Congratulations to Hallam Willis for winning first place in our third annual Student Essay Contest. Here is his response to prompt #1: Liberalism is at the end of its rope. What comes next?
In Age of Folly, Lewis Lapham laments the decline of America’s democratic spirit, noting: “A majority of Americans apparently have come to think of democracy as a matter of consensus and parades, as if it were somehow easy, quiet, orderly, and safe.” Democracy descends into pageantry, its pomp and circumstance diverting our gaze from the thing itself as it attempts to create a nation out of ballot boxes and nostalgic rhetoric. In a similar key, Charles Taylor has described the West’s ascendant ideology as a “liberalism of neutrality,” the basic tenet of which is that “society must be neutral on questions of what constitutes a good life.” But pageantry and neutrality are poor substitutes for a profound philosophy of human political life—and it is precisely the politics of neutrality that has made democracy’s decline possible.
Our society now feels a sense of unease with regard to liberal democracy. As populist revolts multiply, we observe a malaise besetting our social and political institutions. We observe what the French call morosité—a tired sadness. This feeling tends to produce what Bernard Williams has termed a “crisis of legitimation”: We wonder whether the concept of liberalism will continue to serve us. In turn, this wondering precipitates a “crisis of explanation,” wherein reasons must be given for maintaining or reordering our concepts, the means by which we make sense of our world and ourselves.
“Liberalism,” in current usage, has two distinct senses, which have become hopelessly intertwined. The first sense is that of classical liberalism, which conceives the freedom of the individual as the highest good. The second sense entails a disposition toward progressive thinking about society, culture, and human beings. The two senses are linked by a critical—even revolutionary—spirit, but in the second sense, this spirit has been unleashed upon society without reference to any notion of what it is good to be and do.
Ironically, our crisis of legitimation has accelerated liberalism’s degeneration into its second mode, the crass progressivism wherein the emancipated self generates ever wilder fantasies of wish-fulfillment. This second mode stakes out a moral position, rather than an amoral one. Today, most (if not all) Western societies operate under this conception of liberalism. It precludes the existence of a collective moral horizon, and it is primarily responsible for the decline of classical liberalism.
Isaiah Berlin, among the best-known exponents of classical liberalism, advocated what he called the “negative freedom.” By paying close attention to Berlin, we can see that liberalism, even as conceived by one of its greatest defenders, is partly responsible for its own demise.
Berlin argues: “We must preserve a minimum area of personal freedom if we are not to ‘degrade or deny our natures.’” Yes, we might desire other goods, such as equality or culture, but if the time comes to choose among all possible goods, we must choose freedom. Berlin’s argument might be recast as a conditional: If we do not preserve a minimum area of freedom, then we will deny and degrade our nature. But something is missing. The claim that freedom is the essence of being human is asserted, not argued. Even if Berlin were not begging the question, it would be difficult to prove that freedom is the essence of what it means to be human. And in light of liberalism’s faltering, we might ask whether Berlin’s vision of autonomy really reflects what is essential to human nature.
Or consider Berlin’s definition by negation: “The basic sense of unfreedom is that in which we ascribe it to the man in jail, or the man tied to a tree; all that such a man seeks is the breaking of his chains, escape from the cell, without necessarily aiming at a particular activity once he is liberated.” Freedom is thus imagined as an empty space projected before the prisoner, extending into the future; it is by necessity a space without aim, filled with unspecifiable possibilities. And for anyone to suggest that this man in the cell must now do something specific with his freedom would be highly improper. No structures and no other persons—with their counsels or demands—can be allowed into this space without degrading the person’s humanity. Given this conception of freedom, we must assume that freedom can be valued for its own sake. This becomes clearer when Berlin argues, “Everything is what it is: liberty is liberty, not equality or fairness or justice or culture, or human happiness or a quiet conscience.” That is, it is a good that is good without reference to anything outside of itself.
But what makes freedom a good in the first place? The goodness of freedom is intelligible only when set against a particular moral horizon in which there exist some other things considered valuable, or worthy of striving after. We are given a world of possibilities, but for what? If there were nothing outside the cell, how would the prisoner even know that he was captive? Is it merely the idealized space of freedom—simple possibility—for which he longs? Or is it something more concrete? Freedom is worthless without some kind of further aim.
But before I seize upon this idea, perhaps some may be wondering how liberalism managed to succeed under this false valuation of freedom. It is important not to ascribe every positive aspect of modern history to the advent of liberal democracy, simply because one followed the other. Liberalism worked well in contexts where consensus already existed, where a rich moral vocabulary or vision of the good life was deeply embedded; but in a society with Berlin’s negative conception of freedom at its center, there is no binding vision. When the space in which we live our lives most essentially as human beings is a vacuum, the slide towards neutrality, and eventually morosité, is almost inevitable. Because liberalism presents itself as a good for its own sake, it becomes more and more difficult for individuals to articulate what the telos of freedom might be. The working out of Berlin’s premises produces a state of affairs in which the word “freedom” becomes the name of an imaginary space where the ego is disconnected from any structures outside itself. The longer this state of affairs continues, the more this imaginary space becomes a place of fantasy.
There is an important distinction to be made between imagination and fantasy. Freedom and the imagination are linked; indeed, they are one and the same. Fantasy, by contrast, is a perverted form of freedom. Fantasy involves us in the construction of a world in which the ego dominates and everything serves the desires of the severed I. Richard Rorty argues: “To be imaginative, as opposed to being merely fantastical, is to do something new and to be lucky enough to have that novelty be adopted by one’s fellow human beings, incorporated into their social practices.” The distinction between imagining and fantasizing is a distinction “between novelties that do not get taken up and put to use by one’s fellows and those that do.” Rorty’s account is imperfect. He assumes that only products of imagination can be taken up by society, yet the contemporary situation makes quite clear that we are just as likely take up insane and destructive productions of the fantasizing ego. Freedom thus becomes the name for something unvirtuous. But might freedom be reimagined as something other than an empty space, as a possible world, perhaps, intrinsically and not accidentally inhabited by others, constructed around not the grammar of I, but the grammar of We?
Another way of asking this question is: What comes next? My answer is at once a new definition of freedom and a defense of the ongoing legitimacy of liberalism.
Freedom should not be thought of as naming an abstract and purely theoretical personal space which we protect at all costs, wary of and isolated from others. That was Berlin’s way of thinking, and it has led us from nowhere to nowhere. Instead, freedom is the power to imagine possible worlds that we might inhabit together with others. We might see reason as the ability to describe the world as it apparently is, as some form of mimesis; freedom, by contrast, is our ability to imagine the world as we want it to be. It is the power we have to step outside our present condition, in order that we might make the world anew.
Rorty says, “there is no description of things that cannot be transcended and replaced by another, more imaginative, description.” That is not quite right. Freedom is not an ability like running, or jumping; it is not even a highly skilled ability like fixing an engine, or performing surgery. It is a moral ability, a virtue. Like any virtue, it must be cultivated lest it be corrupted, as we lapse into fantasy. We cultivate the virtue of freedom, the critical spirit of liberalism, by employing it over and over again, not with the goal of personal autonomy, but with the goal of creating a world in which we might live more humane lives together.
I am not so deceived as to think we will ever reach some celestial city, any more than I believe we can reach out and grasp the sun. Yet we cannot abide Berlin’s belief that “the very idea of the perfect world in which all good things are realised is incomprehensible, is in fact conceptually incoherent.” It seems to me that it is profoundly necessary, profoundly human, to seek a perfect world—that is what our freedom is for.
In one of his sonnets, George Herbert describes prayer: “Softnesse, and peace, and joy, and love, and blisse, / Exalted Manna, gladness of the best, / Heaven in ordinarie, man well drest.” Perhaps I am naïve to argue that we might seek a perfect world in which, as Berlin would say, all good things are realized. But I find myself enchanted by Herbert’s vision of “Heaven in ordinarie.” Heaven, utopia, whatever we choose to call it, will simply be the realization of all goods at once––who cannot imagine that? Heaven is not simply an empty space or a place; it is a sonnet composed of love, and peace, and joy—the gathering place of the virtues. That may sound ordinary, but only because we forget how impossibly difficult it is.
Hallam Willis lives in Toronto, Canada with his wife Hannah, where he studies philosophy at the University of Toronto.