In fiction and nonfiction alike, liberalism—referring here not to the left of American politics, but to the political order that privileges non-negotiable rights, personal freedoms, and individual autonomy—has come in for a beating, or at least a challenge, writes Shadi Hamid. This piece originally appeared in The Atlantic.
A man named François is a professor in Paris. He is a scholar of Joris-Karl Huysmans, an obscure 19th-century author who, in his later years, converted to Catholicism in an epiphany. François is the hero, or rather anti-hero, of French novelist Michel Houellebecq’s Submission. François is listless—even his attitude toward sex is uninspired, as if it’s an activity like any other, perhaps like playing tennis on a Sunday, but probably with less excitement. There is too much freedom and too many choices, and sometimes he’d rather just die.
The world around him, though, is changing. It is 2022. After a charismatic Islamist wins the second round of the French presidential elections against the right-wing Marine Le Pen (after gaining the support of the Socialists), a Muslim professor, himself a convert, attempts to persuade François to make the declaration of faith. “It’s submission,” the professor tells him. “The shocking and simple idea, which had never been so forcefully expressed, that the summit of human happiness resides in the most absolute submission.”
The book was released on January 7, 2015, the day of the Charlie Hebdo attack, in which two masked gunmen carrying assault rifles and shouting “God is great” gunned down 12 staff members of the French satirical weekly. It became impossible to separate the novel from the event. Three years later—after more terror attacks, the rise of populists, heavy refugee flows, and a palpable anti-Muslim hysteria—the book appears, in retrospect, well ahead of its time.
Submission is still very clearly a dystopian novel—an increasingly popular genre these days—but, more than that, it is a meditation on the aimlessness of late-stage Western liberalism, where there is nothing much to be believe in, and nothing much to fight for, except the never-ending expansion of personal freedom. The controversy aside, Submission is strangely intriguing. Houellebecq is among a growing number of Western intellectuals flirting with anti-liberalism: Perhaps liberalism is not the unmitigated good most of us are raised to believe it is. In an odd way, though, liberalism’s critics end up saying more about the resilience of liberalism than its demise.
The emphasis on polygamy in Houellebecq’s depiction of Islam is often gratuitous. But there is also a sense of envy, that Islam retains a vitality, conviction, and self-assuredness that Western liberalism and Western Christianity lost long ago. (In his real life, Houellebecq, who once called Islam “the stupidest religion,” has since read the Quran and apparently developed an appreciation for Islam, contributing to his own epiphany of sorts. “When, in the light of what I know,” Houellebecq says, “I reexamine the question whether there is a creator, a cosmic order, that kind of thing, I realize that I don’t actually have an answer.”)
In fiction and nonfiction alike, liberalism—referring here not to the left of American politics, but to the political order that privileges non-negotiable rights, personal freedoms, and individual autonomy—has come in for a beating, or at least a challenge. Take, for instance, the work of Christian orthodox writer Rod Dreher. His highly influential book, The Benedict Option, calls on Christians to resist liberalism’s aimlessness and “moral chaos,” and instead form intentional communities of religious solidarity in a post-Christian America.
Few books challenge the core assumptions of modern liberalism as unapologetically as the suggestively titled Why Liberalism Failed by Patrick Deneen, a political theorist at the University of Notre Dame. Liberalism, in dismantling traditional structures, encouraging “privatism,” and empowering an ever-expanding state, has created an existential crisis, he argues. And insisting on yet more liberalism as a corrective has only made matters worse. “One of the liberal state’s main roles,” he writes, “becomes the active liberation of individuals from any limiting conditions.” Liberty, which he argues was once about freedom from “one’s own basest desires,” was redefined to encourage the ceaseless pursuit of those very same desires.
Some of this might sound like the standard anti-liberalism—a kind of Catholic nostalgia for the one true church, before the reformation unleashed a religious pluralism that would never be tempered again. As a liberal who is critical of liberalism, I sympathize with these arguments but am, at the same time, unwilling to follow them to their logical conclusion. I am fundamentally biased after all. For all of liberalism’s faults, I wouldn’t want to live under a non-liberal or even a less liberal system, and in the strongest parts of the book, Deneen suggests why that might be. Modern liberalism is designed for people like me. In David Goodhart’s parlance, I’m an “anywhere” rather than a “somewhere.”
Wherever I go and wherever I’ve lived, there are others, from all over the world, who I can easily connect with—“anywheres” of the center-left and center-right who share a similar disposition. They don’t really have a local community or “home” they feel particularly strongly about. They tend to have graduate degrees; be interested in politics; speak various languages; avoid sports-related conversations; and be vaguely privileged financially (it’s never entirely clear howprivileged). Perhaps most importantly, they are suspicious of happy people but especially earnest people. No one’s particularly religious, but if they are, they’re probably members of a minority group, usually Muslims or Jews, which makes it okay. No one’s perfect, of course, but such are the people of my “tribe.”
The sheer diversity can be overwhelming—white Christian males can be hard to find—but the diversity, paradoxically, reinforces a kind of cultural homogeneity. As Deneen puts it: “The identities and diversity thus secured are globally homogenous, the precondition for a fungible global elite who readily identify other members capable of living in a cultureless and placeless world defined above all by liberal norms.” This is a new global aristocracy, one defined by liberal ideas of “rational” education and sensibility. Whether merit-based “aristocracies” are a good thing has long been debated. The historian Charles Wiltse, writing on Thomas Jefferson, pointed out the tension: “It is to the talented and the virtuous that the government is to be committed, a doctrine suggesting the Greek ideal of the wise man. The criticism of [John] Adams, that talents and virtue will, in the end, breed wealth and family, Jefferson seems to have ignored.”
Self-professed liberals often describe liberalism as indifferent to how we live our lives, so that liberalism effectively serves as a kind of referee or neutral bystander. But this does not necessarily entail ideological neutrality, since liberalism itself emerges from a set of ideological and philosophical assumptions regarding religion, human nature, and the state. Liberalism only offers neutrality within itself. (Political liberalism, as expounded by John Rawls, is based on the “veil of ignorance”—the notion that the founders of a new polity are free to construct their own society without any knowledge of their future position and without any distinctive set of preferences or values. But, as the philosopher Lenn Goodman writes, “Every one of Rawls’s choosers is trapped in a liberal society. … They are not free to construct a value system for themselves.”)
Once liberalism’s non-neutrality is acknowledged, its consequences on vast domains of public life become more obvious. Liberalism might be a better ideology (than whatever the alternatives might be) but it’s an ideology all the same. It’s a transformative project, as any belief system that views history as a progressive and bending arc must be.
Liberalism believes its victory to be essentially a matter of time. History’s long, progressive, and bending arc will eventually win out.
All transformations, even largely good ones, come at a cost. Most Americans and Europeans, including those who benefit most from the liberal status quo, understand that something is not quite right. Take our unprecedented levels of inequality, which are only likely to grow. But the incentives for meritocratic elites to do anything serious about it—Deneen suggests a rather unappealing “household economics” model while social democrats like Matt Bruenig propose “social wealth funds”—are limited. Liberals are the new conservatives.
“Endless free choice,” as Deneen disparagingly calls it, is a dead end. Choice needs to be a means to something else, but to what? Legally based religious systems—which only Islam among the largest religions potentially offers—quite consciously seek to restrict choice in the name of virtue and salvation. It is no mistake that Houellebecq initially intended his book to be about a conversion to Christianity, but it’s telling that François—to some extent a stand-in for Houellebecq’s own fantasies—quickly grows bored after spending two days in a Benedectine abbey. As Mark Lilla writes, he “could not make Catholicism work for him.” Islam is what he finds tempting.
The fear of and opposition to Islam, deemed illiberal and retrograde, is, itself, one of the main drivers behind the rise of Western illiberalism and ethno-nationalism, particularly in Europe. In the United States, even where there are few Muslims, or none at all, anti-sharia legislation has become an odd phenomenon—a sort of illiberal counter-illiberalism. This is not quite what Deneen, or for that matter Houellebecq, had in mind in thinking beyond, or after, liberalism. In Europe, no populist party—and several, in Switzerland, Poland, and Hungary, have been in power—has managed to imagine something truly new. What liberalism’s critics appear unable, or unwilling, to address is whether a lack of meaning is a worse problem to have than a lack of freedom. Perhaps the most we can hope for—or worry about—is just somewhat more illiberal liberal democracies, variations on a continuum but still largely stuck in a liberal universe.