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:
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, Subjectivism, 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.
Thus 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 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.