An Interview with Trevor Shelley, author of “Globalization and Liberalism”

Trevor Shelley, postdoctoral associate at the Arizona State University School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership

Trevor Shelley recently published his first book, Globalization and Liberalism: Montesquieu, Tocqueville, and Manent, and he agreed to talk to us about the process.

When did you first get the idea to write this book? What motivated you to write it?

I first encountered the work of Pierre Manent while living in Budapest, HU, where I was observing some of the effects of the European Union (EU) and was following the debates regarding its advantages and disadvantages for the peoples of Europe. Manent provided an incomparably precise and clear-eyed analysis addressing the range of questions about the EU from a political perspective. This led me to delve deeper into Manent’s work as well as to understand that the project of the EU, while unique to Europe, reflected some of the broader tendencies and desires in the contemporary West for greater levels of global unity and universalism in our politics. The combined desire for unity and universalism seems to be among the strongest aspirations in our public life, which I began to characterize under the phenomenon of “globalization”—no mere economic phenomenon as such. The effectual hope corresponding to this desire, I came to understand, is that of a future that transcends politics—a future that does away with the divisions and differences, the parties and partisanship, the factions and conflicts, and thus the violence and war that sometimes accompanies political life. However, in order to fulfill this hope, the ideas, habits, and practices of self-government would have to be overridden. So much of elite opinion seemed to be converging on the idea that the best remedy for political maladies is to integrate, even absorb, particular political communities into a universal whole, or at least under the same global rule and rules. Thus, the overarching philosophical problem that began to interest me is what may be called the tension between the universal and the particular in politics and I was motivated to consider some of the intellectual resources within the liberal tradition that might aid and guide us in moderating it so as not to avoid the extremes of vehement particularism or unreflective universalism. This led me to two other (French) liberal thinkers, predecessors of Manent who he took seriously, and who, like him, wrestled with this tension. It became apparent to me that all three had a similar appreciation of the problem despite the differences in historical contexts and responses. All three illustrate that there is no solution to this tension but it is one that must be constantly mitigated and moderated by intermediary political forms—something between the bulk of humanity and the singular individual. Any attempt to transcend politics is therefore not so much a remedy but an exacerbation of the very problem that the political helps us to live with.

How does Globalization and Liberalism contribute to contemporary conversations?

The topic of globalization is much discussed today, and perhaps now more than in the last few decades it is considered with greater skepticism. The economic critiques of globalization have been many, or critiques of economic globalism, while reconsiderations of globalization as a political phenomenon have been fewer, and this is the line of argumentation that my book takes up, following and building on Manent’s profound consideration of our desire to live in and as a united humanity.

What did you learn while writing this book?

I learned many things—too many to list, and probably many things I’ve since forgotten and may have to relearn (such is the fallibility of our minds!). But perhaps above all I learned the extent to which we need to appreciate anew the forms of our lives, and the ways in which we are formed by institutions and structures, and by extension how without these forms our thinking and our action loses proper orientation. Thinking about human life in and through forms (an old insight arguably best elaborated first by Aristotle) is an endlessly rich subject for reflection and something we neglect to our peril. Part of what makes Manent’s work so compelling is his restoration of this, especially by way of his account of the nation and the need for mediation. One may read my book, or better yet Manent himself, to get a better idea of this!

In what way is the book you wrote different from the book you set out to write?

In many ways I’m sure. It was a learning experience this first time around!

What advice would you give to a writer who wants to start a book?

Draft up a number of proposals and outlines—even something like an annotated table of contents—and continue to revise these as you go, turning back to them to remind yourself of where you’ve started and where you were planning on going, even as you adjust and adapt the schema according to different insights and discoveries. Like a traveler or adventurer with an imperfect map (before Google Earth!) who must correct the primitive map provided while using it for the purpose of navigation, so as to make one’s way through unfamiliar but not altogether unknown territory without getting lost.


This blog post is part of the Enriching Scholarly Communication and Connections through Notre Dame Press project and has been made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this post do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Additional information about the National Endowment for the Humanities and its grant programs is available at www.neh.gov.

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