Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The failure of liberal modernity: four proofs

We live in a social order in which there is no higher good recognised, but only the individual and his desires. What is supposed to matter is that individuals have the autonomy to pursue these desires and that individual desires are treated as equally valid. Society is to be organised centrally along clear and rational lines to put these principles into effect.

It is a view of society which is shared by nearly everyone in the political class. It has been a dominant orthodoxy now for many years. And yet, there are people born into this social order who come to the realisation that things are wrong - that something is seriously out of order.

What triggers this doubt about liberal modernity?

A) The arts

As a teenager I had a love for the high arts, in particular, for classical music, painting and poetry. I was very much struck, though, by the obvious decline in the high arts, beginning in the early twentieth century.

Where were the Bachs and Beethovens of my own time? The Europe of the past was poorer and less populated. It was supposed to be more backward. And yet it produced a wealth of great composers - a whole tradition of high art - which fell away during the 1900s.

Why hasn't liberal modernity produced high culture? One reason, perhaps, is that if we only recognise man and his desires, with no higher order toward which man aspires, then there is nothing for a high culture to successfully orient itself to.

And if there is no higher order for art to orient itself to, then anything can be art. What, for instance, was voted the most influential piece of modern art by the British art establishment? Marcel Duchamp's "Fountain" of 1917 - a urinal.

There is something seriously wrong with a culture which puts forward a urinal as its most influential artwork. This is a clear sign that liberal modernity is deeply flawed and won't produce a worthwhile civilisation.

B) Relationships

How are relationships between men and women in an advanced liberal society? Are things organised efficiently so that we get what we want (which is what liberal modernity claims to do as a matter of principle).

The answer is no. One problem is that there is too great a sense that men and women have competing interests. Another is that there is too little encouragement for men and women to live up to the best of their masculinity and femininity. Nor is our culture protective enough of the emotions through which men and women come to love and trust each other.

A lot of young men and women, trying to find the right partner, are likely to conclude that things are not as they are meant to be.

It's not surprising that things have gone wrong. If we only see things in terms of individual desires, then how can we legitimately make claims on others? It's only if we see relationships as a higher good, toward which we should orient ourselves, that we can better fit the expectations and desires of men and women together.

C) Fertility

A successful civilisation reproduces itself. Liberal modernity doesn't: it looks to immigration from non-liberal societies to maintain its population. If having children is a vote for the future, then liberal modernity is losing the election.

D) Emigration

If liberal modernity really was such a success story, then why are so many native citizens emigrating from the most advanced liberal countries.

For instance, in 2006 over 130,000 people left Holland; in 2007, 207,000 left Britain.

When you read the reasons for the decision to leave, often factors like crime and a changing cultural identity are mentioned.

Yes, it's true that many people from poorer countries would happily move to places like Britain or Holland. Even so, it's significant that many of the native-born population are so discontent that they have packed their bags for elsewhere.

When people left East Germany for the West it was thought to be a sign of the inherent weakness of communism. Now there are large numbers leaving the most liberal Western countries. Why would they do so if their own countries really were organised along the most beneficial lines?

15 comments:

  1. I've been looking at James Burnham's Suicide of the West. His thesis is that liberalism is the ideology of decline / suicide. That is, liberalism is not the cause of the decline, but the ideology adopted to reconcile or accommodate ourselves to the decline. (He doesn't offer much on the cause of the decline.)

    Thus, liberalism will take something that would typically be considered a sign of decline, or of defeat, and transforms it into a sign of progress or victory.

    For example, any of the four proofs Mr. Richardson offers fit the pattern nicely. Mr. Richardson mentions emigration and how that is a sign of a decaying country, but liberalism would say it shows how we are now all progressed to being cosmopolitan globalists and that is a good thing.

    Burnham's view does seem to explain why the left is so happily detached from reality. The worse things get in reality, the ideology of liberalism tells us things are really getting better.

    He also describes the ideology itself in great detail, but I find his explanation of why people (especially the optimists) embrace liberalism to be intriguing.

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  2. Jaz, I haven't read Burnham's book. It's true, though, that liberals will sometimes reinterpret signs of decline as signs of progress.

    I remember, for instance, the judge in charge of the family court here in Australia claiming that a high rate of divorce was a good thing because it represented the liberation of women.

    Other avoidance strategies by liberal moderns include:

    a) recognising the decline but claiming that the solution is a larger dose of liberalism

    b) claiming that it's part of a larger drift of society which we have no control over

    c) claiming that individuals caught up in the decline have actively chosen that particular outcome

    d) suggesting that people have only themselves to blame for decline, and that the sacrifice of individuals is necessary for long-term progress

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  3. I completely diasagree with your claim that modernity "only recognise(s) man and his desires, with no higher order toward which man aspires..."

    Modernity recognises man's impulses with no regard for man's desire, since this desire is aspiration toward a higher order.

    I think you begin to tease this out your discussion on relationships. Man, both male and female, have an innate desire for transcendent love, for something out of this world in this world. But modernity instead encourages our rutting instead, mistaking this impulse for desire itself.

    The same is true in regards to Art (beauty). But you deal only with beauty and love in your post. I think you could much strengthen your thesis if you also dealt with justice and truth.

    The fact is that my desire, my true desire, is something innate, which has been a part of me my entire existence, and it is something which cannot be manipulated or mutated, only suffocated. It, the desire of the human heart, is an infallible criterion for judging reality: a thing satisfies the longings of my soul or it does not. This longing, this desire, points always and everywhere toward this higher order which makes true Art possible.

    In closing, a brilliant artist need to believe in God, but he must take seriously his own desire for God, searching for Him everywhere and in all things.

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  4. Franklin, one of the problems is that liberal moderns place man in a wholly secular setting and therefore can't take the desires you write about at face value.

    It doesn't mean that the desire to connect in the way you describe isn't there - it just isn't formally recognised.

    I wrote an article a while ago about an Australian Marxist of the 1920s and 30s named Jean Devanny. She was committed to a scientific materialism and yet hidden away in her novels was evidence of something else.

    For instance, she describes a tropical sunset as follows:

    "The sunset of this last day was of a nature to make one quake half in ecstasy, half in pain ...

    An incredible quiet and stillness fell: a glowing stillness, in which the world changed to the colour of old-gold.

    Then, in one last ecstatic burst, [the island] was let to even greater splendour ...

    A soft diaphanous veil of rose touched the waters of the main lagoon, the outer sea turned to forget-me-not blue and then dusk, moonless dusk, fell down as though some lordly hand, unable to bear longer the unearthly magnificence of it all, had clapped down a colossal lid."

    But this kind of experience didn't inform her intellectual view of things. She remained throughout her life committed to a Marxist outlook.

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  5. To add to my comment about Burnham, he gives surprisingly little attention to the cause and to the cure for liberalism. Very little. For the cause, he surmises a single sentence, that we've either lost our religion or we have too much wealth. As for the cure, he thinks liberalism is like a fever in a man that will simply...pass. Once gone, the man will wonder what it was all about.

    My interest was in this little psychological bit that I hadn't heard anyone else describe, and is one explantion of the anti-West madness of liberalism. It could also be the mad joy of nihilistic destruction of all that is good. But Burnham is careful to say that liberals are optimists and in the face of decline, need an ideology of optimism, not a reality of decline.

    Franklin, it should be clear that desire can become disordered, and thus it is when someone embraces nihilism and becomes a liberal.

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  6. Do you seriously think that the West in the 20th Century hasn't produced any 'great' or 'high' art?

    Off the top of my head, I could name about 50 artists that clearly demonstrate the opposite. In fact, the contemporary world still produces high art, from Arvo Part to J. Coetzee. Your 'proof' is little more than unsubstantiated prejudice.

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  7. Thr, it maybe wasn't best for you to begin your list with Arvo Part. This is from wikipedia:

    "His early works ranged from rather severe neo-classical styles influenced by Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Bartók. He then began to compose using Schoenberg's twelve-tone technique and serialism. This, however, not only earned the ire of the Soviet establishment, but also proved to be a creative dead-end.

    When early works were banned by Soviet censors, Pärt entered the first of several periods of contemplative silence, during which he studied choral music from the 14th to 16th centuries.[3]

    In this context, Pärt's biographer, Paul Hillier, observed that "... he had reached a position of complete despair in which the composition of music appeared to be the most futile of gestures, and he lacked the musical faith and will-power to write even a single note."

    The spirit of early European polyphony informed the composition of Pärt's transitional Third Symphony (1971); and thereafter, he immersed himself in early music, re-investigating the roots of western music.

    He studied plainsong, Gregorian chant, and the emergence of polyphony in the Renaissance. The music that began to emerge after this period was radically different. This period of new compositions included Fratres, Cantus In Memoriam Benjamin Britten, and Tabula Rasa.[3]"


    So Part went back to a pre-modern past - back to the roots of the Western classical tradition - to find his musical inspiration.

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  8. Thr, I wouldn't claim that you can't find any single pieces of worthwhile classical music written after WWII. There are pieces written by Australian composers such as Nigel Westlake and Peter Sculthorpe which I enjoy.

    Still, the decline in the classical music tradition seems clear to me - and to others.

    The British historian Paul Johnson has noted that up to 1914, it was usual for 90% of the music at concerts to be contemporary, i.e. written by living or recently deceased composers. That figure is now more like 10%.

    The music producer George Martin once recalled that "In 1967 I thought classical music was dead."

    Simon Miller has noted that by the 1980s, "The realisation came that there was no compulsion for the contemporary audience to listen to contemporary [classical] music. Nor need it do so in the future. The avant-garde had battled ahead, but no one was inclined to follow."

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  9. Finally, Thr, I find it curious that you accuse me of being prejudiced.

    (It's relevant to note here that Thr is a Melbourne Marxist.)

    Why not just argue that I was wrong, for x reason? Why assume that someone you disagree with is "prejudiced"?

    Do you believe that modernism is the only reasonable take on things? Do you believe that those who diverge from it must therefore be motivated by some defect in character and thought ("prejudice", "bigotry")?

    If so, it's a very curious position for someone on the left to take. Leftists usually like to consider themselves dissenters and free thinkers. You, though, are excluding the possibility of dissent from modernism in thought and society.

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  10. So Part went back to a pre-modern past - back to the roots of the Western classical tradition - to find his musical inspiration.

    But so did pretty much every major Western artist from 1900 to today. Exactly the same thing could be said of Picasso, Joyce, T.S. Eliot...And since art doesn't happen in a vacuum, it's bound to be influenced by one tradition or another, even if only as a springboard to react against. Part's music is contemporary, even if it has synthesised some older traditions.

    You asked: 'Why hasn't liberal modernity produced high culture?' The very nature of the question is flawed. First, much of modernity has little 'liberal' about it. Two world wars come to mind as rather obvious examples. Secondly, the border between 'high' and 'low' culture is much less distinct these days. The folk music of Bob Dylan, for instance, is not high culture, but is arguably as important as the poets and minstrels of any age. The very best cinema also manages to combine great artistry with a popular format, unless, with you, we consign Hitchcock, Scorsese, Eisenstein, Bergman and Kurosawa to the trashcan of history.


    In response to some of your other points:

    The British historian Paul Johnson has noted that up to 1914, it was usual for 90% of the music at concerts to be contemporary, i.e. written by living or recently deceased composers. That figure is now more like 10%.
    If this is the Paul Johnson I'm thinking of, you are being exceedingly charitable to dub him an 'historian'. In any case, I think you once again seek to attribute certain shifts to liberalism, without any reference to the crass and cynical nature of the marketplace. I would agree in the case of popular music, for instance, that there is an awful lot of unadulterated crap out there, but it sells well, and the machinations of record company execs have little if anything to do with liberalism.


    In labelling you 'prejudiced', I mean that I think you're erecting your own aesthetic preferences and biases into a kind of universal law, and seeing 'decline' where this law isn't adhered to. I actually think you could have given Duchamp's gesture a more nuanced discussion, but in any case, you could have singled out any number of other art works as emblematic of modernity. What about Picasso's Guernica, for instance?

    Do you believe that modernism is the only reasonable take on things? Do you believe that those who diverge from it must therefore be motivated by some defect in character and thought ("prejudice", "bigotry")?
    With all due respect, I think your first question here is meaningless. You speak of 'modernism' as if it is some unified thing to be measured against your beloeved 'traditionalism'. However, there's nothing unified about modernism, it offers no single all-encompassing worldview. Heisenberg, Freud, Marx, Darwin, Einstein, Nietzsche, Picasso et. al. have little in common with each other, except for all being modern Europeans. You cannot simply place them all into some intellectual blender and abstract 'modernism' from them.

    As for defects in character and thought - I think that bigotry is real (it's not hard to find!), but I wouldn't put it down to 'defects' in character/thought precisely.

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  11. Jaz, re your comments on John Burnhams's book, I've not heard of that one.

    If you're looking for a very interesting look at how liberal societies can arise, Lee Harris' book, The Suicide of Reason is excellent.

    Harris talks about how our modern western societies (with a major focus on the US) have developed, and what threats our societies face.

    The subtitle is "Radical islam's threat to the west," but the book actually spends very little time on that. It is more about what is happening in our society and how we may be able to deal with our possible decline.

    It's also written in a very non-biased way, so as to be accessible by those of both right and left-wing mindsets.

    (I know this because I've loaned my copy out to a friend of mine who is an Age subscriber with all that implies lol!)

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  12. Thr, I've seen films by directors such as Kurosawa and Tarkovsky which I would freely accept as high art.

    However, these films were made some time ago now by directors who drew on much earlier cultural traditions.

    Cinema could be a great art form, but isn't.

    I disagree with you that there are no unifying features of modernism.

    It's common for instance to hear moderns explain the purpose of art as being to shock or confront; it's common too for moderns to aim to break down the form of art; related to this is the idea that anything can be art (e.g. American composer John Cage's attempts to place together everyday noises in his compositions).

    The idea that the purpose of art is to shock and confront is expressed frequently.

    For instance, the latest artwork to be unveiled in Melbourne is an enormous picture of a semi-naked woman in a rabbit costume, placed on the external wall of a building in the central business district.

    (I don't think it's worth seeing, but there's a link here).

    What did Graeme Thomson, an "art lover", say about the work? Predictably this:

    "It's confronting. It's right at you, it affects me, and it's good."

    As for modernism in society, it's only necessary to observe the way that all the Western countries are following a similar path, with very little difference in their political obsessions, their academic culture, their educational trends, and their approaches to family life and to gender issues.

    You only have to observe the trends within the most radical part to correctly predict the eventual movement of the whole.

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  13. It's common for instance to hear moderns explain the purpose of art as being to shock or confront; it's common too for moderns to aim to break down the form of art; related to this is the idea that anything can be art.

    True, but I think this was more prevalent early in the 20th C, and more pronounced in the visual arts. I can't imagine too many composers or novelists wanting to shock.
    The concept of 'shock' is one where I would agree with you in terms of 'decline'. There's a big difference between the shock of Cubism, The Rite of Spring and Ulysses and excreta on a canvas. But not everything is a matter of decline - there are still plenty of brilliant contemporary novels. Once upon a time the novel was considered a trashy and populist medium.

    As for modernism in society, it's only necessary to observe the way that all the Western countries are following a similar path, with very little difference in their political obsessions, their academic culture, their educational trends, and their approaches to family life and to gender issues.

    I'm not so sure. I think there's an enormous amount of tradition still around, but this tradition is intermingled with modernity. Quite literally, nomads in Mongolia will still herd livestock on horseback, but now they use mobile phones. Italians are still incredibly family-oriented folk who love an evening stroll round a piazza, whilst at the same time being thoroughly integrated into a contemporary consumerist society.

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  14. Here's the piece of "art" out front of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art. To imagine that the artist's soul is full of anything but the blackest nihilism and vile hatred of his fellow man is to delude one's self.

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  15. Mark Richardson says:

    If liberal modernity really was such a success story, then why are so many native citizens emigrating from the most advanced liberal countries.

    For instance, in 2006 over 130,000 people left Holland; in 2007, 207,000 left Britain.

    When you read the reasons for the decision to leave, often factors like crime and a changing cultural identity are mentioned.


    Most people disgusted with crime and changing cultural identity "emigrate" from the urban to suburban areas. Its called "white flight" in the US.

    It has stopped now that crime is on the decline. In fact Harlem is undergoing a rennaissance.

    Most capable people who emigrate from an OECD state are doing so for personal or professional, not political, reasons.

    They are moving in response to a better job offer or perhaps because they have met a spouse overseas.

    In AUS such people often emigrate from a liberal to a hyper-liberal jurisdiction such as London or New York.

    So the emigration evidence you present does not really support your thesis.

    There is some evidence that Londoners and New Yorker are emigrating to more rural locales ie tree-changing. Mostly this is to find cheaper accommodation in a pleasant setting.

    Although some would be of the Theodore Dalrymple type who are disgusted with Britain's neo-Hogarthian street life.

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