The Italian intellectual Antonio Gramsci wrote that “the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum, a great variety of morbid symptoms appear”. This gloomy prophecy could form a tagline for The Once and Future Liberal, the new book by Columbia University agent provocateur and political philosopher, Mark Lilla. Written in the wake of the re(jack)booted politics of 2016, he was prompted into a bout of partisan soul-searching about the political fortunes of America’s progressive liberal wing.
The Trump presidency is seen not as the main problem but as a grotesque symptom of a deeper crisis: the one facing liberal America. Dissecting that crisis dominates much of Lilla’s polemical book. Social changes – deindustrialisation, suburbanisation and growing affluence – have certainly not helped the liberal cause. Faced with these major challenges, America’s liberals eschewed a shared vision of hope for the 21st century and followed a course of political detachment, an abdication from the demos, and became transfixed on the pseudo-politics of identity.
And while Lilla concedes that identity politics has genuine material concerns, it lacks a persuasive ideological vision. For him, the liberal Left that emerged out of the 1960s shared the narcissistic individualism of the New Right of the 1980s. Lilla pejoratively terms this “Reaganism for lefties”, where the politics of self-expression and of sectional interest groups became more important than what the masses of the demos have in common.
In his lament about this largely self-inflicted crisis in liberal politics, Lilla could be accused of wallowing in Cassandra-like pessimism. He admits to being a bit hard on liberals, but that’s because, at heart, he is a frustrated (and somewhat outraged) one.
Yet if liberals are in crisis, the same is true for today’s Republican Party. Since the Reagan era, Republicanism has been reduced to angry populism without a constructive agenda. Liberals now have, in Lilla’s words, “no ideological adversary”. His “manifesto” for liberals to regain political control looks to a broad coalition and attracting centrist working-class support. This can happen only if Democrats appeal to something that all Americans have in common, namely citizenship. Is this possible? For Lilla, the only barrier remains liberals. They have to shun the identity politics of difference and the grand gestures of social movement activism and opt for the more quotidian undertakings of persuasion and taking control of regional government.
I wholeheartedly agree with Lilla’s provocative argument that liberals should be less fixated on the solipsistic politics of identity – which have alienated and fragmented support. But is citizenship the best and only banner for creating a progressive alliance, as he contends? He dismisses the possibility of political coalitions forming around class and inequality, on the grounds that Americans just don’t do class consciousness and that economic grievances hardly sustain political activism. I am not convinced, especially in the light of events since the 2008 financial crisis. Furthermore, class and citizenship are not mutually exclusive, as sociologist T. H. Marshall’s concept of social citizenship makes clear. The words of the alt-right poster boy Steve Bannon should be a warning: “If the left is focused on…identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats”.
Michael Marinetto is a lecturer in public management at Cardiff University.
The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics
By Mark Lilla
HarperCollins, 160pp, £18.99
Published 15 August 2017