I'm re-reading Patrick Deneen's Why Liberalism Failed. One of the arguments Deneen makes is that when proto-liberals reconfigured the Western understanding of liberty in the early modern period, one prong of their attack was an attempt to overcome "the dominion and limits of nature." The proto-liberals favoured a belief "in an expanding and potentially limitless human capacity to control circumstance and effect human desires upon the world."
Deneen argues that there were two phases in this attempt to assert dominion over nature. In the first wave, the emphasis was on the conquest of the natural world:
Liberalism...embraced and advanced as well an economic system - market-based free enterprise - that similarly promoted human use, conquest, and mastery of the natural world. Early-modern liberalism held the view that human nature was unchangeable - human beings were, by nature, self-interested creatures whose base impulses could be harnessed but not fundamentally altered. (p.36)
By the later 1800s, however, a second wave of liberal thinkers criticised the earlier view by asserting that human nature itself could be conquered or mastered. Deneen goes on to make the following interesting distinction:
First-wave liberals are today represented by "conservatives," who stress the need for scientific and economic mastery of nature but stop short of extending this project to human nature. They support nearly any utilitarian use of the world for economic ends...[my emphasis]. Second-wave liberals increasingly approve nearly any technical means of liberating humans from the biological nature of our own bodies.
Deneen writes further that,
Liberalism...seeks to transform all of human life and the world. Its two revolutions - its anthropological individualism and the voluntarist conception of choice, and its insistence on the human separation from and opposition to nature - created its distinctive and new understanding of liberty as the most extensive possible expansion of the human sphere of autonomous activity." [my emphasis]
It is this second revolution, namely the liberal insistence on the human separation from and opposition to nature, that I want to focus on.
I attended a victory celebration today. Some "conservative" (i.e. right-liberal) councillors gained the upper hand in the last council election and suddenly announced that they were going to sell off 17 public reserves in my suburban area of Melbourne, with the idea being that they would be sold to developers to build more units.
A lot of us were shocked to hear the news. Why would anyone want to sell off these pockets of nature within suburbia just for short-term profit? Well, the mentality of these councillors fits in with the description provided by Deneen of first-wave liberals: they assume that human nature is self-interested and that nature is there to be exploited for utilitarian ends.
But there are a lot of lefties in the area I live in. They campaigned against the sell-offs, mobilised public support and ultimately saved most of the reserves (hence today's victory party). In my dealings with these left-wingers, I noticed that they were genuinely non-utilitarian in their attitude to the natural environment. They spoke at times about the importance of the beauty of nature and of its spiritual effects.
But here's the thing. When it comes to human nature, the left-liberals are no better than the right-liberals. They are just as willing to slash and burn, and to tread all over whatever there is of beauty and spirit within human nature, in order to assert a conquest and dominion over it.
They are no better - it is just that the focus of their efforts differs.
For prime evidence of this have a read of how left-liberalism operates in Sweden's preschools. The teachers at these schools have, as their prime mission, to eradicate distinctions between the boys and the girls. They are fiercely dedicated to this aim of destroying one significant aspect of human nature. They do not care if, by doing so, they eradicate what is beautiful within womanhood or what is strong and admirable within manhood. Just like the right-liberals, they assume that humans should stand separate to and in opposition to nature - to our nature as men and women.
From the New York Times article:
Science may still be divided over whether gender differences are rooted in biology or culture, but many of Sweden’s government-funded preschools are doing what they can to deconstruct them. State curriculum urges teachers and principals to embrace their role as social engineers, requiring them to “counteract traditional gender roles and gender patterns.”
It is normal, in many Swedish preschools, for teachers to avoid referring to their students’ gender — instead of “boys and girls,” they say “friends,” or call children by name. Play is organized to prevent children from sorting themselves by gender. A gender-neutral pronoun, “hen,” was introduced in 2012 and was swiftly absorbed into mainstream Swedish culture
This began in 1996 in Sweden when Ingemar Gens, a journalist, realised that preschools were a good place to suppress sex distinctions:
Preschool struck him as the right place to do this. Swedish children spend much of their early life in government-funded preschools, which offer care at nominal cost for up to 12 hours a day starting at the age of 1.
Two schools rolled out what was called a compensatory gender strategy. Boys and girls at the preschools were separated for part of the day and coached in traits associated with the other gender. Boys massaged each other’s feet. Girls were led in barefoot walks in the snow, and told to throw open the window and scream.
The teachers are expected to watch videos of how they interact with the students, to pick up on any subtle differences in how they treat the boys and girls:
“It was hard at first to see patterns,” she said. “We saw more and more, and we were horrified at what we saw.”
In Sweden the idea that any distinctions based on sex might still exist is considered "horrifying".
One trainee teacher so much dislikes it when she sees her friends dressing their children as boys or girls that she makes a point of trying to re-educate them:
Ms. Gerdin’s friends have begun to have babies, and they post pictures of them on Facebook, swathed in blue or pink, in society’s first act of sorting. Ms. Gerdin gets upset when this happens. She feels sorry for the children. She makes it a point to seek her friends out and tell them, earnestly, that they are making a mistake. This feels to her like a responsibility.
Finally, you can see in all of this an error that is often made in politics. The left-liberals reacted to something they didn't like in right-liberal politics, but opposed it from within the same political framework. They weren't able to think outside of the framework itself.
You have to be careful that you don't become merely reactive to the thing you have grown to dislike. What should exist instead is an independent orientation to the truth.
Traditionalists do not want to live outside of nature, whether that refers to the natural world or to human nature. We want to be connected to it, deeply, and to draw from it what is best within the human experience. We orient our lives, in part, through our place within a natural order (an order of existence that encompasses the biological, the social and the spiritual). That does not mean rejecting efforts to employ technology for useful purposes, but this is not the principle we live by, or that we wish society to be ordered by, or that we measure progress by.
A note to Melbourne readers. If you are sympathetic to the ideas of this website, please visit the site of the Melbourne Traditionalists. It's important that traditionalists don't remain isolated from each other; our group provides a great opportunity for traditionalists to meet up and connect. Details at the website.