Politics, recent, World Affairs

François Furet: A Man For Our Season

Of all the many and varied compliments that can fairly be paid to Anglo-Saxon liberalism, modesty is certainly not among them. Since the Whig heyday in the first half of the nineteenth century, English-speaking liberals have claimed to have the solutions to everything from industrial relations to the prevention of war, all the while arguing that their doctrine is thoroughly undogmatic. And yet before one accuses liberalism and its adherents of arrogance, it is important to note that liberal policymakers, movements, and statesmen have been hugely successful in a wide array of endeavours, and played a pivotal role in fashioning the current world order.

In recent years, however, especially since the American and British electoral shocks of 2016, it has become commonplace among the commentariat to announce that liberalism’s death agonies have begun—on the Left this has led to a celebration of the passing of corrupt and oppressive neoliberalism, and on the Right to the claim that unnatural and oppressive globalism’s deserved destruction is imminent. Nonetheless, given the length of time in which the West has been saturated in liberalism, it seems unlikely that the last two years have killed it off completely, or even mostly.

The death of liberalism appears even more fantastical if one looks to Europe where, for all the noise about Viktor Orbán and Hungary’s decline into soft despotism, countries in which politicians desperately avoided the word “liberal” are now witnessing the rise of proudly liberal political movements. The most well-known example is of course France, where Emmanuel Macron captured the Presidency, and his electoral alliance secured a considerable majority of parliamentary seats. His brand of business-friendly centrism, unapologetic pro-Europeanism, and impeccably Establishment background managed to win over French voters of all political stripes—not only in the presidential election, in which he was aided by the unpopularity of his far-right opponent, Marine Le Pen, but also in the battle for the legislature.

This is not to say that Macron’s style and policies prove that a Gallicised New Labour 2.0 approach is all that is required for liberal rejuvenation. The vigour and violence of the recent gilets jaunes protests are a reminder that the tradition of French resistance to economic liberalism is alive and well. It is precisely the uniquely troubled history of French liberalism that makes it such an instructive example to study, and one that is often neglected in the English-speaking world.

Although, when it comes to revolution, France is internationally acknowledged to have been at the avant-garde of political history, like many other European nations, it often has its post-war developments discussed purely as reactions against or acceptance of Anglosphere innovations. This is an unfair characterisation, and much of what seems new and frightening to liberals in the post-2016 world has not only already taken place in France, but has been productively analysed.

An under-appreciated scholar who is highly useful for understanding the peculiarities of French and Anglosphere politics is François Furet, the late historian and political theorist, whose theory of political “passions” is very helpful for both analysis and action. Furet produced a non-Marxist critique of the French Annales School’s historiographical consensus that mentalités, or mentalities, which were seen as the worldviews of historical societies, offered the best lens through which to view history. Furet argued that this was far too static a viewpoint, as humans are capricious creatures, prone to significant and rapid changes in beliefs as well as circumstances. By way of an alternative, Furet advocated the history of “passions,” which he claimed were formed of a mixture of sentiment (feelings) and idées (thoughts). While he is most famous for his radical reinterpretation of the French Revolution, his theories can be used to help understand many different areas of history.

One important application of Furet’s ideas is to combat the ever-present spectre of presentism, in which contemporary historians and thinkers assume that the great issues of their day have been the same more or less and forever. This also tends to involve a moral indictment of much of the past, as those lucky enough to be living and writing in the present have the advantage of knowing the moral standards by which they are going to be judged. This has, ironically enough, been a problem for the entirety of recorded history, with only the specific heroes and villains changing. For example, during the Thirty Years War, a religiously driven seventeenth century European conflict, Catholic writers argued that the world had essentially been riven by an eternal conflict between Christendom and heretics, with the treacherous alliance between the Ottoman Empire and certain Protestant factions serving as apparently unimpeachable proof of this. Similarly, Marxists have portrayed the past as an unending class conflict, arguing that the Protestant Swedish peasants who killed Catholic Bavarian knights during the Thirty Years War were not in fact fighting for their God, but rather acting as unknowing agents of immutable History.

Furet offers us a less erroneous alternative framework with which to explore historical actions, as different eras have their respective primary “passions,” but these are subject to great fluctuation and change. The changes that they undergo are driven by a thousand different factors, from economics to climate change, but they are neither static nor inevitable. This need not lead to a quasi-postmodernist view that therefore nothing can ever be concluded about anything—everything, even people’s deepest beliefs, are constantly in flux—but rather allows the historian to understand each era on its own terms. Moreover, it allows the reintroduction of human agency into history, without assuming that the past is, in the words of Thomas Carlyle, “but the biography of great men.” This is particularly important when it comes to understanding both high and low politics, as they no longer have to be seen as the result of either impersonal historical forces or a few select Übermenschen.

That approach is specifically useful for understanding early twenty-first century Western politics, a topic which, as discussed above, allegedly became a radically different beast in the space of six months. As well as the assumption of liberalism’s death, the other talking point which is often heard is that the traditional paradigm of Right vs Left has suddenly become obsolete and that Western societies are now blown about by the winds of a complex multipolar politics in which the fight between globalism and parochialism is centre stage.

A phrase often used to encapsulate this rapid change is “Brexit, Trump, ISIS,” which is deployed when a writer wants to summarise the destabilisation that has so afflicted the global liberal order. The standard explanation for why these threats, and the decline they allegedly symbolise, are suddenly the central elements of Western politics relies on how two key social developments were resolved politically, and the mechanism that made that resolution possible. It has become such a constant element of media and academic discussion, and its assumptions held to be nigh on unchallengeable by serious people, that I will call it the Narrative.

The first of these developments has been mass immigration and the curiously delayed backlash that has seized much of Europe and North America. It was recently pointed out in these pages that concern about and resistance to large-scale immigration is a thoroughly international phenomenon. However, its place in the Narrative argues that although European countries have always been “nations of immigrants” (notwithstanding their orientalist racism), their publics have in the last five years rapidly decided that enough is enough and now loathe immigrants and immigration. As a result they are willing to embrace wildcard politicians and ideologies, from the Five Star Movement in Italy to Vox in Spain.

The second development has been the deindustrialisation of the West, coupled with neoliberal economic policies that have supposedly undercut the working classes. The argument runs that the factory closures of the 1970s onwards created millions of unemployed who have been, more or less, underemployed under the booms that deregulation and innovation have brought, and reliant on welfare during the busts. This has made them, very recently, mistrustful of social democratic parties who, in a misguided attempt to “get with the times,” sold out the cradle-to-grave dream that brought them so much electoral success, and so poorer voters are now attracted to the extremes.

How has this disastrous and foreseeable failure of the political class come about? Well, according to the Narrative, Western politics has become dominated by an isolated elite, who were educated at Oxbridge and INSEAD. While the social views of this elite are undoubtedly light years ahead of their Neanderthal electorates, their abandoning of the safety net, combined with a vicious right-wing media, led to misattributed working class hatred focused against poor immigrants instead of neoliberal, “citizen of nowhere” hedge fund managers. The Narrative also holds that the reason 68 percent of Muslims in Muslim-majority countries believe Westerners to be selfish, and 84 percent of South Asian Muslims want Sharia law to be the official law of their country, is not because Islam is a reactionary religion, but because global economically repressive liberalism and American cultural imperialism have provoked these understandable reactions.

The Narrative offers several advantages to commentators of leftist inclinations, as it manages to lay the blame for many modern afflictions at the feet of economic liberalism, and delivers a stinging rebuke to anti-immigration stances as little more than mildly gentrified racism. It is also not entirely untrue—the insufficient employment assistance provided for much of the Western working classes most affected by deindustrialisation in the 1980s and afterwards contributed significantly to the feeling of being left behind in a fast-changing globalised world.

However the Narrative is complicated when several key facts are considered. The Great Recession, as some call the 2008 economic downturn, is given a highly privileged role in this understanding of modern politics, as it is meant to act as the catalyst for people all over the world to suddenly wake up to their oppression. It also places great emphasis on the role of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as being wasteful and unjust imperialistic conflicts that caused much of the anti-Western sentiment seen in the Muslim-majority world today.

In March 1992, the political theorist Benjamin R. Barber wrote an article in the Atlantic entitled “Jihad vs McWorld” in which he laid out two stark futures for humanity after the Cold War. In “Jihad,” there is a great “retribalization of large swaths of humankind by war and bloodshed” and this would result in a world which rejects “interdependence, every kind of artificial social cooperation, and civic mutuality.” In “McWorld,” “the onrush of economic and ecological forces that demand integration and uniformity” create a “commercially homogenous global network… one McWorld.” He goes on to explain how the two worldviews are on an inexorable path to explosive conflict, unless his preferred third option, a global “confederalized representative system,” is adopted.

One does not have to yearn for world government to agree in large part with Barber’s diagnosis of the two basic universal streams of thought. But what is particularly interesting, and fatally undermining to the Narrative, is the timing of the article, which came out in the very early 1990s, when British railways were public, American welfare remained unreformed, and the French immigration rate was 1 per 1000 people. If, by the spring of 1992, the epochal conflict between the Open and Closed visions for societies was already clear, then are racist responses to mass immigration, 9/11 and its wars, and neoliberalism’s discontents not effects rather than causes?

If so, then the Narrative, whatever its other merits, no longer provides an adequate explanation for the current political situation. Instead, a Furet-inspired analysis can help to show the underlying mechanisms for the surface political shifts. Furet argued that the primary driver of the modern democracy is the “egalitarian passion.” By this, he meant that one of the fundamental elements of democracy is a firm and unyielding belief in the equality of all people. This belief quickly runs into the reality that people are vastly different, and so equality has to be created. The resulting need for greater equality in democracies can express itself in many different forms, from the all-consuming violence of the French Revolution to social programmes intended to empower the most dispossessed. However, the impossibility of ever achieving true equality means that the egalitarian passion is an insatiable one—it has no end.

For some time in post-war Western politics, that did not seem to be such a bad thing: the various European economic “miracles” combined with flourishing social democracy and Rhineland capitalism both reduced inequality and enormously improved standards of living. However by the 1980s they were increasingly being hijacked by special interests and, with some notable exceptions, failing to adjust to the emergence of the knowledge economy. This happened at a point when a combination of post-colonial immigration and the discovery that the Gastarbeiter also had children meant that serious and novel ethnic tensions were emerging in much of Europe. To further complicate matters, the once impossibly bright star of Marxism had waned to the point that even the most flexible and “humanist” Marxist parties were not only facing electoral defeats but total political irrelevancy.

In France, this led to what Furet described as the “normalisation” of French politics, as the alleged Sonderweg of French history that had begun with the French Revolution had come to its disappointing conclusion, a state of affairs summarised by Furet in the title of the first chapter of his book Interpreting the French Revolution: “The French Revolution is Over.” Yet, despite the failure of its most famous manifestation, the egalitarian passion remained the fundamental driving political force of both French politics specifically and Western democracies in general. Furet feared that there now appeared to be a simultaneous deadening of politics as the apparently unchallengeable hegemony of quasi-liberal democracy grew, and a dangerous backlash against the system. The eternal risk of the egalitarian passion’s role in democracy is that “[d]emocratic society is never democratic enough… The promise of democracy is infinite [but] it is impossible to prioritise liberty and equality simultaneously… This exposes all democratic regimes, not only to the excesses of demagogy but also to the constant reproach that they have betrayed their founding principles.”

This is clearly a sentiment which strikes a chord across the West today, with accusations of “betrayal” having become commonplace in a variety of democracies. Regrettably, Furet does not offer any solution, simple or otherwise, to this conflict at the heart of the democratic system. But a diagnosis is essential before treatment of any kind can begin.


Joshua David is a writer based in London.

Featured Pic: The Taking of the Bastille (wikicommons)


  1. El Uro says

    «While the social views of this elite are undoubtedly light years ahead of their Neanderthal electorates» – from now on I’m not a simple “deplorable”, I’m already Neanderthal. Nice to know this 🙂

    • Johnny Appleseed says

      The author isnt actually saying he believes that. He’s saying that’s what the MSM narative is. The whole thing is critizing the false Narrarative about Trump, Brexit, and Immigration. People commenting seem to have really misunderstood the article.

    • Heike says

      “coupled with neoliberal economic policies that have supposedly undercut the working classes.”

      Supposedly? There’s no supposedly about it. It was done, and done deliberately, with malice aforethought. The USA taxes labor at twice the rate of capital, and this was no accident.

      The essence of globalization is: labor is commoditized as mobile capital is free to roam the globe for the lowest cost labor. In contrast, labor is far less mobile, and unable to shift as fluidly and frictionlessly as capital to exploit scarcities and opportunities.

      Neoliberalism–the opening of markets and borders–enables capital to effortlessly crush labor. The social democrats, in embracing open borders, have institutionalized an open immigration that shreds the scarcity value of domestic labor in favor of lower cost immigrant labor that serves capital’s desire for lower costs.

      See, the problem for the capitalist ruling classes is that global neoliberalism (i.e., globalism) is a really tough sell to regular folks. They can’t just come out and explain to people that national sovereignty is essentially dead, and that political power now resides among a network of global corporations (which couldn’t care less about their “nationality”) exploiting a globalized labor market (which is why their “good jobs” are not coming back) and a globalized financial market (which is why almost everything is being privatized and their families are being debt-enslaved). This kind of thing doesn’t go over very well, not with most regular working class people.

      So what the globalist ruling classes have to do is … well, they have to lie. They have to disseminate a different narrative, a narrative that has nothing to do with the hegemony of globalism, the dissolution of national sovereignty, and the privatization of virtually everything. Because people aren’t total morons, this narrative needs to bear some resemblance to the actual conflict taking place. So, all right, a little rebranding is in order. Global neoliberalism becomes “Western democracy,” nationalism becomes “Nazism,” and Donald Trump becomes Adolf Hitler.

      • Victoria says


        Superb comment.

        I would add that neoliberals, whatever their party affiliation or exact self-conceptualization, almost invariably sooth their conscience by relentlessly denouncing the supposed moral failings of ordinary working people.

        The ‘woke’ theatrics on the left need no explication.

        The neoliberal right has woke-ish Pharisees like David French, plus the occasional unguarded elitist bigot like Bret Stephens.

  2. bumble bee says

    Oh where to begin! This claptrap of an article has it all. From the let us weep because politics and political leaders are not currently trending liberal enough, to the absurd inclusion of ISIS with Brexit and Trump. As if Brexit and Trump are genocidal maniacs bent on coming for you in the night because the plastic straw you used today is in the rubbish not the recycling bin. FOR SHAME!!!

    It continues to amaze me, or maybe it no longer does because we are almost three years on from Brexit and Trump, that liberals cannot understand the move away from their ideology in both the social and political spheres. They just cannot fathom why their pixie dust promises are being rejected. Like a used car salesman, they don’t understand why we don’t want the extended warranty that promises so much, and when we say no, they swear and abuse us for it. Do we need to draw a picture for these people why liberalism, globalization, SJW policies have been rejected?

    The usual reasons given in the article are the same old reasons that show a failure to grasp the direction the west is moving. Citing immigration, manufacturing, recession, as causes is like telling someone that you need wood and nails to build a house. Superficial, passive-aggressive responses because they cannot be bothered understanding. Why?, because they are so sure of themselves that everything they believe is from on high, that the ignorants who don’t agree are the flotsam of society. I have heard, read, or watched so many talking heads and media outlets interview where the liberals believe that this current change in course away from them is just an aberration and if they keep yakking on the nightmare will be over. We can see this with the comments about Macron as being proof positive that there is a liberal mandate. Macon got elected on the cusp of this changing tide, and will bet he will be out the next election unless liberals get a clue and change.

    Why is the west turning from liberalism? The plain and simple fact they they have gone too far, have become extreme, no longer represent vast swaths of populations that once supported them. For Brexit, it was an issue of autonomy not of failing to work with others. The UK’s own interested were being supplanted by an EU that could care less what there issues were. The same can be said for other countries in Europe. The EU which never wanted its own armed forces, is now debating this topic and if you disagree, well you can pound sand.

    Then there is Trump, a total surprise for winning the election. Why did so many not vote the unicorn party? Because the Dems alienated over years their base in favor of not just special interest groups, but extreme policies that would have neutered our country. Yes, we are the super power, but there are those like China, Russia, Iran who strive to be as such. Does anyone want them in that position? Who do you think keeps countries like these in check? The liberals would rather bend to them out of a false sense of guilt and equality than take the needed diplomatic, economic, or military stand to prevent them from gaining power.

    Then there is the general state of affairs with society and politics. Where people are being fined/jailed for using the wrong pronoun, where speaking your mind is treason, where twisted notions of equality and how to achieve it have branded every white American the cause of all evil, where the just born can be killed, where an old woman screaming she wants to live is euthanized. All these liberal policies have turned living into a god forsaken hell hole. Now if those were not enough to turn everyone into anxiety ridden droolers, we have the constant grabbing of our hard earned dollars to fund everyone else but our needs, because income inequality does not include the middle class or working poor. Liberalism has turned from looking out for the little guy, to taking from everyone they can, telling them while they do it that they are scum, and giving it to anyone else regardless. Even those who shout death to America right after getting their benefits.

    If the liberals continue on their current bandwagon the US would turn into a place where working class citizens would become serfs, and due to their economic victimhood agenda we will find everyone unable to obtain a better life as we see fit. The laughable talking point of universal income as well is nothing more than welfare 2.0 rather than ensure our own country continues to provide jobs at all levels. Every talking point the left puts out becomes more outrageous by the day, and if they reclaim any political power in the foreseeable future the USA will go right down the tubes, defeated from the inside by magical thinking and laughable promises.

    • El Uro says

      Ils n’ont rien appris, ni rien oublié — They have learned nothing and forgotten nothing.

      • Ray Andrews says

        @El Uro

        I strongly disagree, they have learned something quite profound. Namely that it’s more cost effective to embrace your enemy, invite him to dinner and then poison him than it is to fight him. Thus the globalist mega rich embrace SJ and fund the universities where it is taught. They have slowly diverted the left and driven it crazy. What was once the left — the defender of the producing classes — is now the active enemy of those same workers and openly supports big capital’s globalist agenda.

        That capital had to cede the social agenda to the SJWs is a small price to pay — the money stays with the Davos people which is what matters. So the people who now call themselves liberals are actually nothing of the sort, they are global capital who employ what used to be the left as their useful idiots. Nevermind that virtually all new wealth flows to the 0.01%, we have gender neutral bathrooms, and that’s what matters … isn’t it?

        • Peter from Oz says

          ” virtually all new wealth flows to the 0.01%, ”
          Conspiracist rubbish.
          Most of my clients are wealthy. Some were born that way, others made it under their own steam. None of them order the world to increase their wealth. If wealth does flow to them it’s because they created it. Taake away the o.o1% and the wealth of the world would diminish by a large amount.
          Beware the zero sum fallacy.

          • Ray Andrews says

            @Peter from Oz

            ” virtually all new wealth flows to the 0.01%, ”

            You can’t make people see things that they don’t want to see, however if you are open to seeing it, then there are no end of sources for such statistics. Perhaps the one I like best is that 2/3 of Americans don’t have $500 to cover an emergency.

            “Conspiracist rubbish.”

            I don’t think there’s a particular conspiracy more notable than the eternal and ubiquitous conspiracy of almost everyone to grab as much as they can. It’s understandable that the bigger you get the more you can grab, thus capitalist systems tend to end up with a very few owning everything. At times and places, various governments have applied corrections to this trend with notable success.

            “Most of my clients are wealthy.”

            Most of mine are struggling. They are poorer in real terms than their parents.

            “None of them order the world to increase their wealth.”

            The way it is done is by funding politicians who will then perform as required. It’s not to the point of outrage here in Canada, but down in the States, Representatives are purchased more or less openly.

            “it’s because they created it”

            It seems to me that 100% of wealth — yes, exactly all of it — is created by working people. However every decade they get to spend less and less of it.

            “Taake away the o.o1% and the wealth of the world would diminish by a large amount.”

            I wonder. It is true that capitalists perform real ‘work’ — yes, it is a form of work — when they funnel resources into new and worthy projects. It is the eternal mistake of the commies to suppose that bureaucrats can do it as well. So if the wealth diminished it would be because the labor of the producing classes was not employed as efficiently. That’s why communist countries are usually poor.

            “Beware the zero sum fallacy.”

            But the universe is exactly, perfectly zero sum. All the laws of physics are zero sum laws. Do humans manage to make something out of nothing? Not really:

            Resources + human effort >> stuff >> garbage + pollution + human wreckage.

            That equation could be tarted up almost infinitely, but it’s essentially the case and it balances perfectly.

            Mind, we hold Stuff to be worth making, and Stuff is the difference between poverty and material prosperity, so stuff can be good (for us). Workers turn resources into stuff. Throughout history workers have been preyed upon by various parasites: kings, lords, bosses, and outright thieves, all of whom tend to take as much as they can without starving their workers right to death. Kings and lords tend to say that it is God’s Will that this happen. Capitalists tend to say that it is the Law of the Market that this happen. Outright thieves don’t bother pretending.

            But after WWII something went horribly wrong: An entire generation of workers were permitted to keep most of the stuff they made for themselves. But this is now being corrected.

        • Johnny Appleseed says

          The wealthy isnt a static category new money is made and old money is lost all the time. Yes the gains have been disproportionately going to the top 10 percent, but the actual people who make up that 10 percent change pretty frequently.

          • Ray Andrews says

            @Johnny Appleseed

            ” who make up that 10 percent change pretty frequently”

            I’m not sure that’s true, but even if it is, the single mothers I know who have to hustle every day to feed their kids are very unlikely to ever cycle through the 10%, it’s not ever going to happen. Of course it’s a curve on a graph, there is no magic cutoff, but should we refer to the 10%? It seems to me it’s the 0.01%.

            It might be reckless to listen to Elisabeth Warren, but she says that a 2% tax on fortunes over 50 million would provide enough money to pave the streets with gold. Well, suppose it was only enough to pave them will silver? Or merely enough to rebuild the bridges which are falling down? They do better in Zambia.

            Some will say that a 2% tax on fortunes over 50 million would only hurt the poor. But as E points out, many of the poor suffer from obesity so obviously they are living too high off the hog and it’s time for them to tighten their belts. Screw the poor! Tax that 2% and if it hurts the plebes, tough luck, they’ve had it too good for too long. It’s past time our billionaires got an even break.

          • Farris says

            @Ray Andrews

            Wealth creation is not a zero sum game.

            “Without Bill Gates, there would be no Microsoft and its Windows operating system that has made millions’ of people’s work more productive, employed thousands of people, and created wealth not only for Bill Gates but for the rest of Microsoft’s shareholders.”

            If you fashion a pole to catch fish, and I do not. Can I complain that you received an unfair distribution of fish? Is there a fixed amount of cars, houses and computers to go around? If you invest in Amazon and the price of the stock rises who is diminished? Wealth is created by persons who either create a market for their goods and services or investing in such persons and ideas.

          • Ray Andrews says


            “Wealth creation is not a zero sum game.”

            So you claim that outputs (my equation above) can be greater than inputs? I agree that stuff is more useful than raw materials, and as we exploit more raw materials, and use them better, what we call ‘wealth’ increases. No doubt. But consumption of wealth is a zero sum game. Since everything, yes, everything, is produced by workers, the question becomes: ‘how much of what they produce do the workers get to consume themselves?’. Or the corollary question: ‘How much of what they produce should the workers give to parasites?’

            “If you fashion a pole to catch fish, and I do not.”

            That’s a fine illustration. But supposing I get rich by laudable means (one can get rich by laudable means!) and eventually get rich enough to control the government. I protect myself from other fishing pole makers, and eventually force you to make the poles for me and to catch fish, of which I keep almost all. Force? Yes, I keep you desperate by outsourcing your jobs or, when expedient, importing labor from Bangladesh. In theory you can quit, but in practice I own you because you don’t have enough money to survive the time it would take to find a better job. You owe your soul to the company store.

            “Is there a fixed amount of cars, houses and computers to go around?”

            There are however many the workers produce. (Subject to eventual resource exhaustion of course.) The question is who gets to live in them?

            “Wealth is created by persons who either create a market for their goods and services or investing in such persons and ideas.”

            Partly. But they need workers to implement their ideas. Those workers were probably educated at public expense and the infrastructure that makes their business possible ditto. Ditto also the law enforcement and courts that keep the business safe. Should not the billionaires pay some tax to keep the system that made them rich going? I think that Warren’s 2% would not be unreasonable. You? Perhaps real competition would keep their profits proportional to the value of their contribution? Perhaps they should not be able to make the rules? Bill Gates was a monopolist and his product stank. Try Linux, really. M$ is a good example of the capitalist/entrepreneurial system NOT working very well. Working somewhat tho — the innovation was there but the enslavement of the computer world should have been prevented. Same today with Google and the rest of Big Silicon.

            Capitalism is cool and sometimes even good, but should it be unregulated? I say it should be since it quickly goes evil if allowed to. And I think the beneficiaries of the system should primarily be the ones to pay for it. A shocking idea, no? Billionaires paying for the system that produces billionaires. Buffett agrees. Gates agrees (good man now). But Bezos can’t spare the cash. The Koch brothers are feeling the pinch.

          • Farris says

            @ Ray Andrew
            Nice to hear from you again.

            Imagine two subsistence farmers, each growing just enough to feed themselves and their families. One decides to work a little longer and a bit more land. The more diligent farmer produces an excess which he is now able to sell. He saves the money from the excess crops he sell and purchases a cow. Rather than eat the cow, he feeds it and the cow gives milk. The wife of the diligent farmer turns the milk into cheese, butter and cream, which is also sold. The diligent farmer and his family begin to prosper. His less diligent neighbor is not diminished in any way.
            The diligent farmer purchases his neighbor’s farm. However he hires the neighbor to remain and continue farming it. The neighbor while not a great farmer is a good money manager. He takes his wages and some of the proceeds of the sale of his farm and purchases a cart. He proposes to the diligent neighbor that he hire another to work the farm and pay him to use the cart to truck the produce to the near by village. The diligent farmer agrees and the arrangement works well for both. The neighbor is now able to purchase more carts and hire drivers.
            The diligent farmer, the money wise neighbor all those the hired, the community which has better easier access to produce are all enriched.

            This shows how wealth is created. Your comments about whether are not wealth is created equally or how much the wealthy should be taxed are beside the point and does not refute the fact wealth is created.

          • Ray Andrews says


            Always a pleasure to cross swords with you too sir.

            “Your comments about whether are not wealth is created equally or how much the wealthy should be taxed are beside the point and does not refute the fact wealth is created.”

            Your story is the classic PWE/capitalist narrative. It is the same kind of thing as the commie ‘worker’s paradise’ narrative or the anarchist ‘freedom’ narrative or (hope this is not a low blow) as the SJW Victim narrative. That is, it is an over-simplified story that attempts to explain the world and sounds true. And is at least partly true. But like all such stories, it doesn’t highlight the faults within it. Note that the commie narrative also sounds true. These narratives have been honed by selection to the point where they are ‘fit’ to be retold and so they are. Meme selection.

            I love the Protestant Work Ethic and it’s rather naive view of capitalism.


            Nuts, I was looking for another one. Elmer starts as a poor cobbler and keeps reinvesting at Bug’s advice. Same, idea, but I remember it differently. Foundational stuff to this boy’s mind.

            Anyway, yes, wealth is created. All wealth is created. Even an apple in the garden of Eden is not ‘wealth’ until it has been picked. All wealth is resources converted via labor into something useful. Mind, one could say that 100% intellectual products are an exception.

            But how much the wealthy should be taxed seems to me to be exactly the point. However I put it ‘backwards’: since workers produced everything, the better question is how much they should not be taxed, that is, how much they should get to keep. Really only workers pay taxes since only workers produce anything. Leona was right, but not in the way she meant it. I think Karl was right about that too. Should there be no limits to capital’s accumulation of everything? I say there should be. You? I say that five families owning more than the bottom half of the entire country is not balanced. The nation’s most dynamic economy was produced when taxes were rather higher than now. Forced recycling of the wealth of the billionaires is good for them too, it keeps them hungry. All money should be ‘new money’. Investment in the poor, especially the working poor, can catalyze the next hungry genius.

          • Farris says

            @Ray Andrews

            I thought of dozens of points and analogies I could write in response. But then I realized whether or it is fruitful to continue this serve and volley depends on how you would answer the following question:

            Is the U.S. and its citizens better or worse off because Amazon, Microsoft, and Apple were founded and headquartered there?

    • w2 says

      (Deep Breath)

      I took away three main points from the article.

      The first is the idea of using mentalities as a lens to understand history. (I recommend unpacking the prevailing bromides and cliches that have influenced your writing, and spend some time making the terminology your own — that may make your points more persuasive).

      Second, the useful idea of “presentism,” which dispels the myth that current problems have always been there. (Again, I recommend thinking about the emotion behind some the caffeinated comments above, and think through where the worldview you are defending came from. History is a decent guide, but it’s also good to understand why you’re angry.)

      And third, the inherent tension between freedom and equality inherent in western democracies. (I believe your comments show which side of that equation you’re on, but denying the tension exists is as intellectually lazy as using weather to argue about climate.)

      Interesting article.

      “The right to be heard does not automatically include the right to be taken seriously” — Humphrey

      • Johnny Appleseed says

        Most of the comments here seem to have completely misubderstood the article. A lot of what they are critizing is stuff that he is actually saying is the false narrative about today’s problems. When he’s writing about those false narratives he’s writing in the voice of the people who actually believe those false narratives he’s not actually agreeing with it.

        With that being said I do criticize the article for ending really abruptly. It felt like something that was going to make a really good point but instead just came close to it and then ended.

      • Ray Andrews says


        “Is the U.S. and its citizens better or worse off because Amazon, Microsoft, and Apple were founded and headquartered there?”

        Better. And the social system that made them possible should be continued. That system was a moderated capitalism. It included elements of ‘socialism’ such as welfare, public education, public infrastructure and so forth, all of which were paid for by taxes, and those taxes were ‘progressive’ (in the unflavored sense of the word). Yes, billionaires paid more tax than their secretaries, not less. Moderate, centrist economics produces the most billionaires and the most prosperous working people too. Guatemala is a place where the richest 0.01% own almost everything and where social considerations are almost non existent, but whereas the workers are in poverty, the place paradoxically produces few billionaires. Mind, Russia does manage to produce quite a few billionaires so there is something to be said for corruption and impoverishment of workers. Most of the time tho I think a prosperous workforce works harder and smarter and so serves their masters better than an impoverished one.


    • Johnny Appleseed says

      I think you misunderstood the article. He was critizing the people who blame all the woes on Trump,Brexit, and Anti Immigration backlash. All that stuff that he wrote is what he calls the Narrative and he’s saying that the Narrative is wrong.

      The article did pretty abruptly end so it lost points with me for that, but it’s not what you seem to think it is.

    • WW says

      This comment was better than this entire article.

  3. peterschaeffer says

    The one crucial word missing from this essay is ‘China’. In a relatively short period of time, China has become the dominant power of the world. China’s GDP passed the USA in 2013/14. China became the number one producer of CO2 in 2005/6.

    At this point China is not just ahead of the USA, but absurdly far ahead in any number of crucial respects (electric power, coal, steel, concrete, copper, nickel, etc.)

    Why is the important? Because China is the first dominant world power in 500 years that is not liberal, not European (or descended from Europe), and not Christian.

    The rest of the world has inevitably taken note. The power of the ‘liberal’ example is only historical. Whether China has become successful by rejecting liberalism, or in spite of rejecting liberalism, is mostly irrelevant. The world now knows in the clearest possible way, that rejecting liberalism does not mean poverty, backwardness, etc.

    Of course, the relative tranquility of China versus the (perceived/actual) chaos in the liberal world is all too visible. Inevitably, plenty of people in the West will notice and respond over time.

      • dirk says

        If true, john, this would come to an average income per head in US of 7x that in China. With the annotation that about half of that population just lives in a village with half an acre of maize or rice, 10 chicken and 1 pig, but about a quarter in the cities of the North and the Seaside with incomes much higher than in Hungary or Slovenia. In short, a miserable distribution of wealth. And now already huge environmental problems and drying up or choking rivers and lakes!

        • peterschaeffer says

          dirk, I would say (very) roughly half the Chinese population lives in the highly developed (and polluted) east and half lives in the less-developed (quite poor) west. So the east-west schism in China is very real. However, there are two very important caveats.

          First, much of the blue-collar labor force in the east ,is actually migrant workers from the west. They are poorly paid by eastern standards (eastern Chinese). However, they are very well paid by the standards of the poor villages they come from. These folks (both men and women) send home a substantial fraction of what they earn in the east.

          The second factor is that the Chinese government knows all of this. The Chinese government is spending hundreds of billions of dollars (perhaps trillions) to build a very sophisticated infrastructure linking the east and west. Over time, the very high development levels of the east will spread to the west.

          Overall, the standard of living in China is around 25% of the USA. Of course, higher in the east and (much) lower in the west. A key consideration is that China has a much higher saving rate than the USA. The USA has also been relatively rich for longer, allowing for more capital accumulation over time.

      • peterschaeffer says

        Sorry, but no. CIA World Factbook. China 2017 GDP $23.21 trillion. US USA 2017 GDP $19.49 trillion. IMF WEO Database (April 2019). China GDP $25.207 trillion (2018). China share of global output 18.694%. USA GDP $20.494 trillion (2018). USA share of global output 15.161.

        The physical indicators also show China to be considerably ahead. China power production 6,495,100 GWh (2017). USA power production 4,281,800 GWh. Note that China also leads the world in manufacturing, manufacturing value added, and exports.

    • dirk says

      And this, Peter, especially accounts for the future political situations in Africa and the Middle East, areas that until the end of the 20th century had almost no alternative to look at in their drive for material wellbeing and stability (if you reckon communism , also vanished now, as a step child of that liberal world)

      • peterschaeffer says

        dirk, I would allege that the USSR did offer an alternative political model for many years after WWII (1945-1990). The US and the USSR contended for influence all over the world. To some degree the Space Race was a test of ‘whose system is better’. Of course, the U.S. won that race.

        In that era, the US, the USSR, and Europe offered competing models for how a society could be organized and run. Of course, the USSR fell apart and the influence of Europe and the US is waning.

        I would argue that China is now beginning to offer an alternative model of how to structure a society. Note that this is a long-term process. Alexis de Tocqueville wrote about America in the 1830s. As late as WWI, Europe was still dominant in most parts of the world.

        • dirk says

          yes Peter, maybe liberalism and communism cannot be put under the same umbrella, though certainly have common roots. Democracy was in the Tian an Men student uproar of 1989 the big thing they fought for.
          -Give me Democracy or give me Death- was one of the wishes there.

          Death is what they got. But even the government must have had their doubts, because it took quite some time before they decided to suppress and crush these un-oriental, globally all invading western ideas and aspirations. In the muslim world, this aversion for democracy had again other roots. All in all, and global wide, it does not look very bright for that democratic mentality!

          Wittfogel foresaw all this long ago.

    • TarsTarkas says

      And a sizable chunk of the intellectual property enabling that ‘miracle’ to happen was stolen. If they lose access to that, their economy will head south and fast. Furthermore, I don’t think you should trust statistics provided by a tyranny who has every reason to manipulate them to make themselves look good. The Soviet Union was good at cooking the economic books, before Putin closed down access to the historical data it was learned that the GDP and other economic stats of the Russian Empire were considerably less than what was trumpeted.

  4. derek says

    There is a very strange hesitancy to identify the issues.

    The first is uncontrolled immigration. France is so enlightened it needs armed military to watch over their nude beaches.

    Second is environmentalism. A greater god that we must bow down to, with it’s own priesthood.

    Both are delegated to unelected bureaucrats to implement. Both have costs that are taken out of the pockets of workers.

    That isn’t liberalism. Stop calling it that.

    • Sorcerer says

      Finally a comment to bring in immigration. In the 1970’s, it was taught, at least in my college, that any time the population exceeded 10% foreign born, there were major domestic problems. Either this ceased being taught, and it was based on the history of immigration in the U.S., or it was ignored for political reasons. How something which was once current and accepted thought could so easily be thrown out, is amazing to me. Especially for those who are surprised by the results.

      For the working class to desert the Democrats, takes a lot, and they have done it in droves. Trump may not be who they want, but what the Dems are preaching is even less so. They, the Dems, have forgotten that the poor and the working class need stability, not a lot of change. Change is unlikely to be for the better for them. It is not a conservative backlash, it is a form of self-protection, that globalization has taken a wrecking ball to.

  5. OK, admittedly I’m just a hairy legged country boy but I can’t get a handle on what the author means by liberalism. I ended up with the feeling the meaning of the word changes throughout the essay and I have the impression that liberalism, as he defines it, does not approach the classical definition including consent of the governed.

  6. Morgan Foster says

    “It has become such a constant element of media and academic discussion, and its assumptions held to be nigh on unchallengeable by serious people, that I will call it the Narrative.”

    You will, will you?

    Is it possible you have never noticed, Mr. David, that this short phrase, “the Narrative”, has been in common use to describe liberal behavior for quite a number of years, now?

  7. Sean Leith says

    What’s wrong about social science and social scientists is that they forget to put a warning at their research paper: This is unproven, so don’t put it into practice. Social science is like natural science, a hypothesis is a hypothesis, is not a fact until proven to be true. Sad thing is natural scientists know this, social scientists don’t. None of them do. The real problem is, they do experiment on real people, not one, not two, rather millions of people.

    • IainC of The Ponds says

      Science is the interpretation of facts.
      Social science is the interpretation of opinions.

  8. Johnny Appleseed says

    Is it just me or did this article just super abruptly end?

  9. dirk says

    I remember a lecture of a science philosopher in my student time (at he time, I was quite often attracted by philosophical subjects, besides my technical classes). The lecturer mentioned a few conditons for “real” science (sharply defined, repeatable, statistically correct, etc, in fact he was just dealing on the field and techniques of carrying out trials where only one or two factors were varied, and a significant causality yes or no of those factor(s) was the aim). Long time I was of the opinion that this was the only pure and authentic science, thus all the humanities and social fields were unscientific. However, later I came to think, what about Linnaeus then??, the systematic botanist, and the philologists, and so many others where none or only part of the above is at stake? Now, I think even bible studies may with good reason be called proper and valid science.

  10. Defenstrator says

    Let me blunt. The thesis of this essay that the world is driven by passions is one that might be interesting if any evidence were provided that it was real. Instead it is merely an assertion of feeling, which is difficult to take seriously by people who try to live in reality and base their actions, however flawed, on actual evidence.

  11. Here is an apposite quote from Robert Bork’s book Slouching Toward Gomorrah.

    “Radical egalitarianism necessarily presses us towards collectivism because a powerful state is required to suppress the differences that freedom produces. That raises the sinister and seemingly paradoxical possibility that radical individualism is the handmaiden of collectivist tyranny.

    This individualism, it is quite apparent in our time, attacks the authority of family, church, and private association. The family is said to be oppressive, the fount of our miseries. It is denied that the church may legitimately insist upon what it regards as moral behavior in its members. Private association are routinely denied the autonomy to define their membership for themselves.

    The upshot is that these institutions, which stand between the state and the individual, are progressively weakened and their functions increasingly dictated or taken over by the state. The individual becomes less of a member of powerful private institutions and more a member of an unstructured mass that is vulnerable to the collectivist coercion of the state. Thus does radical individualism prepare the way for its opposite.”

    I would also recommend that no one get overly hung up on the issue of “the state” in its public manifestation vs. the state in its private manifestation, i.e. global corporations, big business, etc. They are more and more the same every day.

    Anyway, if you start criticizing the “egalitarian passion” and the dogma of equality itself you will be instantly denounced as a fascist by pretty much everyone, guaranteed.

    Word to the wise.

    • Victoria says


      John Mearsheimer has noted how classical liberals fail to understand humans as social animals. That fits with Bork’s observation.

  12. TheSnark says

    The article makes some interesting points about the clash between liberty and equality, and how the left has gone to one extreme. But the author ignores how the other side of the political spectrum has also abandoned liberty.

    The clash between freedom and equality has been around for a long time, I recall discussing the subject in my college studies of the great books. In the past, it was recognized as a sort of ying/yang relationship, that they were both important but had to remain in balance. The liberal tended to put more emphasis on equality, while the conservatives put more on liberty.

    The author is correct, today it seems that the left side of the political spectrum has decided that equality is all that matters, not realizing or caring how much their actions are infringing on liberty.

    But the “conservatives” of today, formerly champions of liberty, are now focused on the tribal/national, with borderline fascistic tendencies. They, too, have largely abandoned liberty other than as an occasional slogan.

    It is hard to find anyone supporting liberty in the West these days. It looks like we have become so accustomed to it that we take it for granted.

    • Victoria says


      “But the “conservatives” of today, formerly champions of liberty, are now focused on the tribal/national, with borderline fascistic tendencies.”

      Ignorant and bombastic rhetoric. I mean “borderline fascistic tendencies” is boilerplate Marxist drivel.

      There’s nothing “conservative” about your views. Conservatism has always involved a sense of connectedness to time, place, and culture, whereas you sneer at “tribal/national” identity.

      The nation-state is the proven building block of the modern order. Attacks on it repudiate the entire project of social democracy, which parties of both the right and left shared from the late 19th Century on.

      Your “liberty” is a soulless individualism.

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