The definite article in Michael Sandel’s two BBC radio series the public philosopher Y the world philosopher speaks of the authority that he widely dominates. Ever since he delivered the 2009 BBC Reith Lectures on “Markets and Morals”, he has been an intellectual superstar. Whether giving his lectures on justice at Harvard, appearing on the radio or giving interviews, he engages his interlocutors in a dialogue in which he is the first among equals. But in return, he demands rigorous thinking. When he asked me “do you see what I’m suggesting?” I felt as if he was checking that I was giving my full attention while he was monitoring his own clarity.
I spoke with Sandel ahead of a conference on rebuilding the social fabric, organized by the housing and community NGO Create Streets and the think tank Onward. Sandel believes that the social fabric has never been uniform, but thinks that over the last four decades, an “uncritical embrace of the market state” and a “neoliberal version of globalization” have corroded social ties, leaving us more divided than ever.
For Sandel, decades of liberal optimism have led to an erosion of the social fabric.
He identifies three different sources of our discomfort. The first, “the deepening of income and wealth inequalities”, has been exacerbated by the second, “the meritocratic arrogance of the successful, the winners of globalization”. Returning to a key argument from his most recent book, the tyranny of merit, says there is a “growing tendency for those at the top to believe that their success is their own doing, the measure of their merit, and that they therefore deserve the full reward the market gives them.” This results in “a sense of humiliation and resentment for those who have been left behind, because the implication is that if the winners deserve their victory, those who fight must also deserve their fate.” He sees social media as a third aggravating factor, feeding people information and disinformation “based on their existing affinities, identities and convictions.”
The basis for this analysis is a critique of liberalism that Sandel has pushed since the 1982 publication of the book that established him as a philosophical luminary, Liberalism and the limits of justice. It was hailed as the greatest challenge to mainstream liberalism spearheaded by John Rawls. A theory of justice (1971) and has possibly aged better.
Sandel argues that liberalism promotes “an impoverished conception of the self” rooted in the “conviction that we are ultimately self-made and self-sufficient.” The widespread belief in this “unfettered self” leads people to “lose sight of their debt” to their families, teachers, communities, even “the times in which they live.”
The second central error of liberalism is to believe that if we agree to fair political procedures, we can leave people free to disagree on substantive values. Faith in free trade is related to this, as liberals falsely believe that markets “can spare us the need to engage in contentious debates about how to value goods, debates about conflicting conceptions of the good life and the common good.”
At the same time, liberals since the Enlightenment have embraced Montesquieu’s concept of double trade, the belief that international trade creates an interdependence that deters war. Sandel says that he “was always skeptical of that claim.” Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has blown it up completely.
For Sandel, decades of liberal optimism and individualism have led not only to “an erosion of the social fabric” but to “an impoverished and emptied public discourse.” He wants “a new framework,” one that fully recognizes our interdependence and doesn’t shy away from difficult questions of value. Sandel has been building that framework for decades, and the case for his ability to maintain the larger political landscape has never been more persuasive.