Understanding the Modern World (II)

In this post I want to give an overall account of two previous ones, trying to make sense of our strange and fast-changing times. While I write it, I’m reading Ryszard Legutko’s The Demon in Democracy, a book that helps clarify the critical issues and one I can’t recommend highly enough.

Choosing among the several meanings of the word and following those previous posts, I understand liberalism as the political, economic, and social system of modernity, the historical era that started with the American and French revolutions. Liberalism is, in classical political terms, the regime * of developed Western societies.

More specifically, liberalism is a historicist utopia with a slight kink: it evolves over time. It is historicist because it embodies the idea of progress in a linear historical development, and utopian because it will eventually actualize human happiness in this world, much as a secular religion. The Novus Ordo Seclorum brought about by the Enlightenment has been immensely successful, quite beyond anything its founders could imagine. They, however, thought it would be there for the ages, not changing essentially over time. But, as I have written before, it has evolved and this fact alone changes everything we think we know about modernity.

Since it is the only surviving system that incarnates the idea of progress, liberalism must defeat any opponent who is seen as retrograde or obsolete; as a hegemonic regime it can’t accept any competitors, they all must be destroyed. And as it changes, it is no longer the “classic liberalism” of the origins —the one that conservatives talk and dream about. Its current dominant form, postmodernism, is the point of a new and dangerous spear that magically transforms any new desire into a “right” and ruthlessly crushes all traditional beliefs. Liberalism is about power, power to change, power to destroy everything in its wake, and power to plow ahead to fulfill the utopia: to reach the end of the arc of history, a global society with a global government. From this point of view, globalization is a normal tendency of the economic form of late liberalism, as the new multicultural, medieval society of seigneurs and serfs takes shape right in front of us in California, for example.

Contrary to what conventional wisdom tells us, liberalism, the regime of modernity, is widely accepted by modern societies. One important key to understand this is how rapidly the majority in America and Europe embraces each new imposition, each new right and entitlement, no matter how absurd or worthless. And —very important— the accepting includes conservatives and the right, most of whom are as liberal as their opponents, only pharisaic. The only big difference is the activism on the left, because they consider themselves a “vanguard” as in the other utopia.

As Legutko (who is a member of the European Parliament) writes:

“What we have been observing over the last decades is an emergence of a kind of liberal-democratic general will. Whether the meaning of the term itself is identical with that used by Rousseau is of negligible significance. The fact is that we have been more and more exposed to an overwhelming liberal-democratic omnipresence, which seems independent of the will of individuals, to which they humbly submit, and which they perceive as compatible with their innermost feelings. This will permeates public and private lives, emanates from the media, advertising, films, theatre and visual arts, expresses itself through common wisdom and persistently brazen stereotypes, through educational curricula from kindergarten to universities, and through works of art. This liberal-democratic general will does not recognize geographical or political borders. And although it does not have a control center or an executive body, it seems to move forward relentlessly and to conquer new territories as if under a single well-structured and well-organized command … The liberal-democratic general will reaches the area that Rousseau never dreamt of—language, gestures, and thoughts.” (Op. cit., p. 65)

In this cosmic fight, who are liberalism’s opponents or rather, who are the hegemon’s victims?

First, let me say what the fight isn’t about: it is not “right vs left,” it is not “populism vs democracy,” it is not “nationalism vs globalism,” it is not “mainstream vs far-right,” and it’s not “protectionism” or “isolationism” vs free trade. Yes, there is some basic truth to all of those oppositions, but highlighting any one of them only helps veil the important truth:

The fight is about wiping out and trying to avoid being wiped out.

As examples of conventional wisdom, Americans who voted for Trump in 2016 have been called “poor economic losers,” although the median income of Trump voters was $72,000, compared to the national median of $52,000. They have also been presented as “angry old men,” although 41% of white millennials turned out for Trump. In Europe, the same liberal analysts tell us, they are “old pensioners with vague memories of Hitler,” but the German AfD Party appeals to people aged 25-50 who never knew Nazism, and Marine Le Pen won more people aged 18-34 than any other candidate in the first round of the French elections.

The apparent central fight between left and right can be seen in America due to its particular two-party political system and the fact that the society is more or less evenly divided. Why? Because only in America among developed societies, the remains of previous eras are still strong: religion, traditions, normal families, virtue ethics, patriotism, small business, etc., something we know since Tocqueville. The classes that embody those characteristics are the middle class and the working class, a citizenry that is majority white. That is the real enemy liberalism must wipe out.

The truth can be seen more clearly in Europe, where practically all mainstream parties and groups are openly liberal, and religion and traditions don’t count as heavily as in America, and where liberalism doesn’t hide totalitarian tendencies such as forcing Marine Le Pen to undergo psychiatric tests.

Beginning in the coming November elections we’ll see just how strong those remains are. Under President Trump’s leadership they are a light of hope, especially if they can forge alliances with European nationalists. Long-term, besides understanding the issue clearly and acting upon it, the key to their eventual survival, security, and even triumph is bringing children to the world. This could also be a Pyrrhic victory for either side, as demographic collapse seems to be a key characteristic of late liberalism.

Vladimir Dorta, 10/11/2018

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Ryszard Legutko, The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies, Encounter Books, NY-London, 2016.

* Regime: “the politieia, the order, the form, which gives society its character, its specific manner of life. Regime is the form of life as living together, the manner of living in a society and in society, since this manner depends decisively on the predominance of human beings of a certain type, on the manifest domination of society by human beings of a certain type. Regime means that whole, which we today are in the habit of viewing primarily in a fragmentized form: regime means simultaneously the form of life of a society, its style of life, its moral taste, the form of society, the form of state, the form of government, the spirit of laws.”
Leo Strauss, What Is Political Philosophy?, The University of Chicago Press, 1959, p. 34.