Turning Liberalism Against Itself

There is no shortage of takes on the activist left’s contempt for freedom of speech. Most of the ones I read are beginning to blur together into a well-meaning sameness, but one piece was different. It was written by John Gray (the political philosopher, not the relationship counselor). Gray argued that the left’s authoritarian turn is not something distinct and separate from contemporary liberalism. Instead, it answers to a progressive demand:

It would be easy to say that liberalism has now been abandoned. Practices of toleration that used to be seen as essential to freedom are being deconstructed and dismissed as structures of repression, and any ideas or beliefs that stand in the way of this process banned from public discourse. Judged by old-fashioned standards, this is the opposite of what liberals have stood for. But what has happened in higher education is not that liberalism has been supplanted by some other ruling philos­ophy. Instead, a hyper-liberal ideology has developed that aims to purge society of any trace of other views of the world. If a regime of censorship prevails in universities, it is because they have become vehicles for this project.

In this project, other views of the world can recast and rejected as expressions of bigotry. Being little more than “hate” speech, they should not be spoken freely. Hence the vigilantes.

This hyper-liberal ideology is not limited to universities. It is clearly spreading inside the Democratic Party, and it has already consumed most of the Labour Party in Britain. Of the latter transformation, Gray said:

No doubt some factions in the party hark back to the hard-left groups that fought for control of Labour in the 1970s and 80s in their rhetoric, methods and policies. But there is not much in the ideology animating Corbynite Labour that is recognizably Marxist. In Marx, the historical agent of progress in capitalist societies is the industrial working class. But for many who have joined the mass party that Corbyn has constructed, the surviving remnants of this class can only be obstacles to progress. With their attachment to national identity and anxieties about immigration, these residues of the past stand in the way of a world without communal boundaries and inherited group identities–a vision that, more than socialism or concern for the worst-off, animates this new party. It is a prospect that attracts sections of the middle classes–not least graduate millennials, who through Corbyn’s promise to abolish student fees could be major beneficiaries of his policies–that regard themselves as the most progressive elements in society.

Many of these obstacles to progress are well aware of how they are seen by the agents of progress. Those who reside in “the abandoned communities of America’s post-industrial wastelands,” as Gray said, are used to having their grievances “dismissed as ‘white­lash,’ their lives and identities derided, and their view of the world attributed to poor education and sheer stupidity.” However ill-informed they may be about the finer points of public policy, they know that they are hated.

The MAGA-hatted backlash against hyper-liberalism should come as no surprise. In Gray’s view, it has been a long time coming:

Liberals who rail at populist movements are adamant that voters who support them are deluded or deceived. The possibility that these movements are exploiting needs that highly individualist societies cannot satisfy is not seriously considered. In the liberalism that has prevailed over the past generation such needs have been dismissed as atavistic prejudices, which must be swept away wherever they stand in the way of schemes for transnational government or an expanding global market. This stance is one reason why anti-liberal movements continue to advance. Liberalism and empiricism have parted company, and nothing has been learnt. Some of the strongest evidence against the liberal belief that we learn from our errors and follies comes from the behaviour of liberals themselves.

None of this is to deny that “liberalism,” often with the prefix “neo,” has become a term of abuse on the activist left. But their jeremiads are filled with liberal slogans and shibboleths. They are promoting, in Gray’s view, “an exorbitant version of the liberalism they incessantly attack.” They seem to believe that a new society will emerge, once this one has been purged of all things atavistic:

In this view, all identities are equal in being cultural constructions. In practice some identities are more equal than others. Those of practitioners of historic nationalities and religions, for example, are marked out for deconstruction, while those of ethnic and sexual minorities that have been or are being oppressed are valorized. How this distinction can be maintained is unclear. If human values are no more than social constructions, how can a society that is oppressive be distinguished from one that is not? Or do all societies repress an untrammelled human subject that has yet to see the light of day?

The politics of identity is a postmodern twist on the liberal religion of humanity. The Supreme Being has become an unknown God–a species of human being nowhere encountered in history, which does not need to define itself through family or community, nationality or any religion. Parallels with the new humanity envisioned by the Bolsheviks are obvious. But it is the affinities with recent liberalism that are more pertinent. In the past, liberals have struggled to reconcile their commitment to liberty with a recognition that people need a sense of collective belonging as well. In other writings Mill balanced the individualism of On Liberty with an understanding that a common culture is necessary if freedom is to be secure, while Isaiah Berlin acknowledged that for most people being part of a community in which they can recognize themselves is an integral part of a worthwhile life. These insights were lost, or suppressed, in the liberalism that prevailed after the end of the Cold War. If it was not dismissed as ata­vistic, the need for a common identity was regarded as one that could be satisfied in private life. A global space was coming into being that would recognize only universal humanity. Any artefact that embodied the achievements of a particular state or country could only be an obstacle to this notional realm. The hyper-liberal demand that public spaces be purged of symbols of past oppression continues a post-Cold War fantasy of the end of history.

In short, these hyper-activists are turning liberalism against itself. They demand nothing less than its self-negation. They are engaged in what Leszek Kolakowski called “the self-poisoning of the open society.” By this Kolakowski meant “the process by which the extension and consistent application of liberal principles transforms them into their antithesis.” When openness itself results “in the paralysis of openness, then we are dealing with self-destruction.”

But suicide is not the preordained fate of liberalism. It is not a historical inevitability. It is a choice into which too many are blundering.

(Gray’s essay is mostly a reprise of the critique he made in Two Faces of Liberalism. His book, which was first published back in 2000, convinced me that American liberalism is long overdue for a reset.)

Demanding the Impossible

Young Karl Marx made a demand. Marx insisted that we must reabsorb the communal into our personal lives, in order to realize our full potential as human beings. Then, and only then, would humanity be truly emancipated. As Marx said in 1843:

Only when real, individual man reabsorbs into himself the abstract citizen and becomes a species-being, in his everyday life, in his individual work, and in his individual relationships; only when man recognizes and organizes his “forces propres,” his own powers, as social powers, and, consequently, no longer separates from himself social force in the shape of political force–only then will human emancipation be accomplished.

This emancipatory project is about something more than justice, freedom, or democracy. It is about the transcendence of alienation. A genuine revolution would reconcile our human essence and the conditions of our existence. It would remove the underlying causes of social antagonism. It would tear down the barriers that separate individuals from each other and from society as a whole. It would place the material conditions of life in the service of all humanity. Our interests, properly understood, would converge with those of the entire species. As our selfish misconceptions withered away, we would come to identify with this collective unity.

Of course, communist revolutions in the twentieth century made a gruesome mockery of this promise. But their leaders did not repudiate Marx. They claimed his project as their own. They used Marxism to rationalize the contradictions of their own regimes: fraternity compelled by terror, and equality imposed by a revolutionary elite. According to philosopher Leszek Kolakowski, their interpretations were plausible, and their tyrannies should have come as no surprise. A former communist who lived for many years in the Polish People’s Republic, Kolakowski traced the logic of Marxian thought in meticulous detail. Much of his work, like his masterpiece Main Currents of Marxism, is a haunting indictment of revolutionary hubris.

Kolakowski gave a partial summary of his argument in the essay “Marxist Roots of Stalinism.” He said:

In Marx’s eyes the original sin of man, his felix culpa, responsible both for great human achievements and for human misery, was the division of labor–and its inevitable result, the alienation of labor. The extreme form of alienated labor is the exchange value, which dominates the entire process of production in industrial societies. It is not human needs but the endless accumulation of exchange value in the form of money that is the main driving force behind all human productive efforts. This has transformed human individuals, with their personal qualities and abilities, into commodities which are sold and bought according to the anonymous laws of the market, within a system of hired labor. It has generated the alienated institutional framework of modern political societies; and it has produced an inevitable split between people’s personal, selfish, self-centered lives as members of civil society on the one hand and, on the other, the artificial and obscure community which they form as members of a political society. As a result, human consciousness was bound to suffer an ideological distortion: instead of affirming human life and its own function as an “expression” of that life, it built a separate, illusory kingdom of its own, designed to perpetuate this split. With private property, the alienation of labor divided society into hostile classes struggling for the distribution of the surplus product; finally, it gave rise to the class in which all society’s dehumanization was concentrated, and which was consequently destined both to demystify consciousness and to restore the lost unity of human existence. This revolutionary process starts with smashing the institutional mechanisms which protect existing labor conditions and ends with a society where, with all the basic sources of social conflict removed, the social process is subordinated to the collective will of the individuals associated in it. These latter will then be able to unfold all their individual potentialities not against society but for its enrichment; their labor will have been gradually reduced to the necessary minimum, and free time will be enjoyed in the pursuit of cultural creativity and high-quality enjoyment. The full meaning of both history and present struggles is revealed only in the romantic vision of the perfectly united mankind of the future. Such unity implies no more need for the mediating mechanisms which separate individuals from the species as a whole. The revolutionary act that will close the “pre-history” of mankind is both inevitable and directed by free will; the distinction between freedom and necessity will have disappeared in the consciousness of the proletariat as it becomes aware of its own historical destiny through the destruction of the old order.

I suspect it was both Marx’s anticipation of man’s perfect unity and his myth of the historically privileged proletarian consciousness that led to his theory’s being turned into the ideology of the totalitarian movement; not because he conceived of it in such terms, but because its basic values could not be realized in any other way. It was not that Marx’s theory lacked a vision of future society; it did not. But even his powerful imagination could not stretch so far as to envisage the transition from the “pre-history” to “genuine history” and come up with the proper social technology for converting the former into the latter; this step had to be carried out by practical leaders. And that necessarily implied adding to the inherited body of doctrine and filling in the details.

Another partial expression of Kolakowski’s views can be found in his essay “The Myth of Human Self-Identity.” The myth was “soteriological,” or a doctrine of salvation, and it required “the identity of civil and political society.” In this essay, Kolakowski cited Marx’s quote above about “human emancipation” and argued that the revolutionary theorist’s later works “grew out of this initial hope.” The same vision, he said, “of man returning to perfect unity, experiencing his personal life directly as a social force, makes up the philosophical background of Marxian socialism. In all later writings which were to define his position in contrast to liberal, anarchist, and communist totalitarian doctrines, the same eschatological concept of unified man remains.” In Marx’s eschatology, humanity could redeem itself through social revolution.

Liberalism, in contrast, cannot deliver us from alienation. Liberalism (broadly defined) offers social peace and individual freedom, but not perfect unity. It assumes conflict between rival interests. It seeks to mediate our competing demands through the state, which partially limits the freedom of each in order to provide security for all. And while this state promotes the general welfare, it leaves most human activities to civil society (also broadly defined), which is the varied realm of particular interests. Liberals regard this arrangement as indispensable to a free society. The state neither replaces civil society nor becomes superfluous to it, thus avoiding the twin evils of tyranny and anarchy.

Thus by partitioning social life into public and private spheres, no free society can answer the communist demand for social unity. As Kolakowski said in the closing paragraphs of his myth essay:

I believe that socialist thought in its traditional areas of concern (how to ensure for working society more equality, more security, more welfare, more justice, more freedom, more participation in economic decisions) cannot at the same time entertain prospects of the perfect unity of social life. The two kinds of preoccupation run against each other. The dream of perfect unity could be realized only as a caricature that would deny its original intention: as an artificial unity imposed by force from above, with the political body preventing real conflicts and real segmentation of the civil society from expressing themselves. This body is almost automatically compelled to crush all spontaneous forms of economic, political, and cultural life. Thus the rift between civil and political society, instead of being healed, is deepened.

To the question of whether this outcome was somehow inscribed in original Marxian thought, the answer is certainly “no” if “inscribed” means “intended.” All the evidence indicates that the initial intention was the opposite of what grew out of it. But this initial intention is not, as it were, innocent. It could scarcely be realized in any very different form, not because of contingent historical circumstances but because of its very content.

The dream of a perfectly unified human community is probably as old as human thought about society; romantic nostalgia was only a later incarnation. It is a dream that was philosophically reinforced by that element in European culture which arose from Neoplatonism. There is no reason to expect that this dream will ever disappear, for it has strong roots in our awareness of the split which humanity suffered at the very beginning of its existence, when it emerged from its animal innocence. Nor is there any reason to expect that it can ever come true, except in the cruel form of despotism; and despotism is a desperate simulation of paradise.

The dream cannot come true, but it can be faked. A counterfeit unity is possible. In “The Death of Utopia Reconsidered,” Kolakowski explained how this can be achieved:

An attempt to implement a conflictless order by institutional means can be indeed successful in the sense that it can, by applying totalitarian coercion, prevent conflicts from being expressed. Being incapable, however, of eradicating the sources of conflict, the utopian technology necessarily involves a huge machinery of lie to present its inevitable failure as a victory. A utopian vision, once it is translated into political idiom, becomes mendacious or self-contradictory; it provides new names for old injustice or hides the contradictions under ad hoc invented labels. This is especially true of revolutionary utopias, whether elaborated in the actual revolutionary process or simply applied in its course. The Orwellian language had been known, though not codified, long before modern totalitarian despotism. Rousseau’s famous slogan, “One has to compel people to freedom,” is a good example. So is the announcement of the Paris Commune stating simultaneously that the compulsory military service has been abolished and that all citizens are members of the National Guard. So is the egalitarian-revolutionary utopia of Tkachev (an important source of the Leninist doctrine) which asserts that the main goal of the revolution is to abolish all the elites and that this task is to be carried out by a revolutionary elite.

The fault is not in seeking to reform society. It is not even in the attempt to demystify private property. It is in the communist demand for social unity and the millenarian conceit that one knows how to begin the world anew.

A Short Note on Recurring Massacres

When, once again, Americans are massacred by sociopath with an AR-15 style rifle, the same two thoughts come to my mind. The first is a quote from philosopher George Santayana:

In order to be truly and happily free you must be safe. Liberty requires peace. War would impose the most terrible slavery, and you would never be free if you were always compelled to fight for your freedom. This circumstance is ominous: by it the whole sky of liberty is at once clouded over. We are drawn away violently from irresponsible play to a painful study of facts and to the endless labor of coping with probable enemies.

The second is a quote from Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson:

The choice is not between order and liberty. It is between liberty with order and anarchy without either. There is danger that, if the court does not temper its doctrinaire logic with a little practical wisdom, it will convert the constitutional Bill of Rights into a suicide pact.

Jackson was not specifically addressing Second Amendment rights, but surely this warning applies to the keeping and bearing of firearms.

Of course, reducing anarchy would require a long-term commitment on the part of horrified Americans. It would also require changing the way we argue about guns.

Emma Goldman’s Loving Souls

Most Americans condemned the assassination of President William McKinley. They were condemned in turn by the anarchist Emma Goldman. In a sanctimonious explainer titled “The Tragedy at Buffalo,” Goldman claimed that McKinley’s assassin was the real victim. Her rationalization of activist violence is more than a century old, but it is worth revisiting today. It rhymes with many of the fashionable excuses for “anti-fascist” beatings.

According to Goldman, radical egalitarians did not kill their enemies out of hate. No, their homicides were acts of love:

It is, therefore, not cruelty, or a thirst for blood, or any other criminal tendency, that induces such a man to strike a blow at organized power. On the contrary, it is mostly because of a strong social instinct, because of an abundance of love and an overflow of sympathy with the pain and sorrow around us, a love which seeks refuge in the embrace of mankind, a love so strong that it shrinks before no consequence, a love so broad that it can never be wrapped up in one object, as long as thousands perish, a love so all-absorbing that it can neither calculate, reason, investigate, but only dare at all costs.

The motive behind such acts, Goldman said, “lies deeper far too deep for the shallow multitude to comprehend. It lies in the fact that the world within the individual, and the world around him, are two antagonistic forces, and, therefore, must clash.” They sought a new world where this clash would cease and fraternal harmony would reign. Their love was for a new humanity, which they imagined we would become through a social revolution.

Goldman was coy about whether Leon Czolgosz himself was made of this millenarian “material.” And yet, she described him in reverent terms as “a soul in pain, a soul that could find no abode in this cruel world of ours, a soul ‘impractical,’ inexpedient, lacking in caution (according to the dictum of the wise); but daring just the same, and I cannot help but bow in reverent silence before the power of such a soul, that has broken the narrow walls of its prison, and has taken a daring leap into the unknown.” The rage of such a soul was inherently righteous. It was also a license to do anything they deemed necessary, whatever the consequences.

Of course, millions of the “disinherited and oppressed” faced similar conditions (or worse), and the overwhelming majority did not respond with insurrection. But Goldman treated the few who did as something special. They were “of such a sensitive nature” that they felt social ills “more keenly and with greater intensity than others.” They were set apart from everyone else by their superior sensibility. In short, they were the vanguard.

Goldman sneered at the objections of “the rabble,” who failed to comprehend her “philosophy of life.” She denied advocating violence, but in the same breath, she described the assassination as a natural reprisal. Because “government does this, and force begets force.” She viewed the very existence of McKinley’s regime as an unconscionable act of aggression. From this perspective, any act of insurrection could be seen as self defense.

Goldman granted a special privilege to her loving souls. Today, the same privilege has been claimed by a new generation of militants. Their “defensive” violence has not been as extreme (if you exclude James Hodgkinson from their ranks), but they share the same vanguard conceit. No one should be surprised if they act on it.

A Short Note on the President

I do not have much to say about Donald Trump. But as I post about politics, I feel obliged to say something. So here is my all-purpose statement on the president.

Trump is what he seems: a vain and petulant man-child. His life history suggests that he does not believe in much of anything, except his own bombast. Yes, he clearly knows how to command attention, troll his opponents, and intuit the desires and resentments of millions. But these are the theatrical talents of a second-rate huckster. I do not expect him to mature into something better. Instead, I expect him to cover for his inadequacies as a leader with bluff, bluster, and abuse.

Trump should not be president. And yet, this thin-skinned charlatan was duly elected. He won, in no small part, because civil society and the two major parties failed. That disturbs me more than anything Trump has tweeted. Demagogues will always be with us, but they thrive on the unwitting assistance of their adversaries.

Summoning Furies

Progressive demagogues are summoning furies that they do not comprehend and cannot control. As Noah Rothman warned:

On the campaign trail, Donald Trump summoned the most malevolent old demons that still haunt the American psyche. Republicans have been called upon again and again to exorcise those ugly spirits. Liberals should not be spared similar admonitions. From the neotenic creatures on college campuses who rage violently against encounters with discomfiting thoughts to the organized militias feted by “respectable” liberal opinion-makers, the left is incubating a monster.

Thugs on the far left and the far right may fantasize about destroying each other, but they are symbiotic. Each side feeds off the fanaticism of the other. Each side takes the harms inflicted by the other as a license to respond in kind. And in this sense of righteous victimhood, both sides undermine the norms against activist violence. So there is no honest way for liberals who are concerned about civil peace to condemn one while indulging the other.

Liberals need to draw a line. We need to separate the center left from the further left. Few of our adversaries on the right will draw one for us–quite the opposite. As for our adversaries on the left, they admit no middle ground. Either we are with them, or we are with the fascists.

If some liberals do not view this task as a matter of principle, they should at least view it as a practical precaution. Imagine what would happen if a justice warrior were to go full Czolgosz. I doubt most Americans would give a damn what moderates whispered in private but lacked the nerve to say in public.

Never Enough

Few of us will ever be sufficiently woke for the social justice left. Consider the case of Bret Weinstein, a biology professor at Evergreen State College. Weinstein is a progressive, but he uttered a heresy. So, an enraged mob of activists came for him. They falsely accused him of “racism” in an effort to force him out of his job. Weinstein held his ground and refused to be bullied into submission. But in the eyes of his accusers, that merely confirmed his guilt.

These fanatics may be a minority, but they draw strength from an acquiescent majority. For their oppressive tactics to work, they need the tacit support of their allies. Too often, they can count on it.