As Many as Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast

Don Herzog, University of Michigan Law School


That there are fashions in the academy is no surprise, but we might spend more time than we do contemplating the possibility that our latest infatuations, like some clothing styles, are neither new nor particularly attractive. Here I want to explore just that possibility in examining the polemic against liberalism offered by that hardy if looseknit troupe of scholars marching under the banner of critical legal studies. My real interest isn't in the novelty of that polemic, about which I will say only a few words. Despite some very chic borrowings from the likes of Derrida and Adorno, the CLS polemic is remarkably old. Indeed, this critique of liberalism is as old as liberalism itself. Roberto Unger's Knowledge and Politics has impressed many in legal circles as a strikingly original work, but for those of us trained in political theory it's quite familiar, a quaint pastiche of Hegelian formulas about the Riddles of Modernity and sentiments reminiscent of nothing so much as de Maistre's reactionary-theocratic indictment of the French Revolution. But novelty isn't the real issue here. After all, if the CLS critique of liberalism is right, it doesn't matter if it's old. So my real interest is in the merits of the polemic, and I will offer no further comments on its genealogy. Liberalism has emerged, however implausibly, as a creaky old doctrine that inspires only groans and boredom on the left. Individual rights, equal opportunity, equality under the law: such familiar liberal categories elicit instant recognition but also political and intellectual fatigue. They seem to many to be trite or worse yet nefarious coverups for the continuing failure of allegedly liberal societies to deal with poverty and racism, exploitation and sexism, neocolonialism and the all too well orchestrated government suppression of radical politics. Such a train of thought, I conjecture, frequently motivates crusades against liberalism. And such crusades are only redoubled by encountering self-avowed liberals who are complacent, even smug, in downplaying or denying our social and political problems.