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America’s Men Without Chests

The voluntarist creed that's ruined our foreign policy was predicted by C.S. Lewis decades ago.
Karl Rove

America’s way of acting in the world, the violence it often does to the truth while asserting its will, cannot be explained simply through its alleged “interests.” The U.S. acts the way it does because of the peculiar American way of understanding what gives life and action meaning.

At the core of the American philosophy is voluntarism, the justification of action based purely and simply on the will. The distinguishing characteristic of voluntarism is that it gives pride of place to the will as such, to the will as power, the will abstracted from everything else, but especially abstracted from the good. The notion of the good is necessarily inclusive of the whole, of all sides. Concern exclusively for oneself goes by a different name.

The clearest and perhaps the best expression of American voluntarism come of age was expressed by Karl Rove during the George W. Bush administration, as reported by Ron Suskind in New York Times Magazine on October 17, 2004:

We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.

This oft-quoted statement is naively assumed to have been the expression of a single moment in American politics, rather than a summation of its ethos by one of its shrewder and more self-aware practitioners. The point of the voluntarist order is to act, to impose one’s will on global reality by any means necessary. The truth is not something to be understood, or grasped, still less something that should condition one’s own actions and limit them in any way. Truth is reducible to whatever is useful for imposing one’s will.

We can see this voluntarism at work among our forebears. The Skripal affair in Britain led to almost immediate action—the expulsion of 60 Russian diplomats from the United States alone—well before the facts of this dubious incident, which has led to zero deaths, could be established. Indeed, when the leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, suggested first establishing what had happened and only then acting, he was widely accused of weakness. When one is “history’s actor,” action mustn’t be delayed. That, after all, is the whole point.

The suffering of innocents should always concern us. But in Syria, the facts regarding who is the guilty party, including in this latest case of a gas attack in Douma, are very far from having been established. What’s more, though reputable investigators such as Hans Blix and MIT’s Theodore Postol have cast serious doubt on the reliability of the evidence linking such attacks to Assad’s government, official accounts in the U.S. proceed as if there is not the slightest controversy about the matter.

For America’s voluntarist order, whether these events as described are true in the objective sense is of no more importance than whether Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. You will recall that, just prior to the Iraq invasion, the CIA waterboarded Abu Zubaydah some 83 times in order to oblige him to confess a nonexistent connection between Saddam’s Iraq, al-Qaeda, and chemical weaponry. That is voluntarism in action right there. “We’re an empire now and we create our own reality.” It was not a one-off. It is now the norm to make sure the facts are fixed to match the desired policy.

Voluntarism is the fruit of an anti-civilization, and of a technological way of knowing, as the great Canadian philosopher George Grant put it, that bears a striking resemblance to what C.S. Lewis described in his pre-Nineteen Eighty-Four anti-utopia That Hideous Strength. In that novel, the institution called N.I.C.E., like the U.S. foreign policy establishment today, is essentially a voluntarist bureaucracy run by men without culture, trained in technical sciences and sociology-like “disciplines” and “law” understood in a purely formalistic sense, who assume human affairs are understandable as aggregates of facts without value. Such “men without chests” (Lewis’s phrase) live in a world where the good and the true have forever been severed of their mutually defining link. The resulting, essentially irrational world they inhabit is one that has only one logic left: that of will and power.

It is an American empire where we create our own reality, the mirror image of ourselves, and it is indeed precisely hideous. If the builders of empire continue to get their way, it may all soon enough come to a violent and ignominious end. Historians, if they still exist, will marvel at our folly.

Paul Grenier, an essayist and translator who writes regularly on political-philosophical issues, is founder of the Simone Weil Center for Political Philosophy.