Max Weber spoke of an ethic of responsibility in politics. Part of that is the duty of respect for the structures and procedures that frame the political enterprise and that make deliberation and action with others possible. Since the invention of politics, some politicians have thrived on institutional irresponsibility. In a remarkable biography published originally in 1982, the German historian Christian Meier wrote this about Julius Caesar:
Caesar was insensitive to political institutions and the complex ways in which they operate. . . . Since his year as consul, if not before, Caesar had been unable to see Rome’s institutions as autonomous entities. . . . He could see them only as instruments in the interplay of forces. His cold gaze passed through everything that Roman society still believed in, lived by, valued and defended. He had no feeling for the power of institutions . . . , but only for what he found useful or troublesome about them. . . . In Caesar’s eye’s no one existed but himself and his opponents. It was all an interpersonal game. . . . The scene was cleared of any suprapersonal elements. Or if any were left, they were merely props behind which one could take cover or with which one could fight.
Meier’s judgment of Caesar is complicated by his understanding that other participants in Roman politics had the opposite vice. They failed to grasp that the decrepit institutions of the Republic did need to be seen and maybe even “seen through” in a way that would permit the question of their restructuring to be raised.
But the point I want to make is that there is something reckless, even pathological, about a mode of political action in which the walls and structures intended to house actions of that kind become suddenly invisible, transparent, even contemptible to a given statesman. Such drastically unmediated proximity—“Now there is just you, and me, and the issue of my greatness” or “Now there is just you and me and our interest in justice”—is alarmingly like the press of millions of bodies against each other that Arendt associates with the destruction of thought and deliberation in mass society.—Jeremy Waldron (2012) “Political Political Theory: An Inaugural Lecture” 16-17 [HT Sara Amighetti]
l have been interested in the rise of Trump (recall), European neo-fascists, and European-born-and-bread Jihadists (recall) because I take them all to be symptoms of an underlying cultural and political malaise (recall). While there are non-trivial differences among these, they all share a rejection of liberal norms and values (most notably a fondness for violent rhetoric and lack of respect for those that may disagree), embrace political spectacle as a mode of communication and action, and understand the world in zero-sum terms. While it's too early to say if liberal democracy can survive so many internal challenges at once (and, perhaps, we're lucky that there is no foreign power strong enough to take advantage of our weakness), it is not a foregone conclusion it will survive even in the short term especially now that political control has fallen in the hands of anti-Liberal leadership Stateside.
As theorists, it's our task to address the current fragility of liberal institutions so that we can prepare the way for their revival one day. In so doing we should not underestimate the ideological and psychological pull of anti-Liberal sentiments, whether militant Islam or assertive, cultural (and racialized) nationalism; even so what needs to be understood is why liberal commitments have lost their ability to attract and inspire considerable groups of people. While the neo-Marxists are undoubtedly right to call attention to a generation-long rising inequality, stagnating incomes for ordinary peoples, the retrenching welfare state, and financial sector bail out(s) alongside austerity for the many, it is undeniable that the response to these facts has simultaneously been an abandonment of the political Left (not just Third Way left) by its natural constituency (even if one can discern stirrings of a revival in some places).
In particular, it's clear that what is driving the turn to militant Islam and ferocious nationalism is not so much fear (which would benefit the old Left), but rising anger. (On the significance of anger in nationalist thought, see, especially, Jamie Mayerfeld, "The Myth of Benign Group Identity: A Critique of Liberal Nationalism.") It is pretty clear that beyond a complex relationship to consumerism and modern sexual culture, young Jihadists are driven, in part, by a lack of recognition--so much so that boys born and raised in western Europe are willing to engage in suicidal missions against it.* Their sense of grievance is echoed by Trumpists, who believe that the world is rigged against them and want somebody to re-rig it on their behalf at the manifest and explicit expense of others (including advocating war-crimes and ethnic immigration policies, etc.).**
Waldron's (2012) inaugural lecture correctly calls attention to the significance and danger of politicians who thrive on institutional irresponsibility (and, as is clear from larger context, he castigates theorists' lack of interest in such politicians and the institutions that generate them). Waldron notes that such institutional irresponsibility has been a feature of liberal political life for some time and is, in fact, a natural consequence of familiar practices. Here I want to call attention to two features of his diagnosis.
First, he thinks that some influential, ruling values of liberal life (efficiency, utility, etc.) undermine liberal institutions. This is illustrated by an extraordinary passage:
In my home country, New Zealand, it was budgetary considerations that explained the abolition of the upper house, the Legislative Council, in 1950 [!], and in recent years a similarly ruthless efficiency-based approach has led to the elimination of a Parliamentary quorum in the House of Representatives, not to mention the elimination of any requirement that members have to be personally present in the chamber in order to vote (what a waste of their time, it is said, when it could be spent more efficiently somewhere else); the Whips just call out their nominal party strength whenever there is a division. In general, in New Zealand, the efficiency approach to political institutions has engendered the growth of a bullying mentality that insists that, since the government is almost always bound to get its way in the House of Representatives, there can be no real objection to the truncation of formal parliamentary debate by repeated use of urgency and closure motions. It is a sorry spectacle. (11)
Here Waldron is describing a sixty year arc in which considerations of efficiency and utility get so intertwined with the practice of power that they while they leave the form of liberal institutions intact they effectively efface the substance of these institutions. New Zealand is not treated as an anomaly, but as kind of run-of-the-mill-example-of-the-road-to-liberal-ruin in which there are bad "side-effects of the operation of our institutions on people." (In context Waldron is quoting Mill about good side-effects.) Waldron's observation suggests that what is known as new public management (associated with neo-liberalism) is, in fact, always a live possibility within the tradition--something foreshadowed by Swift's A Modest Proposal (recall).**
Waldron quotes with approval a key insight of J.S. Mill's "great book" Considerations on Representative Government: "it is a personal injustice to withhold from any one . . . the ordinary privilege of having his voice reckoned in the disposal of affairs in which he has the same interest as other people...Every one has a right to feel insulted by being made a nobody, and stamped as of no account." In context, Mill is defending the positive role of parliament as a debating club. According to Mill the role of parliament is, in part, a means toward recognition and respect of all individuals. As Waldron notes a genuine willingness to debate has become a rarity in our houses of representatives long before the present.+ A political culture that is incapable of genuine debate is one in which recognition may be impossible.
Second, in the quote from Meier, Waldron hints at our elites's (and theorists') inability to understand the present (that is I am reading the claim about Roman elites -- that "they failed to grasp that the decrepit institutions of the Republic did need to be seen and maybe even “seen through” in a way that would permit the question of their restructuring to be raised" -- as applying to our times.) Waldron turns this into claim about institutional functioning (which fits his larger, admirable program of focusing political theory on real world functioning and stability institutions); but I am inclined to articulate the point as a failure of leadership that is unable to discern the rot within and so is unable to engage in a restorative project while still possible. This failure is widespread in our political, economic, and intellectual ruling classes.++
This very last point suggests that a liberal education fails to prepare its ruling members to understand their own society.*** (I include myself in this category: I view my blogging of the last few years as a very public record of attempted catch-up.) More important, our liberal education has failed in creating the conditions that may preserve itself.
*There are interesting issues here about the role of social recognition facilitating earthly attachments.
**Waldron notes the significance of this with a nod to "Montesquieu [who] believed that a lack of interest forms, processes, and structures was typical of a society en route to a despotic form of government." (22)
+In fact, one may wonder if there ever was an age of genuine parliamentary debate in light of growth of party discipline from an early period.
++As I have noted, this is exemplified by former President Obama's stance, which presupposed proper functioning institutions and a kind of soft-providentialism that will reward effort. To be sure Obama cannot be accused of recklessness, but he can be accused of a certain kind of sanguine faith in Liberal institutions.
***Again, this is in the spirit of Waldron: "at the same time, one wonders whether the vast majority of our PPE students, who will not become lecturers but who will take up positions in business and industry, in journalism or think-tanks, in the arts or in government, are being given the preparation that they need in the theory of politics." (18)