The February issue of Harper’s Magazine poses the question “Is Liberalism Worth Saving?” on its cover. The panel of four, who more or less cover the mainstream of the ideological spectrum, for the most part give familiar praise and criticism. One panelist, however, gives a forceful and fundamental critique of liberalism. That person is not the representative of the left. To be sure, the left representative makes all the standard criticisms of classical liberalism (imperialism, racism, inequality) but these issues have all been confronted, for decades, within forms of political liberalism like social democracy and even neoliberalism. The real underlying critique of liberalism, the one that challenges its foundational tenets, is coming from the post-liberal right.
This is relatively new.
Because being marginalized and uninfluential are baked into the ethos of the radical left, something I definitely internalized while attempting to organize first as an anarchist and then a Trotskyist, there is an absolute lack of understanding when it comes to how to handle successes. This is particularly true regarding any political introspection as to why certain ideas have been deemed acceptable and why that has created a lack of curiosity outside of these, largely cultural, categories. The categories (gender, race, sexuality, environmentalism, etc.) have been through decades of post-modernist leveling against not only class, but the very idea of politics as an emancipatory project. This has masked the ability of liberalism to fully address even the most seemingly radical demands that are being put forth. In other words, the left’s transitional demands are now capable of being met by friendly state and corporate powers with the results being absolutely compatible with liberalism. Indeed, they are often its driving force. The response from the left, completely engulfed by liberalism, is to be a liberal with an exclamation point, that is liberalism’s vanguards. A society of libertine self-expression has seemingly endless outlets which can each be marketed as a revolutionary identity without a fundamental altering of core societal structures. You can be a revolutionary without all the inconveniences of actually having to sort out how to run things.
I am well aware that a lot has been written about class versus identity, or cultural issues versus material issues. My point here is that it is all an argument within liberalism. Even the much maligned “class first” socialist is a liberal creation. It was not too long ago that the “class first” distinction would have been seen as nonsensically redundant. (What other kind of socialist could you possibly be?) This has changed. While you will still find arguments about the revolutionary subject (Is it still workers? Maybe the lumpen? Maybe immigrants?), this is just an argument of strategy. That is, which group should be highlighted at which particular time, for social and/or political gains within liberalism. The revolution is permanent, perhaps, but permanently liberal.
There are a handful of people who still see the left as a project of human emancipation. Usually they are stuck in some sectarian organization with zero influence on the political process, embarrassingly still plastering their websites and pamphlets with busts of Marx, Lenin and Trotsky. These holdouts will likely fade away as leftism continues as exclamation point liberalism, and eventually they will pick a side in one of the forever culture wars and assume that political identity.
This leads me to my final argument. The most effective leftist today is the leftist who defends the best of liberal bourgeois society, something elites have largely traded for a vulgar cosmopolitanism. The bourgeoisie are history’s most successful revolutionaries and not without many fine accomplishments even from a leftist perspective. You, my leftist friend, will be happier fully engaging with reality and living that anti-capitalist life that is completely compatible with liberalism(!). Take satisfaction in the contradiction that a critical defense of enlightenment values will seem anti-liberal to many.
If the point is to fundamentally change the world, however, then I think we can finally say, with some genuine sadness for many of us, the left is not really part of the conversation. In order to be more than a jacobin, there will have to be an actual political break which would mean not voting for Democrats (even those endorsed by the DSA!) and a slow start from scratch process that refuses to opportunistically attach itself to one of the hot and ready culture wars. That seems incredibly unlikely, at least in most of our lifetimes.