I was poking around looking for something online last night and I came across a year-old essay which appeared on the Huffington Post website, “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Being a Radical: Assata Taught Me,” by Justin Adkins. In it he writes that he had recently read the convicted cop killer and fugitive Assata Shakur’s autobiography and that made him feel more energized as an activist. It was not an especially interesting piece, however there was one sentence that jumped out at me.
I fight for the day that all people are free. I don’t fight for democracy but for freedom.
There’s a growing drumbeat against democracy. On a left-right axis, I tend to fall to the left on almost every issue. On the authoritarian-libertarian axis I tend to fall slightly towards the the libertarian side. That static picture misses many things. In this case it misses which should have priority. Generally, I prefer to view it in terms of the history of ideas and the underlying concepts rather than a collection of positions. Conservatism has always had an elitist strain which distrusts the masses and therefore is suspicious of democracy.
In a recent article in Commentary, “Illiberalism: The Worldwide Crisis,” Sohrab Ahrami writes:
Today’s illiberals are less likely to be organized around systematic philosophies like Fascism and Communism than was the case in the years between the two world wars—the last time liberalism appeared this vulnerable. In our time, illiberal forces are disparate, instinctual, inchoate, more likely to be local in focus, and internally divided.
This seems to me to ignore a resurgent interest in Marxism among the young. Further down in the article, however, he writes:
Reducing political and ideological phenomena to social, economic, and legal ones is one of liberalism’s chief strengths and major blind spots, as the Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt long ago recognized.
He also mentions Manifesto for a New Europe, by Charles Champetier and Alain de Benoist. The article is an interesting survey of current, worldwide political movements. The scope renders it unfortunately superficial. Still, it is worth taking a look at it.
Besides the attacks from the left and the right, we have to contend with the technocratic and meritocratic distrust of the masses.
In an article which upset many people last year, Jonathan Chait wrote:
The right wing in the United States is unusually strong compared with other industrialized democracies, and it has spent two generations turning liberal into a feared buzzword with radical connotations. This long propaganda campaign has implanted the misperception — not only among conservatives but even many liberals — that liberals and “the left” stand for the same things.
It is true that liberals and leftists both want to make society more economically and socially egalitarian. But liberals still hold to the classic Enlightenment political tradition that cherishes individuals rights, freedom of expression, and the protection of a kind of free political marketplace. (So, for that matter, do most conservatives.)
The Marxist left has always dismissed liberalism’s commitment to protecting the rights of its political opponents…. Why respect the rights of the class whose power you’re trying to smash? And so, according to Marxist thinking, your political rights depend entirely on what class you belong to.
The modern far left has borrowed the Marxist critique of liberalism and substituted race and gender identities for economic ones. …
Political correctness appeals to liberals because it claims to represent a more authentic and strident opposition to their shared enemy of race and gender bias. And of course liberals are correct not only to oppose racism and sexism but to grasp (in a way conservatives generally do not) that these biases cast a nefarious and continuing shadow over nearly every facet of American life. Since race and gender biases are embedded in our social and familial habits, our economic patterns, and even our subconscious minds, they need to be fought with some level of consciousness. The mere absence of overt discrimination will not do.
Liberals believe (or ought to believe) that social progress can continue while we maintain our traditional ideal of a free political marketplace where we can reason together as individuals….
Chait’s article focused mainly of restrictions to free speech, but free speech is only one component of liberalism. Others, like democratic self-governance, are being challenged as well.