Falling in Love with Social Democracy

That a political regime cannot be sustained by principles and institutions alone is something Martha Nussbaum understands. The regime has to be supported by the sentiments of the citizens. In her new book, Nussbaum, a University of Chicago professor and an author of formidable reputation, turns her attention to “political emotions.”

Not just any will do, of course. Regimes like the Russia of the last Czars or the first Putin have often sought to shore up fading legitimacy with xenophobic hatred, with predictably bad results. Nussbaum, rightly, doesn’t want that. Instead, she seeks to find the emotions appropriate for what she considers a proper regime: affirming, inclusive, celebratory, yet not blindly so, always critical, with an eye to how social justice could be made more real.

The theoretical question she raises has a particular practical side, however. The regime she favors is more or less the one outlined by the late John Rawls, essentially a kind of social democracy. Its basic principle is that all should receive what they deserve, no more, no less. Disparities are justifiable only if they can be shown to raise the level of those least well off.

It is easy to see the attractions of such a regime. What is hard is to be deeply moved by them. How many poems can be written about the joys of all having exactly what they ought to get? Those of us who grew up on the children’s literature of the 1950s—anyone still remember Tootle, the train engine who had to learn to “stay on the rails, no matter what”?—have had a taste of just how insipid and even obnoxious the celebration of dutiful contentment with the rules can be. So Nussbaum’s task in Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice is considerable.

Partly what we learn is the inherent difficulty of making human beings love justice per se, much less her version of it. We also learn her peculiar blind spots, and, most valuably, the nature and implications of the ideology of the current ruling class in America.

Nussbaum sets about her task by offering, of all things, a sensitive and persuasive analysis of the last scene of The Marriage of Figaro. In that scene, the much-betrayed Countess stands before her peccant husband and responds to his plea for forgiveness with: “Più docile io sono, e dico di sì.” I am more submissive (Nussbaum has “nicer”) than you, so I say yes. Nussbaum finds in this a model of behavior for citizens of a social democracy. She fleshes out the picture with the androgynous and impish page, Cherubino, in whose erotic playfulness she finds something more pliant to oppose to the masculine world of war, honor, and revenge. I think she has got the interpretation of Mozart generally right. But it would seem to be a long stretch from an aristocratic, erotic comedy to the realities of democratic political life. How to navigate the gulf?

After reviewing some of the less adequate solutions to the problem of democratic political feelings found in Mill and Comte, Nussbaum turns with greater approval to Rabindranath Tagore, the famed Bengali poet. Above all she finds in him an erotic dimension that gives life to the abstract universality of standard liberal theories. Tagore is used throughout Political Emotions; the author makes her case more universal by running parallels between the United States and India; the same lessons seem to apply in each case.

The meat of the book is the section on “Goals, Resources, Problems.” The goal is an “aspiring society” that aspires to fulfill “core values.” These turn out to be Kantian, taking care to treat everyone as an end. But in the Rawlsian inflection, treating them as ends does not mean, as it might have for Kant, respecting their rights, so much as protecting their entitlements (which of course means granting them their entitlements if they don’t yet have them). “Persons” and “human dignity” need to be respected, but on a secular basis. Religious people apparently are going to be respected too, but religion should be kept out of the public discourse.

These “core values” will be buttressed by institutions. Thus, a functioning welfare system makes it easy for people to sympathize with those who suffer economic calamity, because they accept the principle of support for the needy.

Behind the institutions lies a project of inculcating feelings, above all compassion. The opposite of compassion is chiefly disgust, Nussbaum thinks, which leads to cruelty and discrimination against the Other, against recognizable minorities. So we need a patriotism of compassion: mild, inclusive, and above all, not hostile to anyone else.

This is to be inculcated by “tragic and comic festivals”—that is, by a political poetry. Here she cites examples of poets, both classical, like Sophocles and Aristophanes, and modern-democratic, like Lincoln and Whitman. Her understanding of tragedy is rather less tragic than Schopenhauer’s or Nietzsche’s, in that, for her, tragedy teaches empathy and even constructive social criticism. (Antigone, for example, might teach us the need for the First Amendment.) Comedy, with its emphasis on the body we all have in common, also teaches empathy. Having dealt with disgust, Nussbaum ends by treating ways of countering fear, envy, and shame, the other enemies of compassion.

What follows will be pretty critical; before that, I do need to note some pluses. Nussbaum is onto an important topic, and her concern with reciprocity is highly welcome. Additionally, I learned a good deal from her literary analyses. But justice, as noted, is never all that lovable. It is the one virtue that Aristotle, in The Ethics, does not describe as beautiful. It usually takes self-overcoming, but rarely compensates with glory. Further, the particular justice of “equal respect” and taking joy in having things “just right” is hard to love for a different reason: Love involves desire and great love involves great desire for great things. The love of having just what you ought to have seems somehow pallid. (True, there were the Spartans. But I don’t see them as her likely model.)

That Nussbaum misunderstands the problem can be seen in her discussion of envy. She brings up as an example, high school, that hotbed of envy and social anxiety. Since she traces envy to competitiveness, her solution is to do away with it. Stop emphasizing competitive sports; encourage self-esteem at whatever people are good at. Push art festivals and yoga. But she has it backwards. It is a pretty elementary thought that what God, or the bureaucrat who is standing in for the Deity, assigns as your share is usually less of the good and more of the bad than you, individually, think is just. Envy is part and parcel of social life.

The American Founders knew and accepted this. Their political liberalism has a pretty wise remedy: Precisely where there is competition under rules that are generally understood to be fair and fairly enforced, there, winners and losers alike can accept the verdict of the competition. Another name for it is the American Dream or, as the fans of the old Brooklyn Dodgers proverbially put it, “Wait till next year.”

In order to improve, as it thinks, on liberalism, social democracy has taken from Marx the penchant for “critique,” for demonstrating that the rules of the liberal competition are neither fair nor fairly enforced. True justice (think affirmative action quotas here) then needs to be doled out—since Marx’s dream of “species being,” where it all happens automatically, proved a dud—by a ruling class of wise and selfless administrators. But if one gets one’s share as a kind of total judgment on the self, rather than as the product of a legitimate competition, the natural tendency to envy is not only not checked but encouraged. Why him and not me? Art festivals, yoga, even Tagorean eroticism—these aren’t up to the task that Nussbaum, herself apparently innocent of much of human psychology, gives them.

Nor is this mere theorizing. Ditching the notion of rights in favor of assigned privilege has led to a recrudescence of very nasty privilege-seeking masked as “social justice,” among precisely those constituencies Nussbaum is most concerned with protecting. Frequently she invokes the rights of free discourse and equal protection, apparently without realizing that it’s not 1954 anymore, and that on the very college campuses where she lectures, attempts to silence minorities go unpunished and are even applauded. Has she noticed today’s campus heckler’s veto on conservative or even insufficiently PC speakers? Or the call to silence “sexist” professors (see the Harvard Crimson)? Or the proposal to ban membership in student government to those who have traveled to Israel under pro-Israeli auspices (UCLA)? It would seem not.

The point is a simple economic one: When official recognition of victim status is a privilege and vice versa, a competition for claiming official victim status is inevitable. Envy is not only permitted; it becomes requisite.

In frequently invoking “reciprocity,” Nussbaum is with Aristotle, who says, somewhat mysteriously, that reciprocity saves cities. But she doesn’t seem to know what reciprocity entails. For her it appears to be nothing more than a socially approved sentiment, “I’m all right if you’re all right.” As Aristotle explains in The Ethics, reciprocity means the acceptance of a common standard applying to us all but before which we, as distinctive human beings, are not all equal. It is thus a very tricky business and easily undermined by quasi-Marxist “critique” (which purports to wise up the suckers to the con that the standard represents). Liberal rights are a mode of Aristotelian reciprocity, though not the kind he had in mind. Equal opportunity but unequal results—that’s liberal justice, that’s the American Dream, that’s the basis for American patriotism. (Think Frank Capra movies.) When undermined by “critique,” reciprocity disappears, only to be replaced by another of Nussbaum’s favorite words, “entitlements,” and the zero-sum squabbles about them. As a result, cities—meaning self-ruled cities—are not saved.

And here a problem arises that is similar in form but deeper: Nussbaum pushes compassion as a political emotion, opposing it to negative emotions like disgust. Nowhere, not even in the index, is there a mention of indignation. And yet, famously, the flip-side of political compassion for the oppressed is indignation at the oppressors. Even if Nussbaum doesn’t intuitively get this, it is very surprising, especially given her extensively displayed (but not always accurate—Melos was not a “rebellious colony” of Athens, as the Melians take care to explain) erudition, that the possibility has apparently escaped her. Hasn’t she read Arendt’s On Revolution, which treats the Jacobins in precisely these terms? Georg Büchner? Camus? Clifford Orwin? Political compassion historically breeds terror and tyranny. For Nussbaum, compassion is an unambiguous good.

True, she does say she wants it checked by “principles.” But again, what are her principles? The liberal teaching of rights has been jettisoned. Her principles come down to the abstract Kantian ones of equal respect and treating people as ends. But the latter simply can’t be done in politics. When you tax the rich, or draft the young, you use them as a means; sorry, but there it is. So it comes down to doing everything appropriately—with compassion, not rights or virtue, as the guideline. Popular compassion is therefore to be checked by . . .  administrative compassion.

Then there is her celebration of the Countess in Figaro. Far from being a possible goal of democratic sentiment, this gesture of forgiveness is the highest and most sublimated form of that very aristocratic pride which Nussbaum mocks, one that turns the forced indignity of her situation into something stunningly noble. Today, Rosina Schultz-Almaviva would be a corporate lawyer, say, and would have divorced the reprobate years ago, never having even considered being più docile than that jerk.

In sum, Nussbaum’s apparent incapacity to understand the basics of political psychology makes her program pretty much a non-starter for serious discussion of the issues. Still, this book has real value not so much for its explicit teachings as for what it implies.

Constantly, the author refers to a “we” who are responsible for creating the civic culture of compassion. “We” need poets like Whitman and statesmen like Lincoln. It’s not clear to me how “we” order them up at will. For example, I suspect we won’t get another Lincoln if he doesn’t care as passionately about rights as did the real one. In any case who are “we”? This, significantly, is never specified. In practice, of course, it is Professor Nussbaum, her clued-in readers, and the movers and shakers of the new, just society—that is to say, the new ruling class, the credentialed, well-to-do progressively minded, who, no longer trammeled by the self-limitation of rights, can at long last give each child what she deserves.

Political Emotions, especially because of its marked naiveté about human beings, beautifully reflects the ideology of the new ruling class. It is an ideology precisely in Marx’s sense, a rationalization of the rule of the ruling class, its justification for taking and having power. Liberalism assumes that human beings are active, competitive, and that their competition must be directed, channeled, but only according to rules they themselves accept as fair. Nussbaum, like Rawls and Ronald Dworkin, assumes fundamentally passive people who let themselves be arranged in the most appropriate way. They have entitlements, not rights, which implies an entitler, hence a ruler.

Precisely what is bogus (as Plato well knew) about those mythic, passive citizens of The Republic, is assumed as reality by the new philosopher-king wannabes for two reasons. First, the assumption is necessary for their project to be feasible. Dialectical turns, like compassion/indignation are very hard to manage or even see coming. So they have to be ruled out, not noticed. Second, a denatured account of human beings is necessary to relieve the new managers of the appearance of tyrannizing, and of the charge of themselves denaturing humanity. It is thus their defense which itself accuses. Nietzsche’s jeering prediction about democracy, “No shepherd and one herd,” erred. Instead, what Nussbaum heralds is one herd with lots of shepherds, all of whom are trying very hard to look like sheep. But that’s not democracy.

Reader Discussion

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.