Towards a Metamodern Liberalism

Koloman Moser, Fight of the Titans

Critiques of liberalism are good and needed in our current situation, but wholesale rejection of liberalism in favor of some anti-liberal alternative is sheer foolishness. The people making these critiques are always imagining a hypothetical utopia where their views are the ones controlling the paradigm. Certainly an imperfect pluralism featuring safeguards for personal liberties is preferable when compared with some anti-liberal authoritarianism which forces a conformity.

Liberalism definitely needs an update or a reboot at this point to account for some of its failings, but regressing to some pre-modern cultural hegemony is nothing but a fantasy, at least on a broader societal level. The very thing liberalism seeks to provide (ideally) is conditions where communities can freely form around their own values and commitments, and this has historically been sought by attempting to give no one community ruling power culturally. How well this has worked is debatable, but again I’ll take it any day over an explicitly anti-liberal culture which intentionally prevents the formation of communities with values or traditions outside of the determined norm.

The paradigm shift I think we need to see is a transition from thinking liberalism provides an even-playing field for all cultural groups to realizing that even here certain hegemonies can develop and the danger lies in them becoming transparent and acting without us being aware of it.

Even in a deeply pluralistic society there is something of a meta-culture which develops to allow for interactions between the disparate groups with their unique norms, and so we need to be conscious that such a meta-culture exists and contribute to it with a sense of stewardship and care.

American flag mural, Janesville Wisconsin

To be an effective steward to this meta culture, you must learn to be an adept translator, developing the skill to mutate particular values and traditions from your own group into something more universal and polyvalent. This will require humility, as it means letting go of control, as once ideas become translated in such a way they are given away to unceasing iterations of appropriations by other communities. But if this humility is present, doors will open to all sorts of fruitful new relations — both on an individual and communal level.

The meta-culture won’t be defined by any fixed traits, norms, or customs, but instead will be procedural — in a constant state of co-creation by myriad participants. Perhaps the only set constraint for the meta-culture will be the promotion of a mode of being which preserves its own existence and future development. But even that must be achieved internally, from the ground up, by the various contributors who recognize the necessity for this meta-culture while acknowledging that it could not be created artificially through top-down directive but that it must evolve organically.

Ideally, this makes for a profoundly democratic social landscape, but not democratic in the sense of a political arena separated out from other facets of life, with its specific and pre-determined forms of engagement. Rather, this is an all-encompassing democracy, where the forms of participation are themselves constantly evolving through imperfect democratic consensus.

At least, this is the kind of “post-liberal” future I’d prefer to live in. One which acknowledges that an inert, level playing field is a fantasy, but that we can communicate and cooperate together to create a functional landscape. Can we agree that moving towards some kind of paradigm like this is preferable to regressive hegemonies? I’d rather work cooperatively on this kind of vision than get mired in combat over whose hegemony should be at the top.

Independent academic specializing in 20th century religious philosophy, Islamic studies, and interfaith dialogue based out of Madison, WI. Founder @alifreview