Putting Liberalism in Its Place


Kahn, Paul W
Princeton (2005)
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As I write, the UK political system is apparently being racked by political torment; I say "apparently" because the pain seems to relate more to the revelation of poor individual personal conduct than any grass roots analysis of the deep-rooted cause of the malaise. In terms of the response, all three political parties have begun to put forward proposals including: a written constitution and bill of rights; fixed term Parliaments; a totally elected bicameral legislature; and a 'recall' system for refractive legislators. All very well in their way but hardly a fundamental response. Commentators never tire of saying that it is the conduct of our politicians that is detaching us from them but Paul Kahn, in Putting Liberalism in Its Place, the most important book on political theory since John Rawls' A theory of Justice (1971), to which it is a powerful response, explains why irreversible disillusionment might have set in. His central contention is that our political system is not framed within some rational or moral system but depends upon the will of citizens to make sacrifices to preserve their sovereignty expressed in the state; but globalisation and selfishness - Kahn would never use such a crude term - are symbiotically weakening both the sense of sovereignty and the necessity of sacrifice. To complete the point for UK readers, a further weakening of political commitment arises in our case because we are the only democracy, or even aspiring, post colonial democracy, which formally denies popular sovereignty but, rather, maintains that this resides in "The Crown in Parliament". Unless our contemporary debate makes this fundamental shift, our political system is bound to deteriorate even more rapidly than that of other polities in thrall to global markets and networks. To this extent, Kahn's central argument might be of more historical than practical interest but as he maintains, in his very last sentence, that politics in some form will survive economic and social change, it is important to look closely at what he says.

In 1971 I greeted the arrival of the solid black dust-jacketed Theory of Justice with something approaching awe. Almost inundated by the wave of neo-Platonic hysteria which at that time presented itself in a vague - but nonetheless passionate for that - proclamation of Maoism which was then sweeping English universities after its 1968 Parisian Zenith, Rawls' placid prose was like balm. He gave new force to the classical liberal contention that politics should be based on reason and that reason is capable of being defined such that (and Kahn is trenchantly critical of the tautology) no reasonable person could deny it. Rawls famous device was the "Veil of Ignorance" in which people should ideally make decisions about their political system, ignorant of their own and their heirs' strengths, weaknesses, talents, shortcomings and economic position. Rawls, not surprisingly, said that people would agree to a position roughly corresponding to "do as you would be done by" and he also reached the obvious conclusion that "offices should be open to all"; but his "difference principle" was the key which made him so important to people like me who had been brought up as socialists and wanted to continue to be political reformers without having to become embroiled in the increasingly 'militant' Labour Party (When I supported Roy Jenkins stand on our entry into the European Union in 1971 some members of the Cambridge University Labour Club branded me a "Fascist bastard!"). Rawls said that differences of income and wealth were justified as long as they were to the benefit of the least advantaged, a formal statement of the obvious practicality that capital is required to generate employment. Armed with this intellectual superstructure, I became a founder Member of the SDP and even collaborated to write a lengthy pamphlet on the relevance of Rawls to our mission.

Kahn's starting point is that multiculturalism presents liberals with a problem: to what extent will liberalism tolerate the illiberal, what it deems not reasonable? He then goes on to show that the whole edifice is based, like Rawls, on an abstract dialogue about rights and responsibilities which, in the economic sphere, as well as in the political, comes down to some notion of contract; But, he says, in one of his typically pithy comments: "Nowhere in liberal accounts of the state does anyone die" (p240); and here is the crux. Kahn believes that politics is quite distinct from reason and ethics, that its language is rhetoric and that it is based on sacrifice. The liberal states, born in actual or mythical revolution, embodying popular sovereignty, have been massively successful at calling on citizens for the sacrifice of their lives to preserve sovereignty, or what we might more popularly call "our way of life".

For Kahn the idea that politics and religion do not mix is a gross error: just as faith is the source of love, so politics is as much the public expression of love as the family is its private expression. In an extraordinarily powerful account of the birth of the Judeo-Christian tradition of the Covenant as the basis for the family and politics, which he tellingly compares with Sophocles Antigone, Kahn says that circumcision inscribes the Covenant of God's power and love in our sexuality as much as the sacrifice of Isaac etches sacrifice into our politics. He also says, incidentally - but critically for the current 'presenting issue' in a number of Christian denominations - that the point of the story of Sodom is not that the citizens were homosexual but that they were pornographic. By this he means that they considered sexuality to be personal, to be separated from a political context; by the same definition he ranks romanticism alongside pornography.

For a liberal, this book presents serious challenges to the Rawlsian position because it says that the "original position" is precisely the opposite of the way in which our politics operate through the notion of the will, embodied in popular sovereignty; it appeals in this instance not only to a different paradigm but also to an obvious historical fact, that our interests are, for altruistic as well as for selfish reasons, bound up in the political process. For Christians the book presents an enormous opportunity because it places love and sacrifice at the centre of the political process. We all know that our society could not function without people who "go the extra mile" and who sacrifice personal advantage of the common good, but Kahn has placed this mode of conduct into a theoretical framework which should be used as a key tool in Christian apologetics. Not that Kahn would use it himself; buried in a footnote he says he has not taste for the politics of faith and sacrifice although, he says, what he believes is neither here nor there.

For both liberals and Christians Kahn also makes a massively telling point which must bring us all up short: "The effort to displace politics by morality is a constant ambition of well-meaning people. But measuring politics by morality makes as much sense as measuring art by morality. These are different ways of perceiving meaning in the world; they work in different dimensions. While each can displace the other, neither can be reduced to the other. These are simply incommensurable. From the moral perspective, each individual - citizen or alien - is of ultimate value; from the political perspective, citizen and alien are of fundamentally different value" (p239). On this basis he is sceptical of the move towards a culture of human rights: "If we come to the point where we can only subject political rhetoric to the critique of the language of rights and the logic of administration, then what we have known as the political life of the nation will be over" (p255). There is not much point proclaiming rights unless there is a structure within which people will make sacrifices to uphold them; and, as Kahn points out: "liberalism is the morality of the nation-state, which is itself an illiberal structure of ultimate value" (p280); "those who preach law as an answer to state violence fail to recognise the extent to which the state under law has been more, not less, willing to wage war without limits than were its predecessors" (p281). There is a paradox between secular piety and religious sacrifice which is difficult to shrug off.

There is much else in this fascinating and difficult book primarily for the lawyer and the constitutional expert but the argument is so dense that 'skipping' is no option. There is also an inevitable concentration in some key passages on United States history and constitutional practice; but the overall structure and its conclusions are so important that a certain amount of hardship is justified. At a time when liberalism and Christianity are faced with apparently different but in fact rather similar crises - what is the extent of tolerance permitted by their respective hermeneutics of sovereignty and Scripture? - this book is indispensable.


Please select a section:

  1. Study Notes: Introduction
  2. Study Notes: Part I
    Cultural Study and Liberalism (p29)
  3. Study Notes: Part II
    Love and Politics (p143)