The End Of Liberal Democracy?
Remember the “Flight 93 Election” essay by the pseudonymous writer Decius, who advocates voting for Trump as a last, ‘Hail Mary’ pass to restore a Republic deformed by liberalism? What if the truth is that there is no “saving” the Republic in the sense he means, because liberal democracy was always destined to turn out this way? That is, what if the problem is not that liberal democracy has gone off the rails, but that it has not.
In a 2014 essay in TAC, Patrick Deneen talked about this problem in a specific Catholic context. Excerpt:
The “radical” school rejects the view that Catholicism and liberal democracy are fundamentally compatible. Rather, liberalism cannot be understood to be merely neutral and ultimately tolerant toward (and even potentially benefitting from) Catholicism. Rather, liberalism is premised on a contrary view of human nature (and even a competing theology) to Catholicism. Liberalism holds that human beings are essentially separate, sovereign selves who will cooperate based upon grounds of utility. According to this view, liberalism is not a “shell” philosophy that allows a thousand flowers to bloom. Rather, liberalism is constituted by a substantive set of philosophical commitments that are deeply contrary to the basic beliefs of Catholicism, among which (Catholics hold) are the belief that we are by nature relational, social and political creatures; that social units like the family, community and Church are “natural,” not merely the result of individuals contracting temporary arrangements; that liberty is not a condition in which we experience the absence of constraint, but the exercise of self-limitation; and that both the “social” realm and the economic realm must be governed by a thick set of moral norms, above all, self-limitation and virtue.
Because of these positions, the “radical” position—while similarly committed to the pro-life, pro-marriage teachings of the Church—is deeply critical of contemporary arrangements of market capitalism, is deeply suspicious of America’s imperial ambitions, and wary of the basic premises of liberal government. It is comfortable with neither party, and holds that the basic political division in America merely represents two iterations of liberalism—the pursuit of individual autonomy in either the social/personal sphere (liberalism) or the economic realm (“conservatism”—better designated as market liberalism). Because America was founded as a liberal nation, “radical” Catholicism tends to view America as a deeply flawed project, and fears that the anthropological falsehood at the heart of the American founding is leading inexorably to civilizational catastrophe. It wavers between a defensive posture, encouraging the creation of small moral communities that exist apart from society—what Rod Dreher, following Alasdair MacIntyre, has dubbed “the Benedict Option”—and, occasionally, a more proactive posture that hopes for the conversion of the nation to a fundamentally different and truer philosophy and theology.
Over the weekend, I read The Demon In Democracy by the Polish Catholic philosopher Ryszard Legutko. I cannot recommend it to you strongly enough. This book is absolutely essential reading for any conservative, especially any Christian conservative, who wants to understand what’s happening now. It’s written plainly and punchily, accessible to any reader (though how much of this is due to the translator’s gifts, I don’t know). The last time I read a book of political theory and cultural criticism so short but so powerful was when I took up Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences in college, and it turned me rightward. Let that be an enticement to you, or a warning. For an American, even a conservative American, reading Legutko is like taking the red pill. It’s hard to go back to what you used to think about liberal democracy after this book. I am going to talk about it at length in a series of posts.
In the 1930s, fellow travelers of the Bolsheviks tried to take the sting out of communism by referring to it as “liberalism in a hurry.” Decades later, the conservative writer Joe Sobran quipped, “If communism was liberalism in a hurry, liberalism is communism in slow motion.” The core argument of The Demon In Democracy is that Sobran was right. That sounds radical, even kind of crazy. Not long ago, some emigre friends from the Eastern bloc (they defected during the Cold War) told me that what they see happening in the West now reminds them of their communist youth. These are highly intelligent people, but I found it hard to understand this point of view. After reading Legutko, I get it. Boy, do I get it.
Legutko, now a European parliamentarian, was during the Solidarity years an editor of one of its underground journals. He was an anti-communist dissident, and has become a deep skeptic of liberal democracy. Legutko begins the book by wondering why it was that former members of Poland’s communist regime had so little difficulty making the transition to liberal democracy, and ended up helping to run things in post-communist Poland, whereas many dissidents could not transition. The reason, he says, is because both communism and liberal democracy come from the Enlightenment, and share much in common. “They are both fueled by the idea of modernization,” he says. And:
In both systems a cult of technology translates itself into acceptance of social engineering as a proper approach to reforming society, changing human behavior, and solving existing social problems. This engineering may have a different scope and dynamics in each case, but the society and the world at large are regarded as undergoing a continuous process of construction and reconstruction. In one system this meant reversing the current of Siberia’s rivers, in the other, a formation of alternative family models; invariably, however it was the constant improvement of nature, which turns out to be barely a substrate to be molded into a desired form.
Both systems regard modernization as an ultimate good, and demonize anything that stands in the way of modernization. “[P]rogress is largely in the same direction, and backwardness is represented by the same forces,” he writes.
Having cast away the obligations and commitments that come from the past, the communist and the liberal democrat quickly lose their memory of it or, alternatively, their respect for it. Both want the past eradicated altogether or at least made powerless as an object of relativizing or derision. Communism, as a system that started history anew, had to be, in essence and in practice, against memory. Those who were fighting the regime were also fighting for memory against forgetting, knowing very well that the loss of memory strengthened the communist system by making people defenseless and malleable. There are no better illustrations of how politically imposed amnesia helps in the molding of the new man than the twentieth-century anti-utopias 1984 and Brave New World. The lessons of Orwell and Huxley were, unfortunately, quickly forgotten. In my country at the very moment when communism fell and the liberal-democratic order was emerging, memory again became one of the main enemies. The apostles of the new order lost no time in denouncing it as a harmful burden hampering striving for modernity. In this anti-memory crusade, as in several other crusades, they have managed to be quite successful, more so than their communist predecessors.
“You can’t turn back the clock,” said the communists, and so say our liberal democrats (note well that “liberal democrats” in the sense Legutko means takes in democratic parties of the left and the right). Both systems are totalizing systems, meaning that they will not leave any sphere of society untouched by their principles, “including ethics and mores, family, churches, schools, universities, community organizations, culture, and even human sentiments and aspirations.
The people, structures, thoughts that exists outside the liberal-democratic pattern are deemed outdates, backward-looking, useless, but at the same time extremely dangerous as preserving the remnants of old authoritarianisms. Some may still be tolerated for some time, but as anyone with a minimum of intelligence is believed to know, sooner or later they will end in the dustbin of history. Their continued existence will most likely threaten the liberal-democratic progress and therefore they should be treated with the harshness they deserve.
If you wonder why on earth the NCAA has involved itself in trying to compel universities and polities to open their bathrooms to transgenders, well, now you know. If you wonder how we get to the point where the president of the Society of Christian Philosophers publicly apologizes for a speech given by the world’s most eminent Christian philosopher, in which he (apparently) defended the orthodox Christian position on homosexuality — there you go.
By liberalism I mean the view that equal freedom is the highest political, social, and moral principle. The big goal is to be able to do and get what we want, as much and as equally as possible.
That view comes from the view that transcendent standards don’t exist–or what amounts to the same thing, that they aren’t publicly knowable. That leaves desire as the standard for action, along with logic and knowledge of how to get what we want.
Desires are all equally desires, so they all equally deserve satisfaction. Nothing is exempt from the system, so everything becomes a resource to be used for our purposes. The end result is an overall project of reconstructing social life to make it a rational system for maximum equal preference satisfaction.
That’s what liberalism is now, and everything else has to give way to it. For example, traditional ties like family and inherited culture aren’t egalitarian or hedonistic or technologically rational. They have their own concerns. So they have to be done away with or turned into private hobbies that people can take or leave as they like. Anything else would violate freedom and equality.
Anything that gets in the way of equal freedom must be tolerated only until the point at which they can be crushed, at which point they must be crushed. More Legutko:
In a way, liberal democracy presents a somewhat more insidious ideological mystification than communism. Under communism it was clear that communism was to prevail in every cell of social life, and that the Communist Party was empowered with the instruments of brutal coercion and propaganda to get the job done. Under liberal democracy such official guardians of constitutional doctrine do not exist, which, paradoxically, makes the overarching nature of the system less tangible, but at the same time more profound and difficult to revers. It is the people themselves who have eventually come to accept, often on a preintellectual level, that eliminating the institutions incompatible with liberal-democratic principles constitutes a wise and necessary step.
The power of both communism and liberal democracy is that the people inside each system cannot conceive of any better way of organizing society. That is, they are acculturated according to the system’s totalizing values, such that any deviation from the progress promised by the system is seen as an impermissible deviation — impermissible because it makes things worse. Legutko:
The only change that one could imagine happening was one for the worse, which in the eyes of supporters meant not a slight deterioration, but a disaster. The communist would say: if communism is rejected or prevented, then society will continue to be subjected to class exploitation, capitalism, imperialism, and fascism. The liberal democrats would say: if liberal democracy is not accepted, then society will fall prey to authoritarianism, fascism, and theocracy. In both cases, the search for an alternative solution is, at best, nonsensical and not worth a moment’s reflection, and at worst, a highly reckless and irresponsible game.
I’ll stop there for now. I will be posting several times this week on Legutko. I should make it very clear here that he does not claim that communism is equivalent in any way to liberal democracy. Liberal democracy is a much better system, he says. But from the point of view of the ancients, and of their successors in the West, the Christians, liberal democracy is fundamentally irreconcilable with what it means to live a Good life. And we who have been formed under liberal democracy don’t understand this, which is one reason why conservatives, especially conservative Christians, can’t grasp the nature of the battle we find ourselves in.
If you haven’t yet read Catholic philosopher Michael Hanby’s 2015 First Things essay about the end of “the civic project of American Christianity,” you really should. Hanby:
Too often we are content to accept the absolutism of liberal order, which consists in its capacity to establish itself as the ultimate horizon, to remake everything within that horizon in its own image, and to establish itself as the highest good and the condition of possibility for the pursuit of all other goods—including religious freedom.
Just to remind you, The Benedict Option is my program for living out an authentic Christian resistance to the tyranny of liberal democracy, or rather, what liberal democracy has become, having raised its anchor from its grounding in Christianity, and set sail across the turbulent waters of liquid modernity.