Yesterday I taught corporate liberalism in my 100-level survey course (yeah, I assigned the intro of Sklar’s Corporate Reconstruction, pp. 1-40). I began by asking the students how they identified, liberal or conservative (or . . .). Three people in a class of 37 claimed to be liberals—roughly the same proportion of avowed feminists in this class—and five claimed to be conservatives. Everybody else was waiting, on rational grounds, to see where this discussion was going before they committed themselves.
I began with a rudimentary taxonomy of liberalism, partly because all the comrades on the Left and the Right think of it as something mildly disgusting and immediately disposable, like a rotting vegetable you stumble on when you open the wrong drawer of the refrigerator.
What is it, anyway? That is, what assumptions animate the liberal attitude in the US? Here’s how we worked it out in class, more or less.
(1) The supremacy of society over the state.
(2) Thus, the site of self-discovery and self-determination is society—not the state, not politics, not citizenship, as per the specifications of classical republican theory and practice, nor abstention and release from worldly affairs as per the specifications of Stoic philosophy and pre-Protestant Christian theology.
(3) Individuality is an achievement, not the result of ascription by ethnic origin, class position, official designation, or any other census measure.
(4) Individualism is a valuable constraint on collective definitions of genuine selfhood, regardless of their provenance.
(5) The collaboration of private and public sectors is essential to economic growth and political progress.
(6) Departures from the customary practices of the past are natural. Crisis becomes the norm. Precedent is to be honored but not necessarily obeyed.
(7) Liberty and equality aren’t the terms of an either/or choice, because liberty can’t be reduced to freedom of contract. The original intent of the founders was to make these commitments equivalent obligations, on the assumption that liberty, however defined, could not survive the demise of equality.
In these terms, the differences between liberals and conservatives don’t get incommensurable until we reach (7).
Why, then, are we so devoted to these divisions, and, more to the point when it comes to the comrades, why is “liberal” an epithet? OK, so I’m a liberal social democrat, a democratic socialist like old Bernie, and, not incidentally, like Eduard Bernstein, the original “revisionist.” Does Weimar follow?