15 January 2013

The tragedy of liberalism

In my turn from a left-liberal position to a left-conservative (High Tory, Red Tory, communitarian, or ‘feudal socialist’) one, the single influence whom I still consider my touchstone is Samuel Johnson: a rigorous High Church Anglican who, as a result of his rigorous High Church Anglicanism, opposed colonialism, war, slavery, usury and torture with caustic vehemence, exhibited a profound distrust of the quest for personal profit, and maintained the need for a civilised society to provide collectively for its own most vulnerable. Not only did he preach this gospel eloquently, he also practised it: among the heirs to his fortunes upon his death was Francis Barber, a Jamaican freedman and Johnson’s valet and confidant whose education Johnson also took care to sponsor. (Today, Johnson’s behaviour might be seen as patronising, but at the time he was criticised by his close friends and by the press for his ‘ostentatious bounty and favour to Negroes’.) At the same time, he insisted that society be marked with formal ranks, and published scathing critiques of advocates (notably Thomas Paine and the American colonial rebels) of unlimited white male licence to believe and act however they wished without reference to any transcendental religious or secular authority. It was through Dr Johnson, and subsequent repeat encounters with the advocates of scale-free economics (EF Schumacher, GK Chesterton, Arthur Penty), that I discovered the humane social encyclicals and bulls of the great Holy Fathers, Gregory XVI, Leo XIII and Paul VI (not to mention John Paul II and Benedict XVI!).

Two of my primary modern-day influences in this same ‘left-conservative’ tradition were the Canadian political philosopher George Grant and the English theologian-philosopher (though he would likely disavow the latter term) John Milbank. Both pointed to the violent proclivities of liberal regimes, but John Milbank in particular identified the violence as being at the very wellspring of liberalism. Liberalism, seeing society and the state as the battleground upon which various values and opinions must vie for validity and supremacy, sets out only to make procedures ‘fair’ such that all values and opinions have an equal shot at being heard. However, this is a doomed enterprise, since certain popular value-systems (inherent to the monotheistic and Abrahamic religions, but to Christianity in particular) set themselves prior to the state, and assign to the state a different role than liberalism would have it play – that is, making outcomes for people and for communities of people fair (a comprehensive notion of ‘justice’), rather than merely procedures. In order for secular liberalism to guarantee its own continuation, it has to break its own rules: that is, it must make procedures deliberately unfair against the monotheistic and Abrahamic religions.

It does this in a number of ways. The first and most popular (going all the way back to the Enlightenment) is to project its own ontological violence onto Christianity, Islam and Judaism. Christianity – in particular, mediaeval Catholicism – is still often cast in the ‘Gothick’ role of sadistic priests, brutish hooded torturers and fanatical witch-burners (in spite of torture and witch-burning being exclusively secular enterprises, undertaken solely by kings and princes rather than by Church authorities). In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Jews were often accused of being dangerous, wicked and subversive anarchists looking to overthrow nations from within – national purity and the national will (then associated very closely with liberal ideas) demanded their assimilation, subjugation, expulsion or extermination. (It has proven invaluable to the continued popularity of liberalism, which - as Israeli sociologist Shlomo Avineri detailed in his book, Hegel’s Theory of the Modern State - fostered and encouraged these ideas through the nationalist Burschenschaften, that this stance regarding the Jews was eventually coopted by that most fanatically anti-liberal fusion of ideologies, Nazism.) Nowadays, of course, neoliberal ideologues (and their nouveau-atheist sycophants) have taken to making exactly the same sorts of assertions about Islam that were once made about Judaism: that it is fundamentally opposed to American (or British, or Norwegian, or Western) national values, that it is inherently and irrationally violent, that its followers are the inherently untrustworthy existential enemies of Western civilisation, and that (to hear commentators like Melanie Phillips, Bruce Bawer, Mark Steyn, Geert Wilders, Liu Xiaobo, Pamela Gellar, Robert Spencer, Anders Behring Breivik et al. on the subject) the solution is one of the following: assimilation, subjugation, expulsion or extermination.

This projection is suitable to the liberal mythology, by which the secular state is the power which allows all these other irrational and violent value-forces to be contained. But it also shows the inherent contradictions (in a Hegelian-Marxist sense) of liberalism: rather than being an equal playing field for all values, the secular state must degrade and subjugate some value-constellations to its service, and will use its own forms of violence (both structural and physical) to ensure conformity to secular values. Thus, rather than being the salvation of an order amenable to various heterogeneous ends, liberalism merely becomes one more ideology amongst all the other warring ideologies it claimed to encompass and govern – and all the more dangerous, since its governing logic is not peace or harmony or justice (in any sense other than the procedural), but the vicious zero-sum competition of the ‘marketplace of ideas’.

It is from here we can see the philosophical underpinnings of neoconservatism. Though neoconservatism borrows heavily from various political-philosophical strains (Straussianism and Trotskyism most notably), its basic conceit is that liberal democratic capitalism is the pinnacle of human good, but that it is constantly under attack by other value-constellations: Christianity (Russia, Serbia et al.) and Islam (Afghanistan, Iran) most notably, but even insufficiently-liberal forms of secular nationalism (like that of pre-war Iraq, Libya and Syria) are considered existential threats. As a result of all of these imminent dangers, a few ‘noble’ leaders of the democratic West are forced, in secret and in public, to abrogate the initially value-neutral principles of secular liberalism in order to save and propagate it. In doing this, they become the very embodiment of their own caricatures of religious excess.

The ‘Gothick’ caricature of torture under mediaeval Catholic regimes cannot hold a candle to what America’s (and its allies’) post-Bush intelligence services now do unrepentantly as a matter of course. The caricature of Judaism as a subversive fifth-column within nation-states is now outstripped by the largely secular and Christian-Zionist Israel lobby (which regime is no longer as fervently supported by practising Jews as it once was, and obviously doesn’t care for the practising Jews, Catholics and Muslims who used to live peacefully in the Holy Land, preferring to supplant them with – among other things – the Russian neo-Nazis of Yisrael Beiteinu, now fully incorporated into a political alliance with Likud). And, of course, the caricature of Islam as being intrinsically and irrationally violent is eclipsed utterly by the Bush doctrine of undertaking simultaneous wars of choice in multiple theatres.

The liberal reaction against neoconservatism – attempting to reclaim for liberalism its lost principles in the name of ‘human rights’, as most modern American liberals and civil libertarians attempt to do (notably Glenn Greenwald, with whom I agree a great deal of the time) – is admirable, but in my opinion ultimately ill-fated. It is admirable to speak of a basic set of ‘human rights’, but these only make sense within a context of shared values and pre-existing social roles. If one tries (in the style of the Rawlsian ‘veil of ignorance’) to universalise ‘human rights’ in too clumsy a way, one runs the risk of falling into the very same trap that led to the tragedy of liberalism in the first place – policing the sacred and attempting to forcibly flatten difference into something palatable for Western liberal democratic capitalists: turning the world into the ‘It’s a Small World After All’ ride at Disneyland, full of happy cartoon people with different funny clothes and peculiar, quaint-but-ultimately-irrelevant lifestyles and histories, united by (as Rammstein put it in their ‘not a love song’) ‘Coca-Cola, sometimes war’.

Ultimately, only by appealing to the true Universal made particular (but by no means contained or ended) by the Virgin Birth and by his death upon the Cross, and only by appealing to the hierarchy of values implied by that Universal – the primacy of life over death, the primacy of the logic of peace and right order over the logic of violence and power, the primacy of a common good over individual profit and piety – can the rights of humanity (qua humanity) be rightly articulated. Various non-Christian traditions can and do approach and point to this Universal and the values it implies – the scholarly and justice-oriented Islam of the ‘red’ Shia revolutionaries and martyrs; the radical tradition of prophecy amongst the Confucian sages; the Hindu-situated (but Christ-inspired) ‘truth force’ of Gandhi; the growing Jewish and Sunni voices for peace in the Middle East. Only just such a universalism (or – let us call it by its right name! – catholicism) can be validating of and validated by human beings, on their own terms and in command of their own Sittlichkeit.


  1. That's a very stimulating piece Matthew, many thanks. I've been reading Christopher Lasch and Dominic Losurdo, who from a Marxist perspective (Lasch grew out of it) write similar things about liberalism. I hope that all is well with you, and a happy new year to you.

  2. Hi Martin, and many thanks - a happy new year to you, too!

    It seems to be a common trajectory among certain thoughtful sorts of leftists, that they start off as Marxists and end up realising that the range of worthwhile human activity can’t be intelligibly subject to the hermeneutic of economics. (That isn’t to say there aren’t thoughtful Marxists as well, of course - after all, I am married to one!) I think this is what happened to Dorothy Day, Alasdair MacIntyre, Jim Wallis and Cornel West, among others.

    I have read a couple of Lasch’s essays, and really liked what I read, but sadly I haven’t picked up Losurdo’s book yet (kind of difficult for me to get a hold of in China). Also on my wish list is Christopher Ferrara’s Liberty: The God That Failed, which came highly recommended by the radical orthodox theorists John Milbank and Graham Ward.

    I appreciated your piece comparing the US with Apple, by the way - I have also been feeling almost hopeful recently about the direction of US politics; I remain hopeful that the old American left and the old American right can find more common ground over not just Chuck Hagel. Jessie and Ellie and I are also doing quite well on the personal front. I hope you are doing well also, Martin, and keep up the good writing!

    All the best,