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The Freedom to Think Differently

Judith Shklar’s minority liberalism offers both an escape hatch from the Hobbesian tyranny of democratic majorities and a pathway to becoming the freest and most authentic versions of ourselves

Blake Smith
November 10, 2022
Courtesy Harvard Yearbook Publications
Judith Shklar in 1966Courtesy Harvard Yearbook Publications
Courtesy Harvard Yearbook Publications
Judith Shklar in 1966Courtesy Harvard Yearbook Publications
This article is part of The Many Meanings of Freedom.
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To appreciate the strangeness—and power—of Judith Shklar’s concept of “the liberalism of permanent minorities,” we should consider how illiberal are the consequences of our commonplace talk of minorities and majorities. We use these terms both in a racial-ethnic sense, to describe people’s belonging to categories like “white,” “Jewish,” etc., and in a political sense, to describe what parties, bills, opinions, etc., will prevail in our democratic society in which power is, ostensibly, what majorities wield over minorities within the limits of our respect for rights. This suggests that to belong to a racial majority is a kind of victory over minorities in the same way as having one’s preferred candidate take 50.1% of the vote. It means, moreover, that we see each other not only as members of static, defined, known racial categories (which is disturbing enough) but as part of a process in which the relative size, and therefore power, of these groups is always changing. Every person we encounter, by these lights, is therefore a harbinger of a welcome or unwelcome future, in which people like us will either be empowered or weakened.

In her second book, Legalism: Law, Morals and Political Trials (1964), Shklar offered an idiosyncratic defense of the liberal order based on the danger of majoritarian thinking rooted in what she took to be the lessons of the catastrophe of Nazism. To those who saw in Hitler’s Germany a warning against the danger of an all-powerful state, Shklar urged that we must not forget that the condition of possibility for the Third Reich was the transformation of ordinary Germans’ values through persuasion rather than coercion. Civil society, imagined by many traditional liberals as threatened by overweening, intrusive governments, can itself be the source of “the currents of grand ideology and absolutist morals” by which ordinary citizens bully, silence, and often ultimately convert those who wish to live and think otherwise. 

The cultural resources by which we could create for ourselves authentic, independent lives, Shklar insists are not “just ‘there.’” They must be carefully nurtured and protected, because they are vulnerable “to quick and deliberate change” imposed by the intolerant. “Individual autonomy,” my ability to do what I want with my own life, respecting others’ freedom to do likewise, is a contentless abstraction unless we live in a society in which there is a genuine “diversity of morals” and a variety of points of view and ways of living. This diversity is constantly imperiled by civil society itself. A moral crusade, organized by a few determined actors, can destroy the diversity of opinion without which individual freedom withers.

Liberals, Shklar argues, must therefore accept that state power is required to maintain personal freedom. A liberal state not only upholds individual rights, but resists such crusades when they arise out of civil society. It guarantees “freedom to profess” to the “chronic dissenter” not only for the sake of his own freedom, but in order that his point of view, whether accepted or rejected, might be a spark from which others can light the fire of their own thinking.

Shklar’s heterodox liberalism understands that the state has a crucial role in preserving cultural and intellectual diversity and must make active—but nonpartisan—efforts to promote that end. To borrow the language of economic liberalism, Shklar’s liberalism opposes laissez-faire policies in the “marketplace of ideas,” and instead champions an interventionist state that breaks monopolies and fosters innovation. Shklar’s version of the liberal state champions liberalism from the perspective of “permanent minorities,” individuals who imagine themselves as belonging to groups that can never take power or impose their views on society. Her work asks us to rethink the meaning of “diversity” and “minority,” words that have become the slogans of a “fanaticizing consciousness” today.

Into our everyday experience of racial and ethnic difference, liberal majoritarian intolerance brings in the same way of thinking that the 17th-century political philosopher Thomas Hobbes, in his relatively neglected De Cive, took to be the worst aspect of democracy. In a society where political power belongs to majorities, each of us hopes to “obtain praise and honor” by seeing our own views prevail in political contests. This means, however, that we are continually engaged in “an uncertain trial” by which we hope to find that people like us constitute the majority.

Democracy recreates—on an emotional and symbolic rather than physical level—the “war of all against all,” the constant conflict among individuals from which Hobbes, in his better-known Leviathan, argued that politics is meant to liberate us. To gain this “vainglory,” this thrill of being (at least able to imagine ourselves as being) haloed with power and prestige by virtue of our belonging in the winning group, we are drawn into ceaseless conflicts with our fellow citizens, who become allies or obstacles to our enjoyment. We “hate” those who disagree with us and are “hated” by them. Our conception of race in terms of “majority” and “minority” extends that conflict into the most routine, and most intimate aspects of our lives.

For example, the workplace. The beginning of a new academic year, for me and many of my colleagues in higher education, brings announcements from administrators that there are fewer white people than ever on campus. This is the obvious, if usually unstated, message of statistics showing that this year’s entering class is the “most diverse” yet—and it is, presidents, provosts and deans imagine, self-evidently good news. Even when, as is already the case at most elite universities, the student body is noticeably less white than the general American population, there is more “progress” to be made in bringing “diversity” to campus. White faculty, hearing this, are expected to look at each other and say—as they almost always do say—“how wonderful!”

Until recently, a similar story was told in our national political discourse. Because of political decisions made since the 1960s, such as the Hart-Cellar Act’s expansion of the range of countries from which immigrants could come to the United States, white people are becoming a minority in this country—and are already a minority among new births and teenagers. There had been for some time prior to Donald Trump’s election in 2016 a sense among those who set the tone of opinion in media, educational, and cultural institutions that this was, again, good news—not least for the Democratic Party. The latter, it was hoped by the left, would soon wield a permanent political majority in a “majority-minority” country. Much of the energy behind the (in retrospect short-lived and overdiscussed) “alt-right” during this period came from some white people’s suddenly unconcealed resentment not only at becoming a minority but at the fact that membership in any university, corporation or other institution with even the least sort of status depended on one’s not airing any resentment, and indeed confirming one’s elation, that there are ever-fewer people like oneself.

White liberals, from politicians to university administrators, who celebrate the decreasing numbers of white people—in relative terms within our growing population, and in absolute terms within elite institutions—only apparently escape the Hobbesian logic of resentment. They show themselves sanguine about the declining power of their “own group,” but only in order to figure themselves as belonging to another group with what they see as a better claim on future majority status: the virtuous majority that supports the moral crusade for diversity. When that group’s power is threatened, as it was by the election of Trump in 2016, white leftists rage with the same shrieking, self-serving intensity as white reactionaries threatened by demographic trends. No one likes to lose, and in our society it would seem that being a minority means being a loser—except, of course, insofar as racial minorities can be imagined as wresting predominance from the former white majority.

After the 2020 election, both Democrats’ hopes and white resentments about the meaning of demographic change seem exhausted. Members of racial minorities are not—as should have been obvious to pundits from the start—bearers of unalterable political values that put them forever in the camp of the left. Nor does the left represent a stable set of values; many of its most controversial positions in recent years, from defunding the police to advocating child sex-reassignment, would have been incomprehensible in earlier moments—and are perhaps already being sidelined, precisely because they are not popular with minorities. The tone of the far right has likewise shifted and is now much less preoccupied with the maintenance of America’s historic ethnic majority than with, for example, reviving illiberal Catholic political theory or promoting a reactionary style of masculinity: discourses that, however troubling, are conceived as open to participation by “based” minorities.

Yet while the alt-right has come and gone, it still appears untenable, in the long run, that white people should be expected indefinitely to applaud their becoming a minority—particularly given that, they will likely never allowed the same measure of open self-advocacy and group “pride” which other minority groups can expect to see ratified by the state and corporate employers. If Hobbes is right about the way democracy undermines itself through the churning resentments of defeated minorities—which are, to his mind, inevitably frustrated would-be majorities—we should expect that the white left performance of ethno-masochism, of cheering on their group’s minoritization, can only continue to animate dangerous backlash from their less fortunate or masochistic brethren even after the welcome moment when Trump joins the alt-right in irrelevance. Hobbes argues that democracy is a bad form of government because it extends political conflict—the anguished bitterness of the defeated, the hubris and cruelty of the victors—into our everyday interactions with each other. He suggests that we cannot avoid thinking of ourselves, in such a regime, as members of real or potential majorities and minorities. If we are in the majority, we fear losing power and act against minorities which, as they grow, might threaten us. If we are in a minority, we long to take, or retake, power. In any case, the instability of our condition seems to justify action against our enemies; democracy, for Hobbes, is always a step away from civil war.

Shklar’s concept of “permanent minorities” who understand themselves as such and therefore support liberalism to ensure genuine diversity represents the hope that Hobbes might be wrong. In a democracy tempered by not only by liberalism’s commitment to individual rights, but by certain liberals’ understanding that these rights are only meaningful in a society where a range of viewpoints and lifestyles are actually on offer, there might be a way to escape having to think of oneself as a member of a shrinking or growing racial or political bloc.

“Permanent minorities” could also appear to be Shklar’s way of thinking about the place of Jews in modern Western politics; “permanent minorities” would by these lights be what Jews were in the Europe of her childhood (born in Latvia in 1928, she narrowly avoided death in the Holocaust), and in the North America of her adult life. Many Jewish intellectuals seem to have supported the Wilhelmine and Weimar regimes in Germany, the Third Republic in France, or the postwar, American-led global order, precisely because they sensed that the rule of law and tolerance of diversity of opinion were crucial to Jewish flourishing.

But, of course, Jews—no more than another demographic group—are not “permanent minorities.” For the Nazis, Jews were not “permanent,” they could be annihilated. For Zionists, they were not fated to remain minorities, but could constitute a majority outside of Europe, in their historical homeland. And for some radicals of the left, there could be a future in which there were no minorities at all, humanity having discovered its common identity through Marx’s “species-being” or some other cosmopolitan horizon.

Nor is there any reason why “permanent minorities” must support liberalism, let alone liberal democracy. Jews, like many other groups, have also been minorities in illiberal, undemocratic societies in which political power had no relationship to demography. Empires throughout history have offered such groups varying degrees of tolerance, usually on the condition that they support a static order in which each group, and each individual, has an unchanging place: The ghetto, the millet, and other techniques of segregation all preserved, at a great cost of freedom and dignity, the existence of minorities.

The “permanent minorities” Shklar conceives, however, demand not only the freedom to perpetuate their own existence (for instance by educating their own children and running their own affairs) but “the freedom to profess” their beliefs in the public square. They are minorities that might convert new members—and might lose old ones. They have lost “the spirit of certainty” and fear, rather than enact, the type of “repressive behavior” that crushed Spinoza.

The closer one looks at Shklar’s text, the less these minorities appear like any particular community. They begin to glimmer instead an appeal to what Jacques Derrida in his provocative reinterpretation of Friedrich Nietzsche (in The Politics of Friendship) called the “friends to come,” an unknown audience of possible readers who might be inspired to understand that their own freedom, their ability to make themselves anew through thinking, is impossible unless there are, freely spoken in their hearing, the thoughts of many others.

Such people are perhaps always a minority, destined to be in conflict with the majorities and would-be majorities who see authentic diversity of thought as a bewildering, frightening, evil chaos (to be combatted, in our own day, ironically for the sake of a homogeneous pseudo-“diversity”). This elitist perspective predominates in Nietzsche, who learned it from Plato’s meditations after democratic Athens put Socrates to death—and in Leo Strauss, who learned it from Nietzsche. But we might also say—and this is perhaps truer to Shklar’s teaching—that the “permanent minority” names not any countable set of people, but a capacity, now too latent, within every one of us, to think differently, and thus become different, both from others and also from our previous selves. This capacity, she tells us, cannot be used in isolation—becoming who we might be is not something we can do on our own.

Thinking for ourselves, and so undoing and renewing ourselves, requires a social context of other thinkers who are free to say what they think out loud, protected from both state censorship and—through the action of a “strong but neutral” state—from the efforts of present and future majorities to annihilate thought. Perhaps only those who have tasted the dizzying sweetness of free thinking can know that there is something better than will-to-power and resentment that constitutes the emotional life of democratic politics. The primary task of a Shklarian liberal then, would consist of awakening others to that savor—to showing them that they, too, like each of us, are “permanent minorities.”

Blake Smith, a contributing writer at Tablet, lives in Chicago.