Fields of Study: Political Theory
215 O'Shaughnessy Hall
I am an historian of political thought by training, with my current and future work oriented to the present and to the challenges that face the liberal democratic order. My work has appeared in journals such as Modern Intellectual History, History of European Ideas, and Political Theory, and in many edited volumes. My forthcoming book, Regenerative Politics (Columbia University Press, 2024) will be published as part of the New Directions in Critical Theory series, and will activate my historical work to the end of making a novel contribution to contemporary, normative political theory.
Regenerative Politics addresses how we might preserve liberal democracy in the face of the growing number of challenges from across the political spectrum to its Enlightenment-rooted conception of human rights as self-evident and universal. I argue that the survival of liberal democracy depends on a rethinking of rights—most essentially, on losing their claim to self-evidence. Challengers to the liberal democratic order from both the left and the right only see the elimination of human self-determination in liberal democratic rights, which are ostensibly affirmed for the protection and fruition of freedom and equality. These critics instead offer an alternative vision of a world in which human beings would be capable of truly determining and regenerating themselves, liberated from the stagnating pre-determination and historical legacy of the concept of human rights. I argue that if rights are going to withstand these challenges, we must accept these critics as making legitimate human claims again a political order that is not seen to be one of their own making. Instead of retreating into the self-evident universality of rights, liberal democrats must instead open themselves up to a regenerative politics that accepts all human claims against the political order as self-determinative. The book is an argument for the possibility that the liberal democratic vision may yet survive, but only if it is itself remade—if it no longer rests on the self-evidence of rights, but sees rights, freedom, and equality as active commitments of human beings in a world that provides no assurance that the rights, freedom, or equality won are ever guaranteed, precluding future contestations. If rights are to become the active claims of self-determining beings, their existence and survival—our “progress”—can never be presumed or assured. This means that liberal democracy must itself be the constant subject of its own commitment: it can only be one vision of the good. For our regimes to truly facilitate the claims of self-regenerating and –determining human beings, they must be foundationally open to re-determination.
My next book project, The World of the Wars, will tie the political vision of Regenerative Politics to post-war arguments for rights, and against fascism, linking my work on H.G. Wells to other postwar intellectuals such as A.O. Lovejoy, and Cold War thinkers like J.L. Talmon and Isaiah Berlin. In this work, I plan to expand an argument from my current book, looking in a more focused way on the nineteenth- and twentieth-century shift away from arguments for regenerative (or self-making) agency, and toward the kind of rights-based liberalism or libertarianism we see in the work of Ronald Dworkin and Friedrich Hayek. The presumed permanence of the Cold War liberal vision of inalienable rights and careful, contained politics is a recent turn in our liberal democratic thinking—not only away from the kind of ‘positive’ liberalism that was once present historically in, for example, the thought of Benjamin Constant and Germaine de Staël, but much more proximately it is a swift turn away from the intellectual optimism of highly influential WWI-era intellectuals like Wells and Lovejoy. The thesis of the book as it currently stands is that liberal democracy as such has always required and will always require its opposite—a positive vision from which it is a kind of negation—to exist in the world. While this is not in itself an original thesis when it comes to liberalism’s theoretical definition, it is a new kind of argument to make about the functioning of the liberal-democratic ideal in the world—about both its beginnings and its present state. Just as much in the post- and Cold War era as in the eighteenth-century post-revolutionary period, it is not liberty that is negatively defined (cf. Berlin), but liberal democracy itself in practice, and as a regime. Akin to what I argue in Regenerative Politics, then, I will claim that we do not stand at the end of history, but in the midst of a kind of modern dialectic about self-determination, world-making, and freedom that remains to be resolved.