Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Susan Zieger reviews Bleak Liberalism

Amanda AndersonBleak Liberalism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016. 192 pp.

Review by Susan Zieger

Has there ever been a timelier title? Amanda Anderson’s new book is not about the aftermath of the 2016 US presidential election, but its argument subtly registers the recent political shifts that have left liberals feeling forlorn. Yet to many on the radical left, liberalism has always seemed a sad political philosophy. Its principal features form a dismal list of defects: bourgeois self-fulfillment, the inequality wreaked by free trade, and sexist, racist, and imperialistic exclusions. Anderson contends that far from being blindly optimistic about progress, liberalism is fully aware of its own flaws; this consciousness of its own limitations is “bleak liberalism.” With this gesture, she confronts critics of neoliberalism, suggesting that they are truly the inheritors of the bleak liberal tradition. With their nostalgia for liberal institutions such as democracy and social welfare, critics such as Wendy Brown and David Harvey are of the devil’s party without knowing it. This is the book’s most arresting provocation. Within political theory and literary history, Bleak Liberalism works through the divide between liberals and radicals—a clash still resonating from radical left challenges to Clintonian neoliberalism.

To revive liberalism, Anderson turns to literary aesthetics, especially the novel, a form that capably reveals the philosophy’s lived and felt commitments. This turn is necessary because the academic left has misunderstood liberalism for so long that the term is now simply synonymous with ideology. Marxist-inflected critiques of it inevitably reduce the complexity of character to simple interest. Radical aesthetics, which privilege aporia, deferral, and opacity, similarly fail to grasp the nuance and significance of living in difficult conditions. Bleak Liberalism counters with a humanist stance against ideological critique, and against radical aesthetics’ Romantic-inflected drive toward transcendent tropes. To make this case, Anderson analyzes that stalwart of liberal education, canonical novels written in English from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century. By broadly characterizing liberal aesthetics, Anderson hopes to check radical dismissals, render liberalism’s complexity, and win for it a second chance.

Probing liberal gloom, Anderson reinterprets novels such as Charles Dickens’s Bleak House (1853) and Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now (1875). As “literary liberalism,” such novels have languished under Marxist critiques that their realism performs liberal power. For example, George Orwell chafed at Dickens’ sentimentalism, moralism, and inability to depict working-class characters. He concluded that Dickens was “a man who is generously angry—in other words . . . a nineteenth-century liberal, a free intelligence.”[1] Countering such summations, Anderson brings out the novels’ dour and pessimistic nuances. Bleak House’s dual narration, for example, blends the positive moral liberalism of Esther Summerson’s story with the omnisciently narrated, glum sociological diagnosis of the ill effects of Chancery. Invoking Lionel Trilling’s valorization of sincerity, Anderson redescribes Trollope’s gentlemanly Victorian values as “critical sincerity.” When the Jewish character Breghert speaks out against anti-Semitism in The Way We Live Now, Anderson sees a sincere, sober liberalism that rebukes prejudice. Another chapter reassesses arguments between characters in social problem novels such as Hard Times (1854) and Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton (1848) as examples of ongoing deliberation, a liberal value that counters ideological frozenness. Her economical close readings underscore Victorian novels’ power to convey the social and psychological complexities of liberal subjectivity. Bleak Liberalism thus delivers a fresh account of the Victorian novel as the domain of an expanded liberal aesthetic. 

Few will be surprised to learn that Victorian novels thoroughly describe liberal subjects. More ambitious and intriguing is Anderson’s bid to connect the Victorian liberal aesthetic to modernist texts such as Franz Kafka’s “Before the Law” (1915), Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), and Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook (1962). To build these bridges, she uses the conceptual categories of critically unfashionable figures such as Trilling and Albert Camus. Their thought dwells in realms of existentialism and universalism more often inhabited by political philosophy than literary theory. Anderson invokes them to talk about what it means to live and feel social relations. This terrain has been mapped by diverse critical methods, from analyses of social space to affect theory, but Anderson eschews such technical conversations in favor of appeals to commonsense terms such as “temperament.” This method yields the observation, for example, that Kafka’s parable is “bleakly aspirational”—an observation missed by Jacques Derrida and Giorgio Agamben, who are too beholden to radical aesthetics and politics to make it (p. 10). Anderson wants to evoke the spirit rather than the ideology of Kafka’s text. Her reliance on universal, humanist categories, which are inextricable from the middle-class moral norms of yesteryear, reminded this reader of David Brooks’s columns in the New York Times. Like Brooks, when Anderson combines the bourgeois critic’s prerogative with her acute critical vision, she produces persuasive commonsense points.

But what is truly at stake in Anderson’s case for liberal complexity? The book aims to relax the critical reflexes inherited from Marxism that dismiss liberalism because it is normative, procedural, prosaic, and optimistic. The dismissal, Anderson contends, flattens individual human experience into either the pursuit of economic interest or the reaction to economic domination. Applying critical pressure to this familiar Marxist narrative yields an interesting generalized account of character, ethos, temperament, and lived experience. Elaine Hadley’s Living Liberalism (2010) investigated this topic, but from a critical perspective rather than with Anderson’s reconstructive agenda. Wendy Brown’s Undoing the Demos (2016) articulated the contemporary, lived crises that neoliberalism wreaks on institutions and individuals, without engaging literary or aesthetic history. Methodologically, Anderson’s book sails between these works; politically, it tacks right.

Anderson carries her main point: liberalism has a bleak streak. But the book’s focus on bourgeois novels and its reliance on aesthetics to make a political philosophy cohere seem unlikely to persuade its implied interlocutors on the academic left to reconsider their profound problems with liberal and neoliberal politics and economics. What remains is a series of provocations: Harvey, Brown, and Theodor Adorno are closet liberals; Michel Foucault is a secret neoliberal. Such blasphemy is fun to read, and likely useful for sparking arguments in graduate seminars. But in the ongoing crisis of 2017, Anderson’s effort to revive Trilling, the midcentury progenitor of neoconservatism, suddenly looks like an indulgent experiment from the Obama era, now so long gone.



[1] George Orwell, Dickens, Dali, and Others (New York, 1946), p. 75. Emphasis in the original.