Liberalism and Its Discontents

Holocaust Remembrance Day. Rome, December 2012.

Tzvetan Todorov’s The Inner Enemies of Democracy wants to use the accumulated wisdom of the West to address a modern problem. In this particular case, the problem is that, although democracy has become the  lingua franca of the West, there are dynamics internal to it that have the potential to vitiate the progress that has been made towards more humanistic social orders.

Todorov is a former refugee from the failed project of Stalinist socialism (having grown up in communist Bulgaria), who has now reconstructed himself into that most definitive variety of French intellectual: the critical scholar hailing from somewhere else. He is arguably the most prominent historian of ideas working the French language today, and his output to this point comprises a wealth of works that track the development of humanistic (and fundamentally humane) modes of thought in European intellectual history.

One strand of his work since the late 1990s, including On Human Diversity (1998) and The Imperfect Garden (2009), reflects a more “activistic” turn, in the sense of being less oriented toward investigating the history of ideas and more focused on exploring the implications of those ideas for modern political and social life.

The Inner Enemies of Democracy is arguably Todorov’s most present-focused work to day. Yet, being that he is an intellectual historian, Todorov begins his book with a deep dive into the history of Western thought. There is, he argues, a fundamental cleavage running through this edifice that can be traced back to the theological debates between Pelagius and Augustine in the 4th and 5th centuries.

At stake was, among other things, the question of the ability of human beings to self-legislate, and thereby to achieve perfection. In the theological argot of the time, this took the form of the question as to whether salvation was to be achieved by deeds or by faith. Todorov tracks this debate through its political incarnations, starting with the French Revolution and then working forward through subsequent moments of conflict.

What we find, according to Todorov, is that the perfectionist mode of thinking is to be found at both ends of the political spectrum. Socialist statism, fascism, and even extreme versions of neoliberalism, although they differ greatly in terms of their concrete political content, share a fundamental commitment to the project of human perfectibility. Indeed, many of the grimmest moments in the last 250 years of world history can be traced back to the idea that man can be perfected, and that this fact gives its imprimatur to whatever measures might be deemed necessary to achieve it.

Neukolln storefront, December 2014.
Neukolln storefront, December 2014.

In fact, this is not an entirely new idea. One is reminded here of the seminal essay by the German historian Detlev Peukert, “Die Genesis der ‘Endlösung’ aus dem Geiste der Wissenschaft” (“The Origins of the ‘Final Solution’ in the Spirit of Science”). Peukert argued (persuasively in my opinion) that the failure of science to resolve the question of human mortality caused its displacement to the level of society. The persistence of society was then made the subject of a medico-scientific discourse in which certain subsets of humanity could be rendered as diseases of the Volkskörper and excised.

Here we come to an interesting question relating to the history of ideas and its power to shape events in the material world. As a historian of modern Germany, Peukert’s work was necessarily informed by the question of how it was that a definitively civilized culture, one comprising the works of Kant, Schelling, Hegel, Mendelsohn, and a whole host of other essentially humanistic thinkers, could become responsible for an equally definitive culture of barbarism. One obvious answer is that history comprises complex interactions of both material and ideological forces, but this, of course, only kicks the can down the road, since one really understands the question to be: can we systematically understand the ways that these forces interact.

This case of Nazism illustrates some important elements of this process. Much work in the last twenty years or so has looked at the way that Nazi policies of imperialism and genocide were prefigured in the German experience in Africa, and particularly in the genocide (avant la lettre) committed against the Herero and Nama peoples of Namibia. Historians of Germany have made a fairly compelling case that these actions opened up an intellectual space into which the idea of extermination of human groups within the European metropole could flow.

Still, it should also be noted (and this is perhaps the greatest complexity of the history of Nazism) that the precursors noted above (massacres committed in colonial space and commitment to the spirit of science) were shared, at least to some degree, by all of the European colonial powers. Yet it was only in Germany that the outcome of this history was systematic, auto-generated, race-based mass extermination.

There are some historical contingencies to be added to the equation, such as defeat in the First World War, the imposition of the Treaty of Versailles, and a capitalist social formation stretched to its limits by internal contradictions. Yet, the lack of any obvious, all-encompassing explanation will keep historians of the period in business until the sun explodes.

The problems of the historians of National Socialism as, in an important sense, Todorov’s problems as well. For he too is trying to assess the ways that commitment to human perfectibility can have unintended, and deeply unfortunate, consequences. Todorov wishes to tell us that it is Augustine’s recognition of human fallibility should be a model for our understanding of human endeavors and a corrective to our overweening and hubristic ideas about optimal social orders.

This point is well taken. Todorov is well aware, as the rest of us should also be, that the attempts by the forces of state socialism to create societies optimal for human flourishing invariably created nightmare versions of this ideal, in which the very terminology of human perfection was insidiously converted to its opposite.

Yet, by the same token, it is also worth remembering that these societies, and the other political nightmares of the 20th century were not only the result of ideas, however problematic they may have been. Todorov weaves a compelling argument at the level of ideas, but signally fails to address the manifold ways that material social forces shape them and their patterns of realization.

To take one example that could stand in for numerous others, Todorov provides a compelling account of the ways that neoliberal ideology has caused the destruction of institutions that moderate the corrosive forces of capitalism. His approach calls for us to recognize (and sympathize with) human fallibility, and to create a society that moderates its effects on those who lose out. Yet the reason that this does not happen has less to do with people’s failure to take on board proper ideas and rather more to do with the material economic interests of the small segment of the population that controls the largest pools of capital.

It is hard not to be sympathetic to Todorov’s approach, representing as it does the most humane strains of progressive liberalism. One might even take his commitment to human fallibility as an important corrective in the construction of positive political programs. Yet the shortcomings of his analysis, in terms of its failure to take into account the material impulses of capital, are the failings of progressive liberalism writ large. Todorov has, in many respects, done an interesting and excellent job of interpreting the world, without providing his readers with the tools to change it.

Photographs courtesy of Joel Schalit.