Philosophy, Politics, Review

The Implosion of Western Liberalism

“Western liberalism is under siege,” writes Edward Luce in his short new book, The Retreat of Western Liberalism. Whether it is under siege, retreating or imploding, there is no longer any doubt that it is embattled. To anyone over forty, moreover, this is a puzzling—and likely also disturbing—development.

By the end of the twentieth century, liberal democracy seemed not only triumphant but, to some, inevitable. In the 1970s, Portugal, Greece and Spain closed the long chapter of European fascism. As the Soviets retreated from their satellites, democratic governments (more or less liberal) spread across central and eastern Europe. Through the 1990s, even Russia appeared to be moving closer to the Western consensus over individual human rights and popular representation through genuine, multi-party elections. In three decades (1970–2000), the number of democracies worldwide went from thirty to one hundred. Perhaps even China would liberalize, many Western leaders hoped, as it opened up to Western investment, belying its Marxist rhetoric with an increasingly capitalist reality.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Francis Fukuyama foresaw the possibility of “the end of history”, when the rivalry of regimes constituting the drama of history—or at least the drama of the last two and a half centuries—would conclude with a final act of liberal democracy triumphant everywhere. In retrospect, Fukuyama’s thesis seems absurd. History has continued. Since the turn of the 21st Century, twenty-five democracies have failed. Authoritarianism is resurgent all over the world. Tyrants control the erstwhile democracies of Russia, Turkey, Hungary, Venezuela, Thailand, Botswana and the Philippines. What is most disturbing to those, such as Luce, who think liberal democracy is the best sort of regime is that authoritarian candidates are now growing popular in the very countries that first embodied this Enlightenment ideal. Along with other far-right candidates in other European countries (Hofer in Austria, Gauland in Germany, Wilders in Holland), Le Pen has become a serious contender for the leadership of France. In the U.S.A, of course, there is Trump.

On the record as a fan of Putin, menacing racial minorities with executive orders, and openly contemptuous of the checks and balances in the U.S. Constitution, the former reality-TV star threatens to undermine Western liberalism from within the White House itself. Except for Trump, however, all of the candidates listed above lost. Even Trump lost the popular vote, and had it not been for the Comey letter, 70,000 Trump voters in the rust belt may have stayed home or changed their minds. To these bromides, liberals who consider this disorienting moment a hiccup add that Hilary Clinton’s campaign was bad—epically so. Had it been a presidential election like any of those that preceded it, though, none of this would have mattered. Something fundamental has changed—not only in America, but worldwide—and Luce joins the growing chorus who are trying to put a finger on it.

Western liberal democracy is closer to collapse, he believes, than it has been since the Second World War. “This time, however, we have conjured up the enemy from within.” It is not only that “we have put arsonists in charge of the fire brigade,” but worse: the contempt for liberal democracy is growing, regardless of who wins or loses particular elections. “One in six people of all ages in America and Europe,” he writes, “now believe it would be a good or a very good thing for the ‘army to rule’.” To put that in perspective, this response was “one in sixteen in the mid-1990s.” While longing for “a strong leader who doesn’t have to bother with parliament and elections” is also on the rise, esteem for democracy declines, especially among rich millennials—the very people who will inherit this crisis. “If today’s rich young are tomorrow’s thought leaders,” Luce concludes, “democracy has a shaky future.”

What happened? Luce focuses on three main causes: globalization, labor automation, and “the rise of the rest,” namely China, which is returning to the status it had enjoyed through much of recorded history until the 19th century. Weaving together statistics about each and stories from others, as well as anecdotes from his own adventurous career, Luce presents a gloomy prospect for Western liberalism.

I. Economic Malaise

The core of Luce’s argument is the “Elephant Chart” that precedes his preface.

World income growth as represented in a chart by Branko Milanovic, also known as the “Elephant Chart”.

Along the x-axis is global income distribution in percentage points: the poorest of the world are at the far left, the richest at the right. Because the Western middle class is rich relative to most of the world, it is not in the middle of this axis, but instead to its right, occupying the segment from roughly 75% to 90%. The y-axis represents real increase in income during the period 1988-2008, or as Luce puts it more vaguely, “in the last generation,” encompassing the likelihood that this picture will become more dramatic once it includes data from the Great Recession to the present. In any case, the lesson of the graph is that globalization has been best for the global poor (the poorest of them excepted) and the richest of the rich.

The Western middle class, by contrast, has seen little gains; indeed, those around 80%—the heart of the Western middle class—have seen decreases in real income. Meanwhile, inflation has put staples of middle-class ambition (health insurance or college tuition) out of reach for many. Consequently, they became bitter about their abandonment by the “third way” politicians, those who led the parties that were supposed to be on their side while they were accelerating globalization with free-trade deals—the Democrats in the U.S.A., Labor in the U.K., and so on.

A Trump rally in the lead up to the 2016 election.

Luce tells a convincing story here about the cultural alienation that occurred between the middle class, on the one hand, who were attached to their regions and nations, and this new sort of politician, on the other, who felt more comfortable with his sophisticated peers in Davos than he did among his constituents in Kansas or the Midlands. “Every single one of America’s 493 wealthiest counties,” writes Luce, “almost all of them urban, voted for Hillary Clinton. The remaining 2623 counties, most of them suburban or small-town, went for Donald Trump.” Thrilled by his contempt for politicians, and sharing his protectionism, if not always his racism and xenophobia, the resentful “left-behinds” of Middle America chose Trump as their champion, despite his many flaws, and sometimes because of them.

“Western populism,” writes Luce, quoting a Dutch scholar, “is an illiberal democratic response to undemocratic liberalism.” In other words, Luce sees 2016 as one result of tension in the idea of liberal democracy itself. Pure democracy—such as that of classical Athens—permits the majority to pass whatever laws they please. Liberalism, exemplified by the American Bill of Rights, guarantees certain freedoms against the encroachment of government, even when that government is democratic. If courts abrogate popular laws as unconstitutional, or if bureaucracies make policy against the grain of popular sentiments, the experts who staff the judiciary and the government risk alienating the people and provoking a populist reaction. This is what happened, according to Luce, with both Brexit and Trump.

One of the appeals of this book is its international perspective. After Trump won, many on the left had ready explanations to suit the occasion: racism had once again revealed its perennial power in American society, or sexism kept voters from seeing Clinton as deserving the U.S. presidency. These were important factors in this election—important, but not decisive. Luce does not downplay them. He is also aware of the racist rhetoric used by populist politicians in Europe as Syrian refugees inundated that continent. Race played a role in both the American and European elections of recent years, he argues, but these are multiple manifestations of a common cause: economic distress for the Western middle class. “Without higher growth, the return of racial politics looks set to continue.” Unlike many American commentators, then, Luce aims to see Trump against a broader background: the rise of populism, the decline of liberal democracy, and the return of authoritarianism—across the world.

The question remains: how does the economic bitterness of the Western middle class explain the power of a Putin, Erdogan, Maduro or Duterte? Regrettably, Luce says very little about the first three, nor is it at all clear what he would say. Take Putin, for example. Masha Gessen’s superb new book, The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia, traces his power over Russia to the persistence there of Homo Sovieticus, a character-type fostered by the Bolsheviks and Stalin.

Gessen’s explanation challenges Luce’s thesis in two ways. First of all, it is cultural: certain types of people with certain values are more or less disposed to favor democracy or autocracy, and those types are the products of culture and education. Secondly, it is idiosyncratic: Russian totalitarianism has primarily Russian causes. Fluctuations in the oil markets, eastern expansion of NATO, and many other external factors are important to her story, but ultimately it is a story specific to Russians.

II. The Beijing Consensus

Luce’s explanation works better with the new Philippine president, who is popular for promoting “law and order.” He encourages private citizens—even family members—to kill “drug addicts.” More than seven thousand have died so far in this campaign that is legitimating the settling of personal scores, not to mention the murder of political opponents. Luce describes an experience with Duterte when he was still mayor of a remote city. Spending a weekend with him “flanked by a posse of goons in B-movie shades and cowboy boots,” Luce learned how the mayor controlled crime. Teaching suspects how to “fly,” as he put it, he threw them out of a helicopter. So much for due process. But how is this particular retreat of Western liberalism explained by the resentments of the Western middle class?

“Although the West likes to think of the late twentieth-century democratic wave as a Damascene conversion,” Luce believes that “much of it was purely instrumental.” During this period, as the last embers of fascism went cold and communism collapsed nearly everywhere, Western countries were flourishing. “Non-westerners could observe the fruits of Western growth on their television screens,” Luce adds, and “they knew which goose was laying the golden eggs.” However, the expensive and aggressive war in Iraq cost the U.S. both treasure and prestige. When the financial crisis of 2008 hit it and other Atlantic countries hard, whereas China’s growth accelerated, the rest of world observed “that advanced modernization can be combined with authoritarian rule.”

Leading with incentives as much as by example, China made investments on six continents, most notably Africa, forging international partnerships without—unlike the U.S.—any (liberal) strings attached. Furthermore, the world watched as Hu Jintao humiliated Obama in Beijing. Spectators made their own conclusions about the shifting balance of geopolitical power. The Philippines is a clear case of the consequences: Duterte called Obama a “son of a bitch,” then reoriented his diplomatic efforts away from Washington and toward Beijing.

Rodrigo Duterte speaking in Davao City on September 30, 2016

This is a portentous development as China builds islands in the South China Sea. Trump’s failure to support the Trans-Pacific Partnership only confirms the prudence of Duterte’s decision, especially as the aircraft carrier—with which the U.S.A. has projected its power since the end of the Second World War—becomes an obsolete military technology. Other Asian nations will heed the lesson.

Whether it is China or, to a lesser extent, Russia, authoritarian regimes in smaller countries looking for help with their development and security now have an alternative to the Bretton Woods institutions and alliances. China is not trying to assert itself as the new hegemon, let alone export revolutionary ideology, as it did in its Maoist days; “its goal nowadays is counter-revolutionary: like Moscow, Beijing’s real aim is to disrupt the West’s claim to universalism.” The principal argument in their shared campaign to dethrone the Washington consensus is that “America’s liberal democratic discourse is a cover for its geopolitical interests.” Its NGOs, for instance, may pretend to be humanitarian, but their goals are strategic. Whether fighting to make the world safe for democracy or capitalism, the U.S.A. has always sought to dominate the world. Having exposed this pretense as such, their argument for “civilizational diversity—a code term for autocracy—now finds a more receptive audience.”

The most aggressive exponent of this “counter-revolutionary” argument is Alexander Dugin, “Putin’s Brain.” His signal phrase, according to Gessen, is that “there is nothing universal about universal human rights.” They are instead a rhetorical trick used by the West to weaken a “traditional values civilization” such as Russia. According to him, Russia stands at the head of such a civilization, distinctly Eurasian, whose values are antithetical to those of the Atlantic. “It was the rule of Putin,” he has said, “that spelled the true victory of Eurasianist ideas.” These ideas are a mish-mash of Heidegger, homophobia, and conspiracy theory, among other ideas also known to the West. What is truly anti-Western in Dugin’s thought, however, is his contempt for the individual. In one of his early manifestos, for instance, he promoted “National Bolshevism,” the “worldview that is built on the total and radical negation of the individual and his centrality.”

Since then, Dugin’s ideology has mutated many times—subsuming, for instance, ecology—but he keeps defining it against Western modernity. Knowingly or not, Kremlin spokesmen and Russian TV commentators have adopted his peculiar vocabulary (e.g., “Russian World”), while he has cultivated contacts with far-right leaders from Istanbul to Paris. Any account of the siege of Western liberalism in Europe has to grapple with Dugin’s influence, yet Luce never mentions him. Why not? The bright lights of power-politics and economic forces have distracted him from the obscure ideas that help shape both. For their part, neither Russia nor China makes this mistake. While penny-pinched Western media are closing their international bureaus, Luce observes, China Central Television (CCTV) has set up thirty new ones, just as RT (Russia Today) is viewed in thirty million hotel rooms worldwide.

Luce fails to mention that the Voice of America (VOA) still exists and broadcasts to over two hundred million foreigners,11 but what is the message? Do American announcers confidently assert the values of Western liberalism abroad when those values are now so tepidly maintained at home? If so, the audience cannot be as receptive as it was two decades ago. “Beijing,” conversely, “now runs more than five hundred Confucius Institutes worldwide.” Whether they teach anything like authentic Confucianism, or whether they are fronts for other activities, is beside the point; the pretense alone is enough to see the contrast between China and America. Anything similar from a Western government—Plato Institutes?—is hard to imagine at this point.

III. Liberal Philosophy

Although he doesn’t quite say so, Luce seems to think that philosophical humility is a virtue rather than a vice of the West. “If the intellectual basis of Western liberalism is skepticism,” he writes in another context, “we should learn to live up to its meaning.” This is the closest Luce comes to giving any intellectual foundation to the political tradition he wishes to defend. This gap is excusable from a hot-take account written in the months following Trump’s unexpected victory, but there isn’t any sign that more meditation would have yielded anything firmer. Locke and Hobbes make cameo appearances, when Luce wants to claim that we are moving from a society of rights to a war of all against all. But that is the extent of his engagement with the tradition of liberal philosophy.

Luce does advocate “reviving a focus on the humanities, including basic levels of political literacy.” That said, he never explains how this focus would make any headway against the world-historical economic forces that are, according to him, the principal causes of the crisis. Moreover, Luce’s contradictions on the role of the humanities and values go deeper. “We are taught to think that our democracies are held together by values,” he says, “but liberal democracy’s strongest glue is economic growth.” If the Western countries are held together—internally, and in alliance with each other—by growth, what is it that makes their regimes worth preserving? The answer must be that they foster the most prosperity. Is that really all that’s at stake in this crisis?

The Louvre Museum, Paris, France

Luce comes close to saying this when he claims that democracies are “more efficient” than autocracies. His evidence comes from a general appraisal of the combatants in the Second World War: “the two most efficient belligerents by far were the US and Britain,” he writes, because rather than fear, “trust is the glue of a successful free society.” So which is it, trust or growth? The correct answer is neither. Public trust and economic growth are good things, to be sure, and it may very well be true that Western liberalism will eventually expire without them, but it does not follow that either of them is its essence. That essence is a constellation of values that foster, though hardly guarantee, trust and growth. These are the values that ultimately unite us. And what are they?

Few are the Western soldiers who have enlisted, let alone died, to promote greater income equality or more accountability from politicians. Liberty, for better or worse, has summoned them to battlefields from Concord to the present. However, it may be objected, those are the times that try men’s souls. What about times like these, when the battle rages not with steel, but in books? Well, why does Luce himself join this battle? I doubt it’s for the sake of prosperity or transparency. And what about us? Will we go over the parapet with him because we want more money for ourselves or more honesty from our government? How does life in a rich and explicit tyranny sound to you? Would you compromise your present rights to discuss ideas like these, not to mention act upon them, if doing so promised more growth and security?

If so, as the surveys show more and more Americans choosing, then the retreat of Western liberalism is not happening, fundamentally, on account of China, automation or globalization, let alone because of Trump, Putin and Orbán, but from a much deeper failure—the failure of Western countries to reproduce liberal individuals holding liberal values. Luce reminds us that the US Constitution was saved from the proto-tyranny of Nixon less by the laws than by the unsung characters of Randolph Thrower, Johnnie M. Walters, and Mark Felt—as well as Archibald Cox, whom he does not mention. Luce is right, but people who understand liberal values, and have the courage to defend them, do not spring from the earth unless dragon’s teeth are first sown.

IV. Liberal Individuals

Our failure to produce liberal individuals in recent decades is, I have argued, a symptom of corruption in our schools, especially our universities, which are forming thought-leaders who are not only ignorant of liberalism, but occasionally hostile to it. The humanities classrooms Luce promotes as the places where Westerners can once again acquire “basic levels of political literacy” are often political, but they are usually critical of the classical liberalism Luce has in mind. When it comes to political theory, for example, undergraduates are less likely to read Locke, Madison and Mill than they are to read Nietzsche, Foucault and Derrida.

Perhaps the influence of postmodern philosophy on the humanities and social sciences has reached its high-water mark. If nothing else, the illiberal protests of student activists across the country, and the chaos at Evergreen State, in particular, have exposed its weakness as a positive political program. One can only hope. The damage has already been done, though, if the attitudes of young Westerners toward their liberal democratic tradition is any indication. Writers here and elsewhere are therefore calling for a return to modernism—according renewed importance to freedom, reason and science—in order to rejuvenate the university and the wider project of Western liberalism it serves. But however admirable their goals, these writers are naïve to think that the failure of postmodernism as a positive philosophy is enough to discredit its trenchant criticisms of modernist thought.

John Rawls

Here is not the place to survey those criticisms. What we can do quickly is present two of the last generation’s greatest defenders of Western liberalism and revisit the problems postmodernism caused for them. First, John Rawls. A Theory of Justice (1971) defended liberal democracy through the conceit of “the original position,” which presupposes “the veil of ignorance.” Imagine a group of people constituting the rules of a society in which they must then live. Now imagine that they have no knowledge of the identities or positions they will assume in that society. Rawls mentions social status, class, intelligence and strength, but remarkably, neither race nor sex. In any case, this is the veil of ignorance. Behind this veil, Rawls believed, none would promote the interests of one group over the others. This is the original position, where the judgments of neutral framers would yield a just social contract, maximizing equality by consent freely given.

However, only someone who is already a liberal individual would presume that judgments about justice could be made in such abstract circumstances. To someone who makes all moral judgments by reference to a caste, a tribe or a tradition—thinking historically, this describes the norm, to which the liberal individual is an exception—Rawls’ conceit becomes unintelligible. Catholic thinkers, for example, objected: my devotion to the magisterium of the Church determines my judgments about justice, so how could I make any judgments behind the veil of ignorance without knowing that I am Catholic? Critical race theorists, too, argued that all moral judgment is informed by one’s embodiment at a particular time in a particular race, meaning that the “abstraction” of the veil of ignorance was only a rhetorical device for enshrining the prejudices of whites.

In the same vein, evolutionary psychologists could make common cause with feminists, objecting that the different perspectives of women and men (as populations) would yield relevant differences in moral judgment in the original position, so that gender identity cannot really be abstracted. Feminists add that the judgments Rawls imputed to the “abstract” agents were in fact those of men. Whether or not that is true, there is clearly something wrong here when critical race theorists, feminists, evolutionary psychologists and Catholics make the same fundamental criticism: he cloaked an idiosyncratic notion of justice—namely, liberal democracy—with the rhetoric of neutrality and universality. Shorn of its own rhetorical excesses, this is the postmodern critique of liberalism. With Rawls, at the very least, it is accurate.

Richard Rorty

Richard Rorty, the other great defender of liberalism from the late twentieth century, avoided this critique by granting its accuracy … and then shrugging. In his central work, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (1989), he candidly admitted that liberal politics has no foundation in objective truth. Attempts to give it such a foundation are hypocritical. Nevertheless, he wrote, “a belief can still regulate action, can still be thought worth dying for, among people who are quite aware that this belief is caused by nothing deeper than contingent historical circumstance.” Therefore, it was not that the American model, or any of its defenders, had shown the Nazis and the Soviets to be wrong, objectively speaking, but rather that more people had been persuaded that the American model was better—if not by words, then at the point of a gun. Liberal democracy, in other words, was the winner in the long contest of power stretching from ancient Greece to the Cold War.

Empire State Building, New York, United States

That’s at least how it appeared near the end of the twentieth century. As Luce shows, things appear otherwise now. Liberal democracy no longer seems destined to win that contest; in fact, it may already be losing. When it comes to the objectivity of liberal claims, rather than its success in the struggle for power, Luce follows Rorty: “the intellectual basis of Western liberalism,” recall, “is skepticism.” Compare that admission with the liberal tradition. For Locke, Jefferson and most of the philosophers who have defended liberalism, its intellectual bases have been some combination of a social contract and natural rights, with or without “Nature’s God.” To say, as Luce and Rorty do, that the intellectual basis of liberalism is skepticism is a departure from this tradition. In the end, it is tantamount to admitting liberalism has no basis at all.

Notice the uncanny resemblance between this candid admission and the “counter-revolutionary” argument that Luce highlighted earlier. From the standpoint of China and Russia, Western claims to universal values are merely rhetorical disguises for assertions of Western power. They have, in short, no intellectual basis. With one of liberalism’s greatest recent defenders openly admitting the soundness of this argument, it is easier to see the point of Foucault’s overblown, but nonetheless important, critique of objectivity. “‘Truth’,” he wrote, “is linked in a circular relation with systems of power which produce and sustain it.” The Chinese and Russians are pushing on Western liberalism from without, while postmodern critics have been draining it from within. Western liberalism is thus under siege and may be retreating, but it is definitely also imploding.

Solutions?

When it comes to solutions to this crisis, Luce has little to offer. To be fair, he warns that “it is not my aim to set out a detailed policy manifesto.” Nevertheless, he recommends “thin globalization,” although he never says what that means, nor how it would help turn things around. He calls the US Constitution a “Heath Robinson contraption,” without considering the arguments of the framers for the wise compromises they forged between the competing forces of liberalism and democracy that Luce himself sees colliding in the current crisis. He mentions Universal Basic Income (UBI), which thinkers on both the right and left are beginning to see as the only humane response to the catastrophe for labor that automation is bringing. His objections are, alas, superficial and easily met by UBI’s advocates.

“We must think more radically than that,” he continues, providing a list of policy changes without any evident common theme: universal health care, diminished regulation of the workplace, simplification of the tax code, etc. Most of these changes he takes to be “self-evident.” He is right. In politics, as in philosophy and religion, the answers to most such questions are self-evident. The problem is that to half of us, they are self-evidently “yes,” while to the other half, they are self-evidently “no.” At the end of his list is this injunction: “the nature of representative democracy should be re-imagined.” But alas, he gives no hint of this re-imagination. Such breeziness is evident on matters of fact, as well as of value. For example, Hillary Clinton’s infamous comment may have been imprudent, but she did not “write off half of society as deplorable”; instead, she wrote off half of Trump’s supporters as such. That figure is far less than half of society; in fact, it is much closer to fifteen percent.

Fortunately, Luce’s small errors and vague suggestions do not spoil his ultimate conclusion: “the West’s crisis is real, structural, and likely to persist.” He is right to argue that “the downward pressure on the incomes of the middle classes will be relentless”; he is right that automation is accelerating the labor crisis that globalization began; and finally, he is right that the return of China to the status it historically enjoyed offers a new Beijing consensus to rival the Washington consensus of the postwar years. Above all, Luce keeps his eyes on the prize from the beginning: “Whether the Western way of life, and our liberal democratic systems, can survive this dramatic shift of global power is the question of this book.”

What Luce overlooks—sometimes deliberately—is the nature of that way of life. What is the way of Western liberalism? What do we value, what do we believe, and why? Luce adopts Mark Lilla’s criticisms of identity politics—the emphasis on groups, especially minority groups, rather than the whole body politic—and is right to do so. However, Rorty got there first, recalling the ‘platoon’ movies produced by mid-century Hollywood, which focused on what united Americans, rather than what made them different from one another. “If the cultural Left insists on its present strategy,” Rorty wrote in 1998, “asking us to respect one another in our differences, rather than asking us to cease noticing those differences—it will have to find a new way of creating a sense of commonality at the level of national politics.” More now than ever, this is the task of liberals on both the right and the left. What are the values that bind Americans, and the citizens of other liberal democracies, together?

The liberal tradition, if we step back and think of it as but one tradition among many in the history of the world, distinguishes itself by its peculiar esteem for individual reason and individual freedom; in sum, by its respect for the individual. Alexander Dugin is right about this much. But is this merely our Atlanticist fetish? Do we protect it only because that’s what our forebears did? Are we willing to fight for it—with words first, then later with guns—simply because it is ours? This would corroborate the critiques of Foucault, Putin, and the Chinese Politburo, for it would be a hypocritical exercise of power. Our way of life is only worth defending if we believe its values are good, rooted in true beliefs about the nature of the world, which our philosophers can explain with sound arguments. Western liberalism cannot survive, in other words, simply by winning a civilizational contest for money and power. The only way it survives, as itself, is through philosophy.

But which? The Enlightenment philosophies that freed us—from kings, yes, but more importantly to think for ourselves—are no longer up to the task; they have imploded under pressure from Nietzsche and his many epigones. Postmodern philosophy, obviously, will not do, unless we wish to see Evergreen State on a civilizational scale. A skeptical philosophy such as Rorty’s, which tries to maintain liberal commitments by preserving postmodern critiques for private life, is seductive but insufficient. A house divided against itself cannot stand. Political societies are maintained by private citizens, just as private citizens are educated by political societies. This is as true of liberal societies and citizens as of any other regime. If these citizens are postmodernists in private, but liberals in public, Western liberalism will expire from its own hypocrisy.

What Western liberalism therefore needs is a philosophy that can underwrite both liberal government and the modern individual—as a political agent with rights, but above all, as a man or woman able to reason freely and to pursue the truth—against the postmodern critiques produced by the ingenuity of that very individual. With such a philosophy, Western liberalism could withstand the pressures that are enervating it from within. What about the pressures from without? The world of capitalists, diplomats and generals may not care whether the claims of Western liberalism are true, but Western liberals should. If they don’t, they have already lost. Ultimately, in the contest at the heart of this struggle, the West will need a philosophy to rival Confucianism. Wouldn’t it be great if we already had one?

Filed under: Philosophy, Politics, Review

by

Patrick Lee Miller is a philosopher teaching at Duquesne University, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He is the author of Becoming God: Pure Reason in Early Greek Philosophy (Bloomsbury, 2012), and co-editor of Introductory Readings in Ancient Greek and Roman Philosophy (Hackett, 2015). His recent philosophical writing uses Platonism to address current problems such as gender, sexuality, child psychology, pedagogy, virtual-reality, spirituality, indecision, honesty, and liberal government. His faculty page can be found here: http://www.duq.edu/academics/faculty/patrick-lee-miller

43 Comments

  1. Kevin Jones says

    He says Trump is “menacing racial minorities with executive orders”.. you got to be kidding me. On top of utterly retarded statements about Trump I don’t agree with the thesis in this article. I swear Marxs Dialectical Materialism has rotted the minds of the vast majority of intellectuals. To think populism is on the rise because billionaires are getting richer at a much faster pace than the middle class is laughable. Populism is on the rise because we have the internet and people are keenly aware of the lies are elites have told us throughout the year. For example, 20 years ago very few people probably knew about COINTELL-PRO but now thanks to the internet we are all keenly aware of such stuff. On top of people being more aware and therefore weary of government/elites, people also have adopted a more informal culture at large. The entertainment industry and the internet has popularized working class culture to the point where the vast majority of people who aren’t elites have adopted the kind of working class ethos with reguards to sex, humor, and the way we speak and as a result the average person feels distant from politicians who come off as phoney and fake. Take all that and add to the fact our elites import 3rd world peasants into our country and feed us empty platitudes like ‘diversity is our strength’ while the media lies about the motives of terrorism.. get the picture.. Its the elites fault for being pretentious self centered liars and thanks to internet we can see the contrast of what is real and what the media/government say. In the end Trump might actually be the hero in the end

    • Kevin,

      A couple of points:
      1. I caught the dig at Trump as well which originally colored my view of the author’s points; however, when I resigned myself to ignore that stuff and focus on the political party agnostic parts what I came away with is that what the author describes as Liberalism is original liberalism and not the “truth-speak” definition of it used by the American political Left to associate themselves with a concept which they don’t actually follow. Traditional liberal is closer to the libertarian mindset now viewed as “alt-right” by some versus the socialist/Marxist view of the political left who have assigned themselves the liberal & progressive monikers.

      2. With respect to your counter on the rise of populism, I think you are correct. It is on the rise because of the internet but for a different reason than you suggest. The internet has re-instantiated free-speech when it had been quashed by probably two decades by agency-capture of the media. The traditional view of free speech is exemplified by the newspapers cannot be shutdown/blocked by the politicians and government; however, it fails to recognize the barriers to entry into mass media. Interestingly, for broadcast media it is government licensing! The politicians effectively captured free-speech as seen by the media bias in the news field. A vast majority is political left leaning, and a few are politically right — how many are politically liberal in the traditional sense? Not many. However, for better or worse social media has created a platform where everyone has the ability to speak without those barriers and to congregate as well. While this creates echo chambers to some extent it also emboldens people to freely voice their opinions at the ballot box as well which is what I believe happened in 2016. In 2009, my politically left leaning extended family members joined the chorus of calling me racist simply because I disagreed with President Obama’s socialist plans. You couldn’t have a disagreement without being called racist or Nazi just as in 2016 they attempted the same proclaiming that if you didn’t vote for Hillary it was because you were just another Weinstein. What makes the populists rise is the newfound ability to no longer bend to political correctness — the old movie PCU has become reality.

      • Kevin Jones says

        yes what your saying is also true but it plays into my point. Internet eliminated the gate keepers and that is my point in reguards to the rise of conspiracy theories as well. I’m 28 and I can remember 12 years ago when I first got into watching conspiracy oriented material. at that time nobody knew of conspiracies besides JFK and only were starting to become aware of 911 ones with Loose Change. Whats powerful is not whether or not conspiracies are true but the way the indulgence of such theories changes your way of thinking. Everybody under 30 basically has gone down these rabbit holes and its expanded our sense of the possible and breeds cynicism

  2. John Davies says

    Spot on Kevin. I gave up when you described people such as Wilders, who are trying to defend liberal values, as authoritarian/far right.

    • Michiel says

      I haven’t read the whole piece yet but I was also surprised to see Hungary listed as a failed democracy ruled by a tirant, in the same list as Russia, Botswana and Venezuela. Sure one can have reservations about mr Orbán but come on, it is really not comparable. (Why not add Germany to the list, since Angela Merkel has been ruling there for the past 12 years and will continue for at least another 4, making unilateral decisions that affect the whole of the EU.)
      As for right wing populists like Wilders or Le Pen, I think the broader distinction to make is that one of the main reasons these populist right wing parties exist in the first place is because people are worried about or afraid of the rising influence of the decidedly illiberal Islam in the West.

  3. DiscoveredJoys says

    I suggest that if there is no objective truth underpinning Western Liberal Democracy (per Richard Rorty) then a better lens to view the ‘implosion’ of Western Liberalism is fashion.

    Fashions start out by distancing themselves from the previous fashion (e.g. the ‘implosion’ of fascism and the ‘explosion’ of liberal democracy). The fashion then cruises through the glory days of general acceptance, but the fashion becomes more and more extreme, chasing novelty, until it ‘implodes’ and is replaced by a new fashion.

    Empires are fashions. Political parties are fashions. Philosophical schools are fashions. Economic schools are fashions. Even countries are fashions. But every new fashion contains the seeds of its own over-reach and destruction.

  4. Carl Sageman says

    I had to read this article twice to appreciate some of what the author was trying to say. I also read the “we already had one” at the end of the article. The author (one in the same) takes some digesting to appreciate. Some of his arguments still don’t gel with me.

    For example, the article implies that sexism stopped Hillary being elected. If you mean her sexism, that would be a fair assessment as it is easily measured. I found her sexual discrimination against little boys highly unethical. I found the media’s complicit endorsement even more disturbing, even calling her inclusive.

    “And to all the little girls who are watching this, never doubt that you are valuable and powerful and deserving of every chance and opportunity in the world to pursue and to achieve your own dreams.”
    http://edition.cnn.com/2016/11/09/politics/clinton-to-offer-remarks-in-new-york-city/

    While I am not especially inspired by Trump, I found Hillary extremely divisive, especially on sex (which the author often calls gender). Her gender card stunt is consistent with her commitment to identity politics.

    I also found the generalisations about modernists to be simplistic (eg. Linking modernists and religion). I misunderstood the criticisms of fact until I read the linkage of nature and science by the ancient Greeks. However, I am not convinced that facts are subjective. They may need context, but facts are not negotiable.

    I also feel the author misunderstands equality. One of the arguments used about gender equality didn’t make sense if you consider that you can’t compare unlike things. For example, feminists argue we need more women in STEM. Highlighting that veterinary science is heavily dominated by women (ie. refuting the argument that more women are needed in science) causes feminists to twist the argument elsewhere as feminists try to make up a new argument to justify equality. The exercise is ultimately futile because equality is purposely left undefined and because the argument is never actually about equality. It’s power over reason, otherwise, a notion as simple as opportunity vs outcome would be made explicit.

    Ultimately, despite my comments, I thoroughly enjoyed the articles, especially the depth of thought and gems like using Darwin as an example of why we need free speech. Anyone who takes the time to
    Ignore the rough edges and listen to what the author is saying will be richly rewarded intellectually.

    Thank you to the authors but also to the excellent commenters on Quillette. I’m impressed at how exceptional the comments are here compared to every other forum I frequent. They often compliment the articles beautifully.

    • Carl,

      Your point on the definition is one I have often attempted to explain. We get the “inequality…ex. Google, Damore!” screeching but they are artfully deflect when I ask if we should bias hiring towards cisgender males in nursing. You have inequality when you look through a microscope at a small population but do not necessarily when considering the whole population. That is an inconvenient truth.

      • Carl Grover says

        Bill, again, your message resonates with me. The prevailing vision though, is that people do not as much complain about nursing. Likely for the same reason that most women don’t complain about STEM – they’re pursuing their own interests.

  5. José Moreira says

    You lost me at Masha Gessen. Her work is terrible. Dugin??? Come on.

    • Not even by a long shot Dugin has such influence. Media presence in the past, maybe.

  6. Really superb overview of the current situation. I don’t know that I’m inclined to agree with the sense of intellectual legitimacy that seems to be being conferred on postmodernism here, though – I’d say it has obscured the thinking that grounds our societies, and has given the appearance of having refuted it rather than actually having done so. A large, topic, though.

    Also, if we’re going to take people to task for being less-than-accurate when saying that Clinton dismissed half of society, allow me to point out another factual hiccup. The passing talk of “Syrian refugees” repeats a motif that is becoming a bugbear of mine: according to the Bundesamt für Migration und Flüchtlinge, Syrians have never been more than 37% of asylum applicants to Germany taken year by year (although for a few months in late 2015/early 2016 they were a bit over 50%). See, for example, page two of this for 2016: http://www.bamf.de/SharedDocs/Anlagen/DE/Downloads/Infothek/Statistik/Asyl/201612-statistik-anlage-asyl-geschaeftsbericht.pdf?__blob=publicationFile

    • K J Aldous says

      Postmodernism was tossed into the capacious trash can of academic claptrap in 1994 by Alan Sokal. Zombie-like its rotting remains, carrying its basket of muddlement, night and fog seem yet haunt the halls of academia, infecting a few lost scholars with its wasting disease. Its influence on thought, culture and society has been no more than a little, ephemeral puzzlement.

  7. Kurtz says

    Interesting piece. Pity it omitted any mention of that other child of the European Enlightenment: Conservatism.

  8. …and openly contemptuous of the checks and balances in the U.S. Constitution..

    You are 1 administration off… “I have a pen and a phone” The entire governing philosophy of our previous president and his wing of his party is that the constitution was the work of dead, white racists and a “negative” charter that he needed to subvert to get done all the positive things he wanted to do for us. You weren’t around to observe those 8 years, or you just like being intentionally obtuse?

    • Kurt,

      As I mentioned in my response to Kevin above…any criticism of “I have a pen and a phone” got you labeled as racist. Perhaps why a candidate as distasteful as Trump (to some) became President is specifically because one must be dependent upon no-one else (Trump as CEO of a multi-million/billion organization) to be immune to such name calling. The media and Left has found that they can espouse all their BS labels and identity politics at the typical person and win silence “Antifa-style” because the end result is that those speakers risk their very livelihood whereas Trump is able to shrug it off. He became the hero to many who, for 8 years, have been forced into silence by the Left-wing fascism of identity politics.

  9. Dwight says

    A guess: it was the combination of the words “implosion” and “liberalism” in the title that brought the Trumpists here ready to cheer against libtards. Then, confusion.

  10. defmn says

    //The Enlightenment philosophies that freed us—from kings, yes, but more importantly to think for ourselves—are no longer up to the task; they have imploded under pressure from Nietzsche and his many epigones.//

    Although I disagree with aspects of the author’s conclusions regarding contemporary American politics I am more interested in praising him for having correctly identified the root cause of the illness currently afflicting western liberal democracies. Something that I had yet to see in any of the submissions to this site.

    It is all the more troubling since Nietzsche made no secret of the fact that the purpose of his radical relativism was the destruction of the modern liberal enterprise first fashioned by Bacon and Hobbes.

    It is one of the larger ironies of the current political situation that the philosophical underpinnings of the Marxist legions promoting the current post-modern obsession with identity politics reside in the writings of a man committed to the downfall of that liberal legacy due in large part to the ease with which Marx degraded the project. Could there be a more blatant and ironically humourous example of cultural appropriation to be found anywhere? Highly unlikely.

    //Ultimately, in the contest at the heart of this struggle, the West will need a philosophy to rival Confucianism. Wouldn’t it be great if we already had one?//

    I have to assume this is the essay’s author having a little fun with the fact that to the extent that Plato’s writings are even mentioned in a scholastic setting these days they are dealt with more as a caricature of his thought than with any attempt to plumb the profundity that they deserve.

    The modern liberal democracy may well owe its inception to the rhetorical prowess of Hobbes masterpiece ‘The Leviathan’ more than it does to the profound insights of Plato’s ‘Republic’ but the former’s philosophic underpinnings are clearly owed to the originator of political philosophy should one take the trouble to look.

    • Jeremy H says

      “It is all the more troubling since Nietzsche made no secret of the fact that the purpose of his radical relativism was the destruction of the modern liberal enterprise first fashioned by Bacon and Hobbes.”

      Nietzsche’s ‘perspectivism’ (not relativism) was intended primarily as a philosophical exercise to get past the trappings of 19th century Christian and scientific presumptions. While his stated goals did include the “re-inversion of all values”, akin to what Judaism/Christianity performed on ancient Mediterranean civilization, whatever Nietzsche’s ultimate goals, they were surely aimed at preventing the exact meltdown of Western culture we are currently witnessing.

      His primary mission was to diagnose the very malaise that was already clearly eating away at Western culture 150 years ago. His chief criticism of Enlightenment philosophy and science was precisely that it continued with Plato’s original error of insisting on a meta-physical realm of absolute truth (or Socrate’s “rationality at all cost”) and that it was going to lead to the same kind of cultural decline and self-destruction that afflicted the Greeks. Devaluing the material realm in favour of some “other” plane of existence, like Heaven, or non-existence (Buddhism), can only lead to the devaluation of humans and eventually of life itself.

      Marx may have also taken aim at Enlightenment values, but with entirely opposite goals than Nietzsche, who wanted aristocratic values to be revived in the West, with all the greater inequalities of wealth and privilege that such systems entail. To suggest that the militant left is marching around today championing Nietzschean values is a bit of stretch to say the least.

      • defmn says

        //To suggest that the militant left is marching around today championing Nietzschean values is a bit of stretch to say the least.//

        Not really. You say ‘perspectivism’, I say relativism.

        You say he disagreed with Plato’s meta-physical realm of absolute truth, I say relativism.

        //His primary mission was to diagnose the very malaise that was already clearly eating away at Western culture 150 years ago.//

        The diagnosis was simply prepatory to to primary mission of destruction of that malaise that he traced to Plato through Hobbes.

        The fact that the militant left is unaware that their meta-physical underpinnings trace to Nietzsche does not affect that they do.

        • Jeremy H says

          @defmn

          “Not really. You say ‘perspectivism’, I say relativism.”

          It doesn’t matter what you or I say, Nietzsche did not practice or champion relativism as it is understood today. His entire philosophical mission was to promote a certain set of values over another: this would be the very opposite goal of a relativist. As I mentioned in my first reply Nietzsche’s perspectivism was a tool or technique, not a philosophical position (like relativism), which didn’t preclude rejecting some perspectives while favouring others. It said nothing about different perspectives being of equal worth.

          “The diagnosis was simply prepatory to to primary mission of destruction of that malaise that he traced to Plato through Hobbes.”

          And this is where he supposedly aligns with Marx et al? Their respective visions for what was to come ‘after’ Europe couldn’t have been more different. It’s hard to find two such antithetical philosophies as ‘Nietzchism’ and Marxism but you seem determined to wed them into some united school ‘underpinning’ today’s radicals so I won’t attempt to dissuade you from this. It’s true that many post-modernist’s who subsequently took inspiration from Nietzsche (mistook inspiration imo) went on to lay the foundation for the modern left, but that changes nothing regarding Nietzsche’s own philosophy.

          • defmn says

            You totally misunderstand Nietzsche. Nietzsche and Marx are anti-thetical. It is why I indicated the irony underlying their fusion by the post-modernists.

            And I agree that the post-modernists totally misunderstand Nietzsche’s ideas. Next to Plato he represents the highest peak of western political philosophy while the post-modernists are firmly mired in the deepest swamps of the valleys.

            Nietzsche’s radical relativism is tongue in cheek. If you are laughing when you read Fredrich you just aren’t understanding him. But this is where the mediocre minds of post-modernism claim to have found their metaphysical bearings. The fact that they are 180 degrees confused about what they think they see is a different topic.

          • defmn says

            My apologies. My first sentence should read “You totally misunderstand what I said about Nietzsche.”

        • Jeremy H says

          @ defmn

          “You totally misunderstand…”

          This is actually a reply to your reply below as it seems Quilette enforces a reply limit or something. Yes, it appears I did totally misunderstand your position on Nietzsche, my apologies. I accused you of making the same mistake you were actually criticizing the post-modernists for making. I’ve had this or a similar argument about Nietzsche many times and I tend to fall by rote into the defensive position.

          • lycurgus says

            Ah, glad to see some other folks picked up on the essay’s fairly casual and inaccurate usage of Nietzsche… I’m thinking particularly of the more modern interpretations of Nietzsche in political philosophy, best represented by William Connolly and his theory of “agonistic democracy” — a reconciliation of Nietzsche with democratic (though not necessarily liberal) values.

            Certainly, anyone who posits Nietzsche as either a relativist or nihilist has never read him… But I’d also argue anyone who thinks of him as a monarchist, or as a reactionary smashing the enlightenment’s values, hasn’t read him very *well*. Nietzsche — particularly in the most relevant texts here (“The Gay Science”, “The Genealogy of Morals”) — is constantly grappling with the preservation of individual freedom, and what he views as an innate struggle for domination between individuals, corrupted and twisted by how we form societies and take collective actions (or identify ourselves).

      • augustine says

        “Devaluing the material realm in favour of some “other” plane of existence, like Heaven, or non-existence (Buddhism), can only lead to the devaluation of humans and eventually of life itself.”

        How so? Exactly how does belief in the transcendent “devalue” humans and life itself?

        An atheistic materialism can be expected to lead to the devaluation of human life because its inability to accept objective truth in morality will invite every possible justification for cruelty and terror.

        • Jeremy H says

          Belief in the transcendent or divine does’t necessarily lead to the devaluation of life, nor did I mean that. It’s when the transcendent begins to take on a moral or ideological aspect and becomes the ‘goal’ of life itself that it becomes problematic. Christianity has struggled with this throughout its existence with there being entire ages of withdrawal from the world or moral manias against the exuberant joys of life (sex, drinking, dancing, music, etc.) It again all depends on one’s views regarding heaven and redemption: seen as the just reward for a well-lived life it can be a healthy incentive to life, but too often it becomes a mere escape from life when things go poorly, a great hope for the future while we (resentfully) endure the present.

          When this becomes the case life can only be seen as wrong turn or punishment from which we require escape; this leads to not only withdrawal and apathy (monasticism) but to active disgust for life and even pogroms of revenge upon it (i.e. the aforementioned moral crazes against expressions of healthy life.) The ultimate expression of this attitude being something like Buddhism, which past all hatred and desire for revenge on life seeks simply to calmly annihilate it.

          Contrast this with the metaphysics of the Greeks or Romans, where the afterlife was only a vaguely defined hall of shadows where one apparently moped around for eternity. There was every incentive to live life to its highest level at all times in the here and present. They already felt they were living the best possible existence, where a glorious death would be an exclamation point to an honorable life, not a desperate escape from it.

          “An atheistic materialism can be expected to lead to the devaluation of human life because its inability to accept objective truth in morality will invite every possible justification for cruelty and terror.”

          Neither theists nor atheists have any claim to moral superiority when it comes to justifications for cruelty and terror. The theist may believe that their morality is anchored in some objective truth, but that does not make it so. Most morality has been and always will be based on self-interest; it’s better in my opinion to be aware of this as it mitigates the desire to universalize one’s own morals with all the attendant disasters for one’s society that generally entails (hence this article.)

          • augustine says

            [Belief is] “seen as the just reward for a well-lived life it can be a healthy incentive to life, but too often it becomes a mere escape from life when things go poorly, a great hope for the future while we (resentfully) endure the present.”

            This is a common but mistaken view of the motivation to follow Christ. There are resentful and escapist people in all denominations probably but resentment and escape are not at all part of the Christian message. Christian faith actually compliments our worldly living since it recognizes fully the predicament we are in. It answers philosophies such as naturalism and materialism that cannot fill the existential void that plagues all men. I am not a proselytizer so I invite you to learn more from the Bible directly and with a teacher. I think you will find that none of the vagaries of human existence have escaped the notice of its authors, nor its divine Author.

            I am always amazed when people say something like “Wouldn’t the world be wonderful if we just got rid of all religion?” They seem oblivious to the fact that the real problem is our very human nature, our implacable dark heart. There is no escaping this reality but by faith we have a connection to something greater than ourselves. OTOH if we believe only in ourselves the outcome will be history as usual: suffering, oppression and violence. Selfish interest pitted against the selfish interest of others. How to break that cycle?

            I agree that morality is based in self-interest but it goes deeper than this. If there is only your personal truth, your moral code, and mine, and so on for everyone we interact with, how could that be reconciled to form a peaceful and productive society? There must be a common interest in the ways we consider and treat each other, based on a binding contract that is greater than any one of us, or any subset of our population, in order to have social harmony.

        • Michiel says

          It’s quite logical. If there is a better life after death, that automatically devalues this life before death, compared to the philosophical position that this life is the only life there is.

          I would say that a belief in a perfect heaven or paradise after this life is also bound to lead to a greater acceptance of suffering in this life. It might even elevate suffering to something to be admired, even aimed at, because all this suffering will be rewarded in the next life. This is quite clearly visible in the great world religions.
          Atheist materialism on the other hand tells you there is nothing but this life, so we better make the most of it and try to avoid any unneccesary suffering.
          Again this is quite obviously demonstrated in societies today: the most atheistic societies (mostly in Western/Northern Europe) are arguably also the societies that have done most to expel cruelty, terror and suffering. There are generous social safety nets, crime is generally low and high-quality healthcare is available for all at relatively low cost. They do not fight wars of aggression and even the justice-system is aimed more at rehabilitation and reintegration than punishment.

          “…every possible justification for cruelty and terror.” Do you really need to be reminded of the less than stellar history of organised religion when it comes to cruelty and terror? If there is such a thing as “objective morality”, then how come the morality of, for example, Christianity has changed so much in accordance with changing moralities in society at large? Christians were generally ok with slavery up until the point that larger society changed it’s mind about it. Witch burning? Religious wars? The inquisition? Killing of heretics? I’m sure religious people of those times all thought these things were jutified by the “objective truth in morality” of their time.

          • augustine says

            @Michiel

            Belief in an afterlife can and does emphasize getting right in this life. Spiritual “success” after death is not behavior-contingent, it is solely at the discretion of God. You cannot earn your way into heaven in other words. Personally I am more concerned about this life.

            “Atheist materialism on the other hand tells you there is nothing but this life, so we better make the most of it and try to avoid any unneccesary suffering.”

            Atheist materialism also tells me that I can avoid suffering your morality by going my own way. This may include choosing to impose suffering on others and since there is no objective morality, how can you claim that this is wrong? Multiply this by every adult on earth and it is easy to see that this is no solution to moral dilemmas but would make things far worse. It is happening now. There are difficulties with the objectivity of a divinely inspired moral code I will admit but I do not see a better alternative coming from reason and rational thought alone. God catches on because ultimately no one wants to follow someone else’s philosophy to the end.

            “Do you really need to be reminded of the less than stellar history of organised religion when it comes to cruelty and terror?”

            Apparently you need to be reminded of the atrocious history of genocide and violence by those committed to atheistic, socialist ideologies. Mao and Stalin are often cited but I like to recall the horrors of the French Revolution. The mass murder and torture inflicted by the victors in that war put the violence of the Spanish Inquisition to shame. The English were almost as vicious against the Catholics at about the same time. Do you not recognize any violence against believers by non-believers? Again, the problem is human nature, whether or not the subjects are religious.

            Christians were never OK with slavery. It is mentioned in the Bible but not condoned by the writers. It is human nature to oppress others at some time or another and it is the primacy of religious faith, not the triumph of reason, that has fostered humanitarian progress over the centuries.

  11. Pretty clear what is going on in the world…if you have read a lot of history, and not just the victors’ type of history. Democracy is, and always has been, the ‘rule of money-power’. Being ruled by the merchant class or the business class or whatever you call them means that they will rule in the interests of their group at the expense of everything else – including the destruction of the state and civilization itself. Take pornography for example – known to be extremely bad for society, yet since it’s a big money maker, then it’s permitted. Or how about letting females have the option of splitting the dopamine results of sexual intercourse from the conception results of intercourse – of course birth rates will fall to below replacement rate and the civilization will collapse without continuous importation of other civilizations’ babies. How about convincing females that they are not sexy enough, not a good enough mother, etc so that that they will buy X product – of course they will have develop all sorts of mental illnesses and take pills for it. How about convincing women that they need a ‘career’ in order to not be ‘oppressed’ – clearly birth rates will plummet, but who cares since costs of labor will fall. Democracy necessarily means a form of capitalism which will eat its own children. Change the mode of government, as China has done, then capitalism can be controlled from destroying the civilization. Democracy, because of its focus on benefits of the business class rather than the state, never lasts very long before a rival state with a superior political system crushes it. Unfortunately for the West, it just so happens that the USA in addition to being democratic has the most secure geographic position in the world, and thus was able to persist a lot longer as a democracy than if it were a state in Europe. And of course ALL of those democracies that exist in the world are either US protectorates or tributary states. It’s only the non-democratic states which have the ability to push back on the US. Some states know the dangerous of democracy, and have thus only adopted the outward facade of democracy – Singapore, Japan, Korea. If the West continues with Liberal Democracy, the 21st century will be 100% the Asian Century. The West is in a philosophical, economic, moral, and political cul-de-sac with Liberal Democracy, it must abort and return to what is known to work. Western Civilization hangs in the balance.

    • Mike Stimpson says

      So what , exactly, is this political system that is “superior” to democracy? As I look around the world at the available alternatives, and look in history at the previous alternatives, there are absolutely none that I’d prefer to live under.

      It sounds like CP prefers something like communism, though never explicitly says so. After a glance at history, I reject that as a desirable alternative.

      Liberal democracy is not in fact supposed to be the tyranny of the money power. One of the tasks of liberal democracy is to control the power of the powerful. Arguably, the west (and especially the US) has failed at that lately. Much of the impoverishment of the example we present to the world is because of that failure.

      • Read
        Hans-Hermann Hoppe, Murray Rothbard, F.A. Harper, Stefan Molyneux, Thomas DiLorenzo, and others who generally have argued that Democracy and Liberty and incompatible.
        Murray Rothbard in his two books, “Anatomy of the State” and “Man, Economy, and State” for example has provided an alternative to Democracy in favor of individual liberty.

      • Liberal democracy ALWAYS is the ‘rule of money-power’. Here is why: People are not born with equal cognitive abilities. So the smart figure out how to manipulate the not-so-smart into supporting the ideas of the smart, even if those ideas only benefit the smart. But it takes more than just smarts, it also takes money, since it costs money to create and use the propaganda organs called MEDIA to manipulate the not-so-smart. Only the business-class has this combination of smarts and money.

        The above critique of the rule of money-power has been the same critique since the Enlightenment. Even in the USA, the country was not a democratic republic until 1856, before which it was an aristocratic republic. Even after 1856, the aristocracy (WASP) maintained unofficial control by controlling who was allowed into their elite colleges and clubs. Since the 1960/70s, the USA has been a real democracy, and you can see the results for yourself. A total disaster.

        In the days of monarchy, the monarch’s primary role was to create a balance of power between the clergy, the aristocracy, the peasants, and the burghers (business). The fall of the monarchy happened because the burghers propagandized the peasants into thinking that they were being oppressed, and then the peasants revolted. This is the same way that communist revolutionaries take over countries, by whipping up the peasants to ‘throw off their masters’, only to replace those old masters with new ones. George Orwell’s Animal Farm is all about this.

        There are many superiors systems to liberal democracy. Aristocratic Republic. Monarchy. Fascism. Singapore is a great example of a fascist state which is without a doubt the most successful state in the 20th century. China modeled itself off of Singapore, which is why China has been doing so well since the 1990s. Chile was a fascist state during Pinochet, and it became the most successful state in Latin America.

        The liberal democracy of the US has resulted in the US giving away all of its technology to China, thereby creating the world’s largest superpower and relegating the US to the dustbin. Only a liberal democracy would do something so stupid, all in the interest of more profits for the business class.

        The US is going to become a fascist state one way or another – because the national security interests of the country leave no other choice. All that is uncertain is how this will happen – peacefully or with violence. If it is violent, then expect a military takeover with suspension of the constitution.

        • Michiel says

          There were some other fascist states around the 1930’s and 40’s that also did really well… oh wait…
          If Chile did well economically under Pinochet, it was not because of fascism, but because they replaced a centrally planned marxist economy with a US inspired free-market one. China is doing well economically because they basically did the same. This is still hardly justification for the human rights abuses that come with fascism/authoritarianism. There is also no telling whether their combination of authoritarian marxist rule with a free market economy is any better in the long run than liberal democratic rule with a free market economy. We also would need to define “better” in this context. Are we looking purely at economic growth or do human rights and basic freedoms mean something too?

  12. colinhutton says

    A thought-provoking review/commentary. A pity that it is undermined by several grossly incorrect ‘facts’ in the introductory paragraphs as well as simplistic reasons for Trump’s win. To wit:

    I lived and worked in Botswana for 5 years in the eighties and have kept tabs on what is a truly remarkable country. It was and remains an exemplary parliamentary democracy. To assert that it is an “erstwhile” democracy “controlled by a tyrant” is simply *wrong*. (I challenge the author to name even a single credible source in support of his assertion). Included in the same list is Hungary, and while I have little detailed knowledge of its politics, does the author seriously suggest this member of the EU is not a parliamentary democracy and that it is controlled by a tyrant in the form of its current right-wing prime minister, Viktor Orban?

    Any objective analysis of the reasons for Trump’s win would conclude that the number of unquantifiable factors contributing to the outcome is so large that choosing amongst those factors is entirely subjective. Those selected here suggest a strong bias in favour of HRC.

    The author’s paper, linked to in the last sentence, is, however, far more balanced and is worthy of careful consideration.

  13. Samuel Skinner says

    This is a pretty bizarre article.

    “The liberal tradition, if we step back and think of it as but one tradition among many in the history of the world, distinguishes itself by its peculiar esteem for individual reason and individual freedom; in sum, by its respect for the individual. ”

    Not really. The Catholic Church already had a tradition of opposition to slavery and emphasis on reason to the point of craziness (they tested tools of logic on God’s existence since that was self evidently true).

    Radical individualism is unique to liberalism; notably all liberal states have below replacement birth rates suggesting the reason it is unique is no one was stupid enough to try it before modern times.

    “The Enlightenment philosophies that freed us—from kings, yes, but more importantly to think for ourselves—are no longer up to the task; they have imploded under pressure from Nietzsche and his many epigones. ”

    The Enlightenment brought forth some of the most totalitarian ideologies and regimes in human history. The authoritarianism of the King of France or the Czar of all the Russias was nothing compared to the First French Republic or the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The idea that it ‘freed us’ is nonsense. It merely bound us with a new set of lies, more socially destructive then the ones that came before.

    “Wouldn’t it be great if we already had one?”

    “Surveying these three requirements— first, a notion of truth as good for its own sake; second, a community organized for the pursuit of truth and empowered to train character as well as intellect; and third, a political order that permits a diversity of such communities”

    Platonism doesn’t work. It requires believing something that isn’t true (in the sense we have no evidence for it). If you are fine with that, there is no reason to use Platonism over Roman Catholicism.

    Second, holding truth as the highest ideal is not good. It results in seeking status by novelty seeking. It doesn’t get a pleasant society- “educate men without faith and you but get clever devils”. Look at modern colleges; even if we ignore their departure from the quest for truth, the fact of the matter is most of their work is socially useless.

    Finally, there is a lack of way to get there from here. Power comes first, then the idea to legitimize its use. Not clear how we are going to get people to advocate for Platonism.

    Minor technical detail.
    “where nothing we perceive through our senses will have a permanent form, and everything tangible must be in perpetual flux— you should expect something like Darwinism to be true, long before it receives the imprimatur of empirical science.”

    No, because evolution is purposeful- driven by the lack of reproduction of the less fit. Random flux is raw material for natural selection, but it does not imply Darwinism.

  14. augustine says

    It is remarkable that through this long piece no mention is made of modern liberalism, by now a common concept that contrasts with classical liberalism. The former is no doubt both a major a cause and symptom of the “implosion” the author references. It incorporates many notable ideas such as atheism, (modern)feminism, universal equality (undefined), personal hyper-autonomy, championing of diversity (also undefined), identity politics and much more.

    The opening line in the Wikipedia entry for modern liberalism says this:

    “Modern American liberalism is the dominant version of liberalism in the United States.”

    The absence of any mention of this current wave of liberalism in this article seems unaccountable.

  15. Connor says

    Hungary is authoritarian?
    Our values?
    Economy is the problem?

    You still don’t get it, do you. You’re going to waffle your nonsensical abstractions, while bodies will be piling up in the streets. You faggits are responsible that my generation has to clean up the horrorshow left by your mismanagement. Apparently nothing will teach you, except bullets and death.
    Liberals deserve no power they ever had, you deserve the stick.

  16. Pingback: Liberalism & Its Discontents | Religion and the Road

  17. I acknowledge that Trump is not a fan of illegal South and Central American immigrants and Muslim immigrants and has passed orders affecting them, but please tell me what Trump has actually done to limit the liberties of citizens. I know he has said some scary things, like in reference to the first amendment, but what has he actually done especially anything that has varied from the goals of the mainstream right for decades.

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