Last year, authoress Lionel Shriver wrote an article for The Guardian in which she paid tribute to the liberal idea. But her article had an unexpected twist: she recognised in the very philosophy she was praising the seeds of Western decline.
So she wavers in her article between an appreciation of liberalism and an awareness that it has a no future clause for any society which adopts it.
Why no future? Because if we are concerned only to be autonomous in our choices, then we will shift our emphasis,
from the communal to the individual, from the future to the present, from virtue to personal satisfaction
and this makes it less likely that we will commit ourselves to family life and children and the creation of new generations.
Lionel Shriver believes that this underlies the falling birthrate in Western countries. She describes what has happened to the culture of the West as follows:
Increasingly secular, we pledge allegiance to lower-case gods of our private devising. We are less concerned with leading a good life than the good life ... We shun values such as self-sacrifice and duty ... We give little thought to the perpetuation of lineage, culture or nation; we take our heritage for granted.
We are ahistorical. We measure the value of our lives within the brackets of our own births and deaths, and don’t especially care what happens once we’re dead ... we are apt to look back on our pasts and ask not ‘Did I serve family, God and country?’ but ‘Did I ever get to Cuba, or run a marathon?
As I have mentioned, Lionel Shriver is not entirely unsympathetic to such a culture. She thinks it has an “upside” in people trying to live for the moment and pack as much as they can into their lives. Her liberalism, in fact, is utterly orthodox when she suggests that material progress may lead inevitably to a modern Western style culture:
Furthermore, prosperity may naturally lead any well-off citizenry to the final frontier: the self, whose borders are as narrow or infinite as we make them.
This is a pure and intense liberalism. The claim is that we ourselves can decide the limits of what we might become, which means that there are no limits. The self, in this view, is borderless and open.
(In contrast, conservatives would claim that we do have an inborn nature which gives a natural direction to our lives. An example would be our nature as men and women, which does influence our behaviour, our identity, our social roles and our ideals.)
Lionel Shriver, therefore, is a woman who believes in the liberal idea, but who regrets its major consequence: that the West won’t reproduce itself.
She develops this view further by interviewing some of her female friends, who similarly waver between their support for a liberal culture and their regret about a failure to reproduce.
First, there is 44-year-old Gabriella, who thought having children would compromise her autonomy – her freedom to choose – and only changed her mind when it was too late. She tells us that,
Having children in my 20s would have spelled the end of everything I had spent my life working towards and was about to really enjoy: the ability to spend my money the way I wanted, travel where I wanted, choose my partners, live as I wished.
Gabriella has accepted the fact of being childless, but she does feel some sense of loss that she has not passed on her genes to future generations. She states that,
If people like me don’t reproduce, civilisation may be the worse for it ... I am a typical product of my family; I can see the thread stretching back through the generations. Do I think it’s a shame that this genetic inheritance won’t continue? Yes I do ...
Then there is Nora. She is a childless woman who aims to continue “to have fun, to enjoy my job, to meet interesting people, to go on great holidays, to read interesting books” and so on.
But she too has regrets. “I think my parents came from an excellent gene pool," she says, "and it’s a shame that, to date, that hasn’t been passed on.” Then there’s this:
at the end of our exchange Nora declares fervently, “You and I should have had children!” – hastily appending that she meant not for our own sakes, but in social terms. “We’re blessed with brains, education and good health.” She admits that the longer our discourse has continued, “the more I think I am a squanderer of my gifts and my heritage. But I live in a decadent age where that doesn’t seem such a problem. Anyway, devoting my whole life to promulgating my ethnicity is a big ask.
And from here the balance in the article swings decisively to a disappointment with liberalism as a dead end. Lionel Shriver is moved to write:
Contentment. Happiness. Satisfaction. Fun. There’s nothing, strictly speaking, wrong with these concerns, but they are all of a piece. They fail to take into account that our individual lives are tiny beads in a string.
Our beloved present is merely the precarious link between the past and the future – of family, ethnicity, nation and species. We owe our very contentment ... to the ingenuity of our ancestors, yet it rarely seems to enter the modern childfree head that proper payback of that debt might entail handing the baton of our happy-happy heritage on to someone else.
Even more trenchantly she adds,
My friends and I are decent people – or at least we treat each other well. We’re interesting. We’re fun. But writ large, we’re an economic, cultural and moral disaster.
There has to be something wrong when spurning reproduction doesn’t make Gabriella and me the “mavericks” that we’d both have fancied ourselves in our younger days, but standard issue for our age. Surely the contemporary absorption with our own lives as the be-all and end-all ultimately hails from an insidious misanthropy – a lack of faith in the whole human enterprise ...
Large sectors of western population have broken faith with the future.
In Lionel Shriver we have a liberalism grown wistful and self-critical, but too deeply ingrained to be jettisoned.
Let’s hope that others will take the further, necessary step of repudiating liberalism more decisively, as a mark of faith in our own future.