A Debate on Liberalism

Discussion in 'Reviews' started by Richard Stanley, Jan 28, 2018.

  1. Richard Stanley

    Richard Stanley Administrator

    The following below is a fully excerpted book review in The Economist about a book, Why Liberalism Failed, authored by a professor of politics, Patrick Deenan, at the Jesuit's University of Notre Dame. The writer of the review correctly takes issue with Deneen's overwrought thesis. A thesis which seems to be profitably filled with typical Catholic tropes, and ... which coincidentally(?) aligns with the typological and Futurist cyclical theme of the Return of the (Salvic) King such as I discuss on Postflaviana.

    After all, both Caesar Augustus and later imperial avatar, Jesus Christ, were savior kings, Princes of Peace and all. Those cheeky Republican Romans did not want a king, but they soon got Julius Caesar's adopted son, Augustus as an emperor, of the then new Novus Ordum Seclorum. That New Order delivered on the promise (of order) via the implementation of a feudal monarchy system that finally (mostly) ceded to the Liberalism discussed in the review. It mostly ceded to 'modern' Liberalism, except for a remnant of romantic Traditionalists that is. A fifth column of paranoid, yet powerful, snowflakes IMHO.

    The reviewer also touches on the two broad streams that Liberalism has become today, addressing it somewhat differently than Jerry and I did in our Cultural Degradation blog post. The reviewer closes by making a parallel argument to the highly related debate between Religion and Science, in that (proper) Science is a process that demands questioning and internal debate, just as the otherwise anarchic 'freedom' unleashed by economic and social Liberalism demands responsible regulating mechanisms sans a King. And we must also be forced to presuppose that a King and his Church have good intentions and can indeed channel their god, or want to, in the course of regulating humanity.

    Somebody's Leviathan must get gored, either the King's, or Liberal Democracy's, or ... the Anarchist's Randy Leviathan.

    The reviewer correctly argues that Deenan's argument should be reframed, and I add that we should be alert that Liberalism's current low state may not be completely of its own doing. If the oldest institution in the West is wanting and expecting its King to Return, then is its Liberal enemy suffering merely at its own hands or the witting and unwitting paranoid agents of the King?

    Apparently Professor Deenan didn't get the Traditionalist Catholic fake news messaging that Jesuits are Liberal degraders of the Divine Order.

    There is a season for all things. The Romans, and King Jesus, gave the West the feudal system ordained by Joseph and the Pharaoh from Genesis 47. Control both sides against the middle.

    The review begins:

    OVER the past four centuries liberalism has been so successful that it has driven all its opponents off the battlefield. Now it is disintegrating, destroyed by a mix of hubris and internal contradictions, according to Patrick Deneen, a professor of politics at the University of Notre Dame.

    The gathering wreckage of liberalism’s twilight years can be seen all around, especially in America, Mr Deneen’s main focus. The founding tenets of the faith have been shattered. Equality of opportunity has produced a new meritocratic aristocracy that has all the aloofness of the old aristocracy with none of its sense of noblesse oblige. Democracy has degenerated into a theatre of the absurd. And technological advances are reducing ever more areas of work into meaningless drudgery. “The gap between liberalism’s claims about itself and the lived reality of the citizenry” is now so wide that “the lie can no longer be accepted,” Mr Deneen writes. What better proof of this than the vision of 1,000 private planes whisking their occupants to Davos to discuss the question of “creating a shared future in a fragmented world”?

    Perhaps, Professor Deenan is not giving us the full story about why we now have a "meritocratic aristocracy", such as why higher education is comparatively so expensive today, or why Democracy is degenerating into a theatre of the absurd. Not that things were perfect before, but following the ecumenical movement and the Kennedy assassinations the Jesuit lead Catholics in the USA have taken charge of the three constitutional branches of governance, including the White House staff (excluding the Goldman Sachs contingent that is).

    Mr Deneen uses the term “liberalism” in its philosophical rather than its popular sense. He is describing the great tradition of political theory that is commonly traced to Thomas Hobbes and John Locke rather than the set of vaguely leftish attitudes that Americans now associate with the word. But this is no work of philosophical cud-chewing. Most political theorists argue that liberalism has divided into two independent streams: classical liberalism, which celebrates the free market, and left-liberalism which celebrates civil rights. For Mr Deneen they have an underlying unity. Most political observers think that the debate about the state of liberalism has nothing to do with them. Mr Deneen argues that liberalism is a ruling philosophy, dictating everything from court decisions to corporate behaviour. Theory is practice.

    The underlying unity lies in individual self-expression. Both classical and left liberals conceive of humans as rights-bearing individuals who should be given as much space as possible to fulfil their dreams. The aim of government is to secure rights. The legitimacy of the system is based on a shared belief in a “social contract” between consenting adults. But this produces a paradox. Because the liberal spirit mechanically destroys inherited customs and local traditions, sometimes in the name of market efficiency and sometimes in the name of individual rights, it creates more room for the expansion of the state, as marketmaker and law-enforcer. The perfect expression of modern liberalism is provided by the frontispiece of Hobbes’s “Leviathan” (detail pictured), with its sketch of thousands of atomised individuals confronted by an all-powerful sovereign.


    [​IMG]

    Mr Deneen makes his case well, though he sometimes mistakes repetition for persuasion. He reminds the reader that, before the advent of modern liberalism, philosophers identified liberty with self-mastery rather than self-expression, with the conquest of hedonistic desires rather than their indulgence. He does an impressive job of capturing the current mood of disillusionment, echoing left-wing complaints about rampant commercialism, right-wing complaints about narcissistic and bullying students, and general worries about atomisation and selfishness. But when he concludes that all this adds up to a failure of liberalism, is his argument convincing?

    His book has two fatal flaws. The first lies in his definition of liberalism. J.H. Hexter, an American academic, believed his fellow historians could be divided into two camps: “splitters” (who were forever making distinctions) and “lumpers” (who make sweeping generalisations by lumping things together). Mr Deneen is an extreme lumper. He argues that the essence of liberalism lies in freeing individuals from constraints.

    In fact, liberalism contains a wide range of intellectual traditions which provide different answers to the question of how to trade off the relative claims of rights and responsibilities, individual expression and social ties. Even classical liberals who were most insistent on removing constraints on individual freedom agonised about atomisation. The mid-Victorians were great institution-builders, creating everything from voluntary organisations to joint-stock companies (“little republics” in the phrase of Robert Lowe, a 19th-century British statesman) that were designed to fill the space between the state and society. Later liberals experimented with a range of ideas from devolving power from the centre to creating national education systems.

    Mr Deneen’s fixation on the essence of liberalism leads to the second big problem of his book: his failure to recognise liberalism’s ability to reform itself and address its internal problems. The late 19th century saw America suffering from many of the problems that are reappearing today, including the creation of a business aristocracy, the rise of vast companies, the corruption of politics and the sense that society was dividing into winners and losers. But a wide variety of reformers, working within the liberal tradition, tackled these problems head on. Theodore Roosevelt took on the trusts. Progressives cleaned up government corruption. University reformers modernised academic syllabuses and built ladders of opportunity. Rather than dying, liberalism reformed itself.

    Mr Deneen is right to point out that the record of liberalism in recent years has been dismal. He is also right to assert that the world has much to learn from the premodern notions of liberty as self-mastery and self-denial. The biggest enemy of liberalism is not so much atomisation but old-fashioned greed, as members of the Davos elite pile their plates ever higher with perks and share options. But he is wrong to argue that the only way for people to liberate themselves from the contradictions of liberalism is “liberation from liberalism itself”. The best way to read “Why Liberalism Failed” is not as a funeral oration but as a call to action: up your game, or else.
     
  2. Jerry Russell

    Jerry Russell Administrator Staff Member

    There's been some hand-wringing lately that we Postflavians are so far from any other modern school of thought, that we can hardly even hope to have our message understood. But as a manifesto of where we stand, I suggest one could hardly do better than this definition of "Liberalism" from Wikipedia, the (quasi) democratic encyclopedia.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liberalism

    Liberalism is a political philosophy or worldview founded on ideas of liberty and equality. Liberals espouse a wide array of views depending on their understanding of these principles, but generally they support ideas and programmes such as freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, free markets, civil rights, democratic societies, secular governments, gender equality and international cooperation.

    Liberalism first became a distinct political movement during the Age of Enlightenment, when it became popular among philosophers and economists in the Western world. Liberalism rejected the prevailing social and political norms of hereditary privilege, state religion, absolute monarchy and the divine right of kings. The 17th-century philosopher John Locke is often credited with founding liberalism as a distinct philosophical tradition. Locke argued that each man has a natural right to life, liberty and property, while adding that governments must not violate these rights based on the social contract. Liberals opposed traditional conservatism and sought to replace absolutism in government with representative democracy and the rule of law.
    Perhaps liberalism, by its own definition, gives rise to an ongoing struggle? We can hardly deny that people are free to believe whatever nonsense they want, and to use the means of mass communication to express that nonsense. And that includes the right to self-deception, i.e. the well-known inability to face facts when one's salary depends on accepting falsehood. And the right to pursuit of wealth. And the right to free association; i.e. how can we as Liberals deny the rights of billionaires to meet secretly at Davos or at the lodge of their choice?

    And so we are faced with an onslaught of "weaponized" mass propaganda, produced by the hidden hand of the CIA and giant corporations. Much of which seems to be quite "Liberal" in its outlook: tolerant of ethnic and religious diversity (to a point), and accepting towards sexual unconventionality. But, ultimately, undermining common sense, and the ability of the audience to function in the real world.

    So it's looking grim. Can we agree yet that the liberal measures of freedom and equality have peaked at some point in the past, and now we are looking at "a new aristocracy" in power, and increasing levels of economic and political inequality across the board?

    Still, I take some encouragement that Deneen is judging Liberalism's failure based on Liberal measures. I am somewhat loathe to buy the book and find out if it makes any specific proposals for Liberalism's replacement. But I suspect he'll argue that his scheme creates some combination of: more freedom, more prosperity, more equality, and/or more effective democracy.

    Trump's State of the Union message gave lip service to Liberal ideas as well, even as we fume that he's lying.
     
  3. Richard Stanley

    Richard Stanley Administrator

    I think that there might be some rays of hope in the sly manner that the (liberal) Church has positioned itself in a more optimal middle ground on economics, based upon Aquinas and subsequent teachings. Also that the Church, in the 19th century similarly took up the banner of Science, while yet railing against Liberal Materialism (aka Cause and Effect - which denies supernaturalism, the Church's main foundation and leverage over the gullible). However, this latter is troubling via the more obvious duplicity, and this dialectic is not new, not even remotely so. It was the Church that forced humanity to believe that the Earth was flat, while it was known before then to be a sphere.

    As I have mentioned elsewhere there have been many instances of how democracy and liberalism have worked gloriously, and that happens when issues are addressed appropriately and without arbitrary biases to Tradition or such as sentimental Do-Gooderism. There is no problem with the pursuit of wealth, but there is a problem of what one does with their wealth. The USA has canonized the Pursuit of Happiness, yet it is near the bottom rankings for reported happiness of all the advanced nations. Is there a cause for this effect?

    Perhaps we should have enshrined the Pursuit of Wisdom?

    Freedom is inherently more chaotic, compared to the authoritarianism preferred by Church Tradition. And this tension is magnified by that 'conservatives' tend to be wired more disposed towards paranoia. That said, we have ample evidence that the political and corporate elites of American society have co-opted Liberal Democracy for their own narrow ends. Corporations have legal superhuman rights, and dead Presidents also have more First Amendment rights than most of us.
     
  4. Richard Stanley

    Richard Stanley Administrator

    The following excerpt is the conclusion of an article, by Shadi Famid, discussing the growing tension of 'liberalism' writ large versus the appeal, to a growing many, of illiberalism - or a return to the more comforting, externally imposed limitations of traditional 'cultures'. Famid ends discussing the irony that much of today's cultural 'reaction' is formed by fear of the cultural conformism, real and/or perceived, demanded by Islam on the one hand, and the opposite fear for generally the same people to police themselves in an environment of too much liberalism.

    Included is several mentions of Patrick Deneen, of whom this thread started upon. Deneen, a professor at the Jesuit's Notre Dame University, might thus correctly be seen as a chauvinist for his church's historical Christian ... uhmm Globalism, as I would characterize the Church's focus, even though many Traditional Catholics claim the Jesuits are far too liberal.

    Famid also discusses the seeming irony that liberal societies find that they must impose restraints ... to their liberalism, else the extreme tendencies of some will inevitably lead to unwelcome consequences, such as gross economic inequality. Famid tangentially touches on the paradoxes within the American system, where not only do 'Liberals become the new conservatives' (see the second highlighted text below), but where so-called 'conservative' Americans ever press for more 'liberal' and Randy relaxation of their economic freedoms.

    And, again, as Famid's discussion points out, this is why I am now in favor of a middle ground in terms of economics policy, ironically aligned more with the Roman Catholic Church's latter day (~500 years) economic developments than with Randian libero-conservative schizophrenics.

    Earlier in the article Famid discusses that at the eternal center of the issue is the constant tension between individuals either more disposed to cultural conformity (parochial "somewheres" or less so (cosmopolitan "anywheres"). Makes one wonder if Nowhere Man is really a "somewhere" man or not? Somewhere Man, you don't know what you're missing ... (see bottom of post)

    From: https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2018/02/liberalism-trump/553754
    ...
    The sheer diversity can be overwhelming—white Christian males can be hard to find—but the diversity, paradoxically, reinforces a kind of cultural homogeneity. As Deneen puts it: “The identities and diversity thus secured are globally homogenous, the precondition for a fungible global elite who readily identify other members capable of living in a cultureless and placeless world defined above all by liberal norms.” This is a new global aristocracy, one defined by liberal ideas of “rational” education and sensibility. Whether merit-based “aristocracies” are a good thing has long been debated. The historian Charles Wiltse, writing on Thomas Jefferson, pointed out the tension: “It is to the talented and the virtuous that the government is to be committed, a doctrine suggesting the Greek ideal of the wise man. The criticism of [John] Adams, that talents and virtue will, in the end, breed wealth and family, Jefferson seems to have ignored.

    Self-professed liberals often describe liberalism as indifferent to how we live our lives, so that liberalism effectively serves as a kind of referee or neutral bystander. But this does not necessarily entail ideological neutrality, since liberalism itself emerges from a set of ideological and philosophical assumptions regarding religion, human nature, and the state. Liberalism only offers neutrality within itself. (Political liberalism, as expounded by John Rawls, is based on the “veil of ignorance”—the notion that the founders of a new polity are free to construct their own society without any knowledge of their future position and without any distinctive set of preferences or values. But, as the philosopher Lenn Goodman writes, “Every one of Rawls’s choosers is trapped in a liberal society. … They are not free to construct a value system for themselves.”)

    Once liberalism’s non-neutrality is acknowledged, its consequences on vast domains of public life become more obvious. Liberalism might be a better ideology (than whatever the alternatives might be) but it’s an ideology all the same. It’s a transformative project, as any belief system that views history as a progressive and bending arc must be.

    Liberalism believes its victory to be essentially a matter of time. History’s long, progressive, and bending arc will eventually win out.

    All transformations, even largely good ones, come at a cost. Most Americans and Europeans, including those who benefit most from the liberal status quo, understand that something is not quite right. Take our unprecedented levels of inequality, which are only likely to grow. But the incentives for meritocratic elites to do anything serious about it—Deneen suggests a rather unappealing “household economics” model while social democrats like Matt Bruenig propose “social wealth funds”—are limited. Liberals are the new conservatives.

    “Endless free choice,” as Deneen disparagingly calls it, is a dead end. Choice needs to be a means to something else, but to what? Legally based religious systems—which only Islam among the largest religions potentially offers—quite consciously seek to restrict choice in the name of virtue and salvation. It is no mistake that Houellebecq initially intended his book to be about a conversion to Christianity, but it’s telling that François—to some extent a stand-in for Houellebecq’s own fantasies—quickly grows bored after spending two days in a Benedectine abbey. As Mark Lilla writes, he “could not make Catholicism work for him.” Islam is what he finds tempting.

    The fear of and opposition to Islam, deemed illiberal and retrograde, is, itself, one of the main drivers behind the rise of Western illiberalism and ethno-nationalism, particularly in Europe. In the United States, even where there are few Muslims, or none at all, anti-sharia legislation has become an odd phenomenon—a sort of illiberal counter-illiberalism. This is not quite what Deneen, or for that matter Houellebecq, had in mind in thinking beyond, or after, liberalism. In Europe, no populist party—and several, in Switzerland, Poland, and Hungary, have been in power—has managed to imagine something truly new. What liberalism’s critics appear unable, or unwilling, to address is whether a lack of meaning is a worse problem to have than a lack of freedom. Perhaps the most we can hope for—or worry about—is just somewhat more illiberal liberal democracies, variations on a continuum but still largely stuck in a liberal universe.

    Problem is, schizo Somewhere Man does have a schizo POV, and Anywhere Man, Donald Trump, is playing his song, all the way to Deutsche Bank:

    He's a real nowhere [somewhere] man
    Sitting in his nowhere [somewhere] land
    Making all his nowhere [somewhere] plans for nobody

    Doesn't have a point of view
    Knows not where he's going to
    Isn't he a bit like you and me?

    Nowhere [Somewhere] Man, please listen
    You don't know what you're missing
    Nowhere [Somewhere] Man, the world is at your command
    ...
    https://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/beatles/nowhereman.html



     

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