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Art After Liberalism, Part 1: Terms

Post #1902 • October 19, 2021, 2:09 PM • 1 Comment

A few days ago, several weeks after I ran the Indiegogo campaign for this paper, The Art Newspaper published “Where does art fit in a post-liberal world?” by Scott Reyburn. Briefly I worried that I had been scooped. I need not have. The essay doesn’t answer the titular question. (The title may not have been his.) En route to nowhere in particular, he reveals just how bereft of meaning our political labels have become, particularly among the pro-art and ostensibly pro-liberal cognoscenti.

Anyone who equates fascism and the right while talking about the increasingly totalitarian left soon drives into the rhetorical barrier that separates leftism and autocracy. This is the source of the “real socialism has never been tried” canard. Socialism’s track record is a veritable filled diaper. It devolves reliably into autocracy. Hence expressly socialist projects that produce dictators are said by the surviving socialists in freer nations not to be real socialism. It is one of the great ironies of our time that socialists, far beyond any consumer in a capitalist society, epitomize brand loyalty. The concentration camp into which Che Guevara sent the homosexuals had a sign posted that read “Work Will Make You Men,” in apparent homage to the ironwork that reads Arbeit macht frei over the entrance at Auschwitz. I saw someone sporting Guevara’s likeness on a t-shirt here in Boston a few months ago, pacing the suburban sidewalk as he smoked a cigarette and yapped on a cell phone. No self-contradiction seems too great for the contemporary socialist to bear.

Socialist-sympathetic or left-leaning art writers (which is most of them) keep running into that barrier before arriving at full realization. Reyburn:

In the current interregnum, there is growing talk of “post-liberal” politics. On the political right, this manifests itself in forces whose authoritarianism can resemble, by subtle, insidious degrees, “lite” versions of what happened in Germany and Italy in the 1930s, even within liberal democracies themselves.

Meanwhile, the left, notwithstanding the Democrats’ victory in the US 2020 elections, is struggling to come up with electable alternatives.

Which is a gentle way of saying that the left’s fondness for government by fiat, politicized science, the unaccountable bureaucracy of extremist overlords (the Biden pick for Comptroller of the Currency wants to nationalize retail banking and thinks that the Soviet Union had the correct model; the Wall Street Journal amusingly and aptly called her “the wrong nominee for the wrong industry in the wrong country in the wrong century”), regulating the economy to death, Critical Race Theory, cancel culture, and more and worse is proving unpopular. This never swings into Reyburn’s view. Instead he thinks the problem is, basically, insufficient censorship on the tech platforms.

“Today’s fascism no longer needs a Hitler, a Mein Kampf, or a regular corps of stormtroopers,” says the British commentator Paul Mason in a recent opinion piece on “Instead it has Facebook, the gaming channels Steam and Discord, the Telegram messaging service and the algorithms that push far-right video content onto the screens of people Google deems likely to enjoy it.”

Or consider Christina Rees’s far superior valedictory essay for Glasstire, “The Progressive Hammers Are Out, Looking For Nails,” which opines,

I won’t play both sides here. I know that the biggest threat to our democracy is a mounting fascism coming from the right. I am a catastrophist these days, and I’m pretty sure the next few elections will spell the end of democracy in this country. But America as we know could be over no matter what, I believe, because even if far-left progressives get their way instead — with Cluster B types leading the charge — democracy is just as over. Free speech and free expression is over, and due process is over. The ability to see your neighbor as a good person is over.

What’s missing is a snappy term like fascist to describe leftist dictatorships. We don’t have one because there is not adequate appreciation of the fact that political power, regardless of bent, has a singular nature that totalizes towards all the same effects—curtailment of expression, capricious law, the undermining of civil society, and so on. Impeding that appreciation is the left-right model of politics, which is an anachronism perpetuated by the left and the right to differentiate themselves from one another. The differentiation is necessary because most of the means and many of the ends are variations of the same projects.

Whether an autocracy is socialist or fascist is not a salient question by the time the boot is on your neck. So I’d like to begin this paper with a clarification of terms that I hope keeps the discussion out of those weeds.

The first term is liberalism. By that term I mean an order that maintains:

1. Individual rights. The individual is the atomic political unit and all other political considerations revolve around it. As such the scope of state power is necessarily limited. This state of affairs is conducive to individual freedom.

2. A culture of tolerance. Differences are to be worked out through persuasion and debate. Appeals regarding those differences are directed to reason.

3. Markets. Resources are to be allocated by trade. Customs of property and ownership are strong even for common citizenry.

4. Existential equality. Liberal orders regard all of their members as equally ennobled and endowed with true consciousness. Disputes between members are thus settled according to disinterested law that applies to all of them regardless of status.

A postliberal (or illiberal) order, in contrast, maintains:

1. Collective obligations. The collective is the atomic political unit and all other political considerations revolve around it. As such the scope of state power is necessarily expansive, sometimes verging on total. This state of affairs is inimical to individual freedom.

2. A culture of intolerance. Differences are to be worked out through shaming, incarceration, expulsion, and violence. Appeals regarding those differences are directed to emotion.

3. Commons. Resources are to be allocated by managerial fiat. Customs of property and ownership are weak outside of the rulers, for whom they may be absolute.

4. Existential inequality. Postliberal orders classify their members into categories of greater or lesser nobility (sometimes literally, but more often in accordance with the philosophical goals of the regime; the regime’s category of enemies may matter more than the allies) and regard them as endowed with varying levels of consciousness. Disputes between members are thus settled according to ad hoc exercises of power that apply differently to different members.

There are other definitions of these terms but one can argue about them long past the point that it’s interesting or useful. Liberalism’s conservative critics blame it for communism, while its progressive critics blame it for fascism. They are talking past each other and they would be talking past me as well. I’m going with these definitions for the sake of this paper, which is not to say that I regard them as definitive or all-encompassing.

The next terms are left and right. I declare them null. I won’t use them, even for people who describe themselves that way. I will instead refer to progressives whose priority is the oppressed and regard oppression as the enemy, conservatives whose priority is civilization and regard barbarism as the enemy, and libertarians whose priority is freedom and regard coercion as the enemy. This comes straight from Arnold Kling.

Thus this paper will deal with the political landscape on the following axes:

progressive liberal progressive postliberal
conservative liberal conservative postliberal
libertarian liberal libertarian postliberal

If you’re suspecting that I’m going to suggest that any group has as much in common with the rest of its column as with the rest of its row, you are correct.

This paper will not use liberal in the sense of “left-leaning.” Such people, according to the above schema, are progressive liberals. Following Angelo Codevilla (RIP), it will avoid using fascist to describe anything except Mussolini’s Italy.

...a little attention is enough to separate Italy’s fascism up to 1935 from Hitler’s National Socialism. Whereas the former understood itself as bound by Italy’s characteristics going back to Roman times, as well as by the Church, and aiming at concrete improvements in the lives of Italians, Nazism was always a purely revolutionary movement, hostile to Germany’s history, reality, and welfare. The race that it purported to represent was a myth that abstracted from real Germans. Nazism’s gods were its own invention. Hitler’s last statement may have been his most telling: “The German people were not worthy of me.” That is not nationalism. The Nazis never called themselves fascist. The fascists wanted a place in the sun for Italy. The Nazis acted as if they were the sun.

(It continues like that. Read the whole thing.) I furthermore accept Codevilla’s claim that Italian fascism provided key ideas for every modern democracy since then. I’m likewise going to refrain from calling anything socialist unless in regards to those describing themselves as such, and even then I’m going to be careful. Socialism circa 2021 is a terminological dog’s breakfast that could include everything from Chavismo to Saint-Simonianism to the Export-Import Bank. It usually amounts to some kind of managerial economics as described above under postliberalism. I’ll use “managerial economics” or something like that instead.

Lastly I won’t be using woke. I will refer to the woke according to the above schema as progressive postliberals. This category also includes economic socialists, true class warrior types, who disdain contemporary racial politics as implemented by the woke. One would have to split the category further to distinguish them, perhaps into economic progressive postliberals and identitarian progressive postliberals. But intellectually they share too much genetic material to group them any further apart from each other.

With that established, I intend to roll this paper out in installments. Part 2 will provide an overview of progressive, conservative, and libertarian complaints against liberalism. Part 3 will present a brief theory of postliberalism, and how it explains some of what is going on in contemporary politics. Part 4 will outline some principles regarding how art and art criticism (or what passes for them) function in a modern postliberal regime. I’ll conclude with an explanation of why Rees’s pessimism (“catastrophism” refers to something else, but I understand what she means) is well-founded and likely correct, and what those who would prevent catastrophe must do.

Reyburn, for his part, seems tempted to turn from progressive liberalism to progressive postliberalism. He has bought into the attack on capital (see “markets” above), citing an astonishing claim:

“This idea of aesthetically-crafted artefacts put inside museums or galleries or private homes is a very special Western phenomenon that’s been exported to the rest of the world, thinking there is a utopia, a global art world,” says Jacob Wamberg, a professor of art at Aarhus University in Denmark. “But it’s still very much defined by Western criteria,” adds Wamberg, the co-editor of the 2010 essay collection, Totalitarian Art and Modernity. The collection challenges notions that totalitarian art is somehow not “true” art and is confined solely to politically suspect regimes.

Note the Western doubts about the validity of Western criteria, because I will show that this is a distinguishing feature of progressive postliberalism. (Maybe there’s some kind of mitigating context, but the suggestion that aesthetically-crafted artifacts put inside private homes is a “very special Western phenomenon” is possibly the least true claim about art I’ve ever read.) Reyburn has likewise been moved to doubt the value of freedom (again, see above):

Subversion is a traditional trope of the liberal art establishment that stretches back to Duchamp and beyond. The jolt of avant-garde art somehow makes us freer. Yet the whole notion of “freedom”, let alone artistic freedom, has become more problematic in democracies as capital and technology tighten their hold over our daily lives, and culture wars make us more intolerant, whichever trench we happen to be in.

He concludes:

Google “post-liberal art”. At the moment it doesn’t exist. Maybe it’s time for the Eight Percent [the fraction of the world living in a “fully functioning democracy” according to the Economist] to open their minds to this kind of creative jolt, whatever it turns out to be.

It exists, it just hasn’t been properly labeled as such. I will fulfill that need shortly.



Douglas Bowker

October 19, 2021, 2:51 PM

Just the type of well-articulated and logic-based arguments that we need right now. Looking forward to Part II.



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