But it is not radical in the sense of being unfamiliar. With the notable exception of black and feminist thinkers who have defended anger as a vital tool of the oppressed, almost all of Western political thought since the Stoics has largely shared Nussbaum’s dim view of anger. Seneca condemned anger as “the most hideous and frenzied of all the emotions,” “closed to reason” and “wholly violent.” It had no place in our personal or political lives.
The liberal tradition in which Nussbaum works has largely inherited this ancient view of things. The public square, if not the private realm, should be a place of cool deliberation rather than hot emotion. But what is radical about Nussbaum’s case against anger is that it puts baldly what is often taken for granted in our political culture. In so doing, Nussbaum inadvertently tells us something about the limits of the liberal worldview she has spent much of her career defending....
In her excellent piece, Srinivasan, who is the most exciting young philosopher I am familiar with, has three clear aims at once (two of which on display in the quoted passage: (i) to defend and articulate the constructive political role of the right sort of anger; (ii) to bury the liberal tradition as represented by Nussbaum (and Rawls) and offer "we moderns" a path toward an alternative, political philosophy that draws on "black and feminist thinkers;" in particular, (iii) this alternative view of "politics," recognizes it "is about conflict as much as consensus."+ Most of her piece is devoted to explaining just some of the important political roles of anger, and I will take my agreement over (i) for granted.
I also take for granted, the high stakes presupposed by Srinivasan. For, in passing, she remarks she recognizes that she could well end up with "those of us who might end up against the wall in a revolutionary moment." That is, Srinivasan is acutely aware, not for the first time, of the possibility that with the fracturing of liberalism and the political ascendancy of illiberal forces (as well as the inevitable dislocations and tensions causes by climate change, etc.) we may be entering an age of violent revolution (recall that Trump's brightest defenders expect this, too).
With Srinivasan I reject the consensus model of politics which I associate with (recall) the technocratic turn in political philosophy (also found in political economy, philosophy of science, etc.) In this model politics aims at justice or efficiency. This image of politics as found in liberal political philosophy (and political economy/economics) is characterized by three features: first, it holds the ideal that with social knowledge and its progress, substantial political disagreement can be eliminated. Second, it presupposes considerable (liberal) value-unanimity in society (this opens the door to all kinds of policy engineering). Third, it is accompanied with an image of science in which one of the central aims of policy scientists is to achieve consensus (or lack of disagreement).
This is, however, not the only image of politics available from within a more sober liberalism. For, if a (moral) consensus were really possible politics would not be necessary. If conflict is, as Srinivasan suggests, inevitable, then politics can also be a means of containing and redirecting conflict. Elections are a means to arrange the peaceful transfer of power and by holding them regularly you give the losers and supporters a chance to regroup and hope to win next time -- no emotion is more conducive to political flourishing than hope --, and thereby, to prevent the threat of civil war.* Liberalism's institutions (the rule of law, the franchise, representative governments, markets, free press, etc.) are all, for all their other purposes, means to manage and redirect conflict to allow imperfect beings to cope. The underlying insight is that the liberal state protects (with considerable status quo bias) the powerful and wealthy, but it does so by giving the rest of us a stake in making living together work. Sometimes the liberal cure is worse than the problem; the liberal state can oppress its own citizens and be bellicose abroad.
This is where resentment and anger enter in at the core of the liberal tradition. As Steve Darwall (2006: 84) has rightly emphasized for Adam Smith, who radically differed from Seneca on this point, resentment is a call for respect. As Smith writes, the object of resentment is “chiefly intent upon, is not so much to make our enemy feel pain in his turn, as . . . to make him sensible that the person whom he injured did not deserve to be treated in that manner. What chiefly enrages us against the man who injures or insults us, is the little account which he seems to make of us.” (TMS 126.96.36.199). This resentment and rage are at the root of the very institution of justice, which simultaneously manages conflict, protects the powerful, and provides us a means to respect each of us equally in front of at least one tribunal.
As I noted earlier in the week (and echoing Plato, Madison, Arendt), justice is one of two institutions of society that can be devoted to truth. (The other being the university.) Politics, by contrast, is the site of often conflicting opinion. Anger, public and private, is a natural byproduct of this state affairs because anger is always, as noted by Isaiah, a symptom of badly arranged or injust institutions or bad political leadership (recall also Hume and Spinoza). So, by disallowing anger, by treating it as a mark of un-reason, one removes, some of the best evidence, early warnings as it were, of political problems.
None of this is to deny that we moderns may wish to be guided and inspired by black and feminist thinkers as Srinivasan urges. These are, indeed in short supply in the liberal tradition (although I have been urging us to recover Sophie De Grouchy's wise brand of liberalism). Given the wreckage caused by liberal politics and economics (in a broad sense) during the last generation, she may well be speaking for many who wish to give a new set of ideas and ideals a chance. It may well be too late to recover and apply the accumulated wisdom of the liberal tradition even if it transcends "the limits" Srinivasan mistakenly ascribes to its "worldview." But as we stand, I fear, at the edge of the precipice, we must resist the lure of a clean break and the bold march forward and find means to resist the ever encroaching violence.
+The list is not exhaustive, of course.
*In modern times this view became associated with Schumpeter and often framed as intrinsically anti-Liberal (or anti-democratic).