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The collapse of the liberal regime into irrationality, contradiction and tyranny, and the inability of limited adjustments to restore it to health or even stability, suggest that a basically different direction is needed for our public life. Liberalism is an attempt to make freedom the ultimate principle of public life. The attempt makes no sense, and ultimately defeats itself, because freedom is always freedom to do something in particular and is therefore always subordinate to some more basic goal. When freedom becomes equal and open-ended it conflicts with itself. The myriad opposing possibilities cancel each other out and a comprehensive system of suppression is the result.

For example, liberalism wants to free us from interference by other people. When that goal is taken as ultimate, it ends by requiring total state control over human relations so we do not oppress each other. The only actions that remain permissible are those that are purely private and do not affect others, those that fully accept neutral market or bureaucratic principles, and those that directly support the regime. Even free discussion of public principles must be suppressed, because to put liberal principles in question would weaken them and promote oppression. All that is tyranny, and if people thought clearly and expressed themselves freely the system would become unstable. The resulting necessity of asserting and believing a contradiction corrupts thought and creates a sort of soft totalitarianism. The necessary features of advanced liberalism thus come to include indoctrination of the people, medicalization of dissent, and ritualistic treatment of democratic forms.

At bottom such a situation is the result of a spiritual problem, a disordered relation to ultimate truths and goods. Our response must be spiritual as well. Serious opposition to liberalism is particularist, anti-hedonist, and above all anti-secularist. It rejects a system of politics that bases social order on human desire and the view that men make morality for their own purposes, and accepts that social order must be referred toward something more substantive than equal freedom. Such an orientation must be central to any serious conservatism today. Politics is not the highest human activity, but it touches on the whole of life and so has a necessary spiritual component. The history of the last century shows that left to itself it makes unlimited demands and becomes tyrannical. For its own health and that of society it must refer to something higher and more comprehensive.

Since a denial of the transcendent aspects of life and the world are the root of the present crisis, it is more pressing to deal adequately with that basic issue than go immediately to practical schemes for accommodating current trends or restoring past arrangements. If the problem is technocracy—overemphasis on the purely pragmatic—the solution must emphasize principles that come before pragmatic considerations. Such an approach does not mean abstraction from social realities. The metaphysical is a social reality, since basic understandings of man and the world establish the environment in which all human relations play out. If our crisis is religious and cultural then political and social criticism must go hand in hand with religious and cultural analysis.

[From my book-in-progress.]

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The comparison may not be exact, but the arrangements of the liberal society that you describe seem especially Hobbesian. Hobbes denied any summum bonum around which common interest could be organized. He was left with a group of isolated individuals who had to be somehow managed as a society, and his solution was the Leviathan.

Here’s what Voegelin had to say about Hobbes’ anthropology and its implications for political organization:

“… [According to Hobbes] the generic nature of man must be studied in terms of human passions; the objects of the passions are no longer legitimate object of inquiry. This is the fundamental counterposition to classic Christian moral philosophy. Aristotelian ethics starts from the purposes of action and explores the order of human life in terms of the ordination of all actions toward a highest purpose, the summum bonum; Hobbes, on the contrary, insists there is no summum bonum, “as is spoken of in the books of the old moral philosophers.” With the summum bonum, however, disappears the source of order from human life; and not only from the life of individual man but also from life in society; for … the order of the life in community depends on homonoia, in the Aristotelian and Christian sense, that is, on the participation in the common nous. Hobbes, therefore, is faced with the problem of constructing an order of society out of isolated individuals who are not oriented toward a common purpose but only motivated by their individual passions.”

Another, more recent, interpretation is that the society you describe is the classic, decadent bourgeois society, in which the highest good is simply material self-interest, as that may be interpreted by any particular individual and unconstrained by restraints of tradition or religion. If material self-interest is the highest good, a society composed of such men would be especially interested in the kind of “freedom” described in your post, that is, a nihilistic freedom detached from any common interest or highest good. This is essentially a Hobbesian society, a group of people whose sole motivation for action is their individual, competing passions.

The decadent, bourgeois “state” is then merely the repository of delusions about this nihilistic “freedom,” and its liberating and magical qualities (wars might even be waged to spread this empty “freedom” around the globe, as if it were a precious gift). Thus, whenever the state acts in public ceremony, it pays tribute to this “freedom” and all the wonderful people who are blessed with it; it does not mention, because it cannot, the purposes (i.e., the summum bonum) to which this freedom is to be put. Rather, this empty freedom is presented in itself, without argument or thought, as the highest good, detached from order, purpose, or telos.

All these comments are to the point. I suppose I’d add that since man is social and rational action must be oriented toward a good Hobbesian society generates its own summum bonum, maximum equal satisfaction of preferences, and even its own idealism, composed of equal freedom (a.k.a. maximum equal preference satisfaction) and inclusiveness (abolition of all distinctions and therefore all institutions that do not directly and perspicuously further equal freedom). That explains how you can have public festivals etc. that say how wonderful it all is.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

If maximum equal satisfaction of preferences is the highest good, and if this be interpreted as rational, then we may infer an anthropology of such a society, that is, human beings are defined and enclosed by their individual passions and political society therefore must be so structured as to accommodate those passions as equally as possible. Thus, the mythological symbols of “freedom” and “inclusiveness,” both of which are grounded in the basic anthropology of the detached individual will.

We may then infer that the men who constitute this society understand and experience themselves through their passions (i.e., their individual wills), which are presumably self-validating.

These understandings are then presented as eternal laws of nature, which are beyond question, and which are normative not only for political arrangements but also for individual psychology. The diseased individual then becomes normative, and is presented as such through the mass media. The path to “success” is presented as indulgence in and homage to one’s individual will, disconnected from the purposes to which that will may be directed. The agreed upon criterion upon which to measure or assess the worth of any particular individual will is money. It is also agreed that the purpose of money is to pursue, gratify, and affirm one’s individual will.

Some additional comments:

1. It’s not just money, although money of course is basic because it helps us indulge our desires. Just as man is a social animal, so even in Hobbesian society he comes up with moral ideals and a summum bonum (perverse and empty though they may be), he is a religious and self-actualizing animal who strives for union with the absolute. So today he also goes for power and celebrity, since human society and the understandings that order it are now understood as absolute, for a position as a maker of culture (that’s what “cool” is all about), and for moral superiority as that is now understood. Steve Sailer emphasizes that last point as an explanation for PC.

2. It’s not really arbitrary to make equal freedom the summum bonum. It’s a consequence of scientific method and Occam’s Razor. We do in fact have desires, that’s universal and demonstrable, and desires confer value of some sort on things, so why not limit ethical thought to those two points and try to construct a whole moral and social order on them together with formal and technological reasoning?

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

Your second paragraph confuses me.

First, I agree that it isn’t arbitrary to make equal freedom the summum bonum; in fact, it’s necessary, unless one adopts a radical social Darwinist approach (which in fact was the progressivist policy during the 19th and the early 20th centuries). Thus, PC is a logically mandated consequence of a content-less freedom, as you pointed our earlier by linking nihilistic freedom with “inclusion.”

Following your first sentence of paragraph 2, however, I’m lost. I think the key phrase is: “and desires confer values…” This, if in fact true, is the nihilistic heart of the entire enterprise.

Desires confer value only if one validates the individual will as the arbiter of value. And, if one takes that step, then one enters the orbit of nihilism.

Any talk of rational thought after that point is merely formalistic and procedural, because insofar as content is concerned there are no longer any criteria.

With respect to your first paragraph, I understand that you are suggesting an unconscious or subconscious religious paradigm or impulse underlying the construction of and the symbols utilized by the nihilistic political system. This is a nice question. Hobbes, for example, evaluated the zealots of his day not as religious fanatics but as individuals gripped by the libido dominandi. This would be a subject unto itself.

I didn’t say that desires are the only or primary or main source of value, only that they do confer value—that is to say, that simply wanting to do something is a reason for doing it. Wanting to get up and stretch or choose chocolate ice cream rather than strawberry is a reason for doing those things. Liberalism tries to reduce all reasons to that kind of reason, which of course doesn’t work. The point of my second paragraph though is that there are theoretical reasons someone might try to do that just as there are theoretical reasons someone might try to reduce the motions of stars to inertia and gravity. The ultimate point is that a large part of the power of liberalism is that it is based on a certain understanding of rationality that in fact has been very successful in some applications.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

You wrote:

“The ultimate point is that a large part of the power of liberalism is that it is based on a certain understanding of rationality that in fact has been very successful in some applications.”

This reminds me of the social critique of the Frankfurt School (Adorno, Lukacs, etc.), in which the modern is interpreted as the reduction of the social (and man himself) to a calculable commodity, subject to rational “laws.”

In this interpretation, man himself is treated as a commodity, and made subject to rational manipulation as any other commodity (or matter in motion, as in physics). Any part of man not subject to such manipulation is either deemed deviant or it simply doesn’t exist. Thus, the accepted scope of “knowledge” is limited to that derived from and useful within this interpretation of man and society.

Modern man then internalizes this interpretation, and begins to interpret himself as a reified commodity. He then treasts himself and others as objects within a marketplace of exchange values.

In attempting to digest your thesis, I realized that some of my difficulties have been categorical, and in particular my confusion with the categories of “modernity” and “liberalism.”

What you describe as “liberalism” I accord to the category of “modernity.” There is obviously some overlap, but I find your critique more understandable if I take it as a critique of “modernity,” at least as I understand that term. This struck me as I realized that your critique of liberalism was similar to earlier critiques of modernity.

How are modernity and liberalism distinct?

Modernity predates liberalism by at least 200 years, perhaps more, depending on how one dates the effective beginnings of liberalism. One would date the beginnings of modernity anywhere between the Reformation and the mid-17th century.

Modernity produced liberalism, but is hardly dependent upon it. The converse is also true; liberalism can thrive in the absence of modernity.

Modernity is more rigid and inflexible than liberalism, particularly its epistemology and its dependence on the category of the “rational.” Modernity is antithetical to all religion and in the end seeks to destroy it, whereas liberalism is not.

Modernity is discredited; liberalism is not.

The logical consequence of modernity is not liberalism, it is dictatorship, perhaps even totalitarianism. To the extent liberalism embraces modernity, the greater likelihood it will move towards tyranny (the EU is a good example of this latter tendency). With respect to the United States, the more “modern” it becomes, the more tyrannical it will become.

The Soviet Union was a good example of the modern in the absence of liberalism. Some would say the Soviet Union was the ultimate expression of modernity.

The United States is a good example of liberalism in the absence of the modern. Although thoroughly liberal, the United States has never been thoroughly modern.

The modern produced and affirmed (even sanctified) what you describe as the characteristics of “liberalism”: markets, centralized bureaucratic government, rational administration (state, justice, economics), a detached rational ethics, an exalted status for science and technology, and absence of religion and/or the transcendent.

I view liberalism as much more fluid and flexible than the modern. Liberalism can embrace the modern, but doesn’t have to; it can move into the post-modern without skipping a beat, adopting and discarding what suits it from modernism. Liberalism often retains the language of modernism, but provides differing content for the categories (for example, “equality,” which has radically different meanings under a modern or a liberal intepretation). This fluidity in meaning creates much of the confusion in political debate within a liberal state, a confusion that would be impossible within a modern state.

I now understand, I think, your emphasis on rationality and technology, characteristic of modernity, but not necessarily characteristic of liberalism (I in fact think that liberalism is hostile to both science and technology, because both make truth claims and are therefore inherently coercive and limiting; liberalism will reject any thesis, rational or otherwise, that posits limits—therefore, there can be no substantive “truth” within liberalism, whether “scientific” or otherwise, because truth is inherently limiting and coercive. On the other hand, modernity is eager to assert positive truths, and the approved, orthodox methodology by which one obtains and certifies truth, which is then proclaimed as “univeral”).

I think liberalism rejected modernity precisely for this reason: Modernity posits truth, and truth implies limits. Liberalism recognizes no limits, and therefore is compelled, if it has the power, to extend beyond modernity into the irrational.

Thus, the EU (which is basically modern) preaches limits; whereas the United States (which is basically liberal) preaches an unlimited future.

I view liberalism as basically a form of political modernity, the highest and only surviving form actually. There is no transcendent, “value” just means “valued,” and all values have equal standing since all of them are just values particular people place on things. Hence “equal freedom,” which I take to be the final goal of liberalism. Other points:

1. As a movement liberalism involves the step-by-step application of modernism to social and moral institutions. As such, it appeared in distinct form later than modernism and seems less rigid because its applied and has to take circumstances and established ways of looking at things into account. Still, in the long run it becomes totalitarian. (Hence the name of the book-to-be—The Tyranny of Liberalism.)

2. The U.S. isn’t thoroughly liberal. It has combined explicit liberalism with implicit antiliberalism. The 60s put an end to that, at least as something our ruling elites felt they could live with, and so created a continuing national crisis.

3. Postmodernity is hypermodernity. If it’s incoherent that’s OK because in the long run modernity is incoherent. It creates no institutions of its own and proposes no answers to questions, so as a practical matter people have to fall back on utterly content-free and universally applicable liberal conceptions like freedom and equality and on technocratic rule to deal with anything. Its actual function is to reaffirm technocracy by depriving ordinary discourse of reference and meaning, so the only people who get to say anything that matters are experts.

4. Does the EU really preach limits? In my view it preaches unlimited technocratic rule, the absolute abolition of all nonliberal institutions (that is, institutions other than transnational markets and regulatory bureaucracies).

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

You wrote:

“I view liberalism as basically a form of political modernity, the highest and only surviving form actually. There is no transcendent, “value” just means “valued,” and all values have equal standing since all of them are just values particular people place on things. Hence “equal freedom,” which I take to be the final goal of liberalism.”

Modernity, with its fact/value distinction, annihilated all ethical and moral “facts.” David Hume had gotten this far in the 18th Century. Anything outside of rational “knowledge” is therefore a value, which is to say a preference about which nothing can be said really. I’m not sure I would credit liberalism with this keeper, but liberalism, in its zealotry, has elevated it to a moral fact of its own (unlike modernity, liberalism is full of moral precepts). “Equal freedom” I take as egalitarianism, which isn’t necessarily a characteristic of modernity; modern societies have easily incorporated empires, slavery, and gulags. Egalitarianism is one aspect of liberalism’s reaction against modernity, and probably reflects a forlorn hope of protection against modernity.

You wrote:

“1. As a movement liberalism involves the step-by-step application of modernism to social and moral institutions.”

I agree, but it has little choice; liberalism cannot control modernity, any more than any other political system can. Modernity has existed quite comfortably and profitably under communism, fascism, monarchy, imperialism, and liberal democracy, all of which have either encouraged it or accommodated it. Liberalism is the rider on the back of the elephant known as modernity. The content on your television may be liberal, but the entire apparatus and form (economic, technological, legal) in which that liberal content is contained is modern. The content could just as easily be fascist or monarchial and modernity wouldn’t care. Just as liberal content can be made into a commodity and subjected to rational processes, so can any other content. Take a gander at Shanghai.

Some Westerners believe that if China is “modernized,” then it will also be “liberalized.” This is nonsense, and reflects a confusion between the concepts of modernity and liberalism, which are two entirely different phenomena. Osama Bin Laden has fully modernized his operations, but he’s still not a liberal.

You wrote:

“2. The U.S. isn’t thoroughly liberal. It has combined explicit liberalism with implicit antiliberalism. The 60s put an end to that, at least as something our ruling elites felt they could live with, and so created a continuing national crisis.”

I agree that in the 60’s liberalism triumphed over modernity as the prevailing ideology of our elites. Our universities, almost overnight, abandoned modernism for liberalism.

What you see as “antiliberalism” I view as anti-modernism, and this anti-modernism is rooted in religion (which is anathema to modernity). I don’t think liberalism cares much about religion, which it can co-opt, while modernity wants to extinguish it (for example, liberalism allied with religion to good effect during the civil rights movements of the 60’s and the anti-slavery efforts of the 19th century). Liberalism’s effort to, in your words, “step-by-step application of modernism to social and moral institutions” excites the highest levels of anti-modernism in the United States, and accounts for Europe’s condescending attitude towards our domestic politics. Liberalism has made an enormous tactical error in this particular area, and it is presently reconsidering those tactics (Democrats talking about “values,” for example). Liberalism’s abandonment of religion is actually liberalism’s creeping surrender to modernity. Not being a modern people, Americans will resist this movement.

3. I agree with what you say about “post-modernity,” with the qualifier that post-modernism is just more ineffectual discrediting of modernism. But I don’t think modernity is incoherent; I think liberalism is incoherent. The perfect modern President would be Bertrand Russell, and he’d chafe at an accusation of “incoherence.” Modernity is coherent in a rational sort of way, but it’s just that a rational account of existence is insufficient and incomplete (and in the end destructive). If that’s what you mean by “incoherent,” I agree.

This is also why modernity, while triumphant, is also discredited and attacked (this has absolutely no effect, though; it’s like heaping discredit on the law of gravitation, as if that would change anything). I view liberalism as one more reaction against modernity (there have been many reactions, none of them successful).

Postmodernism is obsessed with content and presentation, but this is beside the point; postmodernists are just scratching at the surface and therefore have nothing of consequence to say. The underlying structure, process, and internal logic of the economic and technological world is still entirely modern, and it’s difficult to see how it could be otherwise.

4. As for the EU and limits, my reference was to external policy limits, not limits internal to modernism. I agree that the EU favors unlimited technical rule and the abolition of all institutions that contradict modernity; that is, it favors the hegemony of modernity. My reference to limits was to such things as the Kyoto treaty, international relations, economic growth, trade protectionism, and the like. Rational people just don’t consume resources as if they are unlimited, but liberals do. European moderns build nuclear reactors, while California liberals demand the best boutique gasoline money can buy.

I agree that modernity is primary, liberalism secondary. It seems to me though that while liberalism is not the only possible expression of modernity it is nonetheless the best expression:

1. It takes both the freedom and the equality of desires seriously. The former follows from identifying “valuable” with “valued,” so that the satisfaction of preferences becomes the summum bonum. The latter follows from the observation that since we all equally value things, and simply valuing them is what makes them values, the values must be equal as well. Equality can be understood as a response to modernity, since the modern reduction of all human relations to power is so terrifying, but it’s also an expression of modernity.

2. It achieves greater rationality by allowing some dissent and some popular participation, and by mixing market and bureaucratic institutions. The greater rationality is why Auschwitz and Kolyma are no longer with us and we have gay marriage instead as our way of annihilating the human essence in favor of the comprehensive triumph of will.

It seems to me that Naziism was also a good expression of modernity in some ways even though its emphasis on conflict made it so self-destructive. Like liberalism it made the triumph of will the supreme good. Instead of trying to implement equality, which isn’t really possible in the long run because desires after all conflict, it declared that since some desires of necessity submit to others we must insist on the inferiority of the desires that are forced to submit and therefore of those who harbor them. Otherwise we won’t accept the world as it necessarily is. The defeat, suppression, enslavement, torture and destruction of the inferior then becomes a positive good that constructs and expresses the superiority of the superior. Evil becomes the principle of good, which makes sense if you think of “good” not as an independently-subsisting essence but as one side of a polarity that we ourselves construct.

Bolshevism and still more UBL and Shanghai stand I think for inferior and partial modernization. Bolshevism was a sort of bastardized combination of liberalism and Naziism. Hurrah for both equality and torture. And UBL and Shanghai stand for modern means in support of unanalyzed untransformed inherited collective goals. Not all content is equal since content can be modernized as well.

In the long run arguments about what modernity really is may fall apart to some extent since I do think modernity is eventually incoherent. For one thing, if you do away with transcendence then words can’t mean anything. You see the consequences in Samuel Beckett and for that matter in postmodernism.

Maybe the issue is what “liberalism” means. By liberalism I mean the progressive tradition from Hobbes and Locke to Rawls that treats contract among self-interested individuals as the model for moral and social order and as a result makes equal satisfaction of desire the standard. That view is I think a good expression of the atomizing, voluntarist and constructivist tendencies of modernity. You seem to have something else in mind.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

I interpret modernity as the reduction of all “knowledge” to the rational, the rational being confined to those phenomena subject to the observation, measurement, analysis, and control of human reason.

Any phenomena or experience outside rational knowledge simply doesn’t exist, or is dismissed as a “value,” a superstition, a belief, or an emotion. Within modernity, no meaningful statements, beyond mere observation, can be made about such phenomena, even if they are acknowledged to exist. Our social sciences are premised on these axioms.

Obviously, this epistemology, which claims hegemony, leaves enormous gaps in the human experience. Those gaps have to be filled in some way that is deemed legitimate.

I view liberalism (and socialism) as an effort to close some of these gaps, and deal in some way with humanity, human desire, and human community. Because liberalism accepts the conclusions of modernity’s epistemology (the fact/value distinction and the appropriate method to identify and classify “facts”) and modernity’s methodological hegemony over “facts,”—which Christianity for example refuses to do—liberalism becomes the secular and civil religion of modernity.

Unfortunately, liberalism is a product of modernity, and is an effort to accommodate and ameliorate modernity, and it therefore internalizes many of its assumptions. For example, it accepts the fact/value distinction, then proceeds to classify all “values” according to an absolute principle of equality (because modernism provides no rational grounds to distinguish among non-facts, that is, “values.”) It also adopts modernity’s methodology in dealing with values, that is, the methodology of neutrality, observation, and description; this results in philosophical and ethical relativism and/or nihilism.

Consequently, there is much talk in liberal societies as to what constitutes a “fact,” which is subject to expertise and rational analysis, and what constitutes a “value,” which is not. This is a jurisdictional power struggle. Of course, liberalism is interested to reduce as much as possible of human life and experience to “values,” and therefore wrest control over those phenomena from the unforgiving processes of modernity. For example, postmodernism makes the ultimate power play and argues everything is a value, and there is no such thing as a “fact.” This represents the hysterical reaction to modernity.

Because all values are arbitrary and unpredictable, social and political arrangements become Hobbesian, as you say: political arrangements are reduced to some sort of contract theory, under which citizens obtain some order in exchange for acknowledging the equality of all desires and values. There really cannot be any argument over values and desires, because it is agreed in advance that such phenomena are non-rational and therefore lie outside the orbit of acceptable “knowledge.” All values and desires are therefore accorded a default equality.

Because liberalism is accorded power over non-rational value (but not facts), values and desires are exalted as the highest good; this is the jurisdictional bias of liberalism. Accorded some political legitimacy, liberalism then drives this theory to its logical extreme, which is absolute equality and political correctness. In this sphere, “rationality” is not an issue, because liberalism deals explicitly with the definition and negotiation of matters that are non-rational and outside the orbit of rational expertise. We thus end up with a social world in which nihilism is certified as goodness, and our social and political life endorses the irrational as a positive good.

The content of our social and political life then becomes irrational, which modernity then commodifies and reifies for production and sale to the masses. Hence, MTV and The Daily Show. Modernity can reify, process, and sell anything, even the Devil’s work.

It seems that a difference between us is that I view the triumph of will as a summum bonum internal to modernity while you seem to view modernity as an attempt to reduce all meaningful discourse to the categories of modern physics, or something like that, so that any theory of value becomes an external add-on.

That’s actually where my comments on Occam’s Razor and the positing of value by desire come in. The thought is that rationality requires some sort of ethical theory, so there can be a reason for doing anything whatever. To the extent liberalism is uniquely well suited to provide an ethical theory for modernity it should then be viewed as part of modernity, at least in its best-developed form.

The argument as to O’s Razor was that modernity wants to base its theory of value, in line with its general tendency, on things we immediately experience (desires) and can observe (preferences, which are simply tendencies to act toward particular ends). So in line with OR modernity when fully developed constructs a whole ethical theory out of those things. The valuable is simply the valued, and ethical rationality consists in rationally advancing the satisfaction of preference as such, with all preferences presumptively having an equal claim to satisfaction because they are equally preferences.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

In the beginning, modernity attempted to construct a rational ethics grounded in human reason. Kant made the mightiest effort. In his book, After Virtue, Alisdair MacIntyre describes how those efforts failed, reaching their final death at the hands of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. The final result of those efforts is that, presently, the ethic of modernity is what MacIntyre calls “emotivism,” or what might be called subjectivism. Emotivism was certified as a respectable philosophical position by AJ Ayer and GE Moore, and from that time forward most Western philosophers consider “ethics talk” to be metaphysical nonsense. This is a good, and one might say, inevitable modern position.

As to whether liberalism actually thought out an ethical position, grounded in modern naturalism and guided by Ockham’s razor, is a question. That sounds like an after the fact rationalization to me. I’m tempted not to give liberalism so much credit.

You wrote:

“It seems that a difference between us is that I view the triumph of will as a summum bonum internal to modernity while you seem to view modernity as an attempt to reduce all meaningful discourse to the categories of modern physics, or something like that, so that any theory of value becomes an external add-on.”

This isn’t what I was trying to say. Modernity itself is the product of human will, or pride if you will. Modernity elevated human reason above God, tradition, history, culture, and whatever else might inform the human experience. Man wanted to understand, control and master his world, and modernity is the result. So I agree that triumph of will is a subjective good internal to modernity.

Now, as to what modernity actually is and what it consists of. Modernity is not limited to a discourse, although it is certainly that. Modernity tells us how we can determine what the world consists of (and what it doesn’t consist of), the method by which we come to know what the world consists of, and how to talk and think about what the world consists of. In other words, modernity provides an entire, self-enclosed world, and a way to think within that world. It also defines all possible horizons within that world. It uses rationality to define and create a world, and defines rationality as the sole way to think about and within that world. This way of thinking may have begun within what we know as physics (known then as “natural philosophy”), but it now encompasses all sciences, social sciences, government, economics, finance, ethics, philosophy, and even theology and religion. It is an all-encompassing epistemology. If one doesn’t have fluency in this way of thinking, one can’t really participate in either our economy or our politics.

Then, is a “theory of value” an external add-on to modernity? I think that which modernity values is modernity itself, that is, the triumph and affirmation of its own will, the satisfaction of its will to mastery. Anything that promotes this is valued; anything that doesn’t is irrelevant.

A “theory of value” is usually associated with what we consider “ethics.” But, modernity has no ethics, as we understand the term. The only ethic of modernity is further mastery within the confines of its self-created world. Obviously, this ethics has nothing to do with human beings; it concerns only mastery and control over the material world.

The Soviet Union is a good exemplar of modernity’s ethics, or “theory of value.” Simply put, human beings don’t matter.

Liberalism represents an effort to ameliorate the brutal implications of modernity. It actually recognizes that human beings exist, which is an improvement upon modernity, in which human beings are reduced to biological organisms or units of labor.

Liberalism wasn’t always nihilistic, particularly in the field of ethics. I think its current ethical theory is a surrender to the methods and influence of modernity, which will not and cannot make distinctions among so-called human “values.” This is a catastrophe for liberalism.

I think of liberalism as a fundamental trend of thought and manner of social organization based on certain principles. As such, it bears somewhat the relation to what liberals and moderns say and try to do that say the basic principles of Indo-European grammar bear to what I’m writing now. So what philosophers say is evidence of what liberalism is, just as what grammarians say is evidence of what the grammar of a language is, but it’s not determinative.

I think our task in discussing liberalism is to explain its inner coherence and dynamic as displayed in its development and present state. So I don’t see anything wrong with after the fact rationalizations. Newton’s laws of motion are an after the fact rationalization, a very successful one, of how apples, the planets etc. move. It seems to me that metaethics, while important in suggesting what the long term prospects of liberalism may be, is not as important at present as the fact that almost everyone who thinks seriously and professionally about the issue in the present-day West is convinced that the goal of political and moral philosophy is to put something recognizable as liberalism on as good a footing as possible. It is the latter that shows what the grammar of present-day thought is, so to speak, and that’s what I care about in this connection.

Your point that the goal of modernity is modernity is an interesting one. It’s very much like the issue whether the goal of the state is the state or for that matter whether the will to power is sufficient to organize a system of action and thus ground an ethics. My own view is that power is simply a meaningless concept apart from some substantive goal to which it relates so you really do need hedonism (or at least, as in the case of the Nazis, the will to conquer, enslave, torture and exterminate others) as part of the picture in order to have an ethics that’s minimally able to guide a comprehensive system of action. And every movement extensive and enduring enough to matter will always have such an ethics.

Your point that modernity really has to do with epistemology and ontology is also an interesting one. But the critical spirit of modernity tends to dissolve ontology, so I suppose I’m inclined to view such things as an aspect of the development of modernity but not the thing itself.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

You wrote:

“Your point that the goal of modernity is modernity is an interesting one. It’s very much like the issue whether the goal of the state is the state or for that matter whether the will to power is sufficient to organize a system of action and thus ground an ethics.”

Actually, I said the goal of modernity is modernity, that is, the satisfaction of the will to mastery.

I don’t think this is sufficient to ground an ethics, at least as we understand the term. It’s nihilism, and any ethics grounded upon it will be arbitrary. Nietzsche’s attempts are a good example.

You wrote:

“I think of liberalism as a fundamental trend of thought and manner of social organization based on certain principles. As such, it bears somewhat the relation to what liberals and moderns say and try to do that say the basic principles of Indo-European grammar bear to what I’m writing now. So what philosophers say is evidence of what liberalism is, just as what grammarians say is evidence of what the grammar of a language is, but it’s not determinative.”

I agree.

You wrote:

“is not as important at present as the fact that almost everyone who thinks seriously and professionally about the issue in the present-day West is convinced that the goal of political and moral philosophy is to put something recognizable as liberalism on as good a footing as possible. It is the latter that shows what the grammar of present-day thought is, so to speak, and that’s what I care about in this connection.”

In assessing National Socialism or Communism, it is no doubt important to read what Nazis or Communists said about what they were doing. So, the same is true of liberalism. But, do we have to accept that at face value? What liberals say about liberalism is important, but it’s also self-serving. I assume your wish is to analyze the “grammar” of liberal thought to determine what they’re really up to.

Thus, you write:

“I think of liberalism as a fundamental trend of thought and manner of social organization based on certain principles.”

Do you mean principles put forth by liberals as putative ground for their positions? Or, do you mean principles that will be discovered by close analysis of liberalism? Or, both?

As for epistemology, the epistemology of modernity is its ontology. They’re the same. The only things that are real within modernity are those things subject to or contained within the category of rational knowledge. Nothing else exists. Take the category of “God”, for example. For modern epistemology, the belief in God exists as a category, and is a subject for the social sciences; but the object of that belief—God—doesn’t exist, and is not a proper subject for any modern science.

The category of rational knowledge determines what exists, and what is a proper subject for study, description, or analysis. Thus, such things as God, soul, spirit, even mind, simply don’t exist and don’t constitute legitimate subjects for rational thought or action.

As far as I can tell, liberalism does not contest this epistemology. It accepts that desires or values exist, though it cannot verify that the objects or goals of those desires or values exist. Thus, it deals only with the verifiable phenomena, which are the bare desires and values themselves. It can make no judgment about the objects or goals of anyone’s desires or values.

Thus, liberal “Justice” is the equal homage to all desires or values, which for liberalism constitute real phenomena. Therefore, liberalism honors a value qua value, rather than the object of a particular value (which would be the normal procedure under a Christian or Aristotelian ethic or system of justice).

Liberalism is thus captive within the epistemology of modernism.

In answer to your question, it seems to me the task is to discover the principles that actually orient and guide liberalism. Why has it developed as it has, and what is likely to happen to it in the future? And I of course agree that liberalism is captive within the epistemology of modernism.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

You’ve said liberalism is the political expression of modernity, and that liberalism seeks to impose modernism on all social institutions.

I speculate liberalism would then present the goals and logic of modernity as “eternal laws of nature,” to which all must bow and accept as “rational people.” It would also propagandize for modernity as the best thing since sliced bread: compassionate, open, free, equal, prosperous, righteous, etc., all the usual blather.

One thing liberalism will never do is critique modernity. Modernity will be, however, the eternal subtext.

In discussing the ethics of liberalism, I was reminded of a discussion I read by Kelly Ross at his website. [http://www.friesian.com/poly-2.htm#log]

He comments on the strange ethical combination we find today: a private ethic of moral aestheticism and a public ethic of moral absolutism (political correctness):

“In this interpretation, “moralistic relativism,” there is really neither morality nor art (aestheticism), so both subcontraries are false; but the pluralism of aesthetic value has been moralized into a political absolutism, making both moralism and moral aestheticism true. This is definitely the paradox of our time, since it is only possible given cultural relativism and the political moralism of “political correctness.” This is the “worst of possible worlds” again, as when relativism, objectivism, and heteronomy are connected: an external (objective, heteronomous) and essentially arbitrary (relativistic) standard is enforced against the individual without any rational grounds for disobedience or objection. It is a hopeless paradox to have a moralism that somehow negates morality, but this is an attitude that is identifiable in those who repudiate morality as such (mainly the strictures of traditional morality) but then condemn in the morally harshest terms those who disagree with them politically. It is less paradoxical to deny the independence of art and subordinate it to politics—that is simply political moralism—but moralistic relativism simultaneously detaches art from any sense of beauty and meaning, even political meaning, and then harshly condemns those who cannot appreciate the value of such art or who object to its irrationality or immorality. In other words, the irrationality becomes the political meaning, and what starts as a moral aestheticism is politicized into a shibboleth of political moralism.”

This is adequate as a description, but it provides no analysis as to why either modernity or liberalism are compelled to this position, a position by the way that is structurally similar to that of Nazi Germany (an ethic of moral aestheticism and irrationality ruthlessly enforced politically as an objective good).

After thinking about it a bit, I agree with your characterization of postmodernism as “hypermodernity.”

Postmodernism takes the gross meaninglessness of the productions of modernity and interprets that meaninglessness as the meaning of modernity.

It then embraces and glorifies this meaninglessness as substantive meaning, the very definition of human existence and the human person (that is, as fragmentation and incoherence).

Thus, postmodernism is still hopelessly caught within the coils of modernity.

A Harvard professor has written a novel about a fictional Civil War between the Red and the Blue states in the United States. Dean Barnett, writing in the Weekly Standard, provides this explanation why Americans are politically indifferent and there will be no civil war:

“There’s a good explanation for this. On the global political menu of ice cream flavors, if we called George W. Bush vanilla and Mahmoud Ahmadenijad New York Super Fudge Chunk (with extra nuts), our elections give Americans a choice between vanilla and French vanilla. Elections matter and ideas have consequences. But the American political system has already worked out the biggest questions—democracy, free market capitalism, individual rights, suffrage, etc. Even in the most polarized of times, the differences between the parties aren’t so stark as to warrant a manning of the barricades. That’s a very good thing.”

[http://www.weeklystandard.com/Content/Public/Articles/000/000/012/205mgq…

The American political system has already worked out the biggest questions? Mr. Barnett has succumbed to the lullaby of liberal propaganda, and the common fallacy of the “authoritative present,” that is, that the present will endure forever as the best of all possible worlds.

This is a fundamental misreading of both modernity and liberalism. Neither modernity nor liberalism is ever satisfied with the status quo, and it is gross error to mistake voter apathy for final accomplishment of the “biggest questions.”

One of the “biggest questions” that has yet to be worked out is the elimination of religion. This question may well be the most fundamental in our history, and modernity has a definite position—religion must go.

Another “big question” not yet worked out is freedom of speech. Will non-discrimination or freedom of speech prevail? That’s a pretty big question.

Mr. Barnett lives within modernity, but has yet to become aware of its radicalism and its logic.

This is the “everything’s normal” theory. You can abolish things that every human society that’s ever existed has been based on, like the distinction between the sexes and particular inherited culture tied to fundamental understandings of man and reality, and it doesn’t matter, everything’s perfectly normal, because we all believe in a market economy with government supervision, we all drive cars and watch TV, we all have cell phones and go online, we all eat burgers and (if we’re feeling adventurous) sashimi. All that’s needed is to get the crazies to shut up, and in general panem, circenses, and leaving everything up to experts and TV commentators has done that quite effectively.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.