Mar 29, 2018

The Left's Problem Isn't Politics—It's Metaphysics

How can liberals and progressives learn to feel differently about identity?
By Gregory Leffel /
The Left's Problem Isn't Politics—It's Metaphysics
Credit: Pixabay/BBTinsley. CC0 Creative Commons.

There’s nothing quite like the spectacle of left-on-left bloodletting following a nasty election that leaves liberals and progressives on the losing side. First into the fray after Donald Trump’s surprise election victory came Columbia University humanities professor Mark Lilla, throwing darts in his New York Times broadside on “The End of Identity Liberalism” which eventually became a book.

Lilla claims that if left-of-center groups want to return to power, they need to “put the age of identity behind” them. ‘Identitarianism’ has gotten in the way, he says; it is “pseudo-politics,” a feel-good distraction from the exercise of actual political power.

Instead, the left needs to return to ‘real’ politics: the traditional task of building political institutions and winning elections. Only when liberals and progressives are securely back in power—not just “speaking truth to power,” but “seizing power to defend the truth”—can they turn to the task of freeing victims from their various oppressions.

He tells “social justice warriors” to quit “delivering sermons to the unwashed from a raised pulpit” and make common cause with the forgotten workers who used to anchor the Democratic Party in the US and its equivalents elsewhere. Only broad-based, locally organized progressive political power will save us, not complaints by guilt-tripping identitarians.

Lilla is seemingly oblivious to the notion that Trump won the election because of identity politics (as one of Lilla’s critics observed), and tone-deaf to the suffering of communities of identity (as another pointed out). It’s a ham-fisted argument in many ways, though he does expose the left’s perennial weakness: its inability to create the solidarity it needs to prosper as a broad-based force for change.

Liberals and progressives generally work from a common political sensibility, but they habitually split into factions over competing strategies and utopias—with identity as today’s particular tripwire. But none are likely to accomplish their goals until they reconnect as a generalized social movement that can move a substantial and diverse public majority both personally and politically.

That can’t be done by ignoring identity or subsuming it under an artificial sameness of interests. Nor can it be done by constantly fracturing politics along identitarian lines. Instead, it requires a new way of feeling about identity that can guide us through and around these two positions—what I think of as a new metaphysics of ‘integration without assimilation.’

Historically, liberal democracy was always something of a magic act. It promised individuals complete freedom of thought and action whilst also selling them a universalist vision: that ‘reasonable’ people would happily construct societies that guarantee liberty and justice without imposing any beliefs, goals or values. This is alchemy: a metaphysical claim that the ‘lead’ of competing, self-absorbed individuals will somehow be transformed into the ‘gold’ of a cooperative commonwealth that will be good for all.

For two centuries that magic worked, at least to some extent and for dominant groups in society. However, its success depended on solidarities that liberalism did not create by itself. Instead, they were born in or forced into being by particular circumstances. Free people made common cause because they had to—in order to launch revolutions, work together to create new democratic institutions where none existed, fight wars to defend democracy and survive depressions. Liberal democracies were also bound together by pre-existing ‘natural’ solidarities like ethnic traditions, a common religion, shared language, and quite consequentially, a dominant race.  

Over the last 50 years or so all of these solidarities have broken down. US and European societies are now far too complex and diverse to imagine any universally-held values and visions, or a single definition of the common good. The old magic is gone. Liberalism promised to make  ‘one-out-of-many,’ to balance the needs of the individual with the good of the whole, but today we live in worlds apart from one another. The only value we might agree on is tolerance, and even that is in short supply.

In fact for many people, the societies produced by the liberal tradition are not liberating at all, but oppressive. Many feel that they are left on their own to seek out rights, personal fulfillment, identities, and freedoms of expression againstthe dominant community.

What can be done? Well, says Lilla, we need to return to the vision we lost along the way; to reclaim a sense of common citizenship as our fundamental social identity; and to remember that our freedoms require obligations to everybody else. We need to re-imagine ourselves as part of a greater whole, and learn to speak “about a solidarity that transcends identity attachments.”  

It’s an edifying vision as far as it goes, but it assumes that we can snap our fingers and suddenly fill everybody with good will, while forgetting society’s long traditions of racism, patriarchy and inequality—and  their dire legacies—in order to work together harmoniously again.  Can we really set our grievances aside for long enough to identify, first and foremost as citizens?

What social mechanisms could make us trust each other in this way? It’s hard to say. Wars, economic depressions, and natural disasters have been the main engines of common cause in the past. What else is there? Better education, as Lilla suggests? That seems unlikely to do the trick, as he himself acknowledges:

“For those principles to then motivate action they must be rooted in a feeling we are not born with. And feelings can’t be taught; they have to be conjured up. It’s the closest thing to a miracle that exists in politics.”

Are we back to magic again to rekindle our common dreams? Maybe, but perhaps it’s more useful to reconsider what it means to be human as part of a collective that genuinely values diversity. This is not a question of politics but of metaphysics.

William Desmond defines metaphysics as our style of thinking — our mindfulness — about reality. It concerns the particular way we turn ourselves toward reality in order to ‘see’ it: our “minding as an orientation to being.” What does this have to do with identity and the left?

To ‘think our thoughts’ metaphysically means to be self-aware of our sense of the world that operates in our minds before we start thinking. How do we ‘feel’ the world that we think about? What do we ‘feel’ it to be? More importantly, how do entire societies ‘feel’ the world in the same way? It is our shared intuition about what is real and important that guides what we think of as sane, moral and just.  

Up to the 1960s, liberals and progressives had a particular, ‘modern’ metaphysics or ‘feeling’ about the world. They believed that reality could be condensed into a single rational system that could explain everything and guide us towards universal wisdom. People ‘felt’ that eventually, everyone would become the same sort of rational, democratic world citizen; diversity would disappear and the entire world would be brought under our control.

Desmond calls this mathematico-mechanical oneness “univocity”—thereduction of everything to the ‘one.’ Strange as it may seem today, those of us old enough to remember (like me) really did feel this way when we were young.

But the 1960s brought about a true revolution in consciousness. We began to feel differently, to doubt that reason could give us a singular vision of the world; that jamming diversity into the ‘one’ stripped us of our individual dignity; that reducing our behavior to data made us less than human and subject to abuse; and that the dominant ‘liberal’ society was a lie to conceal discriminatory power.

In this new, ‘postmodern’ metaphysics, we came to feel that ‘real’ communities are formed around difference—around different languages and shared histories, cultural traditions, and (sadly) discrimination; that in reality, we live in a universe of separate identity galaxies suspended in the dark energy of political power. Desmond calls this pluralism “equivocity”—the reduction of everything to the ‘many.’

No wonder Lilla’s attack on ‘identity politics’ rings hollow: it’s an attack on our current metaphysics, on our present-day mindfulness about how the world works—and more importantly, on how we feel to be alive in that world. By contrast, his call to a common citizenship is a call to return to the metaphysics of yesterday, a metaphysics of sameness that we forgot long ago or are too young to have experienced, and no longer know how to feel even if we want it back.

If the left is to unite broad swaths of society behind a progressive agenda it needs a new metaphysics: not the metaphysics of integration into a political and cultural hegemony (for which read masculine whiteness); nor the metaphysics that rightly fears assimilation as the suppression of difference but falsely fears the ‘other’ as the enemy. Instead, we must learn to feel our way into a metaphysics of integration without assimilation, until it feels more natural to be this way than to be any other way in the world.

Our past metaphysics betrayed us, but in the process they taught us crucial lessons. Modernity reminds us of the need to write universalizing stories that integrate everyone equally into a social order that ensures their rights. Postmodernity taught us to fear forced assimilation into the visions of the dominant society. But walled-off identities must be broken open to offer hospitality to the ‘other’ for communication to take place. Diversity without a universal is a jungle; the universal without diversity is a prison.

To navigate the territory between these two positions we must confront ambiguity: to be willing to hold our universalisms partial, and accept that our identities are only provisional means to locate us in the larger world.

We must also confront fear. We are doubly vulnerable: first, because the world writ large really does threaten us, no matter our identity; and second, because we must put aside our differences to trust each other while we negotiate the future.

To feel authentically human requires an ecumenical sensibility: to affirm that the whole human reality is present in each one of us; and that all of us, equally in our diversity, indispensably make up the human whole. But human solidarity doesn’t come cheap. It requires “willed affiliation”—steel in the backbone to put ourselves at risk and give ourselves to the ‘other.’ Some doubt that we can achieve this kind of sensibility, but that is the challenge. It will take another revolution in consciousness to pull it off. 


Gregory Leffel, Ph.D., is a missiologist working on collective action, social movements and theo-politics, and is director of One Horizon Institute in Lexington, Kentucky. He is author of Faith Seeking Action: Mission, Social Movements, and the Church in Motion; and is past president of the American Society of Missiology.  

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