in the best spirit of liberalism itself.