Linguistic False Consciousness and the Myth of Modern Liberalism

I have an allegedly forthcoming essay in Reason that started out as a joint review of George Lakoff and Geoffrey Nunberg’s new books. It transmuted into an account of the political upshot of Jonathan Haidt’s work in moral psychology as an alternative to the semi-useless framing and narrative stuff. So, while I’m talking about Lakoff, here’s a few paragraphs that dropped out as the focus changed.

“If Americans are to hold on to freedom as they grew up with it, as they have come to know and love it,” says a very alarmed Lakoff, “then they have to understand that there is a radically different and frightening notion of what extremists on the right call ‘freedom’ shaping our culture and political life. You can’t stop it if you don’t see it.” Lakoff calls for the liberating “higher rationality” only Lakoff’s theories of “conceptual metaphor” make possible.

To Nunberg’s credit, Nunberg and Lakoff have some sharp differences. Lakoff’s argument builds on yet another exposition of his intriguingly comprehensive armchair theory of a metaphor-saturated mind and his astoundingly empirically ill-supported conjecture that at some deep, unconscious level we all understand the nation-state (a form of social organization about as primordial as barometers and pendulum clocks) as a family. Lakoff’s upshot is that the split between the left and the right boils down to differences in ideal parenting style. Nunberg rightly calls bullshit and accuses Lakoff of making stuff up and projecting his pet presuppositions about conservatives and liberals into the mind. Nunberg notes there are lots of metaphors for the state—a ship adrift, an actor on the world stage, a city on a hill, a house with crumbling foundations—and there is simply no reason to think one of them structures our political thought. We should all thank Nunberg for suggesting that there is no thread, metaphorical or logical, that runs through the contingently evolving packages of partisan commitment. Decision: Nunberg!

However, their mutual quest to assuage Democratic disappointment through linguistic therapy overshadows their intramural differences. Squint and the pair look like low-octane liberal versions of communist philosophers Georg Lukacs and Antonio Gramsci, who in the 1920s sought an explanation of Marx’s failed forecast that the working class would “inevitably” rise in revolt against its capitalist masters. Their answer was that the workers couldn’t think straight, so thoroughly had the capitalists bewitched them. Through “hegemonic” control of popular mass media, state propaganda, and devious marketing, the capitalists made the proletarians frame their interests in the favored terms of the enemy—to develop a “false consciousness” that kept them complacent, commodified cogs in the machine, unable to see and unwilling to fight for their true good. Likewise, Nunberg and Lakoff argue that if it wasn’t for the malign right-wing mental framework so many of us somehow got stuck with, voters would be falling over themselves to pull the lever for Democrats.


Lakoff and Nunberg’s projects are largely animated by smug confidence that their university-issue leftism delivers the hard truth about the American system. “True, people aren’t compelled by law to accept the jobs Wal-Mart offers them—they’re legally free to take a couple of weeks in Gstaad or go sleep under a culvert, ” Nunberg writes, ridiculing the freedom of contract. Both assume that unless Washington guarantees the worth of our freedoms through large-scale regulation and aggressive redistribution, the liberal ideal of equal freedom will be empty—a cruel joke. Setting aside his aspirational cognitive science, that’s the tired philosophical core of Lakoff’s attempt to recapture the concept of “freedom” for the left.

And in an yet earlier version, I expanded on the the essentially anti-empirical character of Lakoff and Nunberg’s politics. (Sorry for redundancy from bits that carried over between drafts.)

Nunberg and Lakoff are wholehearted adherents to what Brown political theorist John Tomasi calls the “myth of modern liberalism”: since classical market liberalism does not include government guarantees of material sufficiency, freedoms of contract and secure property are merely formal; unless Washington ensures the fair value of our freedoms through regulation and redistribution, the liberal ideal of equal freedom will be empty—a cruel joke.

Yet whether government attempts to guarantee sufficiency do more than relatively unfettered markets for the value of our freedoms is an empirical question about the best institutional means to shared liberal ends. Classical liberals (and that dying breed, the classical liberal conservative) have almost always defended the market on those terms, in reference to its benefits for everyone, including the least advantaged. Lakoff and Nunberg don’t even engage that debate; their dogma precludes the existence of a question. But the same fight over the best means to liberals occurs in miniature among welfare-liberals, as illustrated by the recent Slate punch-up over the effects of Wal-Mart on the working poor between NYU economist Jason Furman and Nickel & Dimed author Barbara Ehrenreich. Furman, defending Wal-Mart, calmly devastated Ehrenreich because he actually knew something about markets in general and Wal-Mart’s impact in particular. Lakoff and Nunberg don’t engage the intramural welfare-liberal debate, either. They’re basically pop-socialist Ehrenriechs with linguistics Ph.Ds. Perhaps it is worth pointing out that bad social science is not exactly a problem of framing, rhetoric, or narrative. 

Clearly, I was not impressed by the books.