Saturday, December 05, 2015

The unfolding of modernity

The following is only a quick sketch and is not meant to capture everything. I hope though that it helps some readers get a handle on the steps by which the liberal worldview unfolds.

In brief, the modern liberal mindset gets to where it is through these steps:

Step 1: A denial that there is a stable, objective, external truth that exists or can be known to us.

Step 2: Therefore, the good in life is the act of choosing for ourselves; this is what generates the value that gives human life its dignity. The core value is a freedom understood to mean a right to determine our own self and being (self-determination and individual autonomy).

(A variant on this: the good is not in a community disciplining itself to a truth that resides eternally outside of itself but in the assertion of its own will or in its collective ability to shape its own reality.)

Step 3: If human dignity rests on a freedom to determine our own self, then the unchosen aspects of self should be made not to matter, including our biological sex, race and sexuality and the social roles flowing from these.

So, although for liberals there is no moral order existing objectively outside the individual, there is a new morality in which we must accept the right of others to self-determine. Therefore, we must be non-discriminatory, open to the other, tolerant, inclusive, accepting of diversity and so on.

Step 4: Therefore, there does exist a kind of moral order generated by liberalism, which does then restrict what the individual may or may not do or believe (despite the starting point of a belief in a freedom to self-determine). Individuals in a liberal order may not have beliefs that would make the unchosen aspects of self (biological sex, race, sexuality) or the social roles flowing from these matter in a public context. An individual may be judged guilty, in thought or deed, of discrimination, intolerance, exclusion, prejudice, sexism and so on.

Step 5: If there is no objective, external layer of reality by which we might come to know moral truths or ideals, then the informal, traditional ordering of societies will appear "opaque," irrational or baseless. Instead, it will seem more efficient and scientific to order society along technical lines, according to what is required by markets (i.e. society is organised around the tangible and measurable criteria of what helps an economy to be profitable) or along bureaucratic lines, in which the individual stands in a direct line to the state, with the goals being again the measurable and tangible ones of health, education, housing, welfare and so on.

Step 6: In practice modern societies are ordered along both market and bureaucratic lines. However, some moderns (right-liberals) prefer the market option (the economy) and others (left-liberals) the bureaucracy (the social option). The concept of liberty for right-liberals will emphasise a deregulated freedom to act in the market; left-liberals will prefer a more interventionist state guaranteeing an equality in those conditions of life which help individuals to act autonomously (i.e. they want to overcome disadvantage, understood to mean access to resources for a self-determining life, particularly disadvantage that correlates to those unchosen qualities that are not meant to matter such as our biological sex or race).

Step 7: Happiness and equality don't arrive as they're supposed to. Why? Some liberal moderns assert that it is because some groups of people have a self-interest in preventing it happening. Some groups of people get together and construct a false identity (e.g. maleness or whiteness) which then allows them an unearned privilege at the expense of other groups who are positioned as "the other" (the non-privileged groups). The whole of society is set up to uphold this unearned privilege, meaning that the privileged groups and the society they inhabit must be deconstructed before the promised society of equality and freedom can finally arrive.

So those are the basic steps. There are plenty of people who are at least dimly aware that there is something wrong with the liberal modernity that results from this way of thinking about the world. For instance, liberal societies aren't able to maintain borders - they are porous. In liberal societies, men and white people are attacked as oppressors. In liberal societies, politics is reduced to the management of the economy and certain social goods such as education and housing. In liberal societies there is no encouragement toward positive character goals or virtues, there are only the passive goals of tolerating or not discriminating. In liberal societies, important aspects of identity, such as those relating to manhood and womanhood, or to ancestry and ethny, are gradually dissolved.

But people feel overwhelmed by what appears to be a monolith. How can you possibly take on something that seems to have entrenched itself so deeply into Western society?

Those who do try to resist usually choose the wrong step. Last century most social conservatives, for instance, chose step 6. They opposed the left-liberal wing of modernity by supporting the right-liberal one. Predictably, it had little effect.

There have also been alternative forms of modernity which took the more collectivist path as described briefly in step 2 (possibly under the influence of German idealist philosophy). But this did not challenge modernity itself: it was a different face of modernity rather than a rejection of it.

It is possible as well to challenge liberal modernity at step 7 by objecting to the vilification of white people and men. This is a useful thing to do (a matter of self-defence), but it won't stop the juggernaut of modernity as it doesn't challenge it at its source.

Finally, there have also been those who have challenged modernity by asking what led to step 1. Was it the nominalist victory over philosophical realism? The influence of Gnosticism amongst influential intellectuals? This is an interesting and useful discussion but I don't think it's the best entry point for resisting liberal modernity.

My opinion is that an effective challenge will include two things. First, stating as clearly as possible what liberalism is and where it leads (as a means of clearing people's minds of it as thoroughly as possible). Second, reasserting what was lost from step 1 (so that we shunt aside centuries of liberal development in one decisive move).

The second step will require some scaffolding, as it is now difficult for people to readily give voice to pre-liberal thought. We can start a discussion about character and virtue; about ideals of manliness or womanliness; of natural forms of identity and attachment, and of the loves, loyalties and duties associated with them; of what makes for a good life, or of what some of our life purposes might be; of how the human personality comes to fruition or to its higher purposes; of how different sides of the human personality might be harmonised or ordered.


  1. Great article, and I think that the step 5 is essential.

    I have an unending contempt towards left-liberalism but I also think that right-liberalism inevitably leads to its left counterpart.

    It's more economically efficient not to have a family and to be an autonomous entity rather than being a part of a community.

    Employers prefer childless and single employees, as they are more loyal and productive, because they don't have to choose between the employer and the family. Can a woman think about work when her baby has cold?

    Political correctness (which gave birth to the concept of white guilt and other rubbish) demanded by international business in order to have people of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds working together. Americans are much more politically correct because most international firms are located in the US.

    In order to integrate to the world economy other countries have to follow this path. But what's the choice, indeed?

    For some reason we assume that there must be an endless economical growth and that's why developed countries need to import more population (as long as their families are disintegrated and no longer produce new people).

    I see Leftism not even as a disease, but rather a dead-body decomposition process. It cannot be cured in the society obsessed with economical growth and consumption. Not mentioning degradation of Catholic church. I read recently about Sweden lesbian-bishop who proposed to remove crosses from churches so Muslim immigrants won't be offended. This is the end. And Leftism is a symptom, not a cause.

  2. Some interesting points in there Mark.

    I think step 5 describes better something I've been focused on recently; the implicit utilitarianism I've been finding everywhere.

    My best example is the way the education system seems to have become.
    From a classical perspective, and when education was generally something only the wealthy could afford, the original purpose was to impart wisdom and create a well-rounded person, who could think for themselves (without having to blindly accept or denounce authority). You were taught an instrument or singing so you could realise the intrinsic beauty of the medium. You learnt a foreign language partly because you gained so much understanding of your own language but also saw the differences in paradigm. Maths had some utility but was also deemed important because of the beauty in truth and proof.
    Now the argument for music in the curriculum would be that it improves exam grades in other subjects (and listening to classical music makes your baby smarter or something ridiculous). You learn Chinese so you can better import/export cheap crap, or it is mandated that everyone must major in STEM and become programmers because some businesses demand more labour.

    Though I'm certainly interested in your view, Mark. Am I right that you're a teacher yourself?

    Even the diversity and acceptance stuff is passed off as utility because it improves productivity in the workplace, and the left are trying to kick start a new argument for "middle out" economics, which once again is more or less based on the utility of a strong economy, given the idea that the middle class are the ones buying most of the trash.

    Whatever happened to arguing principles?

  3. Very good point. When there is no anything of a higher order then it boils down to utility. Mass media now follow the principle "better print inaccurate information first, rather than be accurate but second". Why? Because being first pays. There is nothing of a higher order to do otherwise. The public needs emotions not the truth. It's like a junkie who only thinks about cheap but effortless pleasure and completely ignoring the long-term consequences.

    In some sense Leftism is trying to impose something of a higher order. Equality. Probably it's seen as a global ideology which is meant to replace "local" religions and unite humanity. "Imagine there is no nations and no religion too".

    Leftism is supported by business as it allows to unify national markets and increase profits. After all mass marketing is about making people want the same things regardless of their cultural and ethnic backgrounds.

    Is it sustainable and viable alternative? I have my doubts. First of all human's desire for mystery is huge. Leftism doesn't offer anything transcendental. Deconstruction of national cultures deprives us of immunity to anything. Catholic church completely discredited itself by following the false paradigm of Equality. Secondly, fighting the family is suicidal for any ideology. Biology is stronger than anything (and utilitarianism is an extension of our biological instincts).

  4. One might add that liberalism advocates process over content and this dichotomy is where the left and right are constantly embattled. Liberalism and liberals tell us that particulars (content) are the source of bias and discrimination and that the next step in open-ended progressive development is all that matters. If a consumerist material world leaves us empty (which it does) then happiness must lie in process and movement. When people don't place much value on what is in their lives, materially or spiritually, this can be a seductive proposition.