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Liberalism and the Challenge of Socially Sanctioned Cruelty



Authors as Published

Long-time New Yorker staff writer Adam Gopnik recently published a new book, A Thousand Small Sanities: The Moral Adventure of Liberalism, in which he traced not only the tenets of Liberal thinking, but also those of its major critics. On the first point, Gopnik suggested that “Liberalism is realistic about the huge task of remaking worlds. But it is romantic about the possibility of making marginally happier endings for as many as possible within this one.”[1] On the second concern, Gopnik observed, 

To offer a liberal credo, however, also means to offer as fair and eloquent an account as I can of the attacks on liberalism, from both left and right. Because freedom of debate, even more than freedom of speech, is central to the liberal ideal, a liberal credo without counterarguments becomes just another dogma.[2]

This is to say that the Liberal project has historically sought to improve the conditions of life for all groups in society, while minimizing the inequalities amongst them. Its advocates have done so within a political economy that joins capitalism, which creates social and material inequalities, especially if left unchecked or unregulated, and democracy, which calls for political equality among all in society. At heart, then, Liberalism traverses a deep tension, if not paradox, as it seeks to secure liberty and an equality of condition of freedom and possibility for all individuals in society. Liberal tenets must operate between the engine of the market economy, which daily generates not only wealth, but also inequality, and the call of liberty and equality, whose existence and legitimacy permit the market to operate. More, to secure its own aims, it must somehow temper capitalism’s enormous energy to ensure that neither freedom nor equality is lost in the avarice and churning mix of market activities to gain wealth.

In short, the Liberal project is not simply, or primarily, an economic endeavor, but a moral one that rests finally and fundamentally on the hope that humankind can live up to its requirements. Much of Gopnik’s book is devoted to exploring this set of concerns in historic terms within the debate about the adequacy of an effort that is never-ending in character and that only guarantees such advances as the human beings also pursuing aggrandizement and wealth within it, can be persuaded to ensure. Liberalism has improved the conditions of the lives of many, including, among others, women, racial, religious and ethnic minorities, and those with disabilities. Nevertheless, one must also acknowledge that it has never attained full political equality, let alone an ongoing equitable distribution of resources and wealth in American society for those groups, or for the population overall. In consequence, and even as efforts continue among millions to secure that result, the Liberal project is now under attack from dogmatists of the Right and the Left. Those on the Right, devotees of today’s deeply fractured, ideological and radical GOP, daily excoriate Liberalism in favor of the market as the only materially robust arbiter of distribution in society. Those on the Left, today’s progressive Democrats, loathe Liberalism, too, for too long failing to achieve its stated aims completely. These individuals call for a far larger role for government in the political economy to secure that possibility.

This scenario brought Charles Dickens and his portraits of 19th century London to mind. Every few months I dip into a Dickens work because I cannot think of anyone who has written more thoughtfully or memorably about both the human condition and the evils that an unregulated pursuit of wealth for its own sake can unleash. His writing can serve as a touchstone, or reminder, of the deeply moral character of the Liberal project and of the need to remain grounded in ethical courage to combat enduring contextual ambiguity and continuing attacks from dogmatists and would-be demagogues.

In an essay published at an especially dark moment during World War II, George Orwell argued that Dickens’ oeuvre was odd in a way because, as searing as his accounts of the cruelty unleashed by unfettered capitalism were, he never once called for the abolition of that structure or system:

The truth is that Dickens’s criticism of society is almost exclusively moral. … the point is that Dickens is at bottom not even destructive. There is no clear sign that he wants the existing order to be overthrown, or that he believes it would make very much difference if it were overthrown. Or, in reality his target is not so much society as ‘human nature.’ It would be difficult to point anywhere in any of his books to a passage suggesting that the economic system is wrong as a system.[3]

Orwell went on to contend that the arguments of Dickens contemporary and politician, historian and essayist Thomas Macaulay to the contrary, the author of Great Expectations did not embrace socialism. Dickens instead persistently reminded his readers of the mercilessness and avarice of which humankind is innately capable and called on them implicitly to temper their emotions and actions in the name of human dignity and freedom. Understood in this light, Orwell concluded, the writer’s work might sound banal, but for the fact that the challenge Dickens posed was elementally significant to the possibility and preservation of freedom:

And so far as social criticism goes, one can never extract much more from Dickens than this, unless one deliberately reads meanings into him. His whole ‘message’ is one that at first glance seems like an enormous platitude; if men would behave decently, the world would be decent.[4]

For his part, Gopnik offers essentially the same argument that Orwell suggested Dickens provided as he discusses the ongoing Liberal effort to secure society against the imposition of devised social cruelty and attacks on human dignity by a roiled minority or majority:

The secret truth is that what we are having most of the time is the same reform, over and over again, directed to new places and people: a removal of socially sanctioned cruelty. … Cruelty happens; sympathy cures it. The next reform is necessary not because we changed our views but because new forms of cruelty are always coming into existence or into view. Our sight sharpens. Our circles of compassion enlarge.[5]

One might say, just so, Dickens was correct: What we most need is to have human beings behave decently and when such occurs, we shall have a more decent, not to say a more Liberal, society. Nonetheless, that response begs the question at issue. Dickens and Gopnik each rightly realized that the pursuit of this goal was Sisyphean in character, for it depends on persuading human beings not to behave cruelly, a propensity for which they have demonstrated an endless and insatiable appetite across their entire existence. As Gopnik noted, “cruelty happens,” but it only occurs because human beings choose it, and elect to visit it on their fellow human beings in the name of virtually every rationalization of which one might conceive.[6]

All of this is of moment, as one watches the spectacle of the Trump administration. Each day its leaders find new ways to signal to their supporters that they are prepared to visit all manner of social cruelty on minorities and refugees, whom they label the supposed creators of the anxiety and rage that many of their followers feel. Indeed, a large share of those claiming Republican Party partisanship today support the administration’s continuing attacks on the human and civil rights of refugees, immigrants and minorities, in the name of protecting their perceived status in a social hierarchy of their own devising. This matters because of the degradation of democracy and freedom it daily represents. It is also significant as a reminder for all those who would espouse Liberalism’s ends of that project’s innate fragility and as an imperative to press efforts to protect and enlarge the “circles of sympathy” to which Gopnik pointed that ultimately animate and sustain them.  One can read almost any Dickens novel, too, and be reminded that today’s attacks on human rights, equality and freedom, on the Liberal project, are not new, nor are they likely simply to fade away. Instead, Liberalism’s supporters must persuade their fellow Americans that freedom demands that they discipline themselves on behalf of the rights of others—an endless and critically important challenge—if the human possibility of liberty is to be sustained. 


[1] Gopnik, Adam, A Thousand Small Sanities: The Moral Adventure of Liberalism, New York: Basic Books, 2019, p. 19.

[2] Gopnik, A Thousand Small Sanities, p. 19.

[3] Orwell, Sonia and Ian Angus, eds. The Collected Essays, Journalism, and Letters of George Orwell: Volume 1: An Age Like This, 1920-1940, Boston: David R. Godine, Publishers, 2000, pp. 416-417.

[4] Orwell and Angus, The Collected Essays, p. 417.

[5] Gopnik, A Thousand Small Sanities, p. 47.  

[6] Gopnik, A Thousand Small Sanities, p. 47. 

Publication Date

September 9, 2019