What the Hell is Going On? Notes on a talk about Post-Liberalism

‘What the Hell is Going On? – this is the phrase which has come to define the present political moment. As much as anything, this is testimony to the extent at which we are no longer dealing with any business-as-usual. So, what is going on? Gathering at Christchurch University in Canterbury last Wednesday 8th of February, a group of listeners assembled to hear Adrian Pabst lay out his version of the ‘post-liberal’ answer to this defining question.

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The title ‘post-liberal’ testifies well to the outlines of his answers: The hell that is going on is a crisis, and this crisis is of an order called ‘liberal’, which is argued to have been hegemonic over the last several decades. On the level of discourse, this liberalism is characterised by both negative liberty and an inability to articulate social principles following logics other than that of the state or the market. Much of the world to which we were for long accustomed would, then, embody this logic in a way which reveals rampant inequality and rootlessness as its inevitable outcome.

What we are experiencing today, this story goes, is a breakdown in this progressive-liberal order. The anti-liberal symptom of the breakdown is that which we encounter in Brexit and Trump. But this reaction, Pabst tells us, remains bound to the liberalism it rejects in several crucial ways – meaning that any oscillation of liberalism and anti-liberalism would remain empty theatrics dressing up an enduring oligarchy. So what would be the alternative? The suggestion of this night is that of a post-liberal majority politics, which breaks free from the strictures of purely negative liberty in favour of an unfamiliar emphasis on mutual duty under the sign of economic justice and reciprocity coupled with social fraternity.

At this point, the question arising for the author of this text touches upon the extent to which the post-liberal alternative is really a part of what the hell is going on. Whereas both liberalism and anti-liberalism are readily recognizable, this alternative sometimes appears more a heterodox answer to the question of ‘what should be done’. Additionally, it is clear that the answer given to this latter question is one strongly at odds with how most critical social scientists have understood the political ethos of their scholarship; it is unlikely to be received as much other than a provocation (some reasons for this are in an otherwise supportive review of Pabst’s latest book, co-authored with John Milbank. Further reading here) . But be that as it may.

The recent failure of these same social sciences to come to any coherent grasp with what is going on today is reason enough for some well-deserved provocation. The very notion of what it means to be ‘critical’ is in need of renewed critical scrutiny, and it is a pleasure to see scholarship capable of prompting such reflection developing here in Canterbury. Whether this can then help to ‘make social science great’ would then surely be an exciting topic of discussion this May.

by Oscar Krüger (Event Co-Organiser)

Notes from a recently attended Public Lecture 

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