Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Anti-liberalism not enough?

Earlier this month I reviewed the first half of a biography of James McAuley, a leading figure on the anti-communist right in Australia in the 1950s and 60s.

I noted that McAuley, as a younger independent leftist in the 1940s, had given up on a traditional nationalism, like other intellectuals of that era.

McAuley actually advocated adding Papua New Guinea to Australia, and complained that the scheme was unlikely to go ahead because of the “narrow ethnocentrism” of Australian nationalism.

A reader, Shane, asked in the comments if McAuley retained this view when his politics moved rightward after WWII. As it happens, the answer to this question does appear later in the biography.


The first thing to note, though, is that McAuley did recognise liberalism as a problem besetting Western societies.

The second half of the biography has many quotes from McAuley which clearly identify liberalism as a weakness in Western cultural life. Consider the following summaries or direct quotes of McAuley’s views:

the heirs of the Englightenment – liberal-progressive humanists – were ... unable “to distinguish between right and wrong, truth and lies, sense and nonsense, honour and dishonour.”

he felt that liberal intellectuals were so readily deceived about communism because of “the ideological complicities, the wavering rootlessness, the superficiality and inexperience, the personal vanity and the secret tendency to worship power which are the ordinary marks of the Western intellectual.”

Since the thirties, he wrote, liberal intellectuals had become no more than “camp followers” of socialism … Liberal intellectuals were wrong-headed in their view that man was perfectible by some rearrangement of circumstances.

Papua New Guinea

So McAuley was a rare voice criticising liberalism. However, being anti-liberal did not necessarily translate into a consistent conservatism. Even as late as 1960, long after his shift rightward, he was no conservative nationalist.

The biography states that at this time he had only reluctantly abandoned his view that Papua and New Guinea could become an Australian state. He now supported John Kerr’s proposal that the best option was a Melanesian Federation.

The Melanesian option is the conservative one. It would have meant bringing together the territories sharing at least some aspects of a common ethnicity into a united nation. John Kerr also sensibly advocated fostering an intellectual and cultural elite in Papua and New Guinea.

McAuley’s views were not so sensible. In an essay titled “My New Guinea” he suggested that white women were to blame for the failure of Australian efforts in colonial New Guinea. Why?

Well, if white women had stayed home, and only men had gone to New Guinea, then the men would have interacted socially and sexually with the natives and it would have become a mulatto society,

“a slatternly, but more colourful and easy-going society, with the minor vices of concubinage and sloth, rather than the major respectable vices of cold-heartedness and hypocrisy.”


McAuley’s advocacy of a colourful mulatto New Guinea reminds me of those who admire Brazil today. I’ve written previously, for example, about Ryan Heath who admires “crazy and colourful” and “non-white” cities like Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro in Brazil.

Why would intellectuals like McAuley and Heath advocate creating such melting-pots, even when they recognise the negative traits associated with them (such as being more slothful, or slatternly, or out of control)?

Perhaps it’s for the following reason (though I’m speculating). If you’re a white person, and you’re confronted with an inequality of condition between your own society and a third world country, how do you react?

Is it possible that some whites, brought up on ideas of social justice, wish to solve this problem of unequal condition through dissolution? That they want to merge the white population into the “other” population, blending them together, and thereby equalising them? And that they wish to “dissolve” the qualities which bring advantage to their own society – namely, habits of being law-abiding, hard-working, sober and self-disciplined – to bring social levels closer together?

This last point would explain why seemingly negative qualities of being slothful, or slatternly or out of control would be presented so positively – they are positive, for a social justice egalitarian, in the sense of cutting away at one’s own advantage.

The human person

I don’t want to be too hard on McAuley. He recognised intellectually the failings of liberal modernism, which is further than most other intellectuals of his time ever got.

But he didn’t quite get far enough. The American traditionalist, Jim Kalb, wrote recently that the problem of liberalism goes very deep, into the very way we conceive the nature of the individual.

Kalb suggests that the liberal individual is the same as the Cartesian ego, “a disembodied subject with no qualities at all other than the free-floating ability to have experiences and make choices.” One consequence of understanding the individual this way is that,

The Cartesian ego isn’t really part of the world of experience. How, after all, could something with no qualities be embodied? So perhaps there’s a feeling that it’s more legitimate for Third World types, who don’t seem to be free floating Cartesian egos, to be embodied and thus part of the world of experience.

As it happens, McAuley outlines his own view of the individual in his essay on New Guinea. It is certainly not a radical leftist view, as it makes mention of moral responsibility, dignity, obligations and order. However, it still seems to be liberal in the terms set out by Jim Kalb: it presents what seems to me to be a disembodied view of the individual.

McAuley was “tormented” by the following question:

How were the New Guinea people going to step out of a decayed primitive culture, and embrace and make their own, in knowledge and habit, in inward acceptance and institutional result, those things that seem to be essential: for example, the acceptance of the notion of the human “person” with its structure of intellect and free will and moral responsibility, its intrinsic and inalienable dignity and obligations and rights, its need to find the freedom of self-fulfilment through order and love? … What wisdom would build this house, and furnish and decorate it, and maintain it?

This is McAuley writing in a more credible vein. Even so, his human “person” remains too much the Cartesian ego of intellect and free will, with the proviso of “moral responsibility” and an abstracted dignity, order and love added on.

I don’t think a liberal modernist would blink at this way of presenting the nature of the individual. But what if we “embodied” this individual, placing him in the world, with his natural loyalties and identities and with his more particular social responsibilities and obligations?

McAuley might, for instance, have written about men and women, rather than about “persons”. He might have written about paternal responsibilities, about marital love or maternal love, about ethnic loyalties or about masculine pride and dignity.

As an orthodox Catholic, he might also have written about the structure of the individual not only in terms of intellect and free will, but of the human soul.

It is in conceiving the nature of individuals in this way, in a way unacceptable to the free floating Cartesian ego, that we break most decisively with liberalism.

That’s why I don’t think an intellectual anti-liberalism will necessarily produce a consistent conservatism. We have inherited a liberal understanding of the individual which, as Jim Kalb puts it, is a ‘fundamental conceptual thing’ and “invisible to people’.

As long as we operate within this concept of the individual, we will tend to think in some ways in liberal terms, even if we have begun to recognise the failings of liberal modernity.


  1. My own search for an alternative to the liberal worldview has led to two seemingly separate alternatives that I have not yet resolved.

    One alternative that feels appealing to me is the ideal of a noble, Ayn-Randian seeker of excellence. A person who works to fulfill his full potential as a creative being, who asks no charity and insults no one by offering any, who values dignity, integrity, self-reliance, mutual respect based on accomplishment. A person who has a fundamentally positive view of the meaning of life and sees life not as some continuing string of tragedies requiring lamentations, pity and charity (enforced by the government), but as an opportunity to create great beauty. Someone who makes and accepts no excuses.

    This feels right to me.

    The other alternative seems in some ways to conflict with that. It is a sort of Darwinian, law of the jungle view. That we are essentially physical life forms subject to the same imperatives as every other form of life on earth: compete for resources, compete for the best mate, the most tribe status. Expand, grow, control ever more territory for yourself and your group. Competition is good, victory is good, weakness is shameful, strength is virtuous. The ancient Greek view, that it was good to be strong and slay many enemies. That men should be strong and smart and women should be beautiful and clever. This view appeals to me because it is honest and it seems to me to conform to the way the world actually is. There is no mercy in nature. Nature rewards strength, and weakness dies off. Nature, evolution, is a continuing evolution toward ever more capable, more potent life forms. So in this sense, morality is determined by what helps one to survive.

    So the second view appeals to me in its honesty but does not appeal to me in the sense that it is something of an animal, jungle view. In that way of thinking, if you can overpower another man and take his woman and property, you are a higher form of life than he is and nature wants you to go ahead and use that property and breed that woman. That is in direct contradiction to my other vision, where the property rights of all are respected and each excels through creation of value rather than forcibly taking it from others. I think that respect for others' property rights is the essence of social morality.

    Yet the reality is that every people's country was wrested from some other people at some time in the past. My America was taken by force from the indigenous people. We were stronger, so we took it. And we have used it fruitfully, and I think "Nature" smiles on that. We have put it to a higher purpose, a higher level of development and achievement of human potential, than the savages who lived there before us. So in that sense I think a Darwinian view is moral, and I would even say that it is crucial that we think like this if we are to survive.

    I still haven't resolved these two visions of the Good, but I have certainly long ago discarded the liberal vision of mediocrity, celebration of weakness and victimhood, and contempt for and envy of achievement and strength.

  2. Mark, I'm glad you've abandoned the more sickly manifestations of liberalism.

    However, I'd be careful with Ayn Rand. She would not have supported your last post at your own site:

    Western Survivial

    Rand rejected inherited or traditional forms of identity and attachment. She did so for the classic liberal reason:

    "What matters is what you accept by choice, not what you are connected with through the accident of your ancestry."

    What did Rand want in place of traditional identity? She took the basic right-liberal option.

    If we are all atomised individuals pursuing our own individual choices, then liberals have to decide how you make a society of millions of competing individuals hold together.

    The right-liberal answer is that the free market regulates selfish desires for profit to the overall benefit of the community, even if it means accepting a degree of unequal outcomes.

    That's why Rand, the right-liberal, worshipped the free market so much.

    She has the hero of her book Atlas Shrugged declare at the end:

    "With the sign of the dollar as our symbol - the sign of free trade and free minds - we will move to reclaim this country, once more from the impotent savages who never discovered its nature, its meaning, its splendor."

    So following Randian excellence really means devoting yourself to your career ("a life of productive achievement" as she put it), and pursuing a purely individualistic happiness in which communal attachments aren't allowed to count.

    This isn't a promising philosophy for a conservative to follow (and since you want to conserve your own people, you are definitely a conservative of sorts).

  3. Mark, can I suggest a slight reworking of the idea of pursuing excellence?

    Edmund Burke once accused the French revolutionaries of pursuing the low road of human nature in everything they did.

    I think it's a good starting point to take the idea of pursuing the higher part of your own nature.

    If pursued intelligently this is likely to lead to pretty solid conservative outcomes.

    For instance, a man is likely to feel that he has reached a higher part of his nature when he has a strong sense of his own masculinity, and the kind of positive, creative drives emanating from this masculinity.

    Similarly, our "peak experiences" are likely to include a responsiveness to nature, a positive sense of ancesty, a sense of place (of "rootedness"), an appreciation of what women embody as women, a romantic responsiveness to women, an appreciation of art, a heightened awareness of virtue and of what destroys virtue, and so on.

    What is distinctive about the conservative pursuit of such higher parts of our nature is that we don't, as liberal like Rand do, reject worthier parts of the human experience because they are "unchosen": because they are traditional, or inherited, or biologically determined.

    We aren't limited to what is available to the "Cartesian ego" described by Jim Kalb.

  4. Mark R,

    I think you're right when you say that intellectual anti-liberalism isn't enough. It isn't just a diference of opinion, it's a cultural impasse.

    I see the difference just as pronounced as that between the French "revolutionaries" and the Ancien Régime - the two sides could not communicate except through a continuous state of revolution/counter-revolution, because as the world historians say, it's all but impossible for two cultures to ever truly understand one another.

    If what we're currently facing isn't a cultural divergence, I don't know what is. Some of the liberal quotes you put on this site are so alien to my understanding of the world that it may aswell be in another language - I can only roughly decipher them by replacing their "good" with my "bad" and vice versa in just about every instance.

  5. Shane, I know the feeling. Liberalism is so alien to the conservative mind that it seems at first to be impenetrable. The instinctive reaction is often to dismiss it as madness.

    But the madness becomes public policy. So it has to be understood by us, as much as possible, if we are to persuasively critique it.

    This isn't easy, not only because of the cultural impasse you describe, but also because liberalism, being false to reality, cannot always be consistent or principled.

    Its underlying principles generate contradictions, and its devotees, to live in this world, must accept unprincipled exceptions.

    So it's difficult to draw the different threads together tidily. I think that's why it sometimes seems elusive in its nature - difficult to grasp as a whole.

  6. Mark, I appreciate what you're saying. I suppose I'm of the belief that the differences are so irreconceilable that the best outcome is to not be part of the same "public" at all. But seeing that is impractical, the next best thing - in my opinion - is to state clearly that when they question, critique or effect us, it's the action of a meddling outsider, not "one of our own gone wrong". They can't say "us" and be inclusive of me, ever. If we're outside the Zeitgeist, then let it really be so.

    An example:

    The December riots last year. Newspaper headlines screaming "Our Shame", endless rants decrying "Our" intolerant history and self-appointed spokespeople waxing lyrical about "Our" damaged psyche. All I could think was: what's this "Our" they speak of? These journalists, institutes and academics were as alien and ignorant to the "us" of those involved - on both sides - as Mongolian nomads. "Press commentary", in this instance, wasn't just an opinion, it was the fury of a cultural outsider, aimed at the psyche of kids.

    They should've been called on it in precise terms.

    Liberals, or whatever one calls them, aren't part of our culture, their interest is in overcoming it, yet they see fit to speak for it - and it goes on unchecked because they're allowed to assume the "us" whenever it serves their purpose.

    It may be taking identitarianism too far, I don't know, but I see alot of benefit in clearly differentiating between us on a cultural level, aswell as ideological. Whatever they are, I'm not. My interest is in formalising that as much as possible.

  7. Liberals, or whatever one calls them, aren't part of our culture, their interest is in overcoming it, yet they see fit to speak for it - and it goes on unchecked because they're allowed to assume the "us" whenever it serves their purpose.

    It's a good point, Shane.

    Even so, at a practical level we won't maintain our own existence if we don't get some of the younger, intellectual, political class types onside.

    Doing so means engaging in the public intellectual life, and building a presence within it.

    It also means making the points of distinction clear between political modernism (liberalism) and ourselves.

    One thing which has left us much weakened is that when individuals become disenchanted with mainstream left-liberalism, they often don't make a clean break with modernist politics, but drift into a right-liberalism instead.

    So the orthodoxy, no matter how self-destructive it is, remains intact.

    If we managed to attract a larger number of intelligent, politically active types to clearly support the kind of traditionalism we believe in, then we could start to achieve wider goals.

  8. Liberals, or whatever one calls them, aren't part of our culture, their interest is in overcoming it, yet they see fit to speak for it - and it goes on unchecked because they're allowed to assume the "us" whenever it serves their purpose.

    VERY good point.

    It is an interesting detail of the liberal worldview that they do seem to believe that all comment from a society must come from them since they are the only ones capable of expressing it.

    They hold this to be true because anyone who disagrees with them must be of an inferior intelligence, and if they are not then they must be evil.

    To a liberal the only possible correct worldview is a liberal one.

    This makes concepts of free speech in modern liberalism nothing less than a joke.