–Arts and letters for the modern age–

Cathode Ray Zone

–Arts and Letters for the Modern Age–

Liberalism and Kitsch

by | Jun 13, 2024

On a number of occasions, I have defended what I’ve taken to calling “procedural liberalism” on the grounds that in large pluralistic societies (a) one cannot expect one’s fellow citizens to share a common, substantive conception of the good, and (b) one cannot expect that one’s “community,” in the sense of the word that implies a shared set of values, will always maintain a hold on the levers of state power. It is in everyone’s interest, then, to uphold a “procedural” liberalism, according to which (c) we allow one another significant latitude in the pursuit of our private lives, constrained only by the harm principle, and (d) we rigorously maintain state neutrality with regard to such pursuits. Such an arrangement permits people to engage with what they find significant and meaningful in life, among their family and friends, and in the broader civil society. It also makes it possible for them to trust that they will be treated fairly within “political society,” by which I mean those sectors of society that are governed by the formal institutions and powers of the state, such as the courts, the federal, state, and local bureaucracies, and the like. 

If we assume (as I think we should) that our ability to engage with what is significant and meaningful to us is a precondition for a satisfying life, then this procedural liberalism presupposes that a person has access to family, friends, and to an open and free civil society, meaning one in which one’s capacity to associate with people of one’s choosing is largely unrestricted. The diminishment of any significant number of these fosters feelings of emptiness and futility, with the exception of those rare souls whose capacity to find satisfaction in life is not undermined by solitude.

It is a common refrain in the developed world today that liberalism is either in trouble or already in the process of dying, and while the reasons commonly given vary widely in terms of their plausibility, the claim – or as in my case, the worry – is on the mark. Not because the arguments for liberalism are any weaker today than they were yesterday (if anything, they are stronger) and not because anyone has thought up a better arrangement (they haven’t), but because of certain developments distinctive of modern industrial and post-industrial societies and especially, Western ones.

For one thing, the presupposition I just discussed – that in our search for meaning, we can count on there being and our having access to a network of family, friends, and acquaintances, with whom we can freely engage within the largely unconstrained space of civil society – can no longer be assumed. Indeed, the evidence, be it anecdotal or social-scientific, suggests that these crucial personal and civil associations are diminished and diminishing. This source of liberalism’s troubles has been much remarked upon and is relatively well understood (which is not the same as having a clue how to reverse or otherwise address it), and is at the heart of much of the last century’s discussion of the crisis of the modern individual who with the great urban migrations effected by the Industrial Revolution lost the psychic moorings that previously had been provided by extended family-networks, a shared culture, and near-ubiquitous religiosity. As Carl Jung put it in Modern Man in Search of a Soul (1933):

The modern man has lost all the metaphysical certainties of his medieval brother, and set up in their place the ideals of material security, general welfare, and humaneness.  But it takes more than an ordinary dose of optimism to make it appear as if those ideals are unshaken. [F]or the modern man sees that every step in material progress adds just so much force to the threat of a more stupendous catastrophe.

Jung’s reference to the modern ideals of “material security, general welfare, and humaneness” suggest a second reason for liberalism’s plight, one that is less frequently remarked upon but equally significant. That is the overwhelming tendency of liberal societies in the more advanced stages of capitalism to commodify our relationships and pursuits, our identities, and even happiness itself. The result is that they have become “kitsch” and we have become consumers of kitsch, which means that they no longer have the power to satisfy us, and we no longer have the capacity to be satisfied.  

Kitsch is that mimic of things of depth and substance that is commercially produced so as to allow people, whether out of indolence or incapacity, to purchase spiritual depth without the need for substantial investment, struggle, or sacrifice; a cheap simulacrum futilely engaged so as to sate a jaded sensibility and a shallow character. Clement Greenberg, in his landmark essay, “Avant Garde And Kitsch” (1939), restricted his analysis of this socio-cultural development to art and the art-buying public, but as Roger Scruton pointed out in “Kitsch and the Modern Predicament” (1999), under late capitalism virtually every dimension of life can be – and is being – kitschified, for kitsch indicates a “spiritual,” rather than an aesthetic deficiency:

Kitsch reflects our failure not merely to value the human spirit but to perform those sacrificial acts that create it. It is a vivid reminder that the human spirit cannot be taken for granted, that it does not exist in all social conditions, but is an achievement that must be constantly renewed through the demands that we make on others and on ourselves.

One example of this “kitschification” and its effects, not just on art but on whole forms of life, is contemporary, mainline religion, where the rigorous, highly particular demands once imposed on lifestyle and belief have been abandoned, so that the religious and spiritual life might become easier and more congruent with popular mores and tastes. As a result, mainline religion has become generic to the point that one church is largely indistinguishable from the next. (I used to serve on my synagogue’s Beit Din (Jewish court) and would ask prospective converts why they wanted to be Jewish. The answers I got inevitably involved a benign mishmash of progressive platitudes, so I would always ask the same follow-up question “That’s a great reason to become an Episcopalian. What I asked was why you want to be Jewish,” to which I never received anything better than a baffled look.) The predictable result has been the collapse of the mainline churches and an upsurge in fundamentalist religion, the crude and atavistic harshness of which at least makes it possible for people to feel something in the conduct of religious life.  

Another example of kitsch that lies well beyond the artworld is our society’s treatment of old-age and retirement – one’s “golden years” in kitsch-speak – whose commodification and its effects was described by Nathanael West in The Day of the Locust (1933), as a prelude to what remains one of the most terrifying depictions of mob violence in American literature: 

All their lives they had slaved at some kind of dull, heavy labor, behind desks and counters, in the fields and at tedious machines of all sorts, saving their pennies and dreaming of the leisure that would be theirs when they had enough. Finally that day came… Where else should they go but California, the land of sunshine and oranges?

Once there they discover that sunshine isn’t enough. They get tired of oranges, even of avocado pears and passion fruit… They don’t know what to do with their time. They haven’t the mental equipment for leisure… They watch the waves come in at Venice, [but] after you’ve seen one wave, you’ve seen them all.

Their boredom becomes more and more terrible. They realize that they’ve been tricked and burn with resentment. Every day of their lives they read the newspapers and went to the movies. Both fed them on lynchings, murder, sex crimes, explosions, wrecks, love nests, fires, miracles, revolutions, wars… Oranges can’t titillate their jaded palates. Nothing can ever be violent enough to make taut their slack minds and bodies. They have been cheated and betrayed. They have slaved and saved for nothing.

Today, in the age of social media and advanced communications, it is our relationships and identities that have been most intensely commodified and which are being sold to us by Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and the like as simulacra of what they once were: “friends” for the friendless; “followers” for those with no real influence; and “likes” for those whose statements fail to carry any genuine weight or whose posted images are bereft of any actual interest or appeal. This virtual world of ersatz interactions and relationships is inhabited by equally unreal people, encouraging everyone, as it does, to misrepresent themselves, so as always to appear in the most positive and interesting light. It is small wonder then that those who are most dependent upon these cyberspaces in their pursuit of meaningful lives – those for whom social media has essentially replaced civil society – are also the most obsessed with their identities and with the validation of those identities by others, thereby demonstrating a devastating level of personal insecurity. 

It is this combination of social atomization and the kitschification of every aspect of life that I am suggesting poses the greatest threat to the liberal consensus, for they undercut the capacity to pursue a meaningful life in the private and civil spheres, which are a fundamental precondition for liberal society. With it no longer met, our need to feel that our lives are significant remains unsatisfied, so we seek fulfillment publicly, politically and by way of the law. The person who has no real friends enlists the powers of the state to compel others to act as if they were his friends. The person who finds himself unfulfilled by the identities he has taken on appeals to the law to force everyone to genuflect before them. The person who is frustrated by the impotency and ineffectualness that follows from a lack of any investment in real people or causes will bolster himself by joining in the professional ruination, public ostracizing, and other mobbish behavior that currently falls under the banner of “canceling.” 

A successful liberal society consists of people whose lives and relationships and pursuits are substantial and for the most part satisfying, for this is what sustains the live-and-let-live ethos on which liberalism is predicated and which ultimately protects us all. But in a society of shallow, anxious, disconnected, inchoately yearning recluses, the generosity of spirit necessary to sustain the liberal consensus is absent, and the rational self-interest presupposed by liberal political philosophy can no longer be credibly ascribed.