Author: Matt McManus

The Frankfurt School and the Allure of Submission

When Fascism came into power, most people were unprepared, both theoretically and practically. They were unable to believe that man could exhibit such propensities for evil, such lust for power, such disregard for the rights of the weak, or such yearning for submission. Only a few had been aware of the rumbling of the volcano preceding the outbreak. ~Erich Fromm Since at least the advent of modernity and liberalism, tremendous emphasis has been placed on the importance of human freedom. For classical liberal thinkers like Immanuel Kant, freedom was the fundamental characteristic of human beings; at the center of all our practical moral action. The American and French Revolutionaries both invoked the infringement of liberty to justify the overthrow of existing tyrannical orders. And, today, political culture is saturated with references to the importance of making choices, living life as one see’s fit, and non-coercion by the state. Socialists in the Jacobin and conservatives at the National Review debate what is really necessary to secure freedom, but none disputes its importance. Each of these positions …

The Argument for Equality and Fairness

A recurrent criticism of the political Left is that it is elitist and remote from those it professes to care about. Conservative outlets like the National Review have run numerous articles on the topic of progressive elitism and disdain for everyday people. Progressive politicians like Bernie Sanders have been routinely derided as champagne socialists, who talk a lot about the struggles of the working class, even though they are themselves millionaires. And intellectuals like Jordan Peterson have often nodded approvingly to the claim that the Left doesn’t really care about the poor, it simply hates the rich: Some of these arguments can be readily dismissed as little more than partisan potshots. Whether or not Bernie Sanders happens to be wealthy is largely irrelevant to the merit of his arguments and demands. But here I want to examine the more foundational question of whether or not the Left is actually driven by compassion for the poor and marginalized or resentment of the rich and powerful. The Left and Resentment The argument that progressives are primarily motivated …

Human Dignity and Human Rights

My forthcoming monograph for the University of Wales Press, Making Human Dignity Central to International Human Rights Law: A Critical Legal Argument, discusses a number of topics, ranging from the state of critical legal scholarship to international relations. However, much of what I might have written even a year earlier was profoundly altered by the rise to power of postmodern conservatives. Frequently agitating for a nationalist agenda, and opposed to universal human rights, this development lent my book a more cynical edge. Nevertheless, I still consider it an optimistic text—one that defends an emancipatory conception of human dignity and the steps we might take to realize it. Dignity’s Unusual History Conceptions of human dignity go back a very long way. Many of the great religions of the world—including the monotheistic faiths of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam—offer human dignity as something bestowed by God. Buddhists argue that the locus of human dignity lies in our capacity to pursue self-perfection. The term itself arose in the thirteenth century from the Latin dignitas, which referred to the “worthiness” of …

The Inner Nature of Freedom

All the while, that reign of desires savagely tyrannizes and batters a person’s whole life and mind with storm’s ranging in all directions. On this side fear, on that side desire, on this side anxiety, on that side empty spurious enjoyment, on this side torment over the loss of something loved, on the ardor to acquire something not yet possessed, on this side sorrows over injuries received, on that the burning desire to redress it. Whichever way one turns greed can pinch, extravagance squander, ambition enslave, pride puff up, envy twist, laziness overcome, stubbornness provoke, submissiveness oppress-these and countless others throng the realm of lust, having the run of it. ~St. Augustine, On the Free Choice of the Will In an earlier article with Ben Burgis, we argued that it was a mistake to claim that the fundamental divide between the political Left and Right was between an emphasis on equality by the former and liberty by the latter. As we put it, almost “everyone values freedom” regardless of where they stand on the political …

Michael Oakeshott and the Intellectual Roots of Postmodern Conservatism

To be conservative … is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss. ~Michael Oakeshott, On Being Conservative. In his seminal essay “The Intransigent Right at the End of the Century” in the London Review of Books, the historian Perry Anderson listed Michael Oakeshott as one of the four great right-wing thinkers of the twentieth century. Anderson acknowledges that while the other three—F.A. Hayek, Leo Strauss, and Carl Schmitt—remain well known amongst the literate public across the Western world, Oakeshott remains a somewhat elusive figure. That is unfortunate. Not only was his thinking highly interesting on its own merits, it was also ahead of its time in anticipating the emergence of postmodern conservatism. Oakeshott’s Life and Thinking On the surface, it might appear odd to characterize Oakeshott as a predecessor to postmodern conservatism. While the polemical …

Why We Should Read Heidegger

This the final instalment in a series of essays by Matt McManus examining the work and legacies of the totalitarian philosophers. I must make a confession here: Martin Heidegger was one of the first philosophers I really and truly loved. When I was around 19 years old, one of the summer jobs I worked was as a traffic counter. We were responsible for counting the number of cars that went through street lights, which needless to say was a profoundly boring task. I often passed the time by reading, and began delving into philosophy for the first time—there is something about sitting by the side of the road for 11 hours that enables speculation. Heidegger’s dense and strange books were often infuriatingly opaque, but once I began to understand them I was thrilled. Here was someone who thought and wrote in a way that no one else seemed to, and who was emphatically unafraid of tackling the biggest and most novel philosophical questions. As a critical young man, I was also enraptured with his damning …

Why We Should Read Nietzsche

This the fourth instalment in a series of essays by Matt McManus examining the work and legacies of the totalitarian philosophers. In Ecce Homo, the autobiographical self-examination written shortly before his descent into madness on the streets of Turin in 1889, Nietzsche cheekily opined that he was a “destiny.” It must have seemed like an almost tragic act of self-aggrandizement at the time. When he collapsed near the height of intellectual powers, Nietzsche was a sick and lonely man. His books, many of them self-published at Nietzsche’s expense, were barely selling and he often depended on charity from his friends. A few years earlier Nietzsche’s one firm romantic attachment, Lou-Salome, had rejected his proposal of marriage and rebounded on vacation with the philosopher’s friend Paul Ree. His sister Elizabeth and her husband were increasingly flirting with forms of nationalism and anti-Semitism that the cosmopolitan Nietzsche found extremely vulgar. Ironically, she would assume responsibility for Nietzsche’s care throughout his illness, editing many of his books and falsely presenting her brother as a proto-Nazi icon. It must …

Why We Should Read Marx

This the third instalment in a series of essays by Matt McManus examining the work and legacies of the totalitarian philosophers. If Plato was a philosopher who wanted to use his ideas to change the world in practical ways, but had to settle for a towering intellectual legacy instead, then Marx’s writing had the opposite effect. In his youthful “Theses on Feuerbach,” Marx wrote that the “philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world; the point is to change it.” While he had to settle for a posthumous influence, it was fewer than 40 years after his death that the Marxist-inspired Bolshevik party seized power in Russia during the October Revolution and inaugurated a sequence of Communist revolutions and takeovers which swept the world for decades. At its peak, billions lived under often brutal governments which professed allegiance to Marx’s ideas.  Although many of these regimes began to collapse in 1989, leading some to assume Marx was finished as an intellectual influence, his specter never went away. And in the decade following the 2008 Recession, his reputation …

Why We Should Read Rousseau

This the second instalment in a series of essays by Matt McManus examining the work and legacies of the totalitarian philosophers. At the end of January I wrote an article entitled “How Should We Read the Totalitarian Philosophers” for Quillette. I argued that liberals, whether classical or egalitarian, can find insights in the work of authors who—rightly or wrongly—have come to be associated with illiberal and even totalitarian movements. The four authors I examined were Rousseau, Marx, Nietzsche, and Heidegger. Although the general point that these authors contribute ideas of value was well received, the article was justifiably criticized for summarizing each individual’s positions too quickly. This resulted in a loss of depth and left some readers wanting a more thorough account of what was valuable in each author.  Over the next few months I will be publishing an article on each thinker, presenting an argument for their enduring contribution. Since even a few thousand words is hardly sufficient to scratch the surface of each thinker’s complex positions, the interpretation I will be presenting will be highly qualified. I will begin …

How Should We Read the Totalitarian Philosophers?

This the first instalment in a series of essays by Matt McManus examining the work and legacies of the totalitarian philosophers. How should one read and interpret authors whose work has clearly become associated—justly or not—with totalitarianism? In recent years, this debate has included figures like the Marxist historian Erik Hobsbawm, who has received scathing criticism for his soft approach to various communist regimes, and the literary theorist Paul de Man. However, here I will focus on the work of four philosophers whose work provided inspiration to totalitarianism and terror—Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Martin Heidegger. It might seem disconcerting to imply there is a problem with reading such authors. After all, an intellectual work isn’t especially interesting unless it forces us to look critically at sides of ourselves and our societies we have been unwilling to examine—the darker undercurrents of politics and the human psyche. This may be especially true if we wish to combat totalitarian and authoritarian impulses successfully. Looking at those who inspired or supported these movements can give us …