Politics and Passion: Toward a More Egalitarian Liberalism
by Michael Walzer
Yale. 208pp. $25.00
Liberal political theory today is in a state of crisis. It is divided into a dozen or so warring tribes, each vying to be more “transformative,” cutting-edge, and multicultural than its competitors. In Politics and Passion, a collection of previously published essays, the left-wing political philosopher Michael Walzer has made his own entry into this thicket, arguing against many of Left-liberalism’s leading academic lights (though only occasionally by name) while seeking to refine his own vision for America and the world.
Walzer is a lucid writer and a genuine public intellectual. His 1977 book, Just and Unjust Wars, almost single-handedly rescued serious thinking about the morality (and, yes, sometimes the necessity) of war in the wake of America’s Vietnam debacle. More recently, in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, he wrote a bracing essay in Dissent, the magazine he co-edits, entitled “Can There Be a Decent Left?”
The answer was apparently no. Chastising his fellow leftists for their “barely concealed glee that the imperial state had finally gotten what it deserved,” Walzer concluded sadly that “the Left has lost its bearings.”
But Walzer is no liberal mugged by reality, as Irving Kristol once famously defined a neoconservative. In the six chapters that make up Politics and Passion, he gives vent to his misgivings about the Left and about various strands of contemporary academic liberalism. But, despite these misgivings, he remains a true believer in “social democracy”—in a politics that would actively promote multiculturalist and redistributionist policies through the coercive actions of the state.
Walzer begins by making the sensible point that liberal society depends upon a variety of associations that in the strict sense are not really “voluntary.” Whatever liberal theory might have to say about the “open society” and the “autonomous self,” the sociological reality in which individuals actually dwell is quite different from such abstract categories. We are born into this or that family; we come into the world with a particular skin color, ethnicity, and sex; and we are raised from infancy into particular cultural and religious forms. We have no choice in any of these primordial associations; they are the “givens” of our lives.
Walzer is critical of postmodern theorists who ignore these rather obvious human facts in favor of the idea that they are mere “social constructions,” which an individual need not accept unless he has in some active sense “chosen” them. Walzer aptly describes these theorists as “entrepreneurs of the self,” and, in good Burkean fashion, he dismisses their radical enterprise as utopian. It is, he reminds us, the given “constraints” of family, ethnicity, class, sex, and so forth, that make individual choice both humanly meaningful and possible in the first place.
Walzer’s sensible appreciation of the significance of involuntary associations leads him, however, down a very un-Burkean path. As the subtitle of his book declares, he aims at “a more egalitarian liberalism.” In his view, neither the classical liberal solution to the problems of the down-and-out—a solution based mainly on individual effort—nor its class-based alternative has produced more than limited improvement. Needed instead, he contends, is a kind of marriage between multiculturalism and socialism, or what he calls “meat-and-potatoes multiculturalism.” He would help the underprivileged not one-by-one, and not as a class, and not by extending to marginalized groups the mere social “recognition” emphasized by many of his fellow leftists. He would offer them group-based, taxpayer-supported subsidies.
But, having committed himself to redistributing society’s resources to designated downtrodden associations, Walzer finds himself in an awkward position. The hate-preachers of the madrassas are part of civil society, too, no matter how uncivilized they are, and they too will demand their subsidy and their place in the sun. Walzer does not blink at the prospect, even as he notes that any “regime of toleration” is unlikely to survive “if a single totalizing group [becomes] demographically dominant.” Nevertheless, he writes, there is a strong argument “in favor of tolerating such [totalizing] groups, even in favor of empowering them and providing some (qualified and conditional) support for their cultural reproduction.”
Thankfully, Walzer does not completely go over this precipice. After considerable hand-wringing and complex theorizing, he suggests that government can and indeed should “tilt” against such anti-liberal groups. But it should do so, he stipulates, not in the name of the old liberal creed—no tolerance for the intolerant—for that would itself be excessively intolerant. It should do so simply in the name of basic “decency.”
Finally, as in his domestic politics, Walzer also favors a global form of meat-and-potatoes multiculturalism. What is needed, in his view, are strong regulatory structures to oversee a redistribution of resources from the haves to the have-nots—from, one supposes, the United States and other rich, Western nations, to the disadvantaged and stigmatized nations of the Third World.
As Politics and Passion winds down, Walzer mildly rebukes other excesses to be found in contemporary academic liberalism. Rejecting a current scholarly fad that views “rational deliberation”—conveniently defined by liberal academics to exclude conservative opinion—as the only form of acceptable democratic politics, he advocates making room as well for a passionate politics—or at least a passionate commitment to equality. Similarly, he dismisses a form of liberal cosmopolitanism that looks down on patriotism or the attachment to one’s own. Although he shares the One World goal of liberal cosmopolitanism, he points out that people must first “have an opportunity to be, and they must learn to be, competent citizens of a particular state.”
What is one to make of this exercise? Certainly, Walzer scores many points against the various leftist factions he contends with, from the postmodern liberalism of utopian “self-creation” to the hollow and strident radicalism of identity multiculturalism to the foolishness of an ultra-liberal rationalism and cosmopolitanism. Yet is his meat-and-potatoes multiculturalism any better?
There is no evidence that state subsidies of so-called marginalized groups would help either the individuals in these groups or the groups as a whole. Far more likely is it that their self-appointed leaders would grow rich and corrupt. And who would decide which groups are deserving of taxpayer support? How is such support to be administered? What sorts of perverse social and political incentives would thereby be set in motion?
Of course, Walzer’s book is a work of theory, not a how-to guide. But it is one more sign of the malaise of academic liberalism that even a critic of it should be so out of touch with the realities of American life. Walzer claims to speak for democracy, but the American public would never approve of his ideas and programs; nor, even, would today’s Democratic party.
Walzer’s book fails on theoretical grounds as well. As we have seen, having endorsed subsidies for marginalized groups in the name of values like “cultural reproduction” and the toleration of “difference,” he simultaneously advocates that government “tilt” against illiberal, totalizing groups “for the sake of a minimalist decency.” But in the government-funded world Walzer would bring into being, who is to do the delicate moral balancing he calls for? The madrassa cleric will surely retort: “It is not for you, Mr. Walzer—decadent Ivy League professor and Zionist swine that you are—to tell me what is decent and indecent.” What we have here, in short, is another case study in how a leftist politics of multiculturalism inevitably ends up supporting violently intolerant opinions and radically illiberal forms.
In his post-9/11 cri de coeur in Dissent, Walzer concluded that “the Left needs to begin again.” It surely does, and for a brief period he seemed the man to point the way. Unfortunately, on the evidence of the theoretical hair-splittings and preposterous proposals of Politics and Passion, Walzer has himself hardly begun anew, but walked into a cul-de-sac.