Susan Sontag established herself as a public intellectual through original and incisive essays in which she exalted avant-garde over high culture in the 1960s. Late in her career, in the 1990s, she began to have second thoughts. “It never occurred to me that all the stuff I had cherished, and all the people I had cared about in my university education, could be dethroned,” she explained to Joan Acocella of The New Yorker. She had assumed that “all that would happen is that you would set up an annex — you know, a playhouse — in which you could study these naughty new people, who challenged things.”
The “naughty new people” were mid-20th-century artists, particularly American and European writers and filmmakers, who defied existing conventions of the novel and of narrative in general. In your creation or experience of art, try for a moment to stop asking what it “means,” Sontag advised. Relish the “sensuous surface of art without mucking about in it.” The aesthetic she was celebrating — it amounted to an elevation of form over content — was supposed to be exemplified by the “nouveau roman,” in which plot, character development, and all the empty promises of linear thought were minimized or, better, absent. “What is important now is to recover our senses,” she wrote. “We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more.”
Alas, what had appealed to Sontag about that kind of formalism “was mostly just the idea of it,” Acocella observed. “I thought I liked William Burroughs and Nathalie Sarraute and Robbe-Grillet,” Sontag told her, “but I didn’t. I actually didn’t.” And now she had regrets. “Little did I know that the avant-garde transgressiveness of the sixties was to become absolutely institutionalized and that most of the gods of high culture would be dethroned and mocked.” In “Thirty Years Later” (1996), Sontag, reflecting on what she had failed to foresee when she wrote the cultural criticism collected in her book Against Interpretation (1966), recounted that she hadn’t yet grasped that
seriousness itself was in the early stages of losing credibility in the culture at large, and that some of the more transgressive art I was enjoying would reinforce frivolous, merely consumerist transgressions. Thirty years later, the undermining of standards of seriousness is almost complete, with the ascendancy of a culture whose most intelligible, persuasive values are drawn from the entertainment industries. Now the very idea of the serious (and the honorable) seems quaint, “unrealistic,” to most people.
These days I think of Sontag’s late awakening to that tragic loss whenever I hear someone deprecating “liberalism” or gushing over the prospect of its demise and of what he hopes will supersede it. In that regard, our present moment rhymes with 1968, the peak season of the New Left’s assault on “liberals,” of whom Hubert Humphrey, his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention drowned out by a sustained roar of heckles and boos, was made the symbol that year. Of course, as used on the right, the word “liberal” was no less derogatory, although there the constellation of reasons for the derogation was different.
Anti-liberalism is sold in assorted flavors under various labels: “post-liberalism,” “illiberalism,” “integralism” (popular among right-wing Catholics), “the end of liberalism” (see Patrick Deneen), “the Fourth Way” (see Aleksandr Dugin). No two self-identified anti-liberals have exactly the same definition of what they oppose. Some start from an economic idea of liberalism — capitalism, essentially — and then assume that it’s a necessary correlative of a host of legal, political, cultural, and psychological tendencies. They say it’s a package deal. But it isn’t, or doesn’t have to be.
On the right, what half of those who advocate some form of anti-liberalism say they want boils down to — to translate it into plain, boring terms — economic progressivism married to social conservatism. They may think that their case is sexier if they present it as an argument that “liberalism” suffers from a congenital disorder that makes it advisable for us to kill it off or hasten its death, but if they go that route they should point to an existing alternative that most closely approximates what they would like, because otherwise we’re left to wonder whether they mean that America should follow Viktor Orban and take for its model Putin’s Russia, Erdogan’s Turkey, or even Xi’s China.
Approval ratings of Putin in particular are high among Americans and Europeans on the right. From that perspective, Russia is an advanced version of what Hungary and Poland are still in the process of becoming: a state in which the ruling party tinkers with media and the courts to consolidate power and then pulls up the drawbridge to shut out political opponents, though letting them furnish the appearance of a democracy as they grumble on the other side of an impassable moat.
The difference between the American and the European use of the term “liberal” is often remarked. The former refers, on the whole, to the Left; the latter, to classical liberalism, which until yesterday was the political philosophy — free markets, limited government, individual liberty — of the mainstream American Right. The current populist revolt on the right has flushed to the surface a fact I had underestimated: that when Americans who call themselves conservative say “Down with liberalism,” classical liberalism is a large part of what many of them have in their sights.
Christian anti-liberalism — Alasdair MacIntyre, John Milbank, David L. Schindler, the Communio school — enchanted me somewhat until classical liberalism in the flesh began to manifest increasing vulnerability. It has to fend off enemies on two fronts now, the right as well as the left. Like Susan Sontag lamenting over the rapid dumbing down of American culture in the late 20th century, I see my mood has changed. What had appealed to me about MacIntyre, Milbank, and the whole crew of “naughty new people who challenged things” was not the possibility that their pictures and diagrams of anti-liberalism would ever escape from the page and the screen and result in political consequences. The idea of anti-liberalism, that’s all, is what I fancied. The realization of it, or the attempt to realize it, turns out to be messy, even ugly, and it appears to be tending toward the ever messier and uglier.
Deep critics of liberalism insist that many of the pains, deprivations, and injustices suffered by those who live under some semblance of it are features, not bugs. I wonder.
Social conservatives believe in their worldview but don’t explain it well enough for it to move or even make sense to their neighbors who are persuaded by the view that opposition to same-sex marriage is analogous to anti-miscegenation laws under Jim Crow.
Here, for example, is a bug, often mistaken for a feature: In liberal democracies, our natural right to life between conception and birth is for the most part not recognized in law. Most of those on all sides of the controversy call that blindness “liberal” even though it violates the liberal precept that your freedom to swing your arm ends where my nose begins. In the case of abortion, as with slavery before it, we maintain, though barely, the brittle fiction that the nose we punch belongs to an entity that’s only some fraction of a full human being. Some pro-life advocates, especially those who identify as feminists, advance what at first appear to be purely communitarian arguments, according to which the controlling value is that of relationality — between mother and child, then between the two of them (considered as a tight community in microcosm) and the larger society. Relationship, however, depends on the existence of individuals, including, in this case, the unborn child. Were he not an individual, he would be his mother’s property, and the communitarian argument based on the relationship between them would dissolve.
For social conservatives, the argument that liberalism’s fatal flaw is a disregard for the importance of human relationships in the life of the individual runs aground these days most conspicuously at the marriage debate. There they oppose the secular progressive who invokes precisely the value of relationality when he defends the legal right of two people of the same sex to marry. That practice is possible in a liberal society, though not inevitable, just as the traditional understanding of marriage is not inevitable there, though it’s possible. In law, the traditional understanding is now only tolerated, at best, and those who hold to it scramble to preserve at least the toleration. They understand the world in light of a rich, textured story, full of history, ancient wisdom, Biblical allusion, and sublime truth. They believe in the story but don’t tell it well enough for it to move or even make sense to their neighbors who are persuaded by the view that opposition to same-sex marriage is analogous to anti-miscegenation laws under Jim Crow.
Meanwhile, secular progressives continue to revise and refine the different story that they’ve marketed, sold, and established as the touchstone of public discourse. Against it, the worldview of social conservatives appears contrary and backward. They risk losing even the mere tolerance of it by mainstream society if they don’t start articulating better what they know to be true about the sanctity of life and the necessary beauty of sexual complementarity. “If we Americans are no longer sufficiently virtuous” or, I would add, no longer able to see the self-evident, “the fault lies primarily with us, not our founding principles,” Vincent Phillip Muñoz wrote at National Review Online earlier this week. Here I pass the baton to him. Tolle, lege.