Living Up to Liberal Commitments Means Confronting Capitalism

A new book argues that liberalism offers not just a set of institutional norms but a compelling way of thinking about human flourishing. To offer a complete account of the good life, liberalism needs to confront the structural injustices of capitalism.

Achieving the good life will require a deeper critique of capitalism than that which liberals have traditionally trafficked in. (Bill Foley / Getty Images)

At least since radical French Enlightenment thinkers declared their intention to strangle the last king with the entrails of the last priest, the Left has had a reputation for hostility toward religion — what Karl Marx infamously called “the opiate of the masses.” To be clear, there are plenty of good reasons to be critical of established religions, especially those whose ministers seem determined to sell their souls to help the political right defend hierarchy and inequality, or who produce Prager U videos defending faith traditions by turning them into banal self-help bromides worthy of Dr Phil. But one consequence of this reputation for antagonism toward religion has been to give credence to conservative accusations that the Left is indifferent to what socialist theologian Paul Tillich called the spiritual issues of “highest concern.”

In recent years, a number of left-wing thinkers have made efforts at constructive dialogue with Christianity. Philosopher Martin Hägglund’s This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom engages with the thought of Saint Augustine and Søren Kierkegaard to make the case for a secular approach to questions of existential meaning. Hägglund argues that the finitude of human life is a condition for our spiritual freedom — a freedom that is profoundly constrained by capitalist social relations. Self-described Christian atheist Slavoj Žižek and radical Thomist Alasdair MacIntyre have stressed the deep alignment between the Christian emphasis on freedom and equality for all and the social ambitions of the Left. And the birth of organizations like the Institute for Christian Socialism suggests the possibility of a broader reinvigoration of religious socialist movements in the United States.

Alexandre Lefebvre’s warm and inspiring Liberalism as a Way of Life represents another attempt at addressing questions of spiritual meaning, this one from a left-liberal perspective. Lefebvre observes that modern liberalism has often distinguished between the “right” and the “good.” Liberalism so understood maintains that the goal of a liberal state should be to establish the institutional and legal conditions for free individuals to pursue their private vision of the good life without interference.

Lefebvre argues, however, that liberalism also provides a framework for individuals to think about how to live a personally fulfilling existence. His case is rather persuasive, but his neglect of the structural conditions that have prevented liberal societies from making good on their promises of liberty, equality, and fraternity means the book’s argument feels incomplete. The left-liberal account of the good life needs to be complemented by a richer understanding of forces of domination that can come from engaging with critical and Marxist traditions of political thought.

A Left-Liberal Good Life

Despite liberalism’s nominal commitment to neutrality on issues of the good, social conservatives like Patrick Deneen have long accused the liberal state of in fact enforcing a comprehensive liberal morality on traditionalist religious communities that don’t want it, from mandating access to abortion in conservative red states to promoting or requiring acceptance of LGBTQ lifestyles.

Lefebvre acknowledges that there is some truth to the claim that liberal states generally see liberal values pollinate spheres of life beyond the political and legal. But for Lefebvre, the explanation is not insidious: for many individuals, liberalism is not simply a political account of what is right but a comprehensive formula to lead a good and meaningful life. Liberalism becomes the “water in which we swim” over a long enough period of time, even when the liberal state stays neutral on questions on the good life. In Lefebvre’s terms, we become liberal “all the way down” when we recognize it as a demanding “existential option” available to us:

A key purpose of my book is to demonstrate how a liberal way of life has rewards for those who commit to it, as distinct from its wider effects on our societies, or the advancement of democracy and social justice. Being liberal is an intrinsically fulfilling, generous, and fun way to be.

Much of Lefebvre’s book is taken up with describing and defending the liberal vision of the good life and explaining how it can answer our need for existential yearning — what he colorfully describes as “soulcraft.” Lefebvre claims that “at the heart” of a liberal good life are three core ideas. The first is “reciprocity, the cardinal value of liberal democracy. The next two are qualities of character: freedom and fairness. One value (reciprocity) and two virtues (freedom and fairness) . . . reveal liberalism as the fun, rewarding, and fulfilling way of life it can be.”

Lefebvre acknowledges that the virtue of reciprocity can seem objectionably vulgar and bourgeois — a kind of extrapolation of the ethics of contractual exchange to all spheres of life. But he argues that in fact there is something “ennobling” about the principle of giving others their due and respecting their rights. Fairness and freedom relate to liberals’ commitment to the importance of treating other people’s lives as equally important to our own, and aligned with that, respecting their personal freedom to make significant life choices for themselves.

Sometimes these values entail making tough, existential choices about our own lives and our relationships with others. Lefebvre gives the example of Tara Westover, who grew up in a fundamentalist religious household. She eventually left to pursue an academic career in history, against the wishes of her family. While they continually pushed for Westover to return to the fold and she felt a great deal of inward pressure to do so, she ultimately chose to carry on with her academic career path, because she regarded the price of losing the right to think for herself as too high.

For Lefebvre, Westover made the difficult existential decision to make liberalism a comprehensive way of life and live with both the opportunities and costs that entailed. It also demonstrates that while Lefebvre’s characterization of the liberal good life frequently comes across as more relaxed and “fun” than competing visions of the good, liberalism can impose serious demands on those who want to live according to its values.

Resisting “Liberaldom”

Liberalism as a Way of Life is chiefly influenced by John Rawls, the seminal twentieth-century political philosopher of liberalism. This might seem surprising, for two reasons. First, Rawls is not known as a philosopher who comments on the sort of existential issues that are central to Lefebvre. Second, Rawls in his later work consistently described liberalism as a “political” and not “metaphysical” doctrine — meaning liberal institutions and principles could be endorsed by people holding diverse visions of the good life as part of an “overlapping consensus.” Liberalism, for Rawls, did not imply commitment to any specific conception of the good.

But Lefebvre makes a compelling case that Rawls’s work does speak to these more existential questions, demanding of us that we establish a society that is a “fair system of cooperation” where citizens treat one another as free and equal. “Rawls taps into the deepest yet frequently subconscious sense of who we are as members of a liberal democratic society,” Lefebve writes, “and from there, he generates not only a political philosophy for a just social and political order but also an entire moral psychology and existential analytic of what it means to be liberal.”

While Rawlsians reject demands for citizens to become liberals “all the way down,” Lefebvre holds that a society structured by egalitarian liberal principles would have spillover liberalizing effects on the broader culture. In an example with which he opens his book, Lefebvre talks about spending a day on the beach with family and friends — the infamous “surfer’s paradise” of left-liberal political philosophy. Reactionary critics often bemoan the decadence and emptiness associated with a hedonic-oriented existence. But Lefevbre notes that enjoying time with loved ones in leisure is in fact a very great good, even foundational to many of our most significant memories. Valuing this sort of leisure time is fundamental to liberalism as a conception of the good. (I’ve often pointed out to my students that if you think about the happiest moment in your life, it is very unlikely you were either alone, or working under duress. Here we can see left-liberal arguments about the benefits of living in a fair system of cooperation overlap with socialist arguments for the value of leisure.)

We don’t, however, actually live in a society that is a fair system of cooperation organized by egalitarian liberal principles. Instead we live in societies organized by neoliberal principles, which Lefebvre claims have at best a “tenuous” claim to being authentically liberal.

Drawing on Kierkegaard’s famous denunciation of mainstream institutional “Christendom” as the negation of authentic Christianity, Lefebvre argues that neoliberalism is not authentic liberalism but a kind of “liberaldom.” Liberaldom is defined by elites piously proclaiming fidelity to basic liberal principles of reciprocity, freedom, and equality for all. Yet under neoliberal practice, we have seen the sharpening of a viciously competitive meritocratic ethos, increased policing and mass incarceration, a decline of democratic accountability, and the growth of extraordinary inequalities in wealth and political power.

Somewhat frustratingly, Lefebvre is relatively unsystematic in describing what kinds of structural changes would be required to transition from liberaldom to a genuinely liberal system of fair cooperation. Rawls himself argued that only “property-owning democracy” or “liberal socialism” would do. A property-owning democracy is a society where property is far more widely and equally distributed than under capitalism, while a liberal socialist regime is one where liberal rights and personal property are respected while the means of production are mostly publicly or democratically managed. (I think liberal socialism is an especially attractive ideal, though unfortunately Rawls never spelled out what it might look like systematically; thinkers like William Edmundson have had to fill in the blanks.)

True to the spirit of his book, Lefebvre emphasizes the ways that liberals have failed as individuals to live up to their own commitments. He confesses his own failures on this score: he admits, for instance, that while he is happy to pay higher taxes to provide more equitable social services, he found it difficult to resist paying for his children to attend elite private schools where they will gain a competitive edge over the less affluent.

But admonishing fellow liberals to engage in individual moral or spiritual self-improvement seems at best unhelpful as a prescription for moving society in a more just direction. At worst, it is positively a distraction from building the kinds of popular movements that have historically won the rights and freedoms we associate with liberal democracy, and that are our best hope for winning greater freedom and equality today.

The Crisis of Meaning Under Capitalist Realism

The more central gap in the book is a diagnosis of the sources of spiritual discontentment in our society. Lefebvre makes a compelling case for the virtues and joys that come from adopting liberalism as a way of life, but he could do more to explain the conditions that have led many to reject it for other, less worthy alternatives. This is especially true of reactionary formulations of the good life, from postliberalism and national conservatism to the “trad wife” subculture.

It is here that left-wing diagnoses offer useful resources for those who want to understand the anomie of twenty-first-century capitalism. For instance, Mark Fisher noted that the nihilism induced by “capitalist realism” goes beyond discontent with inequality and lack of opportunity. Instead, the insistence that there is no alternative to neoliberalism — and never can be — can induce sharp feelings of meaninglessness and pointlessness. The once-limitless horizons of history close up, and individuals are reduced to indistinguishable self-interest maximizers, each encouraged to manage the “brand called you” and pursue a narrow kind of meaning through consumption and acquisition.

Or take Hägglund’s Marx-inspired account of faith and meaning in This Life. He argues that the finitude of human life is what gives our lives form and texture, since each of us has only a limited time to exercise our “spiritual freedom” to make the choices that come to define us. Hägglund goes on to observe that capitalism forces the vast majority of workers to spend much of their limited time working for the benefit of capitalist profits.

Hägglund claims that much of the contemporary crisis of meaning comes from the lack of time made available to people under capitalist conditions, where they end up selling their labor power to survive rather than exercising their spiritual freedom to choose more fulfilling ways of spending their time; he argues persuasively that a democratic socialist society, where choices about the allocation of labor and free time are made collectively and democratically, would enable all persons to enjoy more spiritually and existentially fulfilling lives in community with others.

Beyond Liberalism

Liberals will need to address the material and social bases of crises of meaning more directly if they are to effectively respond to them. This will require reevaluating basic presuppositions not just at the level of individual values and personal behaviors, but in terms of the social relations that determine and inform so much of our lives. This means liberals need to develop a more comprehensive theory of economic power and the role it plays in shaping social outcomes.

Rawls himself demonstrated an awareness of this in Justice as Fairness: A Restatement. Taking seriously the Marxist critique of “bourgeois” rights, Rawls acknowledged that economic power often translated into immense political power — diluting the equal and fair “value” of the political liberties that liberal citizens are supposed to enjoy. This grotesque inequality in political and economic power enables the wealthy to enact laws and policies that benefit them at the expense of the poor and working class, undermining the ideal of society as a fair system of cooperation and paving the road to neoliberal “liberaldom.”

Despite these criticisms, Liberalism as a Way of Life should be welcomed as a humane and spirited defense of the (left)-liberal good life. It offers an original way of conceptualizing liberalism, and effectively rebuts those who would dismiss liberals as one-dimensional bores, out of touch with deeper questions of meaning, or as avaricious defenders of the neoliberal status quo. Lefebvre demonstrates that liberalism has the intellectual resources to speak to what a life well lived would look like, while remaining recognizably liberal. It would be a life of warmth, open-mindedness, and creativity, which compares admirably to other kinds of good life that may be dedicated to the pursuit, say, of religious or aesthetic perfection.

Lefebvre also calls on liberals to engage in some self-examination and ask themselves if they are satisfied with who they have become and the societies in which they live. For many, the answer is likely no; the next step would be to try to become the kinds of people liberals say they want to be, and to make the societies liberals say they want to live in. Doing that, however, may require a deeper sort of social critique than that which liberals have traditionally trafficked in. Dare I say, it would require a transition to liberal socialism.