Saturday, April 1, 2017

After Utopia: The Decline of Political Faith by Judith Shklar

Judith Shklar: 

The state of the world today encourages the growth of unhappy consciousness. It is now the most prevalent of all intellectual conditions, and the one to which the most imaginative and subtle spirits are drawn. And who is to say that they are "wrong"? To be sure, they can offer no coherent account of nature, man, history, or society. They do not even try, for the defeat of the spirit lies in just this: that everything has become incomprehensible. But, then, the strange as this of “the world" is constantly pressed upon us. The romanticism of defeat is the simple submission to the "otherness" of nature and society. All that the unhappy consciousness can do now is preserve its own integrity against the encroachments of a hostile world. Its shortcomings, both practical and intellectual, are obvious enough, but one question remains. Is anything else possible?  163

This edition costs $36.99. Mine cost $2.95. Those were the days my friend!

One of the fun things about having a lot of books (and I do) is that you are subject to a degree of serendipity when you choose one, having so many that I’ve not yet read. Also, many of my books are packed in a hot, dark, crowded storage unit which I can now access at best once a year, and even then with a limited amount of time to ponder selections of what to pack to take to our next venue. So when I unpacked here in Bucharest, many of the selections came as a bit of a surprise. My goal was to grab a lot of my books on 20th-century European history (we had moved to Europe). I guess that it was with this in mind that I tossed in Judith Shklar’s After Utopia: The Decline of Political Faith (1957). I recalled the book because I read it before, in the fall of 1975. John Nelson assigned it for his class on “Contemporary Political Theory.” I’m not sure what I thought of it then, and enough time had passed that loved it or hated it, I would be like a new book to me. (I read a whole lot that semester, which is another story for another time.) Whatever I thought of it then, I can say now that I quite admire it.

Shklar’s aim is to explore the decline in political faith after the Enlightenment, which, roughly speaking, was right after the turn of the French Revolution into a blood bath that eventually brought Europe the figure of Napoleon. Of course, the Enlightenment had critiques before then, such as Rousseau, but the reaction to it reached full bloom after Rousseau and Napolean--each in his own way--critiqued it. So while the Enlightenment had great faith in the power of human reason, after the revolt against the Enlightenment, many elites began to doubt the ability of reason to construct a political system that capable of achieving its ends. While the Enlightenment movement was marked by optimism, intellectualism, and anarchism—in short, Reason—its heyday didn’t last long. Romanticism developed as a counter to Enlightenment, with individuality as its highest aim. But the movement was also marked by a sense of despair at the course of human events. Hegel dubbed this the “unhappy consciousness,” and he also provided us with the idea of the “alienated soul.” This trend continued throughout much of the 19th and into the 20th-century, with attitudes of pessimism and despair marking the work of many artists and thinkers. Some tried to buck the trend, but the list of prominent thinkers and artists who fit into these categories is a who’s who of leaders in thought and the arts. Of course, some tried to defy the trend, and as Shklar notes, because of these efforts, “today we have excessively intellectual poetry and philosophy that calls for more life.” (On the poetry end, try some Jorrie Graham is you don’t believe her.) Terms like “pessimism” and “fatalism,” “mass” and “crowd” come to the forefront of discourse. 

Romanticism cultivates an anti-politics that seeks to defy any social controls. Shklar argues that this morphs into the existentialism of Sartre and others like him: philosophical self-transcendence, historical despair, and aesthetic anarchism are existentialism’s inheritance from the “Romanticism of defeat.” Of course, in the political realm, nothing could prove less promising. As Shklar observes, “at first sight, nothing could seem less promising than an attempt to devise an ethic of isolated individuals.” She goes on: “[E]xistentialism has in its preoccupation with victimhood come to deny the reality of all those human relationships upon which systems of morality is explicitly or implicitly based.” (134) Although to be fair, this is much more true of Sartre than of Heidegger and some others associated with existentialism. (This shortcoming applies as well, I think, to a sympathetic critic and proponent of a more upbeat existentialism like Colin Wilson, who, so far as I can tell, seems to have largely ignored the social and political implications of our existential situation.)

Shklar also explores what she terms “Christian fatalism,” and those who developed “Christian social theory,” which, in short, holds that society and polity are failing because religion (specifically Christianity) has fallen out of favor in Europe (virtually all of the thinkers that she considers are European). But these thinkers provide thin fare, lacking any real explanatory power to back up their contentions. In the face of fascism and totalitarianism, merely alleging a decline of religious faith and practice doesn’t provide a satisfactory account. (She mentions Reinhold Niehbur briefly in a footnote, and I would have liked to have learned more about her perception of this work, which seems to me to go beyond that of the “Christian social theorists.”)

In all of this, even liberalism and socialism lose much of their drive. Shklar briefly discusses Tocqueville, Mill, and Acton, but on the whole, she doesn’t find much optimism in the liberal project, or the socialist alternative, either. (She is perceptive, however, in identifying the Mount Pelerin Society of Hayek, Friedman (Milton), et. al as a platform for promoting a traditional liberal politics and capitalism.) Her treatment of “conservative” liberalism is dated; when she writes this, Bill Buckley is just launching National Review, and of course, things have spun from that starting point in startling ways.

Shklar provides a description of liberalism that is worth pondering:
Liberalism is a political philosophy, romanticism is a Weltansuang, a state of mind which can adapt itself to the most divergent types of political thought. The basic problem of liberalism is the creation of an enlightened public opinion to secure civil rights of individuals and to encourage the spontaneous forces of order in society itself. It has nothing to say about defying convention, except to extend legal protection. The liberal sees the rights of individuals is based on justice or utility. The romantic makes a virtue of self-expression as an end in itself, and sees individuality as necessarily involving an opposition to prevailing social standards. The liberal fears majorities, because they may be too powerful to be just, and too ignorant to be wise. The romantic is revolted by their docility, their indifference to genius, their undistinguished emotional life. The liberal sees only the dangers of power abused. That the state may not interfere with society is a concept of an entirely different order than the idea of a man's first duty is to develop an original personality. Majority rule and minority rights are two central themes of political thought; the unique individual and his enemies, the masses, never enter its considerations. The romantic does not offer society anything but his defiance. Liberalism, on the other hand, attempts to regulate the relations of the individual to society and the state, and of these two to each other, by law. 231-232.

In the end, Shklar seems a bit despairing, but her concluding words betray a sense of what thinking and acting politically should entail. (N.B. She published this work before her fellow Jewish refugee from the Holocaust, Hannah Arendt, published her groundbreaking re-thinking of the possibilities of political life, The Human Condition (1958), which takes a positive view of politics.) Shklar writes:
The fact is that a curious situation exists in which everyone talks about or around politics, but no one really cares – at least, no one is sufficiently concerned philosophically to be capable of renewing the traditional political theory. Yet everyone is perfectly aware that it is in the realm of political life that our present condition and future life are largely determined. Politics impinge upon every moment of our existence, and yet we are incapable of synthesizing our experience into a theoretical picture. It is not only the civic consciousness of the Enlightenment but the entire tradition of political theory that is it at a standstill. 269.… The fact is that intellectually there is no escaping politics. Romanticism is surely not political in its initial inspiration, yet ultimately it too is forced to concern itself with questions of politics, even if only to exploit or to bewail. Indeed, the disgust with omnipresent political activity is the greatest incentive to romanticism.

Yet, despite her bleak assessment, it seems to me that she closes on a faint note of optimism, or perhaps it’s just determination,  a sense that we can find our way out of this predicament, which, although written 60 years ago, rings all too familiar: 

The answer to the quasi-politics of despair would be a new justification of some form of politics as culturally valuable and intellectually necessary. Yet such a thing is beyond us, even after all the countless failings of Christian fatalism and romantic despair--the two most extreme expressions of much general opinion--have been demonstrated. . . .  Paradoxically the fact remains that many people could never be satisfied by despair or by gloomy contemplation of the apocalypse. To a great extent the success of these attitudes is due to the absence of a satisfactory secular social philosophy. 270-271.
 . . . . 
The grand tradition of political theory the began with Plato is, then, in abeyance. A reason skepticism is consequently the sanest attitude for the present. Even skepticism is politically sounder and empirically more justifiable than cultural despair and fatalism. For neither logic nor history is in accord with these, and this even when no happier philosophies flourish. 271-272. 

Shklar's work is, of course, a history and appraisal of the works of high art and intellect within a mostly European tradition. Against this trend, many others were moved with an optimism fueled by amazing technological changes and increasing wealth. And while some despised politics, others jumped head-long into the fray. Some came away jaded or disillusioned, but others, liberals, Marxists, and all manner of different philosophies and outlooks, did not sit on the sidelines and despair. Of course, some of those who were active became authoritarians, fascists, Leninists and Stalinists, and Nazis. And the "masses"? They went about their lives in the midst of all of this economic, technological, social, and political change, wondering how it worked, but primarily concerned with the immediate circumstances of their own well-being and that of their families. Thus, Shklar's story is only a part of the whole, but it's nonetheless important and well-told, and one that still resonates with the world around us today. 

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