Understanding the Modern World

Ideas have consequences
Richard M. Weaver

Leo Strauss died in 1973. He thus attested to the first indications that there was something very wrong with modern Western societies. He also understood that those problems weren’t of recent occurrence as most people saw —and continue to see— them. A trip through Strauss’ work would show that the damage to our culture and society didn’t start with the progressivism of Herbert Croly and Woodrow Wilson. And, just as important, it would also show that the passivity of Europe and the liberal half of America facing the barbarian invasion isn’t the fault of leaders like Merkel and Obama. What it would certainly show is the protracted, multifaceted process of self-destruction of our civilization.

Following Strauss and agreeing with Richard M. Weaver’s famous book, I believe that what we know as the modern Western world is the result of a combination of powerful ideas acting through time and space, ideas that begot a Western culture and produced its particular political and social reality. In other words, there is a causal connection between the thought of the early modern philosophers and modernity as it has evolved through time. We lazily say “it’s the left” or “it’s due to our education system” in order to explain our dysfunctional world. Most conservative intellectuals go back a few decades, to early progressivism, but stop there. To practically all of us, the cause of everything that occurs coexists with its effects. Our problems are either unexplained aberrations or consequences of something bad that has been with us for at most a century, called “progressivism.” If it didn’t exist, everything would be right again as in the old times. According to Strauss, our dire state of affairs isn’t an aberration or a distortion but the necessary development of modernity, the result of centuries of corrosion by the acid of all those thinkers’ ideas slowly but surely acting on its societal material.

To understand the modern world we have to go back to the insights of the most powerful minds since the Enlightenment: Machiavelli, Bacon, Hobbes, Locke, Smith, Rousseau, Kant, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche and Heidegger, and the markers each one of those thinkers planted in a fertile ground. That understanding would be the history of those thinkers’ ideas and the movements triggered by those ideas. It would be the history of the modern break with ancient Greece, Rome and Jerusalem, the history of capitalism, science and technology, and the combined consequences of all those episodes upon our modern lives. It would be the history of the developed Western world, but also of Japan, South Korea and Singapore and the future history of China, India and other Asian countries, because they have also fallen under the unavoidable and lethal spell of modernity.

Contrary to what his supporters and critics maintain, the main thrust of Strauss’ personal journey wasn’t a theoretical concern, but a loud warning of the coming demise of the West. That’s why he begins his The Three Waves of Modernity essay with Oswald Spengler’s famous announcement. “Crisis” is a constant theme and a central, almost repetitive warning throughout his entire work: a “Crisis of Our Time” or a “Crisis of the West” provoked by the successive, combined, incremental and persistent effects of what he saw as three revolutions in modern thinking since the Enlightenment. The theme is there from 1952 in the beautiful essay Progress or Return? (appropriately subtitled The Contemporary Crisis in Western Civilization), to 1954 in What is Political Philosophy?, to 1959 in The Three Waves of Modernity, to 1962 in The City and Man, and to 1964 in The Crisis of our Time and The Crisis of Political Philosophy.

What is political philosophy good for if it doesn’t shine a bright light on real, concrete human problems? After all, it is supposed to be political philosophy. Why, as practically all the students and critics of Strauss do, think of him as only caring about returning to the ancients, about returning, as Plato said, to “cities in speech”? Why not see in Strauss a thinker concerned about the ravages of modernity on Western societies?

Most philosophers fly high above the ground and thus see an enormous but vague and opaque whole from up high. As a political philosopher, Leo Strauss flew low to the ground and thus saw the several streams and their confluence into a bigger river on their common way to the ocean. He could see deep and wide but unlike so many others, he also understood the practical cultural, social and political problems of his time. That’s why his writings are particularly attractive to me. I discovered Strauss late in life, but in human affairs I have learned more from him than from all the other thinkers I studied. I particularly admire his vindication of Aristotle’s Politics and Ethics, and the closeness of some of his arguments with those of Alasdair MacIntyre: “Strauss … shares with the communitarians a non-metaphysical structuring of human sociality which is fundamentally teleological” (Neil G. Robertson).

This “idealist” essay, as far away from Marxism as can be, is my humble gift to his memory. Although it is a restatement of a previous essay, I have tried to avoid repeating what I wrote there. For those readers interested in more detail, Strauss’ The Three Waves of Modernity can be found here, with good alternative explanations by Daniel Halverson here and by ‘SPL Contributor’ here. Neil G. Robertson’s essay above is a wider, deeper and more critical take on Strauss and early modern political thought.

A Faustian Bargain

The modern project was the most complete break imaginable with everything that preceded it. God; religion; the eternal; nature (as a model and restraining order); natural law (the ‘rule and measure’ of nature); the natural sociality of man; virtue as the highest good; the formation of character; practical wisdom; the difference between good and evil; reason; absolute truth; objective fact; duty (with right only as its derivative) were all thrown overboard one after the other. Some principles were just discarded, some were replaced: man is the new god, an individual, asocial being whose humanity is created by his own will acting through history; nature is an alien to be conquered and mastered to “relieve man’s estate;” morality is about passions (fear, want); rights (self-preservation, acquisition) are therefore the basic moral facts; liberty, then equality, are the highest goods; truth is relative, historically conditioned, subjective or even an illusion; reason is first elevated, later it is rejected. Man’s solitude, anguish and nihilism are the logical and necessary end points of the process.

Oversimplifying, the process can be resumed as follows: Man is the center of the universe, his passions are unleashed with liberty as their conduit and satisfied with a right corresponding to each passion. This was both the seed and the engine of the crisis we’re living today, a ticking bomb even if its ticks would be measured in decades instead of seconds. The modern thinkers tried to contain and channel those passions with strong institutions, the same ones that are under siege today and have proven to be insufficient for the enormity of the job. Meanwhile, West Coast Straussians write about liberalism’s pristine, non-modern —even Aristotelian— founding, and conservatives talk on how to recover the lost innocence. Sorry, we can’t convince the bad genie to go back into his bottle.

Man is part of nature and cannot escape the realm of necessity without consequences. The realm of liberty doesn’t allow man to excel simply because he doesn’t need to, because he doesn’t have to survive under the pressure of necessity and because he doesn’t have anybody or anything higher than himself to emulate or pursue. Leaving behind the realm of necessity therefore means no more Mozarts, Beethovens or Rembrandts:

It would seem that the realm of freedom, if brought to its perfection, will be the realm of homunculi produced in test tubes by homunculi, if it will not be, as is more likely, the earth of “the last man,” of the one herd without a shepherd. For, to quote Machiavelli, “as has been written by some moral philosophers, men’s hands and tongue, two most noble instruments for ennobling him, would not have done their work perfectly nor would they have carried the works of men to the height to which they are seen to have been carried, if they had not been driven on by necessity”: the jump from the realm of necessity into the realm of freedom will be the inglorious death of the very possibility of human excellence. (Leo Strauss – On Heidegger – Relativism, p. 148)

Machiavelli and Hobbes thought the ancients were utopians who aimed too high and couldn’t actualize their political ideas, so they lowered their sights, constrained their horizon, and led to a simplification of morals and politics that allowed the abandonment of most classical principles as shown above. They not only “take their bearings from how men really live, but also from the extreme case” on how civil society works:

The status of morality must be lowered; morality is nothing but fear-inspired peaceableness. The moral law or the natural law is understood as derivative from the right of nature, the right of self-preservation; the fundamental moral fact is a right, not a duty. This new spirit became the spirit of the modern era, including our own age. (PPP, 212)

Hobbes invented a “state of nature” out of whole cloth, an idea entirely alien to the Bible and to ancient Greece, where man was an individual at war with all others —rejecting anthropological facts such as parenting, family, tribe, reason, speech and thus sociality. Hobbes “could not assert the primacy of natural rights without asserting that the individual is in every respect prior to civil society.” (NRH 183). Virtue is reduced to peaceableness. “Those forms of human excellence which have no direct or unambiguous relation to peaceableness —courage, temperance, magnanimity, liberality, to say nothing of wisdom— cease to be virtues in the strict sense … If the only unconditional moral fact is the natural right of each to his self-preservation, and therefore all obligations to others arise from contract, justice becomes identical with the habit of fulfilling one’s contracts. Justice no longer consists in complying with standards that are independent of human will. All material principles of justice —the rules of commutative and distributive justice or of the Second Table of the Decalogue— cease to have intrinsic validity.” (NRH 187) This clearly shows the extreme break with the classics as expressed above.

Rousseau followed with a “history” created out of Hobbes’ new conception of nature and its contradictions: “What is characteristically human is not the gift of nature but is the outcome of what man did, or was forced to do, in order to overcome or to change nature: man’s humanity is the product of the historical process.” (NRH 274). “The concept of history, i.e., of the historical process as a single process in which man becomes human without intending it, is a consequence of Rousseau’s radicalization of the Hobbesean concept of the state of nature.” (TWM 90)

Rousseau’s concept of history destroys any conception of the eternal: instead of a solid, permanent human nature, man is thought to be utterly malleable. His successors, Kant and Hegel, would later link Rousseau’s historical process with his doctrine of the “general will” to give us the germ of revolution, Marxism, socialism, and progressive social engineering.

Locke logically expands on and goes beyond Hobbes, by showing that “if everyone has by nature the right to preserve himself, he necessarily has the right to the means required for his self-preservation.” (NRH 185) and that “the desire for happiness and the pursuit of happiness have the character of an absolute right, of a natural right … while there is no innate natural duty … Reason further teaches that, since all men are equal in regard to the desire, and hence to the right, of self-preservation, they are equal in the decisive respect, notwithstanding any natural inequalities in other respects.” (NRH 226-228). Locke is well known as the philosopher of acquisition, of property, of capitalism. This is how Strauss concludes his chapter on Locke:

“Locke is a hedonist: ‘That which is properly good or bad, is nothing but barely pleasure or pain.’ But his is a peculiar hedonism: ‘The greatest happiness consists’ not in enjoying the greatest pleasures but ‘in the having those things which produce the greatest pleasures’ … hedonism becomes utilitarianism or political hedonism … Life is the joyless quest for joy.” (NRH 249-251, my emphasis)

After all this optimism there came Nietzsche: “the sentiment of existence [is] the experience of terror and anguish rather than of harmony and peace, and it is the sentiment of historic existence as necessarily tragic; the human problem is indeed insoluble as a social problem, as Rousseau had said, but there is no escape from the human to nature; there is no possibility of genuine happiness, the highest of which man is capable has nothing to do with happiness.” Contrary to what Hegel thought, there is no end or peak of history; the historical process is unfinished and unfinishable, and the belief in its rationality or progressiveness is baseless (TWM 95). “All known ideals had claimed to have an objective support: in nature or in god or in reason. The historical insight destroys that claim and therewith all known ideals.” According to Nietzsche, “the end has come for man as the was hitherto; what will come is either the Over-man or the Last-man. The last man, the lowest and most decayed man, the herd man without any ideals and aspirations, but well fed, well clothed, well housed, well medicated by ordinary physicians and by psychiatrists is Marx’s man of the future seen from an anti-Marxist point of view.” (TWM97).

The opportunity of Nietzsche’s Over-men came and went in the 1940s; we are left with his Last men.

The main problem with liberalism is not the weakening of its institutions, the sapping of its democracy, or its inability to stop globalist oligarchy. It is the utter failure of the assumptions of the Enlightenment and the ideas of the early modern philosophers, a failure we carry upon our shoulders. They thought their ideas would bring about a bright new world in which universal education would make everybody equal and interchangeable and able to govern himself and find happiness, and political problems would become technical problems that “experts” versed in the new political science would easily solve. Nothing of that appears to be the case. What we find at the end of the development of modernity is the amorphous, contradictory, mostly subconscious mixture of beliefs and behaviors of Strauss’ three waves called modern liberalism: an absurd combination of positivism, historicism, optimistic belief in blind progress (“the right side of history”); a belief in progressive vs reactionary in place of good vs bad; of subjective “values” instead of objective virtues or principles; where our nihilism forces us to be tolerant of all beliefs, no matter how intolerant they are, and our belief in equality guides us to accept all cultures (except our own). We can even decide what “gender” we have by pure subjective will, against any biological and physical fact.

Good examples of this dark picture are modern European men, who can’t even defend their women from the barbarians, and Swedish “feminist” government officials who strongly oppose President Trump but meekly wear hijabs when facing Iranian mullahs.

Finally, what I detailed in my previous essay about demographic suicide is patent in today’s Japan, where even sex is disappearing as a social factor. Please watch the recent video “No Sex Please, We’re Japanese.”

Vladimir Dorta, 02/23/2017

____________________

Leo Strauss, Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy (PPP), University of Chicago Press, 1983.

Leo Strauss, Natural Right and History (NRH), University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1971.

Leo Strauss, The Three Waves of Modernity (TWM), An Introduction to Political Philosophy, Ten Essays by Leo Strauss, Hilail Gildin, Ed., Wayne State University Press, Detroit, 1989.

My Old Blog

Here is a link to part of my old blog in the web archives. At the time there were few blogs and mine was more popular than I could ever imagine. I don’t want to restart it but I am posting its link here so that you can read about the things we discussed at the time (I kept it for several years but only the year 2003 is available). There is also a high-end audio blog, for those interested. I want to believe that some links on the right side of the main blog are important. You’ll be the judge.

Val e-diction

The End of Our Civilization

Le mal presque incurable est lorsque la dépopulation vient de longue main, par un vice intérieur. (The almost incurable illness of a long-drawn-out depopulation, due to an internal vice). Montesquieu, De l’Esprit des Lois

Capitalism, science and technology, and their political alter egos, liberty and democracy, have brought immense benefits to mankind. If looking around isn’t enough to understand, the following graph shows the astonishing growth of per-capita income in England during the last 800 years, as close as you can get to an asymptotic curve in real life:

does-capitalism-work-small

At the same time and as I reported in a previous article, the most important phenomenon of our time, perhaps of all times, is unfolding right before our eyes: worldwide demographic collapse. Paradoxically but unsurprisingly —no one likes to delve in his own death and the end of everything dear to him— this fact is unrecognized by our public opinion, being the object of study and reflection only by professional demographers and the few thinkers who look beyond the here and now. Some do see the collapse coming but, smug in their ideology, fail to make the obvious conclusions. But most people, even those who should know better, still cling to the myth of overpopulation. Unprecedented in magnitude and reach in its modern form, demographic collapse is the last stage of decadence, the final effect of Montesquieu’s “internal vice.” It affects almost all the nations of the world, objects as they are of the inexorable grip of globalization and the inescapable temptations of modernity. It has been happening for centuries but has accelerated in the last hundred years, and not a single step taken by governments have had any lasting effect on its progress because it only responds to its own internal, reinforcing logic: more globalization, more economic development, more temptations, more hedonism, more secularism, more cultural decadence, more contraceptives and abortions, more elderly populations, less inclination to marry, less ability to have children, still lower fertility rates, rewind, restart.

Back in the 1960s, Alexandre Kojève, in a debate with his friend Leo Strauss, said that both unlimited technological progress and universal enlightenment were essential for the genuine satisfaction of what is human in man (Strauss, WIPP, 105). Kojève may rest in peace because we have reached the zenith of human development. There is, however, an important caveat that trumps everything else: man has to be alive to enjoy the fruits of modernity but it seems that modernity, like revolution, devours its own. If the stage we have reached is the goal of history, then history is absolutely tragic because its end will reveal the absurdity of man’s hubris and will show the human problem as insoluble (Strauss, WIPP, 130). This is what Strauss called “the crisis of our time”:

The crisis that Strauss announced was caused by a loss of faith, or a loss of confidence, in what had become the widely understood purpose and character of the West in modern times. The West had believed in a progressive future, built upon the conquest of nature made possible by modern natural science, and in the coming of egalitarian and just political regimes made possible by modern political philosophy. (C & M. Zuckert, 71).

The tragedy is that instead of Kojève’s perfect end of History, we have Nietzsche’s Last Man:

The last man is tired of life, takes no risks, and seeks only comfort and security … The last man is the goal that European civilization has apparently set for itself. The lives of the last men are comfortable. There is no longer a distinction between ruler and ruled, let alone political exploitation. Social conflict is minimized. Nietzsche said that the society of the last man would be too barren to support the growth of great individuals. The last man is possible only by mankind’s having bred an apathetic creature who has no great passion or commitment, who is unable to dream, who merely earns his living and keeps warm. The last men claim to have discovered happiness, but blink every time they say so. (Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Prologue).

How ironic to discover that Nietzsche was at his greatest as a prophet! The end of history has little or nothing to do with Hegel’s rationality of history, Marxism’s new man, Fukuyama’s final triumph of liberal democracy, or Huntington’s clash of civilizations; it has everything to do with the coming radical transformation of the world during the next decades. George Friedman says it well in a superb article about the sad decadence of Europe, in contrast to its brilliant glory in centuries past: “Their great search for the holy grail is now reduced to finding a way to resume the comforts of the unexceptional. There is something to be said for the unexceptional life. But it cannot be all there is.”

Why is modern man committing collective suicide just now, when he is blessed with so many riches?

Because modernity deceives man into believing he has become God, that he has overcome his own human nature and controls nature by way of reason and science. Modernity, the new Mephistopheles, has given mankind plenty of fruits, but also a few poison herbs for them to happily die in the midst of pleasure.

I always thought there was something wrong with modernity, understood as the current historical era triggered by the Enlightenment. But as most educated American conservatives, I saw the political problems of the modern world as mainly due to the clash between the French and American revolutions. As Hannah Arendt wrote in On Revolution (1963) and Friedrich Hayek in The Constitution of Liberty (1960), the French Revolution has conceived many flawed children and Europe, its primus genitus, keeps offering its damaged goods as solutions to the woes of the world. I also saw Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Barack Obama and their followers, through a hundred years of Fabian deception, intent on bringing the ideas of the French Revolution through America’s back door. As the obverse of this vision, I regarded the American Revolution as the “good” half of modernity, worth maintaining in its pristine original form against her ancient and modern enemies. But thanks to Strauss, I finally saw that our Founders were the heirs of modernity, and we — liberals and conservatives — are its grandchildren, incapable of escaping it and futilely trying to fix modernity’s problems from within modernity.

I hadn’t given enough thought to another point Hannah Arendt made, that the unlimited desire for acquisition of the poor European immigrant could eventually doom the nascent American republic:

And this particular pursuit of happiness which, in the words of Judge Pendleton, has always tended “to extinguish every sentiment of political and moral duty,” could be held in abeyance at least long enough to throw the foundations and to erect the new building —though not long enough to change the minds of those who were to inhabit it … Whether this structure has a granite groundwork capable of withstanding the futile antics of a society intent upon affluence and consumption, or whether it will yield under the pressure of wealth as the European communities have yielded under the pressure of wretchedness and misfortune, only the future can tell. There exist today as many signs to justify hope as there are to instill fear. (Arendt, 135)

What concerned Arendt was that, once the Founders abandoned classical normative politics — the quest for virtue— and let the goal of politics and government be only the protection of a private, individual pursuit of happiness, then the “unleashing of the passions” and the pursuit of unlimited acquisition would probably become the goals of American life, just as the political theory of John Locke and the economic theory of Adam Smith predicted. Our founding separated religion and morality from the public scene, and instead of keeping the goal of promoting “the good life” and helping to civilize and elevate the citizen as high as he could reach, modern politics deprived itself of all ethical content and became just another science that works with facts and sees human beings as they supposedly are, driven by their lowest instincts and passions.

To be fair to our Founders, they saw the danger and tried to control and direct those passions by creating good, solid institutions (federalism, separation of powers, representative bodies and the rule of law) as modernity’s theorists Machiavelli, Hobbes and Locke suggested: “ambition must be made to counteract ambition” (Federalist 51). However, as heirs to the rationalist project of the Enlightenment, our Founders believed in the motto they adopted for the nation, Novus Ordo Seclorum, a new rational order for the ages. That’s why Thomas Jefferson could write that the American founding meant the triumph of science and reason over ignorance and superstition (Letter to Roger C. Weightman, June 24, 1826).

But it is clear now that, without a founding on ethics, religion and tradition, and without the formation of civic character by public virtue, those institutions by themselves aren’t sufficiently powerful to counteract the corrosive effects of modernity. Therefore, we have to stop looking for the virus of modernity only in Rousseau’s France and Hegel’s Germany, and start looking for it also where we couldn’t imagine it would grow: in John Locke’s England, Adam Smith’s Scotland, and Thomas Jefferson’s American colonies. Both the French and the American revolutions are bearers of the same virus in two different forms or mutations, both equally destructive but working on different time scales.

Mephistopheles’ Poison Herbs: Scientific Politics

Classical political philosophy, as taught by Aristotle, was a practical science dealing with the daily life of communities, teaching the virtues and the good communal life with the goal to develop phronesis (practical wisdom or prudence) and character in men, because good judgment emanates from good character. It taught political leaders to understand practical situations and act in wise ways, that is, it was directed to form leaders like Winston Churchill, a modern exception and perhaps the last statesman, a man immersed in history and literature who was considered —not casually— an old-fashioned Victorian. Modernity changed all that and the new political science became theoretical (Strauss, Rebirth, 57). The new science has nothing to do with virtues or the good life; it is all about cost-benefit analysis, decision theory and game theory. No surprises then that we don’t have statesmen and that our political conflicts can’t be resolved.

The virtues, said Aristotle, are about what is difficult for man. Temperance, industriousness, hope and humility are difficult to attain; but pleasure, idleness, despair and pride are temptingly easy for man to fall into (Philippa Foot). Hence modernity counterfeits the hard cardinal virtues of wisdom, courage, moderation and justice into the modern “virtues” —really character traits— of open-mindedness, empathy, tolerance and fairness (Edward Feser). And similarly, the modern liberal state becomes a counterfeit family and community, “the only thing we all belong to” (DNC, Sep 4, 2012)

Michael Oakeshott, back in 1962, made clear how wrong it was to replace political philosophy with political science. The ravages that bureaucratic experts (he called them “rationalists”) wreak upon society are due to their tendency to see political conflict as nothing more than a technical problem in need of a solution. They think they know what needs to be done, and their engineering minds treat humans like ants or microbes. After all, they say, modern science tells us that is exactly how humans behave.

Historicism, Relativism, Secularism: The Road to Nihilism

These are the new horsemen of the Apocalypse invoked by the power of modern social science. Social science stipulates that knowledge is historical, valid only in its historical time and place. There is no truth valid forever, there is no absolute truth. And it is a common belief nowadays that “truth is relative,” that each one of us has his or her own truth. However, there is a basic contradiction here because, at the same time it relativizes truth, modern social science —as science— lays claim to the truth.

Moreover, relativism teaches that value is subjective, that there are no better or worse values or better or worse cultures, that there is no “good life” as the ancient Greeks understood it, that all “lifestyles” are equally valid and worthy of merit. And, as part of its relativism, modernity has also abandoned the concept of natural right. There is only positive right, right given by a particular government and a particular law, and therefore there is no standard of right and wrong independent of and higher than positive right. “The standard in question is in the best case nothing but the ideal adopted by our society or our civilization and embodied in its way of life or its institutions. But according to the same view, all societies have their ideals, cannibal societies no less than civilized ones. If principles are sufficiently justified by the fact that they are accepted by a society, the principles of cannibalism are as defensible and sound as those of civilized life.” (Strauss, NRH, 2-3)

Finally, taking the last step, modern man has abandoned God and any belief in transcendence and has become the god of nature himself, thanks to reason and science. Secularism is now the religion of Europe and liberal America.

The end result of historicism, relativism and secularism is nihilism, the belief in nothing. “Once we realize that the principles of our actions have no other support than our blind choice, we really do not believe in them anymore.” (Strauss, NRH, 6). Modernity has become the victim of its own triumph: modern man only believes in the most vulgar and banal form of hedonism, entertainment, literally killing time away until he dies. No risks to take or noble causes to pursue, no need to read great books, listen to great music or learn from or imitate the great men of yore, because necessity has been defeated and a conquered nature lets us enjoy gadgets galore while time goes by. And, most importantly, no need to have children because our individual life in the present, here on Earth, is all there is.

Individualism, the Curse of Conservatism

Alexis de Tocqueville foresaw it in 1835:

Individualism is a reflective and peaceable sentiment that disposes each citizen to isolate himself from the mass of his fellows and to withdraw with his family and his friends, and having thus created a little society of his own, he willingly abandons society at large to itself. (Democracy in America).

Although it belongs together with the other four poison herbs, I chose to present individualism separately because it almost fully belongs to us conservatives: there was a time when we were all classical liberals. Even Marxism, in an important sense, is the apotheosis of individualism because the future communist man is a new Robinson Crusoe: “while in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.” (Marx, The German Ideology). Marxism, socialism, liberalism and conservatism are all failed attempts to fix modernity from within itself.

Thanks to the triumph of capitalism in the form of globalization, free-market conservatives and libertarians have tended to prevail within conservatism, leaving behind social conservatism, traditionalism and communitarianism as residues of past historical eras. Since we conservatives are also children of modernity, we have defended free enterprise against government only on the grounds of that modern magic wand, utilitarianism: efficiency and effectiveness. As far as I know, except for a few thinkers like Michael Novak, John Tomasi and Father Robert Sirico, capitalism hasn’t been defended on moral grounds, nor have we fought enough to reinforce mediating groups (families, neighborhoods, associations, churches, local governments) as bulwarks against the corrosive effects of individualism. The result is, again, a dismembered civil society with atomized individuals facing an ever more powerful and intrusive State.

We conservatives have our own contradiction: the more we support individualism, the more the government becomes the only alternative in the crisis created by modernity.

Is There a Way Out?

Tyranny could come back as an accepted form of polity, or perhaps my constant nightmare of a real-life enactment of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, improved by mass cloning of human beings. I hope not many of us would consider that a human world worth living in. If there is no solution to modernity within modernity, it is important to note that in the modern world, only America and Israel maintain antibodies against the poison herbs of modernity —those residues of religion, ethics, traditions, and voluntary associations left behind from pre-modern societies. In other words, the characteristics that —up to now— have saved America and Israel from the demographic destiny of the rest of the world are not part of modernity. Let’s hope that those same characteristics will form the basis of a renaissance after the demographic debacle that is in front of us. There is here a parallel with the dissolution of the Roman Empire and the rebirth of civic life, religion and culture in the Middle Ages, and it points to a possible solution. If there is a way out, it will be based on a religious and cultural rebirth led by America, Israel and nascent African and Chinese Christianity. It is impossible to see what forms this transformation will take, however.

Vladimir Dorta, 05/23/2013 (updated on 10/04/2016)

____________________________

Leo Strauss, What is Political Philosophy? (WIPP), University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1959.

Hannah Arendt, On Revolution, Viking Press, New York, 1965.

Leo Strauss, The Rebirth of Classical Political Rationalism: Essays and Lectures by Leo Strauss, Thomas L. Pangle, Editor. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1989.

Michael Oakeshott, Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays, Liberty Fund, New York, 1991.

Leo Strauss, Natural Right and History (NRH), University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1971.

Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, University of Notre Dame, Indiana, 1984.

Jonathan Last, What to Expect When Nobody is Expecting: America’s Coming Demographic Disaster,  Encounter Books, New York, 2013

Catherine & Michael Zuckert, The Truth About Leo Strauss, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2006.

Michael P. Zuckert, Launching Liberalism: On Lockean Political Philosophy, University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas, 2002.

Most of What You Know About the Modern World is Wrong

The things that make good headlines attract our attention because they are on the surface of the stream of life, and they distract our attention from the slower, impalpable, imponderable movements that work below the surface and penetrate to the depths. But of course it is really these deeper, slower movements that, in the end, make history, and it is they that stand out huge in retrospect, when the sensational passing events have dwindled, in perspective, to their true proportions. — Arnold J. Toynbee, Civilization on Trial (Longman, Foreword)

Do you remember the alarmist forecasts and doomsday scares of the 1970s? Global cooling, overpopulation, food, water and energy shortages, the limit of resources, global famine. They were exemplified by the Club of Rome’s famous 1972 book The Limits to Growth, and by the 1968 worldwide best seller The Population Bomb by Paul R. Ehrlich. Ehrlich and his associate John Holdren, President Obama’s advisor and “Czar” on Science and Technology, were leading advocates of population control and forced fertility decline and both are still considered “experts” despite the fact that they have been consistently wrong in their forecasts (see Simon-Ehrlich wager).

It appears that the ideas introduced by experts and pundits, and accepted as true by the public —what John Kenneth Galbraith called “conventional wisdom”— remain at the forefront, unexamined and unchallenged, long after they have been proved wrong. As recently as last week, Nicholas Kristof was calling in the New York Times for a global “birth control solution” to the problem of overpopulation because, I guess, he has spent his entire life looking at the left side of the graph below (Goldman, 18).

Fertility and Religion

Ben Wattenberg was not a demographer, but he became a pioneer in the mid-1980s when he discovered a glitch in the UN’s biennial demographic report, World Population Prospects. At the time, the total fertility rate (TFR) of the developed world had sunk to 1.8 children per woman, about 14% below the 2.1 replacement value. And it had been falling steadily for thirty-five years. In Europe and Japan, their 1.8 children per woman in the 1980s dropped to 1.3 in 2005, that is, in a single generation. No serious demographer would plausibly have predicted such a sharp decline even a decade earlier. But almost as important, Wattenberg noted that the TFR in the Third World had dropped from 6 children in the 1960s to 4 in the early 1980s and then had fallen dramatically to 2.9 children in the 1990s. That’s a drop of about 85% of the way toward replacement-level fertility. Meanwhile, the UN Population Division was projecting that “European and Japanese TFR would drift back up to replacement level over the course of the next half century. This projection was based on absolutely no evidence.” (Wattenberg, 8-11, my emphases). Similarly, the shallow recovery beginning in 2040 in the graph above is pure UN wishful thinking based on zero evidence; in fact, the evidence points to an even more precipitous decline.

The fall of fertility rates operates in the entire world: among countries and within countries, cultures, and religions. The more secular societies have the lowest fertility rates; the more religious societies have the highest fertility rates. There is only one exception to the general fall in fertility: Israel. Alone among the modern world, Israel’s TFR is above 3, with modern Orthodox Jews raising three or four children per family, and the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox), seven or eight.

The rationalistic causes of low fertility are: modernization of traditional societies, urbanization, education for women, abortion, contraception and divorce. But rationalism can’t explain the permanence of religion in the modern world. For example, Jews have a common gene pool by reason of intermarriage, but they are either very secular or very religious, and the very fertile Mormons are wealthier and more educated than the average American.

“Mortal existence is intolerable without the promise of immortality. Animals breed and foster their young out of instinct; humankind does so in the hope that something of our mortal existence will survive us in the continuation of our culture and the remembrance of our children. Religion in the broad sense means hope of immortality. By reducing culture to a hedonist’s shopping basket of amusements, modernity destroys the individual’s hope for immortality, and with it his incentive to create a new generation of humans.” (Spengler). “To talk of ‘man’s search for meaning’ trivializes the problem. What humankind requires is meaning that transcends death. This explains a great deal of human behavior that otherwise might seem irrational.” (Goldman, xv-xx). “The weakest link in the secular account of human nature is that it fails to account for people’s powerful desire to seek immortality for themselves and their loved ones.” (Kaufmann, 19).

Cultural and Political Wars

Seattle and San Francisco have been called “childless cities.” A correspondent proclaims New York the “one-child-family capital of the United States.” “In secular Seattle there are nearly 45% more dogs than children. In conservative, Mormon Salt Lake City, there are nearly 19% more kids than dogs.” (Kaufmann, 99). “Liberalism’s demographic contradiction —individualism leading to the choice not to reproduce— may well be the agent that destroys it.” (Kaufmann, xx) “Demographics is destiny, said August Comte, and the demographics of ‘blue’ America closely resemble those of Europe, with which the ‘blues’ identify. ‘Red’ America, characterized first of all by evangelical Christianity, is thriving.”

What this means is that the difference in fertility rates between the secular and the religious in the United States will be immensely important in the future, because the opposite sides are becoming solid blocks, and because changes in fertility over several generations are nothing short of revolutionary:

“Ideology is now nearly as stable an attitude as partisanship. So, political demographers can credibly speak of liberal and conservative ‘populations’, each with their own demography … The combination of ideological mobilisation, growing partisanship and residential segregation locks in political stasis. In a polarized country, few are converted to the other side of the culture war, so the game becomes a demographic one of growing your own.” (Kaufmann, 102-104). “In the 1970s, conservative women … had fewer children than liberal women. By the 1980s, however, conservative women had acquired a 13% fertility edge over liberals, increasing to 19% in the 1990s and 28% in the 2000s.” (Kaufmann, 101)

“Even small fertility premiums can lead to impressive gains if maintained over generations. The Mormons should have been a shrinking minority in Utah by now. However, they increased their share of the state’s population from 60% in 1920 to 75% by the end of the century in the teeth of considerable non-Mormon immigration. Across the United States, the more numerous evangelicals grew from one-third to two-thirds of white Protestants during the twentieth century. In both cases, fundamentalists enjoyed no more than a one-child advantage over others, but maintained this over a century.” (Kaufmann, xii)

“The National Survey of Family Growth discovered that evangelical Protestant women aged 35 to 49 averaged 2.5 children per couple in 2002, against 2 for mainline Protestants and 1.5 for those without religion … Based on these rates, in a population evenly divided between secular and evangelical Protestants, with no net conversions, the proportion of evangelicals would increase from 50 to 62.5% in one generation. The following generation would be 73.5% evangelical, rising to 99.4% by the tenth generation.” (Kaufmann, 100). “Evangelicals could be 61% of the population of the USA one generation from now.” (Spengler)

Consequences

The global geostrategic situation changes dramatically, and some consequences come to mind:

  • With falling fertility rates and population implosion, the welfare state in Europe and Japan becomes unsustainable. In the next 50 years, half of the population of Europe and two-thirds of Japan will be elderly dependents, and there will be very few young, productive people supporting them.
  • France, Germany, Italy and Spain will become theme parks and museums 200 years from now, just like Sparta became a theme park for Roman tourists. “If present fertility rates hold, the number of Germans will fall by 98% over the next two centuries.” (Goldman, ix). “French and German will be spoken exclusively in Hell and, like it happens today with Pindar, “no one but bored schoolboys will read Goethe two centuries hence.” (Spengler)
  • “Fertility rates are falling faster in the Middle East than anywhere else on Earth.” (Longman, 8). Muslims will stabilize at around a fifth of the West European population in 2100. They might be the last custodians of the European museums until they form part of it.
  • China will not replace the USA as the next superpower, no matter what almost every pundit tells you. In 1965, China had a TFR of 6.06 children per woman. It is now at 1.4, and the biggest Chinese cities are at 1.0 or just above. This is a free-fall compounded by China’s One-Child policy, a worse disaster for the country than Mao’s Great Leap Forward and perhaps the best example ever of the unintended consequences of social engineering, because of the colossal scale.
  • “Christianity is winning the battle for souls in Africa … and it is possible that China may become the world’s largest Christian nation.” (Goldman, 224)
  • Russia, as well as Ukraine, Georgia and Belarus, are dying a rather quick demographic death. They will become empty lands ready for the taking. In the coming centuries the vast empty spaces of Eastern Europe and Asia will perhaps be colonized by African Christians, in a curious recurrence of the original “out of Africa” expansion of Homo Sapiens 100,000 years ago.
  • American liberals are winning Pyrrhic cultural and political battles but at the end they will lose the war. “Blue” states, like the Europe they love, are slowly dying, while “Red” states thrive. This is the result of the demographic contraction of secularism, liberal Christianity and liberal Judaism, and the demographic expansion of Mormonism, conservative Christianity, and Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Judaism.
  • Liberalism’s promise of heaven on earth cannot and will not be fulfilled. Secularism can only give us superficial and immediate pleasures. When they are consumed, what’s left is emptiness, boredom and death.

Vladimir Dorta, 11/12/2011 (updated on 09/04/2016)

_______________

Wattenberg, Ben J., Fewer, Ivan R. Dee, Chicago, 2004

Longman, Phillip, The Empty Cradle, Basic Books, New York, 2004

Kaufmann, Eric, Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth?, Profile Books, London, 2010

Goldman, David P., How Civilizations Die, Regnery, Washington, D.C., 2011

David P. Goldman’s “Spengler” articles about demography in Asia Times.

No, You Can’t Have It All

Postmodern Americans look like teenagers who want everything without effort. But why not? During these happy times we are, at last, free and able to do and to have everything we want. Most of our desires have become rights given by governments we freely chose because they promised us exactly that. Is there any downside? Apparently we don’t think there is any. Obama promises us free goodies, he gives them to us, and nothing bad happens.

Equal freedom is the highest political, social, and moral principle, and its goal is to be able to do and get what we want, as much and as equally as possible.”

Anything we can imagine in rights and freedoms is equally achievable, with no downside.

That was the thinking of the Jacobins and we know how it all ended. But human nature is stubborn, blind and deaf. From 1789 on, France tried to get everything out of nothing; in modern times Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain are trying it too. Of course we also know how it will end. But there is a bigger contradiction we don’t see: we, the supposedly capitalist United States of America, blind to the lessons of history, are now following socialist Europe.

In 1791, for the first time in history, the American Constitution proposed what are now called “negative” rights. Shortly after, the French révolutionnaires, with the direct influence of our radical Ambassador to France Thomas Jefferson, proposed the better-sounding “positive” rights. A century later, Franklin Delano Roosevelt made positive rights the basis of progressive thinking in the so-called Second Bill of Rights, a corrosive idea that has lasted up to our days. In fact, President Obama recently called the Constitution —disparagingly— “a charter of negative rights,” emphasizing his dislike for the bad-sounding adjective —and insisting on an ideological demarcation. Against these modern collectivist, ignorant fools, the Founders were wise in defending negative rights as the only ones belonging in the fundamental laws of a free country.

The underrated liberal thinker Isaiah Berlin wrote Four Essays on Liberty in 1969. In the third essay of that collection, titled Two Concepts of Liberty, Berlin explains the difference between negative and positive liberty and expands on how these concepts gave birth to their respective rights. It is only now when Berlin can be fully seen as a prescient thinker.

According to Berlin, negative liberty or “freedom from” is individual freedom of choice devoid of coercion and exercised under adequate conditions. Therefore, the negative rights it gives birth to are passive and have no legal “power of encroachment” upon other individuals’ rights. They are defensive shields that citizens wield against government encroachment, levees against government oppression. There is no coercion in negative rights. But this is not all. Negative rights are innate and thus predate government. Whether one thinks of them as God-given, originating in natural law or flowing out of tradition or history, they are certainly not given by government.

On the other hand, positive liberty or “freedom to” gives birth to positive, active, assertive rights that occupy “legal space” and thus encroach upon other peoples’ rights, because a positive right is an entitlement taken out of society’s pool of resources. Positive rights are offensive swords that each citizen wields against every other citizen, because they are nothing but desires for goods that have to be coercively taken out of a common pool by the force of government, thus forcefully depriving some citizens for the benefit of others in a zero-sum game in which what a citizen wins as entitlement has first to be taken away from all other citizens. There is an essential, primeval coercion about positive rights, and this coercion has existed since the beginning of time but came into historical knowledge only during the French Revolution. It’s easy to see that generalized positive rights would necessarily mean a fight of everyone against everyone else, in a new Hobbesian state of nature managed by the government. Positive “rights” are given by government, they are part of the modern fight-to-the-finish between government as defined by 1900’s liberal theory and individual citizens as defined by the Constitution.

But there is an even bigger and more fundamental contradiction in positive rights: Liberals claim them as rights but they don’t bring children to the world, either by voluntarily not reproducing or by aborting the babies who accidentally bypass their established stops. Therefore, liberals are destroying the very basis of the system they claim to defend: the less offspring they have, the more they guarantee the end of liberalism. You can see this developing right now in Europe and you can preview its following episodes in a few years in the United States of America.

Vladimir Dorta, 07/15/2015

The Other Churchill

Most conservatives would agree that Western civilization owes an unpayable debt to Winston Churchill — President Obama clearly doesn’t, as his very first act in the White House was to return Winston Churchill’s bust to Great Britain — but that is another story.

We know about Churchill’s almost superhuman efforts to stop Hitler’s killing machine virtually alone, when even his place at the top of the British government wasn’t assured. It can be shown that, had Hitler won his personal duel against Churchill in 1940, the USA wouldn’t have entered the war at the critical moment, Germany would have made Great Britain a vassal state and would have beaten the Soviet Union, it would have built the atom bomb before the Manhattan Project and, together with Japan, would have attacked the continental USA from the Azores islands in Europe and from islands in the Pacific. The world would certainly be much different today.

But perhaps some of us don’t know that Winston is not our only debtor in the Churchill family. The other one is his ancestor, John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough (1650-1722).

In the 13th century, budding English individualism in its small towns would eventually allow England to be the engine of capitalism and the cradle of Parliamentary democracy. But this development wasn’t predetermined at all.

Marlborough helped secure the modern Anglosphere by these actions:

  • He served the English Catholic King James II, but his defection to the Protestant William of Orange was one of the key factors in the success of the Glorious Revolution of 1688. An even more important factor was the defection to William of the Protestant Princess Anne, later Queen Anne, daughter of and successor to James II. Princess Anne acted under the influence of John Churchill and his wife Sarah.
  • The Glorious Revolution, by ending the dynasty of James II and his son James Francis Edward, stopped any possibility of England becoming an absolutist Catholic nation subordinate to France; it also established the English Bill of Rights that led to a constitutional monarchy in England and began modern English parliamentary democracy.
  • As if this weren’t enought, a few years later in the War of the Spanish Succession, Marlborough stopped Louis XIV’s goal of building a new Holy Roman Empire in all of Europe, by defeating the French armies in the battles of Blenheim, Ramillies, Oudenarde and Malplaquet.

There is a clear path from Magna Carta to the Glorious Revolution, the Bill of Rights, the colonist charters in America, and to our Constitution.

Our world would be very different if this hadn’t occurred.

02/06/2011

America, the Exceptional

President George W. Bush once said “the desire for freedom lives in every human heart.” In reality, we find that tyranny is everywhere and its temptation lurks deep within us. History teaches that liberty is rare, fragile and fleeting, while tyranny is common, strong and enduring. The quest for control —of others, as much as of things— has always been a sign of the human condition. But America is different. It is exceptional because in its very essence and since its founding, the American experiment, with its love of freedom, individuality, religion, equality of opportunity and free enterprise, is a good fight against human nature.

Near the end of the 18th century two developments changed the world forever. The first one was the American Revolution, the second the French Revolution. Both occurred within 13 years of each other, both were inspired by the Enlightenment, both overthrew their respective Ancien Régime, and both created new political realities. That is where their similarities end. Their differences are much more important.

While the American Revolution is not generally recognized as a revolution, it was a total success: “The sad truth of the matter is that the French Revolution, which ended in disaster, has made world history, while the American Revolution, so triumphantly successful, has remained an event of little more than local importance.” Multiple copies of the French Revolution have appeared throughout Europe, Russia, China and Latin America. In fact, it gives birth to equally failed children, every year, somewhere in the world. The American Revolution is still unique. Why?

The key to understand why a revolution succeeds or fails in founding “a nation of laws and not of men,” is the way it handles three crucial problems:

The first problem is the source of power and of law: “Hence, the framers of American constitutions, although they knew they had to establish a new source of law and to devise a new system of power, were never even tempted to derive law and power from the same origin. The seat of power to them was the people, but the source of law was to become the Constitution, a written document, an endurable objective thing” … which in turn was based on “promises, covenants, and mutual pledges” between equal and free men “in a country articulated from top to bottom into duly constituted bodies,” with “representatives freely chosen by the consent of loving friends and neighbours.”

In the French Revolution, the source of both power and law was the people: “Law is the free and solemn expression of the general will.” (Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, Article 4). This “deification of the people” has enormously negative consequences. It makes the revolution a law unto itself, a cosmic force that sweeps away everything and everybody and which, without mediating institutions that can check its power, is prone to be led by demagogues and dictators. Blinded by democracy, the people has replaced one oppression with another.

The second problem, one that can be seen today in every Third World revolution, is the difference between liberation and liberty: “Liberation may be the condition of freedom but by no means leads automatically to it.” Liberation is freedom from want, from abject poverty, from crude oppression. On the other hand, liberty is a rare gift that up to then only ancient Greeks, English freemen after the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and 18th century Americans enjoyed, because they wanted to bind themselves in freely chosen laws.

The third problem is that of economic means and ends or, in the felicitous words of Hannah Arendt, “trying to solve the social question by political means.” After so many examples of socialist disasters, we understand what this means. America, from its very beginnings, let the social problem solve itself in the economic realm by embracing democratic capitalism. Everywhere else, from the French Revolution to today in so many parts of the world, collectivist thinking has led politicians to enact laws to “end poverty.” Socialists try it time and time again, with the same dire results. Sadly, they are also doing it now here in America.

(The inspiration and all quotes except for the first one, come from Hannah Arendt’s wonderful little book, On Revolution, The Viking Press, Compass Book Edition, 1965)

03/13/2011