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From Liberalism and Its Discontents, which will be published this month by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Modern democracies are facing a deep cognitive crisis. For many years now, societies have been living with moral relativism, which asserts the essential subjectivity of all value systems. Liberalism was founded on the premise that people disagree on the final ends of life or understandings of the good. Postmodernism, however, has moved us further, from moral to cognitive relativism, in which even factual observation is regarded as subjective.

The journalist Jonathan Rauch notes that the approach to factual truth coming out of the liberal Enlightenment rests on trust in a social system that adheres to two rules: that no one gets the final say, and that knowledge must be based on empirical evidence and not on the authority of the speaker. To this we need to add a battery of techniques that seek to either verify empirical propositions through inductive reasoning or falsify them through observation. These techniques are known collectively as the scientific method, and its rise was critical to liberalism’s struggle against religion. Science was able to defeat it because it could produce repeatable results. The manipulation of nature produced the modern economic world, where continuous growth through technological advance could be taken for granted. Scientific approaches to health led to huge increases in longevity, and military technology conferred huge advantages on states that could be used to defend or conquer. Science, in other words, became strongly associated with power, perhaps exemplified by the mushroom cloud exploding over Hiroshima in August 1945.

Precisely because modern science was so intimately associated with existing power structures, it engendered a prolonged critique that questioned whether its dominance was justified. In a series of brilliant books, Michel Foucault argued that the language of modern science was used to mask the exercise of power. The definitions of mental illness, the use of incarceration to punish certain behaviors, and the medical categorizations of sexual deviancy were not based on neutral empirical observation of reality, but rather they concealed the operation of broader power structures that subordinated and controlled different classes of people. The supposedly objective language of science encoded these interests in ways that hid the influence of power holders; people were thereby unconsciously manipulated into affirming the dominance of certain ideas and the groups that stood behind them.

With Foucault, deconstructionism evolved into postmodernism, a more general critique of the cognitive modes that had been strongly associated with classical liberalism for centuries. This critique was easily incorporated into the varieties of critical theory that proliferated in the United States from the Eighties onward, and were used to attack the racial and gendered power structures of the time.

At the heart of the liberal project lies the assumption that if you strip away the customs and accumulated cultural baggage that each of us carries, you’ll find an underlying moral core that we all share and can recognize in one another. It is this mutual recognition that makes democratic deliberation. But this idea has come under attack with the growing awareness of identity’s complexities. Individuals are not the autonomous agents of liberal theory; they are shaped by broader social forces over which they have no control. Knowing is not an abstract cognitive act, but is intimately bound up with doing, acting, and being acted on. It is impossible to reject many of these ideas, because they begin from observations that are indubitably true.

The whole enterprise of neoclassical economics has presented itself as a neutral application of the scientific method to the study of economics. Among social scientists, economists have gone the farthest in trying to formalize their theories with abstract mathematical models, and in developing a rigorous empirical methodology to validate them with. But this did not prevent them from falling prey to the attractions of power and money. Deregulation, privatization, and a strict defense of property rights were pushed by wealthy corporations and individuals, who created think tanks and hired big-name economists to write academic papers justifying policies that were in their private interests.

Many criticisms of modern natural science and the cognitive approaches associated with classical liberalism were therefore justified. But some critical theorists went beyond attacks on specific misapplications of the scientific method, to a broader critique of science as it had evolved since the Enlightenment. They argued that the search for human universals fundamental to liberalism was simply an exercise in power, one that sought to impose the ideas of a single civilization on the rest of the world. The feminist writer Luce Irigaray, for example, argued that in physics, solid mechanics was a masculine way of looking at the world while fluid mechanics was a feminine one. In place of the aspiration to accumulate knowledge of the world through careful observation and deliberation, critical theory asserted a radical subjectivism that rooted knowledge in experience and emotion.

Postmodernism has continued to provide a framework by which progressives can interpret the world. The murder of George Floyd in May 2020 provoked an enormous amount of justified anger, and led to protests against police violence across the United States. But it also influenced an antiracist literature in which racism is not seen as an attribute of individuals or as a policy problem to be solved, but as a condition that pervades all American institutions, reflecting an underlying power structure of white supremacy that is embedded in language, and which hides itself even from progressives who believe themselves to be antiracist.

The postmodernist critique of liberalism has now drifted over to the right. White nationalists today regard themselves as a beleaguered identity group. During the pandemic, conservatives around the world used the same conspiratorial critique of modern natural science that had been pioneered by the left and critical theory, arguing that public-health recommendations of social distancing, masks, and shutdowns did not reflect “objective” science, but were motivated by hidden political agendas. The right-wing argument went much further than this, seeking to erode trust in the credibility of scientists more generally. They have simply applied what was originally a critique of the establishment right to the contemporary progressive dominance of supposedly neutral institutions, such as academia and the mainstream media.

Friedrich Nietzsche was an acute prophet of the impacts of the dethroning of liberal rationality. He argued that the only universal measure of value remaining is power, and the “will to power” that runs through all human activities. Translated into postmodernist terms, if there are no truly universal values other than power, then why should one want to accept the empowerment of any marginalized group, which would simply replace one expression of power with another?

This is precisely the argument that has been adopted by right-wing extremists in the United States today, who fear that they will be “replaced” by people of color. This fear is grossly exaggerated, but it becomes plausible if we drop the liberal assumption that anyone, regardless of race, ethnicity, or gender, can participate in a broader liberal identity on an equal basis. These extremists are not fighting to preserve a liberal order; they are fighting to preserve their power in a zero-sum struggle with other ethnic groups.

While liberal societies agree to disagree about final ends, they cannot survive if they are unable to establish a hierarchy of factual truths. This hierarchy is created by elites of various sorts, who act independently of those holding political power. Scientific journals will not publish studies that have not passed peer review, and responsible journalists have systems for checking facts. No system is foolproof, and all are capable of bias. But they are not deliberately engineered by the elites who oversee them to disempower or manipulate ordinary people.

There are thus two versions of modern identity politics. One version sees the drive for identity as the completion of liberal politics: historically dominant elites fail to appreciate the struggles of marginalized groups, and therefore fail to recognize their underlying common humanity. The goal of this form of identity politics is to win acceptance and equal treatment for members of the marginalized group, under the liberal presumption of a shared humanity.

The other version sees the experiences of different groups as fundamentally incommensurate; it denies the possibility of universally valid modes of cognition and elevates the value of group experience over what individuals hold in common. In time, this understanding of identity merges cleanly with a historical nationalism more commonly associated with the right.

This is not to say that identity politics is wrong, but that we must return to a liberal interpretation of its aims. Liberalism, with its premise of universal human equality, needs to be the framework within which identity groups struggle for their rights.

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February 2023

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