Liberalism and the Universality Trap
Liberalism and the Universality Trap
The ideals that make liberal society great also make it vulnerable.
Published on: Apr 21, 2022  |  

We have some exciting news. The political philosopher Samuel Kimbriel, author of Friendship as Sacred Knowing: Overcoming Isolation, is joining the Wisdom of Crowds team as a contributing writer. (You'll recognize him from his recent essay "Death and Morality in the War on Ukraine" and his appearance on the podcast.) Samuel is a brilliant thinker and a unique voice, as you'll see below. We hope you enjoy this essay as we much as we did.

—Shadi Hamid and Damir Marusic

In Adam Curtis's 2015 documentary Bitter Lake there is a scene in which a young British NGO worker gives a lecture to a darkened room of Afghan women. "Does anyone know what it is? I don't expect the ladies to know" she says, looking over to a projection screen. "An artist called Marcel Duchamp…put this toilet," she emphasizes the word "in an art gallery about a hundred years ago. It was a huge revolution" she says.

The scene is strangely disconcerting. The looks that fall across the Afghan women's faces seem very different from the fashionable shock Duchamp was aiming to prompt in his overly-satiated New York audience. The effect seems more personal, invasive. Whatever else one may make of Curtis's film-making, it is remarkable to see so many threads of our political problems drawn together into a single 45 second clip.

That moment is haunting because it feels familiar. In one frame, lecturer and students seem at ease, embodying what looks like a kind of universal commonality. In the next, and without any warning, they stare at one another across a chasm without any idea of how it opened or how to span it.

What seems delicate—and perhaps even dangerous—about our current moment is that we can't quite figure out why "the common" is collapsing, or whether it even existed in the first place.


I've found myself thinking a lot recently about how western societies handle difference. It's the question at the center of the political theorist Liam Bright's excellent essay Why I'm Not a Liberal (which Shadi also wrote about). What came through clearly in that essay as well as subsequent debate is that liberalism—in the old 18th century sense of "a free society"—seems to have arranged a unique kind of trap for itself.

The embrace of diversity is central to liberalism's sense of its own worth. Francis Fukuyama, for example, opens his recent essay on Ukraine stating: "Liberalism is in peril. The fundamentals of liberal societies are tolerance of difference, respect for individual rights, and the rule of law." This strand was there from the beginning. The French Revolution's Declaration of the Rights of Man emphasizes not only that rights are to be held equally by all citizens, but also that the exercise of those rights should have "no limits except those which assure to the other members of the society the enjoyment of the same rights."

In making lofty claims for its capacity to facilitate all types of diversity, liberalism has likewise been emphatic in its universalism. John Locke founds his system on the recognition that "being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions"; in The Declaration of Independence, Jefferson takes up the point with the famous "all men are created…"; the Declaration of the Rights of Man asserts "the natural, unalienable, and sacred rights of man."

There is something very delicate about the position liberalism has developed for itself. Its theory involves powerful assertions regarding the universal embrace of diversity. Its practice, in contrast, has always involved specific states guarding their interests. Fukuyama has been fully in keeping with the tradition, for example, to argue in the context of the Ukraine crisis that particular national states must serve as the guarantors of liberal rights. In the words of the French Declaration "The security of the rights of man and of the citizen requires public military forces."

The tension between the universality of the ideal and the specificity of the practice also shows up in one of the foundational texts of our international system, Immanuel Kant's Toward Perpetual Peace. Kant sets out numerous principles, now familiar for the way they seem to echo in entities like the United Nations and European Union: "No state shall violently interfere with the constitution and administration of another" and "the law of nations shall be founded on a federation of free states."

Even as he asserts the warmth of Republican government internally which "accords with the principles of the freedom of the members of a society," Kant expresses significant hostility to anyone who would refuse to accept these conditions: "a man (or a people) who is merely in a state of nature denies me this security and injures me merely by being in this state. For although he does not actively (facto) injure me, he does so by virtue of the lawlessness of his state…I can require him either to enter with me into a state of civil law or to remove himself from my surroundings."

The magnanimous embrace of diversity, in other words, must be built and maintained by hard and often overwhelming power.


Despite the mainstream intensity of the liberalism debates, I've tended to swerve clear of taking a strong stand, not because I think the debates are insignificant, but because I can't help but have the sense that liberalism is not in fact the central question.

Political life has always been lived on the edge of an abyss. For all the friendship and community and solidarity one can build, one can still turn to realize that the person sitting across the table remains elusive, alien. It is this foundational sense of difference that seems to be the basic political question. From small-scale, human community to supra-national treaty structures, the challenge has always been to calibrate to what was classically called the problem "of the one and the many." Swerve too far toward the many, and you get fragmentation and instability. Swerve toward oneness and you get enforced conformity (usually followed by instability again).

The core question in any case is how much can human beings actually build with one another, and how can it be done? To face the full reality of difference need not imply a reduction of politics to perpetual hostility. In fact, it is astonishing just how much sacrifice and loyalty and communal vitality there has been throughout political history, even in contexts where those actions are entirely against the principle of "interest." The point, in other words, is not that "the common" is impossible, but that it is hard.

Nor is a desire for universality necessarily crippling. Other political forms—Islam, Christianity, Marxism—have shared an aspiration toward a future universality, but in all of those cases, the path to it has always seemed remote and arduous (hence the emphasis on conversion). What is haunting about politics—all politics—is just how fragile our structures end up being. This was the point of the old "Fortuna" tradition—it's no bad thing to remind princes or clerics of how quickly they can be thrown off into the dust.

Assertions of universal dignity or commonality are all well and good if they then prompt a wrestling with the realities of deep difference, giving impetus to mediate them. Such language, however, can also act to paper over difference, asserting a kind of commonality that allows us to evade the effort to cultivate it.

It's time for us to shed the abstraction of the debates about liberalism—but also the abstraction of liberalism itself. Abstractions and generalizations that pretend to resolve difference by repairing to a higher vantage point often cause us to lose sight of the fleshly challenge posed by the person, or persons, standing in front of us.

Not surprisingly, abstraction also distracts us from more practical tasks. What are the resources available that can actually help us to build deep and lasting political community? Overly general assertions of universality don't seem to have been able to do it. Overwhelming violence alone can't either. Nor, apparently, can an elephantine infusion of cash. After these distractions are put aside, the question that remains is a much more human one—what does it take to build a common?