What does the work of Judith Shklar reveal to us about the proper role and limits of political theory? In particular, what are the implications of her arguments both for the way in which we should think of freedom and for the approach we should take to the resolution of moral conflicts? There is growing interest in Shklar’s arguments, in particular the so-called liberalism of fear, characteristic of her mature work. She has become an important influence for those taking a sceptical approach to political thought and also for those concerned first and foremost with the avoidance of great evils. However, this book shows that the most important factor shaping her mature work is not her scepticism but, rather, a value monist approach to both moral conflict and freedom, and that this represents a radical departure from the value pluralism (and scepticism) of her early work. This book also advances a clear line of argument in defence of value pluralism in political theory, one that builds on but moves beyond Shklar’s own early work.
Judith Shklar’s liberalism of fear is a sceptical approach to political thought that also ranks the vices in a particular way, giving priority to the avoidance of cruelty. For that reason, her work is an important influence for non-moralists (political realists and non-ideal theorists) who say that liberalism is, primarily, about protecting the vulnerable from the power of those who are dominant. These theorists also want to take a novel approach to questions of justification in political thought itself. They are self-avowed in their scepticism: they call for a non-ideal, or non-utopian, form of political thought. At the same time, we should pause to consider a very important question. Can political non-moralists also be liberals, and indeed can they be liberals of a particular stripe? Can they give priority to one value and principle and institutional arrangement over others? As we shall see, in her mature work Shklar says both that the fear of cruelty is the summum malum and that hers is a sceptical argument, one that does not appeal to anything other than actuality. However, we must ask, is there more going on here in putting forward that argument, something that indicates a perhaps surprising degree of convergence with the political moralism of, say, Rawls – a convergence that has so far remained unnoticed?
This chapter investigates Shklar’s arguments on political obligation. I focus here on the claim advanced in her mature work that those made into exiles no longer owe political obligations to the regime in question. I argue, first, that this claim relies on a dichotomous distinction between exiles, on the one hand, and ordinary criminals, on the other, according to which the latter are faced with no moral conflicts at all concerning their political obligations. I argue second that Shklar’s exile/ordinary crime dichotomy is explained by a value monist approach that she takes to moral conflict in her mature work; but also, third, an alternative position is suggested in her early work, where she adopts a value pluralist approach to political obligation. I will show that Shklar’s early value pluralism shows why and how criminals may be faced with genuine moral conflicts concerning their political obligations. At the same time, I will also argue that Shklar’s early work contains the seeds from which her mature work emerges, namely a conception of freedom that presupposes elements of value monism, and it is this that explains the trajectory taken in her later work.
Because of the value monism of Judith Shklar’s liberalism of fear it is both prescriptive and utopian. And because of its value monism, it is beset by epistemological weaknesses, but also it remains blind to the moral harms committed in its name. These problems will afflict other value monist approaches to political thought as well, whether or not they are sceptical. What, then, are the alternatives? Shklar’s first book, After Utopia, fails in its attempts to be both sceptical and also completely free from normativity. Indeed, all political thought will be normative insofar as it engages in a critical analysis of the values and paradigms of politics, as is the case, for example, with the various conceptions of freedom and the diverse liberal models of political life. We must therefore consider how political thought can be normative and yet avoid the shortcomings of value monism. Value pluralism provides the compelling answer. If we have not identified the general rule for resolving moral conflict, political theory cannot offer moral guidance in politics. It requires both that political theory should play a restricted role, and that it should be supplemented by practical reasoning and practical judgement.
What do the victims of tyranny owe each other? In this chapter, I examine whether they can be condemned for betraying their friends, and I do so through a novel interpretation of Judith Shklar’s political thought. Shklar is a widely acknowledged and significant influence on non-ideal theory, including political realism. However, there is also a previously unnoticed transformation between her early and mature work, for, although she remains a sceptic, her approach to moral conflict changes from value pluralism to value monism. In addition, it is only in her mature work, as a monist, that she believes tyranny cancels obligations of justice. I argue here that Shklar’s monism fails, and this in turn has important implications for non-ideal theory. While non-ideal theorists have focused on developing a sceptical critique of ideal theory, this interpretation of Shklar’s work illustrates that greater awareness is needed of the pitfalls of monist strands of scepticism
This chapter examines what role utopianism can play in political thought. For Shklar’s liberalism of fear, utopianism is unjustifiable both on sceptical grounds and because it is implicated in illegitimate uses of cruelty. And yet the mature Shklar in fact defends utopian reforms that are, she believes, necessary so as to prevent greater cruelties and, therefore, to secure our freedom. Not only that, as argued here, Shklar’s position on utopianism in fact changes dramatically over the course of her writing career, reflecting a process of continual reappraisal of the work of Rousseau in particular. However, the monist utopianism of the liberalism of fear is marked by the following shortcoming: in her mature work she is, despite her scepticism, unable to identify the prima facie wrongs committed in the name of even legitimate utopias, including the radical and Rousseauian reforms she calls for in The Faces of Injustice and American Citizenship. And I will try to show that value pluralism is free from these problems. More generally, my argument is that a monist position on moral conflict, even when it is also a sceptical one, lacks a critical dimension crucial to the evaluation of such utopian projects.
Chapter 7 presents a counter-demagogic ‘selective tradition’ in popular art, including a contestation of ‘left-demagogy’. The inclusion of left-demagogy is quite deliberate as another charge against the Institute’s work, first enunciated by Shils, was that it neglected this phenomenon. Moreover, my critique of Laclau’s work emphasizes the blindness to this risk in recent ‘left populist’ strategies. The chapter opens with a consideration of the Institute’s planned film, Beneath the Surface, and its relationship with Adorno’s planned ‘vaccine against authoritarianism’. The 1957 Kazan/Schulberg film A Face in the Crowd, is situated as the paradigmatic case which even enacts many elements of the Institute’s work. Abbie Hoffman is presented as a left-demagogue who embraces culture industry logics only to meet his nemesis in the popular artist from The Who, Pete Townshend. Finally, the legacy of Ed Murrow’s conflict with Joseph McCarthy is examined firstly in its own journalistic terms as successful ‘liberal exposure’ of a demagogue. It is then located as a major trope within subsequent counter-demagogic popular art.
Critical theory and demagogic populism provides a detailed analysis of the relevance of the Frankfurt School’s work to understanding contemporary populism. It draws on the research that the Institute for Social Research conducted concerning domestic demagogues during its period of ‘exile’ in the USA. The book argues that the figure of the demagogue has been neglected in both orthodox ‘populism studies’ and in existing critical approaches to populism such as that of Ernesto Laclau. Demagogic ‘capture’ of populist movements and their legacies is thus a contingent prospect for ‘left’ and ‘right’ populist movements. An account of ‘modern demagogy’ is thus detailed, from the Institute’s own dedicated demagogy studies through to their dialogue with Weber’s work on charismatic leadership, the US liberal critique of demagogy and Freud’s group psychology. The Institute’s linkage of ‘modern demagogy’ to the culture industry speaks to the underestimation in ‘populism studies’ of the significance of two other ‘modern phenomena. The first is ‘cultural populism’ – the appeal to a folkloric understanding of ‘the people’ and/or ‘their culture’. The second is the pivotal role of modern means of communication, not only in the recent prominence of social media but demagogic exploitation of all media since the rise of literacy and the widening of the suffrage in the nineteenth century. The dialectical dimensions of these processes are also highlighted in reconstructing the Institute’s work and in extending these analyses through to the present. The book so concludes by weighing up potential counter-demagogic forces within and beyond the culture industry.