Despite my nasty libertarian streak, I found a lot to like in Blond’s talk, particularly in his enthusiasm for decentralization and local competition. My only quibble is that while Blond’s diagnoses are often compelling, his proposed solutions are sometimes less so.
His philosophical positions, however, are a little incoherent at the margins. For instance, he fully endorsed the position that we need an account of what a good life consists in in order to make political decisions, a position familiar to critics of Liberalism from an Aristotelian point of view, but then identified himself as an “Antique Liberal” (while in the same breath condemning Locke) and declared his allegiance to the liberal premise that individuals in pluralistic societies should follow their own conceptions of the good while debating them publicly and neutrally with others. He did not try to give an account of how the state might embody so-called “thick” views about what makes for a good life while at the same time serving as a referee amongst the many competing visions of the good life put forward by its citizens.
This was shortly after saying, puzzlingly, that his work was in the MacIntyrean tradition but that he doesn’t think MacIntyre is right about the failure of public reason in liberal society, which is, after all a fairly central element of MacIntyre’s position and its derivatives.
I agree with David that Blond’s self-definition as Antique Liberal is more confusing than clarifying (if not outright incorrect).
Blond would do better, in my view, to call himself a little ‘r’ republican. I realize this might be rhetorically difficult as people will hear republican to only mean The US Republican Party who are actually a form of pro-corporate liberals, a group Blond has very clearly in his sights to take down.
Little ‘r’ republicanism is the strand of political philosophy most clearly distinct from liberalism in all its forms. Classical republicanism, also known as civic humanism. In essence it argues that conversations about the moral trajectory (the “good life”) are inherent to civic existence and must be faced, debated, and discussed.
I’ve been reading a great deal of Michael Sandel lately, who argues precisely for this point of view. His book Democracy’s Discontent chronicles the history of the US as a country initially heavily influenced by republican thought but over time (especially since the Second World War) turned into a liberal only country. Sandel calls this the procedural republic (as opposed to the humanistic/civic republic).
According to Sandel, our current US tripartite classification of liberals, conservatives, and libertarians assumes great divisions on the part of said groups, when in reality all three are descendants of liberalism. All stand opposed to republicanism.
The hallmark of the liberal procedural republic according to Sandel is that citizens are treated as consumers. The market becomes the dominant form of thought and practice in the polis. Beings become instrumentalized and utilitarian ethics is the only (meager) form of ethics/morality left in such a market-satured universe.
Liberals, by which we normally mean progressives, left-wing views, New Deal Democrats, argue the power of the state must be increased to effectively combat the vicissitudes of said market. As in last night’s House vote to reform health insurance companies through state power. Following from a Rawlsian disposition, liberals emphasize equal opportunity, choice, etc.
[US] Conservatives are basically liberals in the classical sense. They believe in reducing the power of large scale government to weigh in on the market mechanisms. The GOP as a political party breathes that ideological oxygen but tends to exhale pro-corporate influence.
Aligned with conservatives come libertarians, arguing for human freedom, tolerance (in the classical Lockean sense), with individuals defining the good life in their own ways, allowing each to choose their own way so long as they do not negatively impact the ability of others to choose their own way of life.
The line between the three is not always as sharp and distinct as it is normally portrayed in the media or blogosphere. Liberaltarianism (advocated by a few members of this very League) is the basic assumption that libertarianism is not incompatible with a certain view of a social safety net, as first promoted by Hayek and Milton Friedman in various ways.
All of those are liberalisms as compared to republicanism. The lone counter-movement in US politics that could be genuinely term republican is social conservativism, which (as someone with deep republican sympathies) very frightening, as their version of republicanism is (in my view) a retrograde, even pathological form of republicanism.
If our only choices are that religiously-defined form of imposed republicanism or liberalism (of whatever variety), then I’ll chose liberalism.
But Sandel wants to point to the ways in which republicanism is a necessary element to civic existence–i.e. that we have to talk about morality and worldviews/ideas of the good life. Failure to do so, creating a social environment that screens out such discourse, forces all such energy and thought into the illiberal discourse of religious fundamentalism.
This also I think explains Will’s connection of Blond to the Students for a Democratic Society. Little ‘r’ republicanism can (and does) exist on both what we typically call the “left” and “right” sides of the spectrum. What sometimes gets called (from a non-Marxist left), left conservatism–just further confuse the hell out of everyone possibly.
So we have something I would say of a three part republican spectrum.
On one extreme, as per David, is Alisdair MacIntyre and his student (and Blond’s teacher) John Milbank. MacIntyre’s praxis (such as there is one) envisions small groupings essentially extricating themselves from the modern/postmodern secularized world. MacIntyre emphasizes the Aristotelian notion of virtue capacity and arete (excellence). While for Milbank (and his radical orthodox peers), the way forward consists of a renewed Thomistic philosophy and medieval liturgical worldview as a counternarrative and divine eschatology to combat the counter-eschatology of liberalism in all its forms. Both however, for their differences, are radically opposed to liberalism in a way that the others are not.
On the other side of the (still totally marginalized) republican discourse comes Blond (I think). He is much more willing to advocate for specific policies in the political realm and even attempt (as David notes) to wrest the idea of “true liberalism” from (progressive) liberals, libertarians, and contemporary conservatives.
And somewhere in between those stands (in my interpretation) Michael Sandel. He is not (a la MacIntyre & Friends) advocating a kind of utopianism. But he is taking (in contrast to Blond) a more meta-position relative to Western political discourse. Sandel argues that the foundation of Western political discourse is completely skewed by its dominance of liberal voices and the false notion that conservatives, liberals, and libertarians are A)the only form of accepted discourse and B)really that different from one another. When in reality they are much closer to each other than any of the three is to republicanism.
Sandel (check out this video) engages citizens qua citizens in discussions of their underlying belief systems, morality, and views on the world. He is interestingly operationalizing (I think) Habermas’ notion of intersubjective or communicative rationality, thereby (re)integrating republicanism with liberalism (as Habermas stands squarely in the Kantian liberal tradition, after the critiques of post-structuralism and postmodern thought).
Otherwise Blond, in the end for all his criticisms of liberalism (in all its shades), really does not offer an alternative, only modification around the edges. Potentially interesting modification I imagine, but modification nonetheless, not really outside the bounds of liberalism/market. The overarching extent of the market-procedural republic could easily incorporate a Blondian critique and metabolize it to its continued interests of expansion.