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Samuel Moyn: Liberalism Against Itself

Sam Moyn

There are some ethical kernels in liberalism, as the first philosophy of emancipation, we not only can, but must retrieve. Because what would be the basis for another philosophy and politics of emancipation?

Samuel Moyn

Fear of a nuclear apocalypse, despot leaders and a world at war – how did the sharpest minds of the Cold War leave such a legacy of fear? Samuel Moyn’s Liberalism Against Itself: Cold War Intellectuals and the Making of Our Times takes aim at liberalism, portraying it as a failed creed marred by a paranoia of communism.  

Known for his challenging perspectives and boasting a cult following on the left, the Yale Professor explores the transformation of Cold War liberals who, in his view, traded the Enlightenment's moral core for a fixation on individual liberty. Hear this compelling conversation as UNSW political philosopher Jessica Whyte and Samuel Moyn dissect why today’s liberals provide only pessimism, instead of vision. 

Presented by the UNSW Centre for Ideas, Australian Human Rights Institute, and supported by Adelaide Writers’ Week


UNSW Centre for Ideas: UNSW Centre for Ideas

Jessica White: Hello and welcome. My name is Jessica White I’m Scientia Associate Professor of Philosophy here at the University of New South Wales. I'd like to start here by acknowledging that we're speaking on the unceded land of the Bidjigal people of the Eeora Nation, and pay my respects to all elders, past and present, and any Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people here today.

It gives me great pleasure to be here tonight at this event hosted by the UNSW Centre for Ideas and the Australian Human Rights Institute at UNSW, with Professor Samuel Moyn. Now for the clichés - and I'm sure for many of you, Samuel needs no introduction. But I'm going to introduce him anyway, and he's here tonight to discuss and debate the present, the past and the future of liberalism.

So, Professor Moyn is Chancellor Kent Professor of Law and History at Yale University, and his most recent book, the one we're going to be particularly focused on tonight, is called Liberalism Against Itself: Cold War Intellectuals and the Making of Our Time with Yale University Press, and this is based on the Carlyle Lectures in the History of Political Thought, which he gave at the University of Oxford in 2022.

Now, Professor Moyn is a leading intellectual, historian and historian of human rights who has reshaped the way we understand the history of our present, and particularly the moral and the legal history of our present. His 2010 book The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History, was hugely influential, including on my own work, and it continues to be debated by defenders and detractors of human rights alike.

His 2015 books Christian Human Rights and 2018’s Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World deepened our understanding of the history of human rights, its relation to reactionary strands of Christianity in the late 20th century and the neglect of economic inequality and economic justice in certain strands of human rights thinking in the 20th century. More recently, his book Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War has focused critical attention on the implication of humanitarianism in the United States, seemingly forever wars.

I've personally learned a huge amount from Sam's work over the years, and I've always enjoyed the opportunity to be in dialog with him, even, or especially when we disagree. I'm thrilled to be in conversation with him tonight about his fabulous recent book, Liberalism Against Itself: Cold War Intellectuals and the Making of Our Time. So please join me in thanking Professor Moyn.

I want to start with this recent book on Cold War liberalism, and I want to begin with your very first words. You open it on a really striking note where you say, “Cold War liberalism has been a catastrophe for liberalism.” Now, in the book, you describe Cold War liberalism as “an anxious and minimalist approach to the preservation of freedom in a perilous world”.

Now, the ‘perilous world’ that the thinkers that you're talking about in the book were engaging with, was obviously in the wake of World War Two and the Holocaust, the superpower conflict, the threat of nuclear war and the rise of what they saw as totalitarianism. Now our own time is very different. But you argue that this anxious and minimalist strand of liberalism is still the dominant strand of liberalism of our time. So could you tell us a little bit about the conflict around liberalism that you're engaging with and the arguments that your book contributes to?

Samuel Moyn: So to begin with, thank you all for being here. Thanks to Jess, from whom I've learned more than she's ever learned from me. And, thanks to the organisers. So this book was really prompted, like, so much else about American and maybe transatlantic intellectual life, by the double shock of 2016; the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom, and the election of Donald Trump in my own great country. And intellectuals pondered what went wrong.

Now, I wasn't one of them, because I think it had been clear to me for some time that things were going wrong long before. And it's possible that we should think of these catalytic event events for many as symptoms of a much longer term set of, difficulties. but it's true that 2016 unleashed, a great referendum around something called liberalism.

The word itself began to have new currency, the Financial Times journalist Edward Luce may have been first out of the gate, writing a book called The Retreat of Western Liberalism. And then the reactionary intellectual, named Patrick Deneen wrote, a kind of sulphurous book, although one promoted and recommended by the former president Barack Obama, called Why Liberalism Failed.

And it was in this atmosphere where people were making all kinds of claims around what liberalism was, when it began, whether it was over, that I wanted to intervene and say, ‘maybe we should pay more attention to a very big break that I believe happened in the history of liberalism’, which, as you say, occurred in the middle of the 20th century.

Jessica White: Thank you. And I want to ask you exactly about that break, and particularly… so just to give a little opening to the book. So there is six central liberal thinkers or six central thinkers - we can discuss the liberalism that you discuss in the book. We have, Judith Shklar, the political theorist. We have the political philosopher Isaiah Berlin, the philosopher of science, Karl Popper, historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, the political theorist Hannah Arendt, and the literary critic Lionel Trilling.

And we're not going to have time to discuss all of them here. But I particularly want to ask you about Shklar and about this question of the break. So, Judith Shklar in 1957, wrote what I think is an amazing book called After Utopia, where she argued that liberalism had become increasingly pessimistic, that it had given up on utopianism, turned away from the enlightenment, and become fatalistic.

Now you talk about Shklar as your muse in the book, and you're obviously influenced by that early Shklar, and yet you criticise her for an argument that she makes about continuities within liberalism, where she argues that these conservative turns in liberalism didn't happen overnight, that it in fact began really in the aftermath of the French Revolution, and reactionary responses to Jacobinism.

So can you tell us more about how you understand this rupture and how Cold War liberalism differs from the aspects of reaction to popular sovereignty and fear of democratisation that have long characterised strands of liberalism?

Samuel Moyn: So to begin with, any tradition is always, you know, involved in a complex renegotiation of its premises in time, in the face of experience and events. And there's never going to be absolute continuity nor change that's just entirely discontinuous. So while I'm generally, you know, enamoured of Judith Shklar’s understanding of what was happening in her own youth when she wrote a dissertation that became this book after Utopia, I do dissent from maybe the excessively continuous sense of liberal politics that she presents in that book.

And here's why. I mean, it's certainly the case that from the beginning, especially at the beginning, liberals were sceptical of democracy. And there's just no doubt about that. At the same time, I think it's most important to recover what she missed about earlier liberalism. And that's that, it was the first great modern philosophy of emancipation. Socialism, including Marxism, could be counted the second but not the first.

And liberalism was based on something that many radicals, including socialist radicals, have cared about, which is individual and collective self-realisation and flourishing. And it's true that they were appalled by what the French Revolution had unleashed, which no one should think went well. And they pondered how to achieve a durable institutional form for the freedom and equality they hoped to see.

I think that's something that is then abandoned by mid-twentieth century liberals in a kind of defensive and reactive hopeless mode. And there, for that reason, I think we should see a kind of big discontinue. Of course, it plays on features of earlier liberalism, but it might be that we should see those as recessive, and then they become dominant in the middle of the 20th century.

And that's not a mutation from one thing to another. It's still within a liberal tradition. But it's accentuating some things and forgetting others. And I think with we've paid the price for that transformation.

Jessica White: Thank you. I want to follow up on this question of the institutional form of self-realisation, and also the responsibility for that rupture. I want to turn to Isaiah Berlin who, if many people think about Cold War liberalism, he would probably be one of the paradigmatic figures that you would think about. He's best known for his defense of what he called negative liberty, or the freedom from interference against the positive liberty of self-determination.

Now, in the chapter that you write on Berlin, you say that actually, he was more sympathetic than some of your other figures to a sort of romantic idea of self-realisation, but that he detached this ideal from the institutional form of an ethical state. Now, this idea of the ethical state as the institutional form of the institutional side for individual and collective freedom and agency, seems to be one that you hold to really strongly in the book. And I wondered if you could just tell us a bit more about that ideal and what it is that you want to defend there.

Samuel Moyn: So, you know, central to my way of thinking in the book, although I say very little about the pre-history of Cold War liberalism, I do insist that there were resources on which early liberals drew that Cold War liberals abandoned or repudiated. Judith Shklar complained that liberals in her time were rejecting the enlightenment itself, which had made possible the aspiration to have a free community of equals in politics. When it comes to Berlin, I think what's most important is that, unlike all the other Cold War liberals, and notwithstanding his advocacy for a rather libertarian understanding of liberty, he defended romanticism and the romantic movement. And against others who said romanticism leads to Nazism or to, Stalinism. Berlin said, ‘No, I treasure this movement as a kind of art movement, as something that has made us modern.

And you find lots of, you know, signs of that commitment in his own biography and his life and his tastes. But then it comes to the institutions. And he also participated in a kind of final Cold War liquidation of resources for liberals. And that's the liquidation of the thinking of WF Hegel, the German idealist and precursor to Karl Marx, from whom liberals, I believe, also learned a lot over the 19th century before the Cold War came.

And the ethical state is really Hegel's idea. No one, I think, thinks that Hegel was a liberal. But if we look at the evolution of the liberal tradition in the 19th century, it's not only based on this romantic ethic about the importance of creativity and self-creation as the ultimate liberal goal. But it begins to think about the state as the forum or setting institutionally for the realisation of freedom and equality for all, at least on a domestic level.

And Berlin participates in the kind of, you know, vituperation of Hegel and all that he allegedly wrought, also castigated as the source of Nazism and Stalinism. So he's in a I think, strange position because he has a soft spot for something that, you know, made liberalism great. But he's not able to connect it in his own thinking to a theory of the historical and institutional circumstances in which he could have what he wants.

So he ends up as a kind of tragic figure I think. Also in my youth in the 90s, he was treated as a great guru and sage. I think we should look back and think of him as someone who, in a sense, betrayed himself and was not able to sustain a liberalism that in a sense, he cared deeply about, even in rejecting it.

Jessica White: That's very interesting. And I think that this the question that you raised, then of the attempt to expunge particular figures from the history of liberalism, Hegel being one, Marx being another, but also going all the way back to Rousseau as the sort of arch totalitarian in the sort of many of these figures, I wanted to ask you about another attempt to expunge figures from that canon, and it parallels very much what you were talking about there, which is the example of Popper.

So Popper in the book figures as, sort of the arch anti historicist. For him Hegel and Marx were the ones who needed particularly to be expunged and turned into really an anti-canon. And you argue that for him, any idea of progress in historical time was turned into a sort of path to totalitarianism, and that in the process the very possibility of any kind of progress in history was lost. So could you tell us a little bit about what you think of the consequences in our own time for this rejection of historical progress?

Samuel Moyn: You know, I noticed back in the 90s that there was a kind of sadness, even in the moment of liberal, kind of victory laps around the so-called ‘end of history’, itself a Hegelian concept, that if that Francis Fukuyama takes from Hegel and tries to arrogate for a kind of, you know, American neo liberal and of history, which has not worked out well I must say. But in many figures you find a sense that there's nothing to, you know, to hope for any longer.

The end of history and the triumph of liberalism doesn't give us a kind of orientation. And Fukuyama is quite explicit about this, that the end of history is not altogether something to be celebrated because it gives us, you know, nothing to, in a sense, believe in prospectively. Now, if it turns out history is not as at an end and never was, then we have to ask liberals whether we identify as one or we're challenging them from some outside position, how they can reconstruct a kind of sense that history as a forum of expectation and meaning, in which we can think of ourselves as part of a plot or story that may always have been, even in Hegel, a kind of retroactive construction.

But regardless, you know of how it's validated. It's just quite interesting to me that Cold War liberals, in a sense, foreclosed a future for a collective freedom and equality, that they, you know, prematurely said, you know, was at hand, and when it turned out it wasn't, there was nothing there in a sense, but opacity.

And my sense is that one of the deepest reasons for things like populist revolts is that liberals don't have a future to offer, even the voters they desperately want to recruit, to their cause. And, and so in a sense, this has been a strategic disaster and not just a deeper kind of ethical and philosophical one.

Jessica White: When you talk about being part of a historical project, most of the time in the book you're talking about thinkers and you're talking about the sort of particular thinkers. But I wanted to ask you about one moment in the book that seemed to concretize some of what you mean by the earlier liberalism, and that's your account of Zionism.

So you argue in the book that while Cold War liberals were usually suspicious of collective status, national projects, that there was one place where they defended what you describe as a collective project that used violent means in the service of freedom and self-assertion, and that that place was Palestine. So Zionism, as I've read it, seems to figure in the book as a repository of older, of the older liberalism that you want to defend and that you fault the Cold War liberals for otherwise abandoning.

And this analysis, and particularly your conclusion was surprising to me. So I just want to read one quite and then ask you about it. So you write “In an age when it's common to condemn Zionism, perhaps the deepest problem with Cold War liberalism is that it wasn't Zionist enough.” So given you describe this is the deepest problem with Cold War liberalism I want to look at it a bit further.

Now, obviously, in saying that I can't avoid the fact that we're having this conversation in the context of Israel's bombardment of Gaza, which has already killed more than 30,000 people and which the International Court of Justice has said is plausibly genocidal. Now, I want to ask how would you respond to those who argued that Zionism was not an emancipatory national liberation movement, but a settler colonial project that was built on the racial hierarchies that sustained European colonialism and that was aligned with the ends of British and then US empires, and unified by what the late Palestinian intellectual Edward Said called ‘the negation of the Palestinians’.

If those critics are right, and obviously there's no obligation that you think they are, but if those critics were right, wouldn't they be more consistency to the Cold War liberals in so much as their support for Israel and for Zionism would be consistent with their broader commitment to US empire?

Samuel Moyn: Okay, so this requires a more extended answer because it's such a challenging and great question. So a first thing to say is that it's very important, for background sake, to remember that liberals invented nationalism in the 19th century, or helped do so. And probably the most important and influential liberal in world history on the world stage has never been a figure like John Locke, who was only made a liberal retroactively and in this same mid 20th century.

But instead it was a 19th century self-styled liberal in Italian named Giuseppe Mazzini, who was widely read around the world, including by Mohandas Gandhi. Many Indian nationalists, really nationalists, who became postcolonial nationalists the world over, as well as in the Zionist tradition, and the reason why liberal were nationalist is that in a world of empire, nationalism could be emancipatory.

And it also fit with the intuitive understanding that I think many a 19th century liberals had that freedom and equality are built in community. And once again, Zionism and many other forms of nationalism partook in this belief. So in the 20th century, it's quite fascinating to find Isaiah Berlin say Zionism is a kind of decolonising movement.

He says that's a brilliant analogy. And then the problem is, why not extend that affection he had for Zionism, uniquely among all the nationalist movements of his time, to Palestinians? Or for that matter, others whom his own country, the British Empire at that time, was treating with pitiless violence, just as Palestinians are being treated today. Now, of course, there's another view that nationalism has proved faulty.

I mean, that would be an incredible understatement. Not only does certain people get states and others do not, but there are enormous internal inequities and it's hard to get peoples and states to line up. And so the cost of this emancipatory tool has been enormous. Some have even argued that the collective move that liberals make helped spawn ethno-nationalism, which, though illiberal, may have come out of the liberal turn to kind of collective national emancipation.

The only question, I suppose is, what is the alternative? What is the alternative for Palestinians? I think it's very interesting to critique Zionism and back Palestinian nationalism, especially if one thinks of it as an emancipatory movement whose legitimate goal is a state. Now, of course, we could argue that there have always been and ought to be better emancipatory alternatives to nationalism that liberals helped discover and make hegemonic, still is hegemonic I think from many people the world over, for all its faults.

And I'm happy to entertain that possibility. But then we would really need to think as I think many of us are thinking, and in the case of Israel, Palestine, what precisely do we have in mind as a post-national solution? It would have to be one that ends, the violence ends the occupation, ends the oppression.

But what's the political form that follows? And they're actually really interesting proposals, as you know as well or better than anyone. So I'll conclude this answer by saying I like the your proposal. One way of making the Cold War liberals more consistent would be if they had thought more generously of non-white peoples, non-Jewish claimants to collective emancipation.

Another way would be if they had severed their ties to American empire altogether, and thought of some yet more emancipatory political form, which I think few have, you know, realised anywhere in the world yet - since American empire, while waning, is not over.

Jessica White: Indeed. Thank you. And I'm conscious that we are not going to resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict here. And I think that all of those points that you raise are really critical ones. But I guess I want to disentangle the question of nationalism a little, not specifically in relation to Israel-Palestine, but you mention in the book when you're talking about Arendt, that you say Israel could be seen as a post-colonial state that may also have been a settler colonial, however much it was also a settler colony.

I want to ask you more broadly about liberalism and settler colonialism. So this is something that recent scholarship on liberalism and empire has sort of only belatedly taken up after a lot of emphasis on India in particular. And you argue in the book that early liberalism doesn't need to be idealised. You use the word that it was ‘entangled’ with racial hierarchies and with empire.

And certainly some of the earlier figures that you look at in the book, people like John Stuart Mill or Alexis de Tocqueville were deeply involved in the colonial projects of in various British and French colonial projects. Now, many of these figures also were particularly enthusiastic about settler colonialism. So Tocqueville argued for a war of colonisation in Algeria which would ravage the country, and John Stuart Mill was very enthusiastic about the colonisation of this continent, and argued that because a full society would be transferred from England, that the colony would be civilised, in his words, from its inception, and he was enthusiastic about this idea.

So I want to ask about your thoughts about how liberalism, and particularly the ideas of progress and perfectionism that you defend, be disentangled from the history of settler colonialism, civilisational hierarchies, and ultimately, colonial genocides.

Samuel Moyn: Well, it sounds like it would be very difficult. So I would defend the idea that it's possible to think about such a disentanglement and that there's incentive to do so, but it can't be wit: out first registering how profound the entanglements or even identity of liberalism with empire and imperial projects, and not just settler colonialism, was and has been. And all the critical work that many people have done, to name and shame liberals as imperialist has been, I think, nothing short of revolutionary and changed the minds of a lot of people who want to read these figures without knowing the basic facts about what their political views about non-Christian and non-white peoples were.

And so, at a minimum, it's going to be very difficult. I think the question is, what are the ethical principles that would ultimately authorise critiques of empire and its violence, often genocidal violence? And it might be that some of those have roots in liberalism. And then it's a universal challenge that we have to save the enlightenment project from those who betrayed it.

We have to save liberalism from the liberals. Now, I do not want to suggest that we can let liberals off easy for their crimes, or say that liberalism has never been tried the way that many Marxists, I think some of us might say legitimately, have said that Bolshevism does not tell us anything about what Marxism was. But I do think we should…

I'm in the position of thinking there are some ethical kernels in liberalism as the first philosophy of emancipation we not only can but must retrieve, because what would be the basis for another philosophy and politics of emancipation? I personally think Marx drew a great deal from that first emancipation and formulating his second. And so then where, in a sense, in another continuous tradition of radicalism which can never avoid extricating emancipation from what it's justified and then we need to do a lot of work. First, understanding how it was no accident that these allegedly emancipatory ideas, were bound up, are bound up with crime. But we also have a lot of hard work to justify our own intuitions about why what makes crime criminal, which is some ethical premise, and maybe it's a liberal one.

Jessica White: Yeah. Thank you. And I want to ask you another of those extrication questions, which your answer may be somewhat similar, but, this one is about war. So in the book, one of the things that surprised me was that you talk about the liberal, history of implication in colonialism and imperialism, but you said that the Cold War liberals did something worse, which was to withdraw from the project of bringing freedom to the world.

And I was surprised by this as both a sort of an empirical claim and a normative claim. And I but I really want to ask you about the empirical claim because it seems to me that the people that you saw it in the book, as the inheritors have called world liberalism, Anne Applebaum, Timothy Garton, Paul Berman, Michael Ignatieff, Tony Judt, Leon Wieseltier, were almost all fervent supporters of the Iraq War.

Tony is excepted from that. He was a critic, but the rest of them all supported the Iraq War and had a really strong tendency to treat it as a new global battle to bring freedom to the world. So I know that you have written a book about - critical of US wars and forever wars. And so I I'm really interested in how you see this project of bringing freedom to the world, other than as a project of endless humanitarian interventions and wars.

So it seems, you know, very important to say that this little book that I've done is about a very short period of Cold War liberalism, its founding. And it evolved in ways that were much more bellicose than at the start. I didn't find empirical evidence, if empiricism is our concern, that the figures in this period were, you know, paving the way for the more expansionary in a sense, a revolutionary Cold War liberalism that helps lead to the Vietnam War and many things after. They tended to be in favour of so-called containment rather than rollback in terms of Cold War strategy.

And I guess I was most surprised by their silence about decolonisation rather than their advocacy for the kinds of Cold War hijinx and.. that we associate with, you know, the American state and many of the ex colonial states, at the height of decolonisation in the 1960s and 70s. It is true and it's a very interesting fact that, yeah, I, I wish I had, you know, thought about more and, and written about in the book, that the self-styled heirs of Cold War liberalism in the 90s were warlike and in that sense, unfaithful.

And you think of something that an essay that helped launch our concerns with human rights by Wendy Brown, which is really a critique of the kind of tragic pose of Cold War liberalism that a project of harm reduction that people like Michael Ignatieff, embrace, I mean, he's the biographer of Isaiah Berlin, can justify a kind of a revolutionary act of conquest with the costs of millions of lives - a million or more.

So this, you know, is a really interesting fact that in the 1990s, for many of the self-styled inheritors of Cold War liberalism, they're making modifications. And so how could I say what I say about the Cold War liberals that they're problem, relative to their kind of earlier liberals like John Stuart Mill, the imperialist, is that they have a constricted transatlantic project of preserving a beleaguered freedom in the transatlantic, but don't set their, you know, sights high enough and imagine a global project of freedom, especially when that very ambition could be used to authorise the Iraq War and, you know, neoconservative projects that continue to this day.

I mean, you and I probably both believe here's why I can't understand how any liberal cannot ultimately care about the fate of freedom and equality globally and beyond the constraints of nationalism, as if it would be good enough to create free communities of equal that are modular, especially and economically on an unequal world.

If we really want to inherit liberalism and its emancipatory potential, we can't but have a cosmopolitan project and we have to rescue that too from those who abused it. And the errors of the Cold War liberals are excellent examples. So one of our projects in that regard would have to be to have a cosmopolitanism that rejects war rather than sees it as an a kind of tool of emancipation.

Jessica White: You just mentioned the economy, and we haven't talked much about the economy so far. And I wanted to ask you about the relationship between Cold War and liberalism and neoliberalism. So you argue in the book that Cold War liberalism is distinct from neo liberalism, but there are lots of areas of overlap. There's the anti-canon, which is very much shared by a central neo liberal thinker like Friedrich Hayek, for whom figures like Rousseau, Hegel, Mar are absolutely those that need to be expunged and people like Acton and actually Tocqueville, interestingly, are the figures to be seized on.

And there's overlap also in terms of personnel, Karl Popper, for instance, who is a good friend of Hayek, came from the same Austrian milieu, and was a member of the Mont Pelerin… on the neoliberal Mont Pelerin Society

So I just wanted to ask you how you distinguish Cold War liberalism from neo liberalism, and what role questions of economic life play in your critique of Cold War liberalism or in animating that critique?

Samuel Moyn: So I try to, you know, make a more or less intricate argument about this because I neither want to make them too proximate, nor do I want to say they're in another world, from each other. So in in conversation with you, I might have to explain why I don't blame Cold War liberals more for their proximity to Cold War liberalism.

Whereas I think for Cold War liberals themselves and many liberals who remember this early Cold War era as precisely that of the coming of the welfare state, the time of the most interventionist, and redistributive liberal states there have been. It's heresy to suggest that Cold War liberals could have had any relationship to neo liberalism. And so what I try to do in the book is reject the idea that they're the same and that they're different, and suggests there are these parallels, especially in who they hated in the prior liberal tradition.

And then I try to suggest that it seems just of enormous importance that the Cold War liberals did not provide what you would expect them to provide, which is a theory of their own welfare state. It's enormously hard to understand reading Berlin's two concepts of liberty, that he's living at a time of the closest liberals have come to something like an ethical Hegelian state, albeit for white males in the family wage.

So I think it's shocking that when neo liberalism did begin to gain more and more practical power, starting in the 1970s, Cold War liberalism, had left no defense of what liberals in practice had been attempting to do. And so I think there's some, you know, blame there. I mean, I think we should mainly blame neoliberals for neo liberalism.

And this goes back to a dispute you and I have had in a certain way since I also wanted to avoid blaming human rights for neo liberalism, we should blame neo liberalism for its own damage. But then there are it's a betters. And actually, I think the Cold War liberals did, in a certain sense, help pave the way imaginatively for what came to pass practically, eventually and in our time, a kind of libertarian state that's enormously repressive in war and in.. to its own domestic undesirables and deplorables, but with respect to emancipating its own people, let alone the world. These states are utter failures. And that's, I think, due to the long range contributions of neo… of Cold War liberalism.

Jessica White: Thank you. Now, I promised I'd ask one question about human rights here at this Human Rights Institute event, and I want to ask you one about the present, but it also goes back to your previous work and particularly The Last Utopia you were just talking about ‘the end of history’ climate, in which, to me now feels like quite a long time ago.

And that was the climate in many ways that I think you talked about as the last utopia where human rights figured as, the utopia that came to pass when other utopias had gone into desuetude, but demised in their various ways. But, I was really struck in mid February of this year, Agnès Callamard, the secretary general of Amnesty International, wrote an opinion piece where she argued that, what she described as the catastrophe in Gaza and the failure or refusal by Western countries to stand against Israel's atrocities marks, in her words, “the end of the rules based order and the start of a new era.”

And she described that as an era of greater violence, greater instability, greater suffering. Now, many have made similar claims about the end of the hegemony of human rights, but it seemed striking to me that this was the international head of Amnesty International making an argument that the whole post-Cold War order of human rights and international law was over.

Now, would you say this is another sort of international example of liberal pessimism, or do you think that she's right, that human rights has ceased to play this role as the last utopia?

Samual Moyn: I think she's right. I mean, she may also be playing out a rhetorical strategy since, you know, to raise funds, draw attention, all kinds of other things that, you know, important people running organisations must do. The sky must always be falling. Actually, you know, the human rights movement has provided lots of tools for confronting, although not with great effect yet, the current, situation in, in Gaza.

But I do think she's right on, on a kind of deeper level. I mean, if I were, you know, starting what passes for a career now, I would not write The Last Utopia. It's not.. it's it it …was it to the extent it was worth doing. It's not now, and that's because, as it seems to me, human rights have lost their imaginative hegemony or monopoly.

and that's largely thanks to new generations who, as you know, the response to Gaza, I think, attests, are much bolder, much more oppositional, and not wedded to a notion that a particular form of human rights thinking or practice are the a kind of panacea, the kind of morality of the end of history. In our time of, you know, intersecting crisis, crises, environmental, not just, the ones that we've with alluded to so far.

It seems to me that youth are in revolt if they're not resigned. and they I think they don't accept and we should follow them and not accepting that we really have an adequate emancipatory vocabulary, let alone politics. but they're, they're looking for one. And so it's also the case that I think human rights are in a sense a much more beleaguered imaginatively.

And we've seen that they're the productive uses, even in that situation of being on the extreme defensive mean, they're worth keeping around. Not that I ever claim that we should just, you know, get rid of human rights. So we've moved on. And, you know, this book was definitely an attempt in my own boring life to get beyond human rights.

Jessica White: Sorry for bringing you back.

Samuel Moyn: No, no, but, but it's always an interesting topic, so. But I, I think that what's, what's much more important is that we've had to accept that the human rights imaginary is no longer, you know, what it was. For ill, but also, in a sense, for good, since we're seeing that there's a search for new emancipatory forms that I think were absent when we both got our starts.

Jessica White: Okay. Thank you. And that leads to my very last question. And then we'll open it up for audience questions. And it's about this question of possible alternatives. So I was looking back Shklar’s After Utopia and she ends it really on a pessimistic note, where she says that critique is not sufficient. And she questions whether there is any adequate theoretical alternative.

And she says, and this is many decades ago now, that looking around her answer has to be that there's not. And by the end of her life, obviously, Shklar had shifted from being one of the most striking and prescient critics of conservative liberalism to defending a minimalist liberalism of fear. So I wanted to ask you her question do you see theoretical alternatives today that have some traction?

Samuel Moyn: I will say that there's some anticipation of them and what many people take to be an alternative of liberalism and Marxism, I think, turns out to me, to be the source of, kind of a space of possibilities where theoretically many people, some, you know, reviving liberalism in a more, let's say, you know, familiar way.

But others more creatively, including, you know, I'll just, you know, give a shout out to Alex LaFave in this city who has a wonderful new book on liberal philosophy coming out. And Marxism, without a doubt, is being revived. And I think there's actually the possibility of, in a sense, transcending that opposition theoretically in our time for the sake of a kind of emancipate or a vision worthy of the name.

We're not there yet, but I think we can accept Shklar’s early resignation. Nor can we accept her later accommodation with the Cold War liberal framework that she once denounced. And so in that sense, we're in a much better place than she was, either in her youth or her old age.

Jessica White: Wonderful. Thank you so much for those brilliant answers. And I will now open up to the audience.

Audience 1: Yeah. Hello. My name's John Hosier. I'm just wondering whether, you know, the utopian ideals of liberalism. I mean, they weren't that utopian because they were, from a certain perspective, for a certain outcome, for a certain group of people. And liberalism, to me, seems to have just turned into another, sort of, silo or tribal group that's actually even fracturing and has become weaponised for the delivery of freedom and democracy.

So I just would like to hear your response to it being appropriated.

Samuel Moyn: Well, it goes back to just this question. I mean, what do we say about the fact that, you know, what sounds good turns out to be subject to abuse. And I guess my trouble is that that it doesn't seem right to only ask that about liberalism. We have to have some comparative perspective, and we have to know what would be the outlook that’s somehow immune from abuse and instrumentalisation. Indeed, in the name of what ethical or political perspective does abuser instrumentalisation seem outrageous?

And so we need to know like what from what standpoint are you criticising liberalism? And if it turns out to be a liberal one, then you're in the same place as I am.

Audience 2: George Paxinos, from here. Thank you both for asking and answering the tough questions. Samuel, the Trump phenomenon historically, is it an effort to give fascism a second chance? Here in Australia, we have supporters of Trump. Or is it a far less sinister effort?

Samuel Moyn: I would say it's differently sinister. Not everything bad as fascist and it seems to me, just to keep my answer within the framework of this conversation that, these setbacks for liberalism, have you know, been terrible, but, you know, have not yet led liberals to look in the mirror about their participation in the rise of challenges to their beliefs and their form of government.

And, that's especially true in the United States, where allegations that Trump is a fascist have I think, allowed people a pass at what's really necessary, which is introspection. The other reason I would resist the fascist analogy, although again, there are always going to be some similarities between different things, is that liberals still have a chance to change their ways.

And that's, you know, at no time is that more important to say than all these months before Trump stands before the voters. And if liberals don't present an appealing and credible version of their own thinking - it's not that they deserve to lose - but they have a chance to win. Trump is leading right now, but the die is not cast.

And so if we let's say, you know, if we rue his victory prematurely before it's even happened, we miss the chance of both for self introspection and for confronting, and explaining to his voters why they shouldn't choose him and choose a more credible liberalism instead.

Audience 3: Hey, Michael [Indiscernible] here. When you commented earlier about the movement, the abandonment of cultural liberalism of some of the cosmopolitan ideals, it reminded me of your earlier book, Enough, where you talked about the movement from, a national commitment to equality to an international one of sufficiency. Do you think that there was ever a credible movement that could have embraced a cosmopolitan ideal of equality, or was that sort of dead in the water?

Samuel Moyn: Well, I in that book, not enough. I celebrate the new international economic order for all its, you know, faults and mistakes because I, I claim that unlike the later human rights movement, its goal was starting with equality at the national level to make it an international norm. Now that that was an equality of the nation states that the politics of nationalism had produced.

But it's an example. It's something to go on, because it strikes me that it's the only example I know, even including the history of communist politics, of thinking that distributive egalitarianism, whatever its importance, could be institutionalised on a global scale and not just locally in welfare states. So we would want something different than what those actors offered, but it would be in the spirit, maybe the spirit of their version of liberalism.

Audience 4: Can you talk to us about universal basic income, please?

Samuel Moyn: Sure. It is not, you know, mentioned in this book, but it I have written about it like many others, in my case in passing because, it I'm a bit sceptical. For one thing, it has these neoliberal roots, now kind of very well attested.

There's a brilliant recent book called Welfare For Markets, which explores some of these, and as a kind of genealogy of the concept of universal basic income. But my deeper reservations about it is - have to do with, its ethical core, which set a threshold of sufficient provision rather than think about what we ought to care about egalitarian distribution.

And it really fits with our neoliberal era in which we've striven sometimes achieved, flaws of protection, even as class inequality has increased and, you know, universal basic income, theoretically or completely compatible with that outcome. And so we wouldn't want to, you know, set our ambitions just achieving that for our fellow citizens or even our fellow humans.

Audience 5: Hi. Hi. My name is Henry. So, my question is, what do you think of the resignations of university presidents? I, Harvard and University of Pennsylvania, due to the antisemitism, the rise of antisemitism on campuses. What do you think of, what happens to American elites’ education?

Samuel Moyn: Well I think those were dreadful events. And I think they testify to the way that the ‘Israel lobby’, so-called and my country. exploited an opportunity, at a moment when something much worse was going on, indeed at Israel's hands, to cause distraction and kind of blame, the university for crimes that it, I think, weren't being committed.

Now, I don't want to suggest that there's no new antisemitism or antisemitism is not a genuine problem, but I know of no empirical evidence that it's a problem we should put very high on our list of concerns, especially in the current moment. And that American elites allowed it to be put so high on the list and allowed those two women you mentioned to be cashiered, I think is not just a disappointment, it's something that I think we'll look back and see as a missed opportunity to push for a different discussion at a critical moment, with lives lost and in consequence.

Jessica White: Thank you. Thank you. And I think we have our final question. The last word, goes to you. Well actually it will go to Samuel. But the last question goes to you.

Audience 6: Martin Krieger from UNSW. There are so many questions you could ask about this book. It's short, but it's rich. And one that struck me throughout was how you treat the cast, how you select them and then how you treat them. So you select half a dozen distinguished, clever people, two of them arguably not liberal, Himmelfarb and Arendt.

And what would it have looked like if you had chosen, say, Raymond Aron or Michael Walzer or Arthur Schlesinger from the West? Or if you'd gone to the other side of the Cold War; Harvel, Michnik, Sakharov and those, I mean, would it have been a different story you're telling? And if so, in what way? Because these six, you can’t discuss everyone, but these six happened to be your cameos or microcosm.

But then how you treat them…What fascinated me, but also puzzles me a lot because it seemed to me it had to be intentional, you have an argument very clearly. You know how to argue very well. They’re arguers these people, mighty arguers many of them, but you never touch their arguments. You characterise them. You rate them: they’re wrong on this, they’re right on this.

But they are.. they're full of arguments. And nowhere more is that the case than with with, Judith Shklar. She's a mighty arguer. And the big puzzle, she's the muse of your book, but she's the muse because her first book is your inspiration, but she spends the rest of a very active, noisy, polemical life saying something that you disagree with.

Why did she move to that? And she tells us, because she has lots of arguments and lots of times, and what I missed, I guess, was, wrestling with those rather than the characterisation of that is a pity she got on the wrong horse. And  I wonder if you could say something about that.

Samuel Moyn: Thanks, Martin. It's good to see you. Although the red light here is blinking, which seems portentous. So I've gotten those questions before, and that must mean they're legitimate. And I guess I would say, you know, you're absolutely right that I picked my characters. And you're certainly also correct that I don't engage in traditional argumentation about the correct view to hold.

In writing about these figures, I just assume my views and, and let's say judge these figures wanting. However, I think there is a kind of argument to the book which is trying to be, you know, a different way of thinking about the, the life of the mind - and it's about how people construct their own canons and traditions and then reconfigure what those traditions mean and the process. And so that the effort in the book is put into showing how these earlier sources for liberals are narratively purged by Cold War liberals.

And I believe that those moves had consequences for the substantive positions that these figures took and mounted arguments to defend. And the reason I, you know, preceded that way also explains the reason I chose my figures, because it seems essential to me that liberalism was once an outcome of and claimed the legacy of the enlightenment and the French Revolution, tried to make good on Jean-Jacques Rousseau's dream of a free community of equals. Embrace romanticism, and Hegel and even Marx. And then in the Cold War, purged all those sources in favour of others. More depressing ones, like Augustinian visions of original sin or Sigmund Freud, especially with the emphasis that Cold War liberals laid on his depiction of aggression.

And so my argument, advanced through the selection of characters, is that this reconstruction of a tradition bears on the credibility of the arguments they offered. And so that's my attempted contribution, not that there shouldn't be others that engage their arguments, let's say directly.

Jessica White: Okay. Thank you very much. And thank you to all of you. It's really incredible to see so many people out here for this discussion tonight. Thank you all for coming. Please join me in thanking Samuel for a fantastic event.

UNSW Centre for Ideas: Thanks for listening. This event was presented by UNSW Centre for Ideas, The Human Rights Institute, and UNSW Law and Justice. For more information, visit - and don't forget to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

Samuel Moyn

Samuel Moyn

Samuel Moyn is Chancellor Kent Professor of Law and History at Yale University. His most recent book is Liberalism against Itself: Cold War Intellectuals and the Making of Our Times with Yale University Press, based on the Carlyle Lectures in the History of Political Thought at the University of Oxford in early 2022. Before this, he spent a decade writing some books about the history of international law and human rights, such as The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History and Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War.

Jessica Whyte

Jessica Whyte

Jessica Whyte is Scientia Associate Professor of Philosophy at UNSW Sydney, with a cross-appointment in the Faculty of Law. Her work integrates political philosophy, intellectual history, and political economy to analyse contemporary forms of sovereignty, human rights, humanitarianism, and militarism. Jessica’s work has been published in a range of fora including Contemporary Political Theory; Humanity: An International Journal of Human Rights, Humanitarianism and Development; Law and Critique; Political Theory; and South Atlantic Quarterly. She is the author of two monographs, Catastrophe and Redemption: The Political Thought of Giorgio Agamben, and The Morals of the Market: Human Rights and the Rise of Neoliberalism.

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