In this elegant and probing critique of contemporary liberal thought, Walzer argues that standard liberalism-in which autonomous individuals deliberate and move freely among groups in an open society-fails to come to grips with the pre-existing cultural, religious, and social associations that shape identities and choices and misses the deeper importance of social conflict and the role of passion in democratic political life. Walzer's overriding worry is that liberal theory's neglect of "collective powerlessness, the problems posed by cultural marginality, the hierarchies of civil society, the politics of social conflict, and the force of passionate engagement" renders the struggle against inequality more difficult. Social structures and political orders that sustain inequality can be effectively opposed only through political struggle driven by the kind of "passionate intensity" that liberals fear. Walzer is most persuasive in arguing that liberalism's focus on deliberative democracy misses the deeper social forces that ultimately determine the character-and justness-of the polity. But the political passion that he thinks is necessary to confront hierarchy and inequality can also put at risk the interest-based compromises on which modern democracy rests.
Get the best of Foreign Affairs' book reviews delivered to you.
More Reviews on Political and Legal From This Issue