by Wendy Brown. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006. 282pp. $29.95/£18.95. Cloth. ISBN: 9780691126548.

Reviewed by Benjamin Gregg, Department of Government, University of Texas at Austin. Email: bgregg [at]


The liberal vision of tolerance is widely if not unanimously supported, even within liberal societies. It is not uncontested, especially outside the West. (Of course, the same can be said of any major concept of modern political community, from freedom, legitimacy, and justice to equality, democracy, and the rule of law.) Wendy Brown contests the liberal vision within the West as sometimes deeply repressive, as a terrible substitute for recognizing the Other, whose minoritarian identity often is tolerated as deviant, of lesser worth, and acceptable only behind the closed doors of private life and unacceptable in the public sphere.


Brown renews a claim by Herbert Marcuse who, in 1965 (and in the long lost spirit of the ‘60s), wrote: “When tolerance mainly serves the protection and preservation of a repressive society, when it serves to neutralize opposition and to render men immune against other and better forms of life, then tolerance has been perverted” (Marcuse 1969:111). Whereas Marcuse analyzes tolerance as a defensive measure of “protecting and preserving” a repressive order, Brown observes it on the offense, “manag[ing] the demands of marginal groups in ways that incorporate them without disturbing the hegemony of the norms that marginalize them” (p.36). Now part of the necessary furniture of contemporary liberal Western politics, tolerance is “a mode of incorporating and regulating the presence of the threatening Other within” (p.27). It has “shift[ed] from an element in the arsenal of sovereign power to a mode of governmentality” (p.37). Perhaps Brown’s distinction implies something like law that has shifted from a means to justice to a tactic of control: from socially and legally respecting the Other to simply managing him or her.

That Brown constructs this shift within parameters conceived as exclusive alternatives to one another, rather than as different points on a continuum places her analysis less within the Frankfurt School of “Hegelmarxists” like Marcuse, to whom Brown’s analysis is indebted at least in spirit, and more in the ambit of its Parisian “other,” Michel Foucault (e.g., 1991), whose contribution to “understanding contemporary political life,” Brown writes, “pertains to his tracing of the formation and regulation of the modern subject through a discursive equation of certain beliefs and practices with essential truth of a given subject” (p.41). But whereas Foucault’s analyses eschew essential truths, REGULATING AVERSION presupposes one, yet is unable to deliver it. Instead we get an unresolved play of ambiguity, relativism, and ambivalence – as I will show. [*319]

Like Marcuse, Brown monitors in America and beyond the perversion of a utopian promise: “Tolerance as a primary civic virtue and dominant political value entails a view of citizenship as passive and of social life as reduced to relatively isolated individuals or groups barely containing their aversions toward one another” (p.88). But unlike Brown’s analysis, Marcuse’s does not presuppose political liberalism if that includes the non-violent resolution of social problems through legal and other procedures: “I believe that there is a ‘natural right’ of resistance for oppressed and overpowered minorities to use extralegal means if the legal ones have proved to be inadequate. Law and order are always and everywhere the law and order which protect the established hierarchy; it is nonsensical to invoke the absolute authority of this law and this order against those who suffer from it and struggle against it – not for personal advantages and revenge, but for their share of humanity. . . . If these use violence, they do not start a new chain of violence but try to break an established one” (Marcuse 1969:116-117). (The claim that violence can be deployed to end violence might seem to legitimize all violence, a conclusion that undermines Marcuse’s defense.)

Brown’s analysis reveals its author to be a liberal, if a disappointed one. Her goal is to “grasp tolerance as a technology of domestic governmentality” (p.87) which, by her lights, constitutes tolerance as a “retreat” (p.87) from justice, equality, emancipation, and social peace. Here we see her allegiance to political liberalism; she is its loyal opposition. Yet her incisive analysis of failed tolerance is haunted by the lack of some standard that might give her critique the radical normative foundation it lacks. She has no more than a hunch, never worked into a theory, about repression-free tolerance, a notion that, if developed, might take us beyond the horizon of political liberalism (whatever that might mean). She speaks of a “politically interested and mobilized citizenry, one that has certain solidarities, is capable of acting on its own behalf, and anticipates a future of ever-greater social equality across lines of race, gender, and class” (p.88). But she intimates more: a vision, not yet clarified, of social interaction in which the Other, to whom we may feel aversion, retains his or her integrity, autonomy, and freedom even in that interaction, because he or she is recognized in his or her difference as equally worthy of respect and consideration. Here one thinks of Hegel’s ideal of human interaction, “bei sich sein im Anderen sein”: a capacity to relate to the Other without in any way reducing the Other to oneself (positively, by understanding the Other as simply another version of oneself; or negatively, as failed or inadequate insofar as the Other is not identical with oneself). In Michael Theunissen’s words, “Hegel’s ‘normative ideal’ of an absolute relation implies the ideal of the absolute parity [Gleichrangigkeit] of the parties related. If the parties related had their being [Sein] only in their relation to one another, a situation would be reached in which ‘no one party would have an advantage over the other …’” (Theunissen 1980:30; Hegel 1969:160). [*320]

For now, however, her critique remains deeply ambivalent. Tolerance is (a) both cosmopolitan and parochial, (b) both universal and particular, (c) both group-based and individualistic, and (d) both fundamentalist and non-fundamentalist. In each of these ways we find that ambivalence is both a strength and a weakness: by capturing diversity, it allows for analytic subtlety; because it is conflicted, it precludes definite conclusions that might guide political and social behavior, as the following passage makes clear: “That tolerance has acquired such a troubling relationship to Western empire today does not add up to an argument to scrap the term or jettison its representation of a practice for living with what is undesirable, offensive, or repugnant. Rather, it calls for becoming savvy about the ways of tolerance today and contesting the anti-political language of ontology, affect, and ethos that tolerance circulates with a language of power, social forces, and justice. This means becoming shrewd about the ways that tolerance operates as a coin of liberal imperialism, intersects with racialized tropes of barbarism or of the decline of the West, and at times abets in legitimizing the very violence it claims to abhor or deter” (p.204). For what actions, let alone public policy, could possible follow from an exhortation to “become savvy and shrewd”?

Consider now each of the ways in which REGULATING AVERSION purveys unresolved ambivalence.

(a) Tolerance is both cosmopolitan and parochial. Brown on the one hand is a cosmopolitan; she considers tolerance as more than a parochial culture (and in this respect, tellingly, is not unlike that paragon of political liberalism, John Rawls, where he asserts that human rights, understood as the rights to life, liberty, and formal equality, “cannot be rejected as peculiarly liberal or special to the Western tradition. They are not politically parochial” (Rawls 1999:65)). Brown writes: “modalities of tolerance talk that have issued from postcolonial encounters with indigenous peoples . . . do not follow the same logics as those that have issued from European encounters with immigrants from its former colonies or those that are centered on parochial religious anxieties about insubordinate gender and sexual practices. Similarly, an Islamic state seeking to develop codes of tolerance inflects the term differently than does a Euro-Atlantic political imaginary within which the nation-states of the West are presumed already tolerant” (p.3). Hence to take tolerance as something indelibly Western is to render oppressive a potentially emancipatory idea: “If tolerance today is considered synonymous with the West, with liberal democracy, with Enlightenment, and with modernity, then tolerance is what distinguishes ‘us’ from ‘them’” (p.17).

On the other hand, Brown argues that the putatively universally valid ideals of political liberalism in fact express the merely locally valid ideas of a particular culture. What’s more, this particularism is hidden and denied behind a veneer of universal validity. As hidden and denied, it functions in ways hegemonic and imperialistic: “That which is inside civilization is tolerable and tolerant; that which is outside is neither. This is how, even amid plural definitions of [*321] civilization, the discourse of tolerance recenters the West as the standard for civilization, and how tolerance operates simultaneously as a token of Western supremacy and a legitimating cloak for Western domination” (p.182). Western liberalism then becomes Western chauvinism: “[Will] Kymlicka’s proposal to extend tolerance to nonliberal cultures tacitly exposes the antiliberal aspects of this aim, along with the absence of cultural and political neutrality in tolerance itself. It reminds us that tolerance in its liberal mode is more than a means of achieving civil peace of freedom: it is an exercise of hegemony that requires extensive political transformation of the cultures and subjects it would govern” (p.202).

(b) Tolerance is both universal and particular. On the one hand, Brown argues that the liberal vision of tolerance is (contrary to its self-understanding) particular, not universal. The “notion that liberalism, as a politics, is cultural, is catachrestic. The reasons for this nonreciprocity are several. There is, first, liberalism’s conceit about the universality of its basic principles: secularism, the rule of law, equal rights, moral autonomy, individual liberty. If these principles are universal, then they are not matters of culture, which is identified today with the particular, local, and provincial. There is, second, liberalism’s unit of analysis, the individual, and its primary project, maximizing individual freedom, which together stand antithetically to culture’s provision of the coherence and continuity of groups – an antithesis that positions liberal principles and culture as mutual antagonists. This leads to the third basis on which liberalism represents itself as cultureless: namely, that liberalism presumes to master culture by privatizing and individualizing it, just as it privatizes and individualizes religion. It is a basic premise of liberal secularism and liberal universalism that neither culture nor religion are permitted to govern publicly; both are tolerated on the condition that they are privately and individually enjoyed” (p.21).

Brown on the other hand suggests that the liberal vision of tolerance, if unperverted, would indeed be universally valid. If “it abets a developing relativism in the domain of moral truth,” then only because it generates collective and public truths that are “excessively thin” (p.39) or universally valid. In other words, the problem is not normative universalism but rather the miscalibration of universalism that turns it into its opposite, into normative relativism. Again, if the public sphere “cannot have a thick fabric to it without invoking the very belief structures that must be limited and private if they are not to be mandated by authority,” then communal life is “radically reduced” (p.32): the problem is not the communal or the universal but rather its reduction to the particular. If liberal polities can shield themselves from “charges of cultural supremacy and cultural imperialism” (p.203) on the pretense that liberal tolerance culturally is universally valid in the sense of not being an expression of any particular culture, then the problem is a tolerance not adequately universal, a tolerance criticizable insofar [*322] as it remains politically parochial because culturally particular.

(c) Tolerance is both group-based and individualistic. On the one hand, Brown depicts tolerance as homogenizing, melding all members into a unified group that as such sees itself as different vis-à-vis others: “Tolerance as a social ideal figures a citizenry necessarily leashed against the pull of its own instincts; it embodies a fear of citizen sentiments and energies, which it implicitly casts as inherently xenophobic, racist, or otherwise socially hostile and in need of restraint. In its bid to keep us from activating or acting out our dislikes and diffidence, the ubiquitous call for tolerance today casts human society as a crowded late-modern Hobbesian universe in which difference rather than sameness is the source and site of our enmity, in which bonds fashioned from mutual recognition are radically diminished, and in which both the heavy hand of the state and the constraining forces of necessity are frighteningly absent” (p.88).

Brown on the other hand depicts tolerance as anti-communal: “It is through these triple mechanisms – excision of the individual from the corporate community, loss of protection for communal norms and practices in a homogenizing cultural and political-economic context, and incorporation/inclusion of the community in a state discourse – that what begins as a project of freedom or inclusion acquires an edge of subjection and regulation” (p.93). Indeed, Brown would unmask the putatively universal validity of the claim that individuals are morally autonomous as a kind of particularism that undermines other particularisms: by “drawing the line between the tolerable and the intolerable, both domestically and globally,” tolerance discourse “sneak[s] liberalism into a civilizational discourse that claims to be respectful of all cultures and religions, many of which it would actually undermine by ‘liberalizing’” (p.8).

(d) Tolerance is both fundamentalist and non-fundamentalist. Brown on the one hand argues that the tolerant liberal West is no less fundamentalist than, say, the religious fundamentalists in some Islamic communities. Analogizing the “nearly compulsory baring of skin by American teenage girls” to “compulsory veiling in a few Islamic societies,” and doing so to counter claims that the first follows from freedom of choice whereas the second, from a tyrannous lack of choice, Brown concludes: “To acknowledge that we have our own form of compulsory feminine dress would undercut this identity of superiority; we need fundamentalism, indeed, we project and produce it elsewhere, to represent ourselves as free” (p.189). Elsewhere she identifies liberalism as inherently fundamentalist “as always already being the issue of miscegenation with its fundamentalist Other” (p.24).

On the other hand, Brown must distinguish liberalism from fundamentalism when she claims that liberalism turns into the very fundamentalism it claims to oppose: the “conceit that liberalism can tolerate religions without being conquered by them or tolerate certain fundamentalisms [*323] without becoming fundamentalist” (p.187). (To be sure, the American state privileges a vague Christianity over other religions (its particular Sabbath is a national holiday, as are December 25 and Easter), and religion over non-religion (“In God We Trust” adorns our currency and “One nation under God” is recited daily in our elementary schools) – and should not be, according to the liberal First Amendment. But to what extent are other religions, and non-religionists, damaged, marginalized, or denuded of their humanity by this bias, however unconstitutional and illiberal?) If liberal individualism and its defense via tolerance is something that flows from “Western notions of the individual, as well as of knowledge and freedom, is fundamentalized” (p.184), then liberal tolerance was not fundamentalist to begin with, and its becoming fundamentalist is an accident of history, not an unfolding of its true nature.


Brown herself identifies none of these ambivalences and, not surprisingly, leaves all of them unresolved. How could it be otherwise? Presupposing the liberalism it challenges, yet lacking a normative foundation for that challenge, REGULATING AVERSION can only be ambivalent. A text that takes itself to be to an exercise in radical theory is incapable of providing any practical alternative to what it criticizes; it remains, despite itself, a text of critical liberalism. All it asks for is freedom from manipulated aversion toward others, not freedom from aversion itself: aversion without guile and deception; honest aversion, frank aversion: not goodness but the institutional and cultural transparency necessary for the individual’s autonomy and self-determination within society. By contrast, the potential of the thesis of repressive tolerance can only be redeemed if taken to the radical conclusion it entails (but never recovered by Brown, as it is by Marcuse): that tolerance in the sense of political liberalism not only finds no more than a wretched realization in specific cases in particular societies, but that there is something inherently oppressive about tolerance as such, and that no amount of institutional and cultural fine-tuning can cleanse liberal democratic polities of this “damn spot” (to quote Lady MacBeth on moral hygiene).

But Brown does not make that argument, nor as a liberal would she; instead she warns us not to “mistake [her] insistence on the involvement of tolerance without power for a rejection or condemnation of tolerance” (p.13). Her point is that oppressive are some forms of tolerance, not tolerance as such: “these operations of tolerance discourse in a civilizational frame legitimize liberal polities’ illiberal treatment of selected practices, peoples, and states. They sanction illiberal aggression toward what is marked as intolerable without tarring the ‘civilized’ status of the aggressor” (p.179). In short: the trouble with liberal states is that they do not always act in liberal ways (even as they say they do). Brown renders a genuine service to the American political community by reminding us of this point, one we need be mindful of all the more as the world-hegemon, [*324] especially in these “times of terror.”

The point, she says, is “not that there are no differences between regimes that expressly advocate tolerance and those that do not” (p.190). Yet given its deep ambivalence, her analysis slides into shooting down one orthodoxy with another. It rejects as oppressive the efforts of proceduralism to locate a universally valid because non-substantive form of justice, in the never-cashed-out presumption of some impossible counter-factual notion of universally valid, substantive justice: a tolerance that would embrace even those who order their world in illiberal ways. Thus it “Occidentalizes” political liberalism just as liberal tolerance “Orientalizes” the illiberal Other. As Edward Said reminds us, surely the “answer to Orientalism is not Occidentalism. No former ‘Oriental’ will be comforted . . . to study new ‘Orientals’ – or ‘Occidentals’ – of his own making” (Said 1994:328). Acute as it is in discerning ways in which liberalism can sometimes entail regulation, manipulation, a patronizing stance, and demonization – that is, the intolerant control of the illiberal weak by the liberal strong – REGULATING AVERSION is in intellectual arrears. Using the grammar of liberalism to critique liberalism, Brown cannot specify a practical, public-policy alternative to that grammar. Her critique is insightful but promptly undermines whatever practical political upshot it might otherwise have.

Other attempts have ended similarly. In its impotence, Brown’s political lacuna reminds one of Theodor Adorno’s epistemological aporia: “Whatever truth concepts [Begriffe] capture beyond their abstract scope [Umfang] can have no site [Schauplatz] other than what the concepts oppress, disdain, and discard. The utopia of knowing would be to use concepts to win access to the non-conceptual without thereby reducing it to the concepts” (Adorno 1966:21). Jacques Derrida, unlike Brown, actually imagines a positive alternative to tolerance – only to acknowledge its impotence: “Tolerance is actually the opposite of hospitality. Or at least its limit. … Tolerance is a conditional, circumspect, careful hospitality. . . . But tolerance remains a scrutinized hospitality, always under surveillance, parsimonious and protective of its sovereignty. . . . Pure and unconditional hospitality . . . opens or is in advance open to someone who is neither expected nor invited, to whomever arrives as an absolutely foreign visitor, . . . wholly other. . . . [But] I well recognize that this concept of pure hospitality can have no legal or political status. No state can write it into its laws” (Borradori 2003:127-129).

The unresolved ambivalence of Brown’s analysis has the unintended consequence of elevating some intolerant practices and institutions to innocent and aggrieved, hapless and helpless victims of tolerant ones. This ambivalence denies Brown the critical ordinance she needs to oppose forms of violence, injustice, and intolerance that, even as a disappointed liberal, she surely wants to oppose. [*325]

Adorno, Theodor. 1966. NEGATIVE DIALEKTIK [NEGATIVE DIALECTICS]. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.


Foucault, Michel. 1991. Graham Burchell, Colin Gordon, and Peter Miller, eds. THE FOUCAULT EFFECT: STUDIES IN GOVERNMENTALITY. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Hegel, G. W. F. 1969 [1812]. DIE WISSENSCHAFT DER LOGIK [THE SCIENCE OF LOGIC], vol. 1. Frankfurt am Main.

Marcuse, Herbert. 1969. “Repressive Tolerance,” in Robert Paul Wolff, Barrington Moore, Jr., and Herbert Marcuse, eds. A CRITIQUE OF PURE TOLERANCE. Boston: Beacon Press.

Rawls, John. 1999. THE LAW OF PEOPLES. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Said, Edward. 1994. ORIENTALISM. New York: Random House.


Note: Translations of Hegel, Adorno, and Theunissen are by the author.

© Copyright 2007 by the author, Benjamin Gregg.