Book Notes: Mark Lilla’s Once and Future Liberal
I read this book because I saw many angry denunciations of it, and that sort of thing always makes me want to find out for myself. And I’m glad I did.
One of the dangers of neoliberalism is that it destroys democracy, hollowing out democratic institutions and turning people into isolated, disaffected consumers who are incapable of solidarity. Liquid capital doesn’t like civic engagement and sweeps it away. This process has been studied at length. Bauman, Ulrich Beck, Manuel Castells, McGuigan, Zizek, Dardot and Laval have all written about the difficulty of preserving any meaningful form of democracy in the era of neoliberalism.
All the names I mentioned, though, belong to European thinkers. They do mention the US in their work but Europe is the main focus of their attention. In the US, there is little original work on neoliberalism as an ideology and a way of being. Mostly, it’s all about neoliberal economy, as if one could isolate the economic from everything else.
Lilla is finally bringing these ideas to this side of the Atlantic. Neoliberalism, he points out, impacts people irrespective of their political affiliation. You can’t subtract yourself from the dominant ideology. All you can do is realize this and start noticing the ways in which it acts upon you.
Lilla’s argument is that neoliberalism has destroyed any meaningful form of conservatism, as we have seen in the 2016 election. But it didn’t leave liberalism untouched either. Right now is the best moment for liberalism to win a decisive victory because the opponents are so morally and politically bankrupt. It’s not going to be easy, though, because the neoliberal attributes of alienation, lack of solidarity, self-absorption, etc are destroying the Left, too.
What we need to do is to start noticing the ways in which we have absorbed neoliberal mentality. The manner in which the Left does politics today is so infected by neoliberal (or you can also say consumerist) mentality that it’s doomed to fail.
Lilla is a great fan of the welfarist aspect of the nation-state. He believes that the praise of fluidity needs to stop and we should at least try to create a dam to the forces that are eroding the nation-state model. It is only within that model that anybody has at least tried to create welfare protections, so ditching it is a mistake.
I don’t know if it’s possible to resist the lure of neoliberal ideology. But I’m glad somebody is at least trying. As Lilla says, this is the kind of resistance we really need.