June 13, 2024

Liberalism – Is This The End, My Friend?, Part 2 (Carl Raschke)

The following is the second of a two-part series. The first can be found here.

The Conflictual History of Liberalism

Liberalism at the dawn of the modern European age replaced a Christianized vision of natural law with the doctrine of “natural rights”, one which sanctified increasing demands for personal “liberty” in exchange for a conflictual view of human society that would result in wars and revolutionary upheavals throughout the ensuing centuries.   The conflictual history of liberalism is not the issue here.  Liberalism has made the modern world, and die was long ago cast.   The English, American, French, Russian , Chinese revolutions along with the anti-colonial struggles of the twentieth century have sealed our planetary fate.

A dark dialectic has taken hold, one in which the liberation of some has gone in hand in glove with the servitude of others.  In the latter case we need only ponder the industrialization of black chattel thralldom in the American South after the War of Independence, the impoverishment and “immiseration” of factory workers in urban slums throughout the nineteenth century once capital was “freed” from the mercantile policies of monarchs, the growing global scourge of human trafficking as a kind of “modern day slavery” in the wake of the sexual revolution.

The global “neoliberal” hegemony of finance, knowledge production, communications, and technological surveillance is not some aberrant side venture, but a fruition of the profound internal logic of liberalism itself across the centuries.  Over time the “blessings of liberty” appear to have outstrip the “collateral damage” wrought by its historical machinery.  But a final reckoning may be closer than we think. The paradox of liberalism was always that under the revolutionary banner of “liberty” and “equality” the loss of liberty for some accompanied by the growth of massive inequalities for others proceeded apace.   Outside the Anglosphere and those Continental European powers that in the modern era adopted some version of it the legacy of liberalism has been decidedly mixed.

The ascendancy of liberal politics in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries not only guaranteed the institutionalization of slavery for obvious economic reasons, according to Losurdo, but also fueled the expansion of colonialism in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  In his classic work published in 1900 the British economist J.A. Hobson argued that the productive energies of the industrial revolution ignited by liberal demolition of monarchism a century earlier had created an insatiable need for the investment of excess capital and the creation of foreign markets.[1]  The result was the renowned “scramble for Africa” as part of the brutal and deliberate exploitation of indigenous peoples by the more economically and technologically sophisticated nations of Europe, which came to be known as “imperlalism”.

Hobson pointed out that the justification for this exploitation was the sanctimonious shibboleth   of liberal politicians who referred constantly to their “civilizing mission” toward underdeveloped peoples.  But its emancipatory rhetoric, he emphasized, was totally hypocritical.   “Upon the vast majority of the populations throughout our Empire we have bestowed no real powers of self-government, nor we have any serious intention of doing so.”

The reason, as critical race theorist Charles Mills would argue at the turn of the millennium, was that liberalism itself must be seen as a “historic system of global white supremacy”, as “a social ontology partitioned, on the basis of qualitative differentials in rationality, between persons and racial subpersons”, the latter of whom happen to be black. In his book From Class to Race: Essays in White Marxism and Black Radicalism Mills would argue that the same kind of “partitioning” had taken place with gender identity as well.  But in critiquing the incapacity of the liberal project to emancipate black bodies he failed to realize that he was inadvertently highlighting its own “original sin”, that is, its own abstract “ontology” that elevates individual self-consciousness over other human beings who persist in a perpetual conflictual relation, the so-called “state of nature”. [2]

It was actually the famed, but obscure German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel who during the Napoleonic age was the first to diagnose the primal pathology of liberalism and call for an entirely new way of understanding human knowledge and experience.  Having witnessed with horror the violence and chaos unleashed by the French Revolution in the name of universal “liberty” , Hegel in his Phenomenology of Spirit sought to exorcise the demon of a liberal “self-consciousness” that is “self-equal through the exclusion from itself of everything else.”[3]  In other words, genuine emancipation requires a “knowing of oneself” that cannot be separated from a “knowing of the other”.  Liberalism under the guise of what today we dub “identity politics” assumes that knowledge of oneself and the right to self-expression are the ultimate endgame of human evolution. 

But liberalism in this format means simply that history itself now becomes the theater of conflict which its grand theory had ascribed to the state of nature human beings were supposed to have left in the formation of civil society. The proliferation of rights entails the endless multiplication of new grievances and entitlements, whose consequences must be addressed through the further specification of what and whom must function as an “exclusion from itself of everything else.”

In Hegel’s scheme there are no rights without “recognition”.   Although the theory of “recognition” has rarely been given the same attention in the development of democratic politics as the theory of rights, it is – especially today – of paramount importance.  In fact, it is the only approach that can make sense, according to Simon Thomas, out of the global political scene nowadays.  It is a “struggle which a particular group demands that other groups give it public acknowledgement for some feature it possesses, for which it thinks that it deserves recognition.”[4]

Thomas assimilates the idea of recognition for the most part to what we call “identity politics”.  But in the view of Francis Fukuyama the struggle for recognition is not so much about particular groups clamoring for recognition as a universal demand for dignity. On that score a true politics of recognition transcends identity politics.[5]  Identity politics as conventionally understood belongs within the querulous bequest of classic liberalism insofar as it is concerned largely with who has been excluded, who is justified in resisting their “oppression”, and who has been denied their “rights”.  But the politics of recognition, as Fukuyama stresses, focuses instead on an effort to articulate and implement a state of affairs “in which the dignity of every human being [is] recognized.” 

That is not only what Hegel meant by “recognition”, but is the endogenous theme that renders the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights somewhat distinct  from the American Declaration of Independence or the French Declaration of the Rights of Man.   Whereas the latter two eighteenth century documents parade such familiar terms as “liberty” and “sovereignty”, the UN version starts off with a “recognition of the inherent dignity” of all human beings as the foundation of their “inalienable rights”.[6]

Fukuyama suggests that this irrepressible desire for dignity (what the ancient Greeks called thymos) arises from an inner realization that one’s own self is more valuable than others allows it to be.  The preoccupation of the late modern, or post-modern, world with what Marxism called “consciousness raising” fuels this attitude. From such a perspective the “inside” of one’s positionality is never commensurate with the “outside”.  Thus, Fukuyama writes, “the broadening and universalization of dignity turns the private quest for self into a political project”.

Yet, as Hegel made clear when he broached the topic during the Napoleonic wars, the very notion of “recognition” implies we must achieve some sort of commensurability between how I view myself and how others regard me.  I cannot simply scream “look at me” and expect everyone else to respond accordingly.  Both dignity and recognition presume that rights have an inextricable reciprocal function within the political order. 

In other words, my rights are not exclusive of your rights, and vice versa.  Furthermore, contra classic liberalism my rights are inscribed within a structure of mutual responsibility to recognize and respect, even if I do not accept it, the moral position or cognitive formation that defines whom I might be in opposition.   Liberalism accounts only for how I see it.  The self-destructive mechanism built into the political philosophy of liberalism – Macpherson’s “possessive individualism” – guarantees that one’s “rights” can be regarded as endless, and one’s “responsibility to the Other”, as the Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas called it, are minimal.

It is, therefore, not surprising that the historical dynamic of slavery led to the overthrow of tyrannical monarchial regimes with the same stroke that it codified black chattel slavery through the justification that it was protecting “property”.  Similarly, so-called “gender ideology” can simultaneously affirm at a basic level the rights of transgender individuals to be recognized as outside the conventional social binary while in its more divisive manifestation provoke hostile pushback from women who allege an assault on their own dignity and privacy.

The political theory of recognition as gained momentum since the turn of the millennium through the global impact of what I myself have termed the “revolution of respect”.[7]  But the revolution requires its own kind of “social ontology” that has heretofore been missing as the crackup of liberalism daily becomes more evident. The revolution follows on a worldwide system of oscillating, interwoven crises that are not only political and economic in nature, but also cultural and ecological.  They are also profoundly spiritual.  They demand affirmation of what human beings are in the most profound sense, onethat no longer finds acceptable class, gender, racial, and religious hierarchies that have dominated over the centuries.

Up From Liberalism: Toward A Revolution of Respect

But so much of this revolution has been clouded over the confusion of the ideas of “respect”, “dignity” and “recognition” with the contentious assertion of individualistic identity in defiance of conventional assumptions, norms, and structures of knowledge – so-called “identity politics”.   Identity politics is the Götterdämmerung (the “twilight of the idols”) of liberalism. It is a testament to liberalism’s final death throes. The transcendent promise of liberalism was always “liberty” or “liberation” (from the Latin word liber, usually translated as “freedom”.  It derives from the proto-Indo-European construct leubh-, which means to “peel off” or “cut off”.  For this very reason the Latin term could also be translated as “book”, which in its primitive sense connoted the “bark of a tree”.

Finally, in ancient Rome Liber (“the free one”) was the god of wine and male fertility, who was patronized by the plebs or the low-status masses.  He was associated with the Greek deity Dionysus and his Roman equivalent Bacchus.  Thus, as dramatized most forcefully in Euripides’ well-known play The Bacchae, figures such as Liber or Dionysus were always secretly feared by the ruling elites for his tendency to gestate revolt and foment public disorder as well as to undermine the epistemic standards, or structures of conventional “rationality”, that coincidentally held both society and the cosmos together.

The philosopher Nietzsche’s discovery in the late nineteenth century of the “Dionysian” in opposition to the rational or “Apollonian” principle set the backdrop for the rapid rise of psychoanalytic theories of the “unconscious” and the growing popularity of psychotropic drugs, religious cults , and even the emergence of French post-structuralist philosophy in the years that followed.  The countercultural upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s that radically transformed the sexual mores, political commitments, and religious sensibilities of the postwar generation, effects of which remain still very much in evidence today, were in their own day often referred to as “the new Dionysianism”.[8]   If we look back, a more appropriate descriptor might be “the new Liberianism”.

Whatever name – Liber, Dionysus, Bacchus – we might prefer in the end has little consequence. In the pre-Christian mind the names of god were interchangeable from one culture to the next.  As Courtney Friesen observes in his brilliant and thoroughgoing examination of the role of such a divinity in the ancient Mediterranean world, “Dionysiac liberation” was politically potent, inasmuch as “he delivered from imprisonment and overthrew tyranny and could thus be claimed as a champion of democracy.”[9]

New Testament scholar Dennis MacDonald, following Friesen, observes that early Christianity itself took root and flourished in this “Dionysiac” soil.  In The Dionysian Gospel, a careful exegesis of the Johannine writings from the gospel itself to 1, 2, and 3 John as well as the Book of Revelation , MacDonald shows the striking parallels between the phraseology and symbology peculiar to this literature and the rhetoric of Euripides’ The Bacchae, which puts the traditions surrounding the ancient mysteries of the god Dionysus on full display.  One illustration quite familiar to casual Bible readers is Jesus’ declaration of himself in John 15:1 as “the true vine”, which has unmistakable Dionysian, or “Liberian”, overtones.[10]

The ancient Dionysian celebration, which as The Bacchae itself dramatizes, was an underground, and even a nocturnal, proceeding.  It was an expression of one’s “commoner” status, which is what the Greek word demos, from which we derive “democracy”.  The demos implied everyone who was not part of the aristoi, who served as the intellectual and political leaders.  It could in certain instances also imply the majority of women, slaves, and outsiders (i.e., “barbarians”) who were often exploited and had no voice at all in civic matters.  This was the constituency who were most attracted to pre-Christian practices of the Liberian, or Dionysian, sort as well as to early Christianity.

Not only Greek but also Roman civilization, which built proudly and self-consciously on its Greek antecedents, had an even stronger, was endemically suspicious of these “demotic” cults and practices, which in the words of Michael Jameson extols the “concept of liberty” and “subverts ail hierarchical relationships in society”.[11]   Classical Mediterranean society, as various authors have emphasized, was not only hierarchical but intricately class-ridden and status-obsessed”.[12]  The “Dionysiac” spiritual underbelly of this society, which included early Christianity, fostered a radical sense of universal equality and the dissolution of hierarchies. 

But early Christianity, especially after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by Roman legions in 70 C.E., differed by significant metrics from its pagan predecessors.  The Christian “savior” Jesus was much different from myth-shrouded cult deities such as Dionysus, insofar as he was perceived then, as well as today, as an actual historical personage who his adherents professed was the true Jewish mashiach, or “messiah”.  Thus, in the development of the Christian iteration of the ancient “Dionysiac” counterculture the Jewish dimension prevailed over its ecstatic, or “manic”, pagan analogues.

Whereas pagan Liberian, or Dionysian, cultism simply provided a ritualized outlet for the oppressed underclasses to give expression to their quest for significance in an oppressive, immutable, hierarchical matrix of power relationships, early Christianity with its Judaic insistence on social justice created an entirely new “social ontology” that radically challenged, at least from an ethical standpoint, the ancient system of status-defined politics.

The early Christian one was a spiritual one that both directly and indirectly galvanized the democratic politics of the early modern era, as famed political theorist Michael Walzer has done in his book The Revolution of the Saints: A Study in the Origins of Radical Politics.  But what made both early Christianity and early modern liberalism “radical” in Walzer’s sense was not its preoccupation with marginalized “identities” but the idea that the resurrected Christ had inaugurated a new eon of universal dignity and equality.[13]

The famous French radical philosopher Alain Badiou regards the resurrection “event”, whether it actually happened in a material or historical manner of speaking, as the “foundation” of the modern secular belief democracy as the highest good and in the kind of radical universalism that becomes attenuated in such bureaucratic shibboleths as “diversity, equity, and inclusion”.[14]  For the early church the transition can be found in the story found in the 10th chapter of Acts of the Roman centurion Cornelius’ summoning the apostle Peter into his presence on account of an angelic visitation. The story is complex, but it offers a simple and dramatic justification for the conviction of Paul’s followers, in contrast with Peter and the Jerusalem church, that salvation in Christ Jesus was not merely for Jews, but for all the Gentiles.

In the narrative Peter himself has a vision of an array of creatures which are considered forbidden or “unclean” by traditional Jewish standards, but which a divine voice commands him: ““Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” (verse 15, NIV). 

Later in his address to Cornelius Peter construes this message not as referring to Hebraic dietary laws, but as a repudiation of Jewish ethno-centrism in matters of universal salvation. “I now realize”, Peter proclaims in verses 34-5, “how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.” 

The Greek idiom in this passage, translated as “show favoritism”, occurs four times in the New Testament, and in each instance connotes the radical equality of every single believer in the eyes of God, one which both ontologically and eschatologically (that is, “in the end”) renders null every status-demarcated social or political order.  Employment of the word “clean” (katharos) in this context in Acts to characterize egalitarian status as well as universal redemption comports with its cognate usage in John 15:3, where Jesus as the “true vine” says everyone who “remains” in him “are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you”.

In other words, “cleanliness” or “purity” has little to do with moral behavior or personal hygiene but rather concerns a unique kind of radical relationality that is derived from surrender or “submission” to the active power of the Holy Spirit, which itself reveals the fullness of God’s dwelling in the body of all Christ-followers.

Modern political liberalism, therefore, emerges from the modern secular, or politicized, sentiment of ethical egalitarianism and mutual “recognition” that was found in early Christianity, but its trajectory has mirrored not so much the spiritual communitarianism of the early Church as the “libertarianism” of the pagan, Dionysiac cults.  A genuine “postliberal politics” would be neither “conservative” or “progressive”.  It would be a political of reciprocal equality derived from a social vision, underwriting an ontology, that allows us to see in each other the infinity God in the midst of us.

Carl Raschke is Professor of Philosophy of Religion and University Lecturer (2020-21) at the University of Denver. He is senior editor of The New Polis and author of Neoliberalism and Political Theology: From Kant to Identity Politics (Edinburgh University Press, 2020). His new book Sovereignty in the 21st Century is scheduled for release by Bloomsbury Academic some time in 2024.

[1] J.A. Hobson, Imperialism: A Study (London: James Nisbet, 1900).

[2] Charles Mills, From Class to Race: Essays in White Marxism and Black Radicalism (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003), 129.

[3] G.W.F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A.V. Miller (Delhi: Molitlal Banarsidass, 1998), 113.

[4] Simon Thompson, The Political Theory of Recognition (Malden MA: Polity Press, 2006), 3.  See also Charles Taylor, The Politics of Recognition (New York: Routledge, 1995).

[5] See Francis Fukuyama, Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment (New York: Macmillan 2019).

[6] United Nations, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948, https://www.un.org/en/about-us/udhr/history-of-the-declaration#:~:text=The%20Universal%20Declaration%20of%20Human,of%20the%20Second%20World%20War.  Accessed July 30, 2023.

[7] Carl Raschke, “The Revolution of Respect: The Overlooked Factor in Globalization That Is Driving Everything”, The New Polis, Feb. 9, 2022, https://thenewpolis.com/2022/02/09/the-revolution-of-respect-the-overlooked-factor-in-globalization-that-is-driving-everything-part-2-carl-raschke/.  Accessed July 24, 2023.

[8] See Carl Raschke, “The Fantasies of the New Theologians”, The Christian Century (May 15, 1974)), 533-37.

[9] Courtney J.P. Friesen, Reading Dionysus: Euripides Bacchae and the Cultural Contestations of Greeks, Jews, Romans, and Christians (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2015), 72.

[10] See Dennis Macdonald, The Dionysian Gospel: The Fourth Gospel and Euripides (Minneapolis MN: Fortress Press, 2017).

[11] Michael H. Jameson, “Women and Democracy in Fourth-Century Athens”, in Pierre Brulé and Jacques Oulhen (eds.), Esclavage, guerre, économie en Grèce ancienne (Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2015), 96.

[12] See Janet Huskinson (ed.), Experiencing Rome: Culture, Identity, and Power in the Roman Empire (New York: Routledge, 2000).

[13] See Michael Walzer, The Revolution of the Saints: A Study in the Origins of Radical Politics (Cambridge MA. Harvard University Press, 1965).

[14] See Alain Badiou, Saint Paul: The Foundations of Universalism, trans. Ray Brassier (Stanford CA: Stanford University Press, 2003).


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