LIBERALISM AND ITS DISCONTENTS  

The society that offered my sisters protection, threw my daughters to the wolves’

A certain construction company, which shall remain nameless, in a certain country, also remaining unidentified, used a chemical compound in its building materials. This compound was thought to enhance the quality of those materials bringing a new level of quality to the buildings in which they were used.

In time, in a very short time the structure of the buildings using these materials began to crumble and decay irreparably.

These things happen. The detailed history of this case is not important. This is a metaphor for one dimension of mankind’s folly. When these things happen there are always consequences and if we are lucky, as the consequences unfold, we can trace our steps back, through cause and effect, to the fundamental flaws which brought the house down around our heads.

On a more universal scale, however, and in mankind’s faltering journey on this earth, these things also happen. But in many cases, for a variety of reasons, we stubbornly refuse, or are unable to discern the root causes of the catastrophes we heap upon our heads.

Western civilisation has been advancing for centuries towards just such a catastrophe.

Recent human history records the painful rise and fall of two such flawed responses to man’s innate hunger for a better way of being in this world. Both were horrifically brutal, cruel and murderous. One was the marxist-inspired utopia of a communist world – now fatally wounded but still a clear and present danger to us all. The other was the Nietzschean-inspired will to power ideology which spawned the monster which was National Socialism, also now down but sadly not out.

We call these things ideologies because they posit a theoretical construct of what human nature is and then build a house in which they think they can happily live. The construct, however, is false at the core and therefore the house bears within itself the seeds of its ultimate collapse, even if, for a time it seems to offer a prospect of heaven on earth.

About five centuries ago theories about our nature and the nature of our lives in this world were developed and gained credence among us. These arose in part out of our struggles to come to terms with our fatal propensity to corrupt religion, turn it upside down and proceed to murder each other over our differences of belief. In fact we built a new theory which is today the foundation of the ideology of liberalism and liberal democracy. We called it ‘enlightenment’, and to a degree and for a time, it was.

In his book, Why Liberalism Failed, Notre Dame professor, Patrick J Deneen, traces the origins of liberalism and identifies the fatal flaw in the view of humanity underpinning it. His conclusion is that this ideology is now reaching a point where it is, with gathering pace over the past hundred years, destroying the very fabric of our societies and with them our civilisation itself. Not without a little paradox, he argues:

Liberalism has failed – not because it fell short, but because it was true to itself. It has failed because it has succeeded.  As liberalism has “become more fully itself,” as its inner  logic has become more evident and its self-contradictions  manifest, it has generated pathologies that are at once deformations of its claims yet realizations of liberal ideology. A political philosophy that was launched to foster greater equity, defend a pluralist tapestry of different cultures and beliefs, protect human dignity, and, of course, expand liberty, in practice generates titanic inequality, enforces uniformity and homogeneity, fosters material and spiritual degradation, and undermines freedom. Its success can be measured by its  achievement of the opposite of what we have believed it would achieve. Rather than seeing the accumulating catastrophe as evidence of our failure to live up to liberalism’s ideals, we need rather to see clearly that the ruins it has produced are the signs of its very success. To call for the cures of liberalism’s ills by applying more liberal measures is tantamount to throwing gas on a raging fire. It will only deepen our political, social, economic, and moral crisis.

And where was the fatal flaw which drove this well-intentioned human response to perceived evils in our world, into the deranged state in which we now find ourselves? The flaw was in the underlying reading of human nature and human freedom – the human agent was put at the centre of the universe and his liberty was turned into an absolute. In doing so, without realising the consequences, the nature of this world and our existence within it were redefined. Deneen traces the origins of this fatal compound back to sixteenth century England and the work of Francis Bacon and Thomas Hobbes. 

Liberty was fundamentally reconceived, even if the word was retained. Liberty had long been believed to be the condition of self-rule that forestalled tyranny, within both the polity and the individual soul. Liberty was thus thought to involve discipline and training in self-limitation of desires, and corresponding social and political arrangements that sought to inculcate corresponding virtues that fostered the arts of self- government. Classical and Christian political thought was self-admittedly more “art” than “science”: it relied extensively on the fortunate appearance of inspiring founding figures and statesmen who could uphold political and social self-reinforcing virtuous cycles, and acknowledged the likelihood of decay and corruption as an inevitable feature of any human institution.

I suppose a key idea there is the distinction between life lived by art rather than science. Therein lies the root of ideology – a scientifically designed solution to all life’s problems, ending up as a modern Tower of Babel. 

In this world, gratitude to the past and obligations to the future are replaced by a nearly universal pursuit of immediate gratification: culture, rather than imparting the wisdom and experience of the past so as to cultivate virtues of self-restraint and civility, becomes synonymous with hedonic titillation, visceral crudeness, and distraction, all oriented toward promoting consumption, appetite, and detachment. As a result, superficially self-maximizing, socially destructive behaviors begin to dominate society.  

In schools, norms of modesty, comportment, and academic honesty are replaced by widespread lawlessness and cheating (along with increasing surveillance of youth), while in the fraught realm of coming-of-age, courtship norms are replaced by “hookups” and utilitarian sexual encounters. The norm of stable lifelong marriage is replaced by various arrangements that ensure the autonomy of the individuals whether married or not. Children are increasingly viewed as limitation upon individual freedom, which contributes to liberalism’s commitment to abortion on demand while overall birth rates decline across the developed world.  

Deneen’s book gives a much more complete picture of the root and branch causes of the unravelling of our civilisation under this ideology than any summary I can give here. In the foregoing paragraph we have just one dimension of the disaster that is unfolding. 

In the context of the particular social aberrations he alludes to in that passage, there is a very interesting debate on Bari Weiss’ podcast, Honestly  There she recently entertained two writer-journalists, one American, the other British. They debated, over an hour and a half, the topics of sex, porn and feminism in our contemporary world. It revealed, in microcosm and in a stark and startling way, how our understanding of our humanity has been corrupted. It also reminds us how that segment of our civilisation, the Anglophone world, seems to be collapsing under the weight of that corruption.

Weiss introduced her speakers and the topic in these terms:

It’s hard to think of an invention that has been more transformative to women than the birth control pill. Suddenly, American women possessed a power that women never before in history had: They could control when they got pregnant. They could have sex like . . . men. 

The pill—and the profound legal, political and cultural changes that the sexual revolution and feminism ushered in—liberated women. Those movements have allowed women to lead lives that literally were not possible beforehand.

But here we are, half a century later, with a culture in which porn and casual sex are abundant, but marriage and birth rates are at historic lows. And many people are asking: Did we go wrong somewhere along the way? Was the sexual revolution actually bad for women?

Her guests were Jill Filiopvic and Louise Perry. Filiopvic is an author and attorney who has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian and many other publications. You can follow her writing on her newsletter. Perry, based in London, is columnist at The New Statesman. She is the author of the new book, The Case Against the Sexual Revolution.

Weiss is one of those rare people in the media world, an open-minded observer who dares to question conventional ‘wisdom’ but who also gets people with essentially opposing assessments of our situation to talk to each other  in a civilised and humane way. The debate in question was, I judge, one such encounter.

For Filopvic the scenario of the sexual revolution, with all the features enumerated by Deneen above, was by and large a win-win outcome. She would have looked for no radical changes – perhaps a few organisational tweaks here and there might be needed. That was all. For her neither pornography nor promiscuity were necessarily bad things – so long as human ‘dignity’ was respected and maintained.

For Louise Perry, as the title of her book might suggest, the whole question was much more complex and the overall result for women was a ‘net negative’. One of the most negative outcomes was what it has done to the idea and reality of motherhood in our world. There were also the ‘dire consequences of hormonal birth control for so many women’. In addition she spoke of the problems which the culture of casual sex create for women. ‘They are the victims, suffering all the consequences – physical and psychological. When you look at all that the idea that casual sex can be a benefit to women just falls apart.’

Bari Weiss reflected on the changes in her own attitudes since her 20s. Then it all seemed very liberating. Now she is much more conscious of all the unintended consequences – the promiscuity, the reality of single parenthood flowing from easy divorce, abortion, and the radical changes in cultural attitudes. She does not want to put the clock back but she recognises that we have something very serious to face up to.

‘In the end’ she says, ‘if I’m honest and I look back at where a huge amount of my time went, it went into talking friends off ledges who were not hearing back from the people they hooked up with the night before.’ Were many of the arguments we were sold actually not benefiting women but implicitly ended up redounding to the benefit of men?, she asked. Louise Perry summed up the supposed ‘freedoms’ they won as follows: Freedom for the pike is death for the minnows, she reminded us. Men and women are different, she argued, and because of that the whole idea of creating a level playing field for both sexes – or genders – was false at the core.

Prior to the publication of her book Perry has posted on Weiss’ Substack platform, Common Sense, a further elaboration of her comments on Honestly. They are more than descriptive. They are a call to parents everywhere to protect their children from not just a hostile culture but an ideologically driven social and educational establishment.

One comment on her post – from, I assume, a father – points to a savage world where the centre no longer holds. Not only is it no country for old men. It is no country for the young either:

I have two daughters, ages 28 and 27, and everything I just read (in Perry’s post) is the s–t they have dealt with. Most men, dare I say almost all men under the age of 35, are well aware of the vulnerabilities and use them against young women with fervor. The society that offered my sisters protection, threw my daughters to the wolves.

All of which brings us back to Deneen and his assertion that we are getting it all wrong, that liberalism has got it all disastrously wrong. It has done so because it has anchored the idea of liberty on the idea of the individual and that the only freedom we can enjoy is the freedom to do anything that we desire.

He argues that what he calls The “Noble Lie” of liberalism is shattering because it continues to be believed and defended by those elites who benefit from it. He goes on to say that while it is increasingly seen as a lie, and not an especially noble one, by the class that liberalism has produced, discontent is growing.  Two of the participants in the debate cited above might be evidence of this.

But, he says, even as liberalism remains an article of ardent faith among those who ought to be best positioned to comprehend its true nature, liberalism’s apologists regard pervasive discontent, political dysfunction, economic inequality, civic disconnection, and populist rejection as accidental problems disconnected from systemic causes. Their self-deception, he maintains, is generated by enormous reservoirs of self-interest in the maintenance of the present system. This divide will only widen, the crises will become more pronounced, the political duct tape and economic spray paint will increasingly fail to keep the house   standing. The end of liberalism is in sight.  

His book offers no easy solutions as to what might replace this fateful ideology. He avoided doing so, because we have had enough ideologies. The great value of the book is that it is a challenge to us all to fight in the cause of our true human nature, to stop theorising and to read humanity as it truly is, body and soul – and build the world we want to live in from there.

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