Saturday, August 19, 2023

The line that did not hold - can liberalism go only so far?

Konstantin Kisin did a review of the Barbie movie which I would categorise as being both insightful and flawed. He says in his review:

The central destructive notion of liberalism is the idea that we're all individuals maximising our freedom and pursuing happiness. I have much sympathy for this approach when it comes to relations between the citizen and the government. I am liberal in the sense that I want to be free from authoritarian control in order to be able to pursue my own happiness as I see fit. 

What I believe liberalism gets wrong is the attempt to apply this concept outside of the relationship between the individual and the state and extend it into the realm of family and human relations more broadly. Yes, freedom from intrusive government is likely to provide opportunities for each individual to pursue their own happiness but it is simply a lie to say that maximising freedom from your fellow human beings is a recipe for happiness...happiness is derived not from your freedom from other people but from the bonds you form with them.

Indeed, as any parent knows, the most meaningful things we ever get to do are the very things that constrain our freedom the most...

If the poison pill of hyper-liberalism is to encourage us to see ourselves as atomised individuals, the liberal feminism of Hollywood depicted here is worse still...the modern feminist movement is intent on brainwashing young women to see the relationship between men and women as one of competition...having retaken Barbie Land from the clutches of the patriarchy and rejected Ken's quite reasonable suggestion that he and Barbie, i.e. men and women, are created to be together, Barbie is free to ride off into the sunset, alone.

There are some aspects of this analysis that I think Kisin gets right. He identifies as a problem liberalism setting men and women apart as competing political classes; and he observes correctly that maximising our individual autonomy by rejecting family commitments, and instead going it alone, is not a pathway to happiness for most people. I also share with Kisin his opposition to an intrusive, authoritarian state.

Konstantin Kisin

Nonetheless, there are problems. Kisin would like to return to a much earlier version of liberalism in which liberalism was thought of as "political", i.e. as being applied to the sphere of politics rather than the personal life of family relationships.

This attempt to keep public/political life and private/family life apart did not work. It was always likely to fail, and it did, in fact, fail. Why? Because if you establish the maximising of individual autonomy as the overriding public good, then there will be a call for this good to be applied to all the institutions of society, including the family.

As early as the 1880s in England, women were starting to apply the key liberal political principle to their own lives. For instance, a student from Girton College at this time described her liberal understanding of herself as a woman as follows:

We are no longer mere parts - excrescences, so to speak, of a family...One may develop as an individual and independent unit.

Clearly, the firewall that was supposed to protect the bonds of family life from the logic of liberal individualism was already failing by the later nineteenth century.

Feminists hammered away to collapse the distinction between private and public goods. "The personal is the political" was a favourite slogan of second wave feminism. Similarly, feminists often drew comparisons between tyranny in politics and tyranny in the family. For instance, in 1994 an Australian feminist called Kate Gilmore unveiled a new government policy with these words:

You can see the tyrants, the invaders, the imperialists, in the fathers, the husbands, the stepfathers, the boyfriends, the grandfathers, and it’s that study of tyranny in the home...that will take us to the point where we can secure change.
It seems like straight out man hatred, but what is really happening is a feminist insisting that political liberalism needs to be applied to family life, as there is tyranny in both to be defeated (which helps to explain the feminist insistence on female oppression within the family, as this then justifies overriding the idea of family life as a private sphere insulated from political liberalism).

Just to illustrate how far we have already been through this whole cycle, here is a comment by the Russian feminist, Alexandra Kollontai, on a novel written by the French author Colette in the early 1900s:
Freedom, independence, solitude are the substance of her personal desires. But when Rene, after a tiring long day's work, sits at the fireplace in her lovely flat, it is as though the hollow-eyed melancholy of loneliness creeps into her room and sets himself behind her chair.

"I am used to being alone," she writes in her diary, "but today I feel so forsaken. Am I then not independent, not free? And terribly lonely?" Does not this question have the ring of the woman of the past who is used to hearing familiar, beloved voices, to being the object of indispensable words and acts of tenderness?

Kollontai is already using the phrase "woman of the past" to describe those women who sought family bonds rather than freedom, independence and solitude - and this in the early 1900s. The issue, then, is do we really want to keep cycling through these phases, in which the liberal principle gets applied to the lives of women, so that they pursue a lonely life independent of family love?

There is a second problem with Kisin's proposed solution. Even if our personal, private lives could be kept separate from the principle animating the public, political arena, Kisin's formula would still do significant harm. Note the way that Kisin himself puts it. He wants to be free as an individual to pursue his own happiness as he sees fit.

This sounds alright, but it leaves something out. If we are imagined as millions of individuals each seeking our own good according to our individual desires or beliefs, then how are common goods to be defended? Where, at the public and political level, are these common goods to be acknowledged and upheld?

The most obvious common good is that of nation. What if it is an aspect of the human good to belong to a traditional nation? I cannot uphold the existence of the nation I belong to at a purely individual level. The formula of people being left alone to do their own private, individual thing no longer works if you accept that the existence of a nation is important to human life.

And there is good reason to believe that it is important. Living amongst a people with whom you share thick bonds of a shared ancestry, language, history and culture provides the arena for expressing many of our social commitments. For instance, it allows us to express and fulfil aspects of our manhood, the ones by which we protect the larger polis, through the exercise of our masculine strengths, including the heroic virtues of defending the community from harm. It provides significant aspects of our identity and our sense of belonging, as well as a connectedness to culture, to place, to nature and to generations past, present and future. It makes us the bearers of a tradition, giving us standards to live up to and to make our own contributions to. It provides a warmth of familiarity of manners and mores, of humour and of the smaller, unspoken understandings that exist between a people embedded in a longstanding culture of their own. It allows us to reproduce who we are and what we most value, and it can be, at its best, a portal into the transcendent, as when we experience something like the "soul" of our nation and it draws out our love and a sense of duty that expresses something better within our own natures.

As important as it is to avoid state overreach or state tyranny, there are common goods like that of nation that do need to be upheld, and this can only be done at the level of the polis, and therefore the focus of political life cannot be only a freedom to pursue our own purely individual ends. If this is the only focus, we are left powerless to defend things that are highly meaningful to our own lives.

Finally, one more criticism of Kisin's analysis, but more along the lines of a quibble. Kisin claims that the makers of Barbie are motivated by the principle of "misery loves company" or "hurt people hurt people". I don't think this is so. The director of the film, Greta Gerwig, is married with children. The actress Margot Robbie has been with her current husband for a decade or more and writes glowingly of how fulfilled the marriage has made her. So these women are choosing one thing for themselves (marriage and motherhood), whilst promoting something else to other women (going it alone).

What is happening here is better explained by Lawrence Auster's concept of the unprincipled exception. Auster explained that liberal values, if followed consistently, would make it difficult to live a decent life. Therefore, it is common for liberals to make unprincipled exceptions in order to escape the personally harmful consequences of their own beliefs. 

I have long noted that upper middle-class women are sometimes adept at playing this game. They do enough to secure traditional goods for themselves, whilst also promoting modernist values. It tends to be women a little below them who take the message at face value, and who attempt, usually disastrously, to live in a more principled way along feminist lines.


  1. I think another problem with Kisin’s analysis is that he takes for granted one of liberalism’s most poisonous and ubiquitous suppositions, which is that society is made up of a collection of human atoms all under the governance of a state. If there is any authority ever, it is always invested in the state. Besides being a view that not only enables but requires totalitarianism (as theoretically there is nothing over which the state cannot have authority, since nothing else can have authority; some liberals try to mitigate this with recourse to entitlements to being free of authority, which they call rights), it’s the only one that allows the (classical?) liberal view to make sense. If we had a view that acknowledged that people can exercise authority (constraining “freedom”) over each other independent of being given that authority by the state, it wouldn’t make much sense to advocate for political liberalism on at least two counts.

    The first count being that in such a society the state is much more likely to have a comparatively smaller share of control over your life, so its overreaches and authoritarian (if we may use the word) abuses will be much smaller. Quite likely competing authorities would balance each other out to an extent. That being the case, we are left with political liberalism either being unneeded or it must expand to include all authorities (such as husbands and fathers), i.e. where we are now. The second count being that in such a world seeking freedom only from state authority makes a lot less sense when you are still constrained by many other authorities. Freedom from tyranny and misrule perhaps, but it’s difficult to see state authority in such a world as anything but just one of many authorities that have a rightful place in a person’s life. The liberal project must therefore collapse or expand to abolish all authorities — which it does, and partially by… subsuming all other authorities into the state (which they can control).

    In other words, Kisin makes a misstep and concedes what he seeks to avoid in his premise that we are all merely individuals beneath the all-powerful state from which to a certain extent we must be liberated. Not to have authority over ourselves even, mind, but to be free from authority entirely, free to do anything we want to do. I say concedes because his view leaves no room for any sort of hierarchy in human social relations when that is an essential aspect of not only many but even most human relationships (e.g. those of husband and wife, parents and children, elders and youngers, the wise and the foolish, the charitable and the beggars, the noble and the ignoble, leaders and followers, teachers and pupils, masters and proteges, etc.). (As an aside, while the social relation of friendship might not put one friend under the authority of another, it is constraining to freedom in that it imposes duties and obligations to the other on each party to it). Kisin’s view radically dissolves all this, giving him exactly what he fears.

    It’s also poisonous because liberalism is a technocratic philosophy not only scientifically inspired to model reality but radically desirous of making reality conform to its models (rather than the other way around). In other words, there will be a liberal impulse to make society conform better and better to its idea of human atoms governed only by a state. Non-state authorities will therefore be seen as necessary of being removed, implying radical attacks on the Church, fatherhood, marriage, etc..

    1. Guest Ghast, this is excellent, it is a good example of seeing outside of the given liberal frame rather than being caught within it. Thank you.

  2. (I had to put this in a separate comment)

    I’ll also briefly comment on a different observation, which is that the necessary existence for social harmony of agreed-upon goods and bads (which I would argue are most effective and beneficial when in conformity to absolute moral truth) would imply an authority maintaining those. In other words, if there is a law there must be a lawgiver (or if we take God as given perhaps in human terms a law promulgator or interpreter) and certainly a law enforcer. As far as I can tell, all pagan societies had this and for most of recent Western history this role was filled for them by the Church, then after that by the many churches, such authority dwindling as those authorities multiplied in number (and the belief that you could choose individually which to be subject to, if any, became mainstream) and the state presumed to have authority itself over more and more aspects of life.

  3. auster is taking liberalism at face value rather than as a weapon. This is why they are hypocrites: the weapon is only used one way.

    the liberal themselves are the weapon, the ideology is just an excuse, and the liberal will be disposed of at earliest convenience to their long-dead “masters.”

  4. Just popped in after a few years and am delighted to see you still writing Mark. Please keep it up.

    1. James, thank you. I enjoy writing the posts but am sometimes held back by time constraints.

  5. Much that is important to human flourishing is taken for granted by classical liberalism. In this discussion, an example would be a country, with citizens who have an attachment to that country and will engage in some level of sacrifice to maintain that country.

    Libertarians argue abstractions until they reach conclusions like open borders and mass immigration, never stopping to consider that people will lose their attachment to country over time as it becomes unrecognizable.

    All human beings are Homo economicus atoms behaving as rational actors seeking their self-interest, blah blah blah.