Sunday, December 31, 2017

Patrick Deneen: Why liberalism failed

Here's a positive way to end 2017. Patrick Deneen, an Associate Professor of Politics at Notre Dame, has written a book called Why Liberalism Failed. I have ordered it and will review it once it arrives. But from the publicity it is clear that Deneen has a political philosophy that is similar in parts to that of James Kalb and myself, as I hope you'll recognise from the excerpts of an online interview below. It's heartening to see this happening within academia, where it will hopefully have some influence.
Patrick Deneen

The first thing that Deneen usefully recognises is that Western politics is dominated by two variants of the same liberal philosophy. He calls them classical and progressive:
Camosy: When you say that “liberalism has failed,” you don’t mean that liberalism-as opposed to conservatism-has failed. Can you say more about what you mean by liberalism?

Deneen: By “liberalism,” I mean the political philosophy and the resulting political institutions, practices and beliefs that dominate the governments and societies of much of the western world. Its founding fathers were philosophers like John Locke, and in the United States, the architects of our Constitutional order. But I also include in their number those considered to be “progressives,” such as John Stuart Mill, or in the United States, John Dewey.

Most of our political debates pit “classical” against “progressive” liberal visions, holding the two views as diametric opposites and thus circumscribing the whole of our political imagination.

He also believes that liberalism has gradually unfolded over time, but that its very success has led to its failure:
What I seek to describe is a gradual but accelerating “realization” of a set of philosophical beliefs that have transformed practices, making us more fully liberal over time, and as a result, giving rise to a slow realization that its success leads to its own set of systemic failures. My thesis is that liberalism has failed precisely at the moment that it has succeeded

Deneen recognises that liberalism is not just a neutral position but an ideology based on a view of man as being an atomised, autonomous individual:
Camosy: Why do you think so many liberals fail to understand that liberalism, rather than a neutral political and ideological space, is a particular ideology and worldview?

Deneen: Liberalism has shrouded its substantive commitments behind a veil of neutrality, although some of its classical and contemporary philosophers and defenders are forthright about those substantive commitments...

...liberalism advances by positing the belief that humans exist in a state of nature as autonomous, disconnected, wholly free and rights-bearing creatures.

But what is claimed to be merely a description of human nature over time becomes an aim and goal of liberal society itself, gradually but ineluctably shaping people in the image of what it merely claims to describe. Thus, we increasingly see a liberal people defined by absence of interpersonal commitments, whether marriage, family, children, or memberships in longstanding cultures or a religious community.

Further, where commitments are taken on, they are subject to perpetual revision - whether through divorce in the matter of marriage, abortion in regard to children, or church shopping or the rise of “Nones” in the case of religion. Such people are driven above all by demands of consumption and money-making, claiming the right to self-definition while abandoning any longstanding cultural practices of self-limitation, which become increasingly regarded as unjust and unjustified limitations upon one’s freedom and autonomy.

More ironically still, a massive growth of the state is required to make this experience of individualism possible, thus enthralling purportedly free subjects to a pervasive political order.

He believes that Roman Catholic culture in the West is no longer clearly an alternative to liberalism, but tends to divide along classical vs progressive liberal lines:
Camosy: How have Roman Catholics-and even Roman Catholic moral and political theology-accepted certain aspects of liberal ideology? What might this mean for the Church as liberalism fails?

Deneen: Tragically, at least in America but perhaps more pervasively in the West, Catholicism has come increasingly to be defined by and experienced as the two political iterations of liberalism, whether “classical” or “progressive.” Rather than offering a distinct alternative, many Catholics have come to understand their faith through the lens of these dominant expressions of liberal philosophy.

...Catholicism rejects both anthropological individualism and collectivist statism, but today we are divided into Catholic tribes who by default advance one or the other as a central political project.

Deneen holds that liberalism has destroyed genuine cultures, which then have to be replaced more formally by state organisation, which then means that politics becomes a matter of contesting for the levers of the state. He wants in the longer term to return to more traditional, non-statist ways of life:
I argue in my book that liberalism advances an “anti-culture”: whether through blandishments of the market or the power of the state, it seeks to weaken and eviscerate culture and replace it with a homogenous anti-culture of “free” people who consume pre-packaged, monetized “popular culture,” but no longer live in actual cultures of memory and tradition.

Inasmuch as we see deep instability and forms of systemic failure in our politics, this dysfunction occurs not in spite of an otherwise healthy culture, but to a great extent because of the destruction of culture and its replacement with an anti-culture. As cultural norms, practices and forms of belonging are eviscerated, informal codes must be replaced by legal systems and state enforcement of legalized directives.

From what I've read so far, it is possible that Deneen will not go beyond the concept of "cultural communities," but I'll have more to say on this once I've read his book.

Regardless of this, I am hopeful that the book will have a very positive effect in breaking down the liberal hegemony within academia. It's so timely as well - there is an audience out there now for intelligent and principled criticisms of the liberal ideology.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

There is no brake

A reader had an interesting response to my last post. I had warned that part of the dissident right was made up of disaffected right-liberals who might act to corral the movement within a liberal politics. The reader said of this group:
These are the people who will try to convince you that the only problem with liberalism is that there are people who have pushed it too far.

The reader went on to argue that liberalism will always gravitate to extremes:
There is no such thing as moderate liberalism, or moderate feminism. Once you accept a mild version of these ideologies you will end up with the extreme version. Every single time. The very nature of these ideologies is that they are Utopian. They just have to keep pushing until Utopia is achieved. Once set in motion they cannot be stopped.

I think this is right. The way liberalism tends to work is that one generation takes it so far and then thinks that it has gone far enough. But their children grow up with the new liberal ways and notice that there are things that still don't fit in with a liberal concept of justice. So they push society further along the liberal path until they think things have gone far enough...and so on.

Liberalism will keep traveling in a certain direction, along a certain path, without stopping, because there is no brake built into it. Even if you managed to take it back a decade or so, it would come back again in much the same way.

If you are a liberal, and you want to maximise individual autonomy, you do so by opposing all the things that place limits on what an individual can choose to become or to do. This includes whatever is predetermined that influences our choices, such as an assertion of a binding moral code, or the sex or race we are born to, or even the nationality we inherit. For as long as these things matter (i.e. influence us in some way) there is, for a liberal, a social injustice to overcome.

Furthermore, if autonomy is the source of our human dignity, then it has to be accorded to everyone equally, otherwise we deny the human dignity of others. So if it can be shown that any one group, on the basis of predetermined qualities, suffers a disparity in any life outcome, then that too is for liberals a social justice that has to be overcome.

Which makes the liberal program a radical one from the outset, even if it is implemented gradually over time. And there is no way to draw a line in the sand beyond which liberalism will not venture, because that, for liberals, would mean allowing a "social injustice" to continue.

This means not only that liberals are willing to commit to major transgressions (erasing traditional nations, deconstructing the family, making our sex a personal choice rather than a biological reality), they will also seek out minor transgressions as well (e.g. getting upset if a boy plays with a truck and a girl with a doll).

It is all made worse by the belief that many liberals have that they are "immanentising the eschaton." These liberals believe that there is an end point to humanity, an end of history, when liberal social justice will reign, and the purpose and meaning of humanity will finally be realised. There are liberals who construct a quasi-religious sense of meaning and purpose from this, so it is very difficult for them to abandon this vision of an arc of progress of humanity toward its ultimate fulfilment, by saying "we have taken these principles far enough, they are now doing harm." If they were to acknowledge such a thing, the sense of purpose they have hung onto would collapse. It's not possible for these liberals to acknowledge the possibility that liberalism, taken too far, might do harm, as liberalism is supposed to take humanity right to its very end point. There can be no "too far".

All of which means that there cannot be an escape from liberal excesses. The liberalism we have is the liberalism we were always going to get.

Which means that there is no avoiding the political task of going back and rethinking the first principles on which our societies operate. We can do better, much better, than the liberal assertion that "freedom as autonomy" is the sole, overriding good. There are many goods to be upheld within a human community, and the task is to order them so that they fit together as well as can be managed.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Not a true outsider?

If you want the West to continue into the future in any recognisable form, then you have to be a political outsider - at least for the time being.

That's because the political establishment is committed to a liberalism that is dissolving of traditional society. 

In the past, the establishment got away with things by giving people the option of a liberal left or a liberal right. You could have passionate disagreement within the sphere of this choice. And it worked - hardly anyone ever left the inside of liberal politics.

But with liberal dominance came ever more radical consequences. Over the past few years an outside finally started to emerge. 

This has been wonderful to observe. But for some time I have expressed the concern that the outside was made up of two parts. There is a rank and file that genuinely wants to break from the liberal establishment. But there are also leading figures who are still right liberal by conviction and who only came to the outside because the very dominance of liberalism has made it intolerant and has increasingly placed limits on speech. These free speech right liberals want academic freedom, wish to take on the campus left, don't want to be bound by political correctness, and take individual responsibility seriously.

But they are still liberals. And the danger is that they will seem like courageous outsiders, which then gives them the opportunity to corral those who are drifting outside, to keep them within a liberal politics. You then end up with a controlled opposition.

To make my point clear, look at the following Tweet from Jordan Peterson:

Jordan Peterson is an intelligent man with a commanding manner. His presentations are interesting and often insightful. He has taken on the campus left, who in turn have strenuously attacked him.

So he seems like an outsider. But as he admits his real role is to corral those drifting outside, to bring them back to the centre - to the inside. In doing so, he is helping the West to stay on its current course - which means that the breakdown will only get worse.

The political outside (the "dissident right") will take a step forward when the prominent leaders are those who understand the need to reject liberalism itself in a principled way. I am optimistic that this will happen, but in the meantime we have to take care to distinguish the faux outside from the real thing.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

The good course

The current Pope is not a great respecter of nations. He has, for instance, just recently proclaimed that illegal immigrants must have the right to remain, without detention and with full access to social welfare - which is in practice a call for open borders and mass flows of migration.

But it was not always so. In 1920 Pope Benedict was alarmed by the conditions in Europe in the aftermath of the First World War. He issued a motu proprio titled "Bonum Sane" or "The good course".

He identified a series of problems, including class conflict and a breakdown in family life. He believed that the war had had a negative effect on the family:
the sanctity of conjugal faith and respect for the paternal authority have been many people not so vulnerable because of the war; and because the distance of one of the spouses has slowed down the bond of duty in the other, and because the absence of a watchful eye has given the opportunity to inconsiderateness, especially female, to live on their own talent and too freely. Therefore we must find with real sorrow that now the public customs are much more depraved and corrupt than before...

It's a poor translation, but the gist of it seems to be that the war, in separating husbands and wives and making women more independent, harmed the sense of duty of the spouses to each other, allowed them (especially the women) to live too freely (i.e. without concern for the good of the family), and undermined respect for paternal authority.

But it is what follows on from this that is of most interest. Pope Benedict XV, concerned about the socialist upheavals in parts of Europe at this time in history, issued this warning:
Therefore we must find with real sorrow that now the public customs are much more depraved and corrupt than before, and that therefore the so-called " social question " has been aggravated to such an extent as to generate the threat of irreparable ruins. The advent of a Universal Republic, which is longed for by all the worst elements of disorder, and confidently expected by them, is an idea which is now ripe for execution. From this republic, based on the principles of absolute equality of men and community of possessions, would be banished all national distinctions, nor in it would the authority of the father over his children, or of the public power over the citizens, or of God over human society, be any longer acknowledged. If these ideas are put into practice, there will inevitably follow a reign of unheard-of terror. Already, even now, a large portion of Europe is going through that doleful experience and We see that it is sought to extend that awful state of affairs to other regions.

Pope Benedict XV believed that it was the "worst elements of disorder" that were pushing for the abolition of "all national distinctions". He connects this drive to abolish national distinctions to a demand for an "absolute equality of men" which doesn't stop at internationalism but has wider repercussions, also undermining family, church and society.

What is striking is that the Church in 1920 did not side with the forces of dissolution but set itself resolutely against them.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Tim Farron: the cure for liberal tyranny is liberalism?

Tim Farron was, until recently, the leader of the British Liberal Democrats. He is a serious Christian as well as a serious liberal. But he is starting to think that things are going wrong. Seriously wrong.

He gave a speech last month in which he acknowledged that liberalism has become an orthodoxy:
Liberalism has apparently won. Even members of the Conservative and Labour parties call themselves liberals today. Let’s be honest, you can’t work in the media without being a liberal. Even most of the journalists who write for the right wing press are in truth liberals.

Despite my best efforts, the Liberal Democrats have not won. But irrespective of my efforts, Liberalism has.

The problem for Tim Farron is that the dominance of liberalism has led it to impose itself on society to the point that it is becoming difficult to be a serious Christian:
My observation is that for many years now our culture has considered that the absence of faith is the neutral position, and that the holding of a religious faith is eccentric. In other words, an absence of faith is the standard assumption around which we build our social structures, and if you have a faith we will consider you to be eccentric in the whacky and harmless sense… so we will tolerate you, as long as you remain on the edges.

What appears now to be happening is that while the absence of faith is still thought to be the neutral position, holding a faith is only considered to be tolerably eccentric if it is merely cultural. But if your faith actually affects your world view in any way that puts it at odds with the mainstream, then your faith is considered to be malign and intolerable.

Tim Farron believes that modern liberalism is becoming a "respectable tyranny" and that,
my hypothesis today is that in this country and across the world, Liberalism will eat itself. Is eating itself. May already have eaten itself.

He notes too that liberal secularism leads to a narrow concept of human life, that it "reduces everyone down to either consumer or regulatory units...We’ve been atomised."

What is his solution? He argues that liberals should go back in time, to the liberalism of J.S. Mill, in which there would be a pluralistic society in which different world views would be tolerated. He also argues that Christianity in particular should be tolerated as liberalism rests on certain philosophical beliefs drawn from Christianity (i.e. that liberalism puts itself at risk if it discards Christianity).

I don't think he grasps the problem adequately in making these arguments. There is a logic to the core beliefs of liberalism which sets it at odds with Christianity.

The liberal starting point sounds OK for establishing pluralism. One of the core liberal beliefs, after all, is that individuals should be free to pursue their own goods as long as in doing so there is no interference with the right of others to do the same.

But to make this work it helps if liberals look on their preferences as being subjective or private. That way their preferences don't infringe on the validity of what others might choose. Let's say, for instance, that I choose as a man to marry a woman. If I am a liberal, it would be awkward if I asserted that this represents an objective good, i.e. a preference that is rightly ordered. If I were to do so it would suggest that marrying someone of the same sex is not a valid choice. I would be invalidating someone else's preferences and identity, a violation that would draw down on me the liberal moral reproach that I was being "bigoted" or "intolerant" or "prejudiced".

Similarly, it suits a liberal culture if there is thought to be nothing in the nature of reality itself to limit what I might choose to do or to be. That then means that these is less to limit my autonomous choice, which is a marker of human status and dignity for liberals. It is better from the liberal point of view if I am a blank slate so that I can be wholly the author of my own life. Better if there are 1000 sexes rather than just two. Better if race is just a social construct. Better if there is no natural law to constrain or to guide my moral choices.

Remember too that for liberals a progress toward a society where there is "equal freedom" to pursue our subjective goods is a matter of social justice, of equal dignity, of human flourishing, and of realising the ultimate ends of humanity. It is the source of hope, of liberation and of meaning. Many liberals will therefore think it offensive, or demoralising or deeply unjust if anyone violates liberal precepts. In particular, liberals will want to push forward with the liberal agenda, so that they can see "progress" being manifested in society. And "progress" will eventually catch up with those who are holding out.

So those initial core beliefs, which sound as if they might allow for pluralism, have an inner logic which drives toward an intolerance of whatever violates liberalism itself. The end result is that you can choose long as you choose liberalism.

And Christianity can't be made to fit easily into an acceptable liberal framework. After all, Christians do not see morality as merely a subjective preference. The Christian attitude is not that anything you choose is equally good, as long as it is not coerced. A Christian will assert instead that there is a moral order, external to the individual ("prior" to the individual) which provides the framework for our moral choices. We become free to the extent that we are not subject to moral evil.

Imagine if a Christian agreed to the liberal standard, and assented to the idea that moral choices are just subjective preferences, in which no matter what we choose we could just as morally have chosen something else. Surely that would be demoralising, in the sense that it would undermine Christianity as a serious belief about the nature of existence.

This does not mean that the only acceptable social framework for a Christian is a theocracy. Christianity existed for a long time with a distinct role allotted for church and state. But the concept of politics that would best fit with Christianity would be one in which a community recognised that men have a given biological, social and spiritual nature and that the aim is to best understand each of these and then attempt to integrate them into a way of life.

How to decide how to do this? Well, through the life of a community at different levels, including the political, over time. What would happen in practice is that a generation would inherit a particular tradition, i.e. an understanding of a way of life, and would then seek to influence it for the better, through a debate about philosophy and religion, through culture and education, through the care of parents for their children, and to some extent through reforms to governance and law.

Every community will make mistakes along the way. None will harmonise the different aspects of the nature of existence perfectly. It will always be a work in progress, with real improvement taking place over generations. The more a community gets it right, the more likely it is to establish solid foundations.

Liberalism doesn't allow the process to work well. How, for instance, can you try to encourage the better masculine qualities of men, and then integrate these into family and social life, if you start with the assumption that men are blank slates and that masculinity itself is a false and oppressive social construct? You never get out of the starting blocks, but are forced instead into low level debates about whether sex distinctions even exist and whether they should be tolerated if they do.

Tim Farron knows where things are heading. He can see that Christianity will be increasingly marginalised within liberal modernity. That it will be tolerated only if it becomes "cultural". He is wrong, though, to think that things can be put right by rewinding liberalism so that it becomes tolerant again. Liberalism will just spring back according to the logic of its first principles. If you repair it, it will set to work in a predictable way, just as it did before. It needs replacing.

Friday, December 08, 2017

The civic creed

There is a decent post up at AltRight on civic nationalism. A few excerpts:
On the surface, civic nationalism may seem right-wing. In reality, Civic Nationalism—the belief that a nation is not a people but a set of values—is hostile to the very essence of nationalism.

Civic Nationalism is not Nationalism, it is classical Liberalism...

Globalism is the radical left-wing of Liberalism while civic nationalism is the conservative “right-wing” of Liberalism. Both ideologies are grounded in the liberal myth of the tabula rasa, where mankind is no more than individual blank slates...

...Not only does civic nationalism deny the reality of race, it fails under its own premise. What are these “shared values” that unite us—Liberty, Equality, the Rule of Law? Does anyone believe this? Liberty and Equality are contradictory principles, often diametrically opposed. A nation defined by conflicting values is absurd.

The writer goes on to make an important point, namely, that the values that are coming to define the civic creed in America increasingly involve an anti-white animus. This is still contested, I think. There are still right-liberals who cling to the "we should be colour-blind and only see individuals." But over time a culture is taking hold in which embracing equality means accepting the idea of white privilege, diversity and open borders. Which means that if you are a white American, then the cost of seeing nationalism in civic terms is a high one. If you want to be "American" in terms of values, you will increasingly be expected to enthusiastically accept the role of "guilty transgressor of equality" whose only path to redemption is to respectfully listen to others who blame you for their ills, to meekly accept their demands and to positively accept your own displacement within the mainstream culture.

There is a video doing the rounds of an American mayor, distraught because one of her fellow councillors refuses to accept the white privilege mentality:

The article goes on to make some good points on another theme, namely the vast reach of the civic creed:
The great irony of liberalism is that it functions illiberally, unable to tolerate the ideological other. It is religious in nature, the proposition nation operates like a theocracy. The foundational values that form the basis of the civic nation become the “civic religion.”

In America, this civic religion has replaced Christianity.

Saturday, December 02, 2017

Lauren Southern: how to be single

Just to mix things up a bit, here is Lauren Southern on the joys of being an empowered single woman: