You are here

Liberalism, Tradition and the Church IV

Historical and Practical Considerations

I have argued that rationalism does not work, that life in accordance with reason must rely on particular tradition and revelation, and that Catholicism has a good claim to be the most reasonable of revelations. Many people, of course, deny all those things.

The most forceful objection to my claims is the argument from success: if radical problems are implicit in liberalism, why has it been as successful as it has for so long? Is it realistic to think liberal modernity will go away and be replaced by something more like what preceded it? Advanced liberalism, after all, is the culmination of modernity, the centuries-old attempt to replace custom and religion by man the measure and this-worldly reason as the basis for life and thought. That effort has been strikingly successful in many ways. And liberalism in particular has overthrown every tradition that has stood against it and outlasted every competing wave of the future. No competitor has general appeal as a way of organizing social life. Its triumph has led to belief in the end of history, which is now understood as the story of struggle against the oppression that preceded the coming of advanced liberalism, the form of human association whose universal unconditional validity — symbolized, for example, by international human rights conventions — makes memory and culture irrelevant.

The strengths of advanced liberalism seem overwhelming. Understandings of man and the world, the good, true, just and reasonable, are the basic principles of social cooperation. They make common action possible by determining how situations should be understood, what should be questioned or accepted, and how to go about resolving disputes. They are especially important in liberalism, which strives toward explicit rational coherence and demands that power justify itself. Liberalism is able to exist through coordinated action, without central direction, based on the scheme of concepts and principles we have discussed. When basic understandings are as well established as those of liberalism, and those at odds with them seem so thoroughly discredited, who can think of opposing them?

Still, neither established philosophical understandings nor practical success last forever. Liberal theory is not self-sustaining and is not the sole explanation for its own victory. Liberalism would not have arisen and taken hold as it has unless it grew out of earlier states of affairs or triumphed without being closely related to things that reliably confer power in the modern world. But if it depends on particular conditions and practicalities, it will disappear when those things change.

There are, of course, particular interests that benefit from the triumph of advanced liberalism. Technocrats benefit from technocracy, bureaucrats from bureaucracy, financial interests from rule by money. Those interests would not be nearly so successful in pursuing their goals, however, if general ways of thinking did not support them so strongly. There are always interests that benefit from every possible turn of events, so cui bono is not normally a sufficient explanation for major trends. More general considerations are likely to be more important.

The view that man is the measure goes back to the Sophists, and came to dominate philosophical thought in the 17th century, a period marked by Descartes’ decision to accept as true only what was clear and distinct to him, Bacon’s reconstruction of science on experimental principles for “the relief of man’s estate,” and Hobbes’s and Locke’s view of society as a contract among individuals for their material benefit and security. Such views are a natural development of a characteristic Western outlook that emphasizes observation, logic, and critical thought. In social affairs that outlook favors individual rights and initiatives, contractual ordering, government by consent, and law. It has been traced variously to Greek philosophy, Roman law, classical civic life, Germanic love of freedom, and the Christian emphasis on the individual soul and the world as a rational creation. Whatever the particulars, it is thus evident that the tendencies leading to our current condition are very long-standing Western distinctives. [fn: See Victor Hanson’s Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise to Western Power (Anchor 2002) on Western distinctives in general, and the Author’s Introduction to Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, vol. i (various editions) on the long-term tendency toward freedom and equality.] They have been immensely strengthened by the success of the fruits of modernity: modern natural science, industrialism, and rational bureaucratic social organization.

Nonetheless, the tendencies that point most obviously toward liberalism are not the whole explanation of the success of liberalism. Western liberal institutions needed additional things to function. They needed trust based on common beliefs, habits and attachments; loyalties that attach the people to the public order and elites to the public good; domestic and social relationships that promote moderation, self-control and mutual respect; and legitimate particularity that allows a variety of relatively independent perspectives to supplement and correct each other. England could be liberal because Englishmen just did not do certain things, and because on the whole they were loyal, even in opposition and in spite of all their differences. Such qualities are not the automatic outcome of freedom, self-interest, and universalizable reasoning. For them to exist European society had to be based on loyalty and faith as well as law and reason. Abstract standards and rational functions had to be balanced by inherited ties of locality, class, ethnicity, religion and nationality.

Liberal societies have an increasingly tenuous sense of their connection to the historical and cultural particularities upon which they depend. As they forget the value of such things the particularities come to seem irrational. They seem to stand in the way of physical and social power, and the liberation of the individual from demands not justified by a rational system of general applicability. Further, the rise of the West to world dominance has required (on universalizing Western principles) justification on principles that have no special connection to the West. All Western ways have come to aspire to the condition of Western science and technology, which are viewed as rightfully universal.

The difficulty is that if liberal tendencies are given free rein, consciousness is raised, the illiberal aspects of the social order become plain, and liberals, in order to be liberal, must attempt to eradicate them. Liberalism has a dynamism that grows out of its pursuit of the dream of a totally rational, self-contained and equal system of human life. Attempts to get rid of particular inequalities bring to the fore other inequalities that force liberalism continually to radicalize itself. Elimination of hereditary nobility and the like was purchased by acceptance of inequalities like formal qualifications and money that at first seemed more acceptable because they seemed more neutral and impersonal. Then they too came to seem like impositions, and ever wider schemes of reform and control were needed to mitigate their effects in more and more complex and comprehensive ways.

The ultimate outcome has been a pervasive system of control — necessarily hierarchical and irresponsible — that passes itself off as a neutral system of freedom and equality. Such an outcome is catastrophic for liberal society. It destroys local autonomy, diversity, and the pre-rational ethnic and religious ties that make a common civilization possible. Without local autonomy and diversity there are no distinctive views backed by settled interests to motivate discussion and give it form and substance, and without pre-rational ties there is no limit to how far disputes can go once they get started. The disappearance of such features of the inherited Western order means the disappearance of a public order based on discussion and cooperation, and with it the ideals of rationality and objective truth that have made liberalism itself possible. In the end liberal government is driven to maintain itself by dogmatism and unprincipled use of force, and so to stop being liberal. The fundamental irrationality of liberal modernity, foreshadowed by Emerson and obfuscated by Dewey, is plain today in PC and postmodernism.

Liberalism thus ends in a crisis that is both practical and theoretical. Some deny that the crisis has any very important implications, on the grounds that liberalism and modernity have already dissolved and been replaced by postmodernity. Others deny that advanced contemporary liberalism reflects an attempt to purify Western rationality, pointing out aspects of it, like feminism and ecological consciousness, that often claim to be non-logocentric and anti-Western. Postmodernity, however, is only a radicalization of Western modernity and adds nothing substantive to what preceded it. Its practical consequence is a more demanding rationalism. To be anti-Western is to demand that the West be purified from all particularity, and thus to further the radical side of the Western heritage. “Celebrating diversity” is making ethnic and sexual categories irrelevant to social and economic function, and so is identical to imposition of rationalized uniformity. And doing away with “master narratives” is doing away with myths, only more so.

The irrationalist Left does serve a psychological need. People need a stand-in for non-rationalized aspects of the Western tradition that have been destroyed. If the stand-in lacks stable concrete content and thus authority it is harmless to technocracy and helps stabilize liberalism. The more soft-headed forms of contemporary left-liberalism serve that function. Thus, feminism is concerned with the body and human connectedness, and ecology with man’s setting in the universe, but neither in a way that can give rise to any non-technocratic social institution. Instead, they undermine more substantive alternatives by obfuscating the issues and supplying palliatives.

The bottom line is that the ostensibly anti-rationalistic aspects of contemporary liberalism are attempts further to radicalize equality and the concept of everything its own measure. They extend “every man his own measure” to “every man, woman, homosexual, witch-doctor and tree his, her or its own measure.” As such, they cannot help but support universal rule by money and rationalizing bureaucracies, since no other arrangements can plausibly present themselves as neutral methods of arbitrating hopelessly inconsistent preferences and understandings. They strengthen the dominance of the liberal order, while undermining its justification and ability to function, by making rational discussion and criticism impossible.

The pragmatic success of liberalism is such that the only thing that can seriously threaten it in the foreseeable future is dissolution from within. The threat, however, is far from speculative. The owl of Minerva notoriously flies at dusk. The possibility of rigorously formulating advanced liberalism, first realized by John Rawls in A Theory of Justice (Harvard, 1971), and the difficulty of imagining anything beyond it, suggest both its overwhelming immediate strength and the likelihood that the history within which it has developed has reached conclusion. Signs liberal modernity has reached the end of its possibilities include the collapsing birthrate in the West, the end of youthful hope and idealism, the growing ignorance and hatred of what the West has been, and the absorption of art, literature and philosophy into ideology, careerism, publicity, sensation and perversion.

Can the degeneration and eventual collapse of liberalism be avoided by reforms within liberalism itself? Open-ended aspirations like those of liberalism have normally been chastened in the West by recognition of limits. We are sinful mortals and must avoid pride and overreaching. Liberalism lacks a true principle of moderation, but for a long time its tendency to emphasize specific reforms substituted for one. That tendency slowed the development of the implications of liberal principles and so gave liberal society relative stability. However, it could not prevent eventual radicalization, because the limits it recognized were not principled but pragmatic and therefore transitory.

Conservatism and constitutionalism attempted to limit the development of liberal absolutism by legal contrivances and retention of a residue of tradition. Neither has held up. Liberalism constantly calls particular traditions into question, and if a tradition cannot defend itself rationally by liberal standards — which if it is needed it cannot — it eventually disappears. The consequence is that conservatism always retreats and in the end loses. As to written constitutions, they have to be interpreted in a way that seems sensible to those who govern through them, so they cannot stand against general trends in political life and thought. In any event, interpretive agencies eventually adopt whatever views are dominant, so a written constitution ends by making the implications of general trends more absolute.

The failure of constitutionalism and traditional conservatism have led to somewhat more principled proposals for moderating liberalism and establishing a generally liberal public order without liberalism’s tendency eventually to go to extremes. None of the proposals seem promising. They look for stabilization and renewal through revisions that still accept fundamental liberal principle. However, such changes are not enough in the case of an outlook that follows such a clear logic as liberalism.

Classicizing versions of liberalism, like libertarianism, try to base public order on contract. Contract makes no sense, however, except as part of a larger order of things that is fundamentally non-contractual. Its final standard is individual will, so it cannot of itself provide a standard for the will. Why not cheat unless there is a principle superior to the will that forbids cheating? Nor is it clear why a legal order based on the supremacy of contract and thus on will as the standard of value should not develop into one based on a more comprehensive approach to maximizing the satisfaction of preferences. In other words, why should a classicizing version of liberalism not lead once again to the advanced PC welfare state?

A neoconservative strategy has been to try to ground social order on habits of enterprise, restraint and reasoned loyalty that successful families and groups develop and pass on to their children. The approach supplements libertarianism by emphasizing ways in which the market supports morality and restraint. The supplement is not enough. To establish themselves socially such habits have to be be attached to pre-rational concepts of identity — concepts like “people like us” and “those other people” — that are decisively illiberal and so unacceptable to neoconservatives, who after all are philosophical moderns and so reject particularistic essentialism. But if such distinctions go, how can the ethical standards of a family or group define themselves and endure?

A final suggestion has been to attach concepts like universal equality to concrete conceptions of identity by identifying them with America and its institutions. Liberal universalism would thus become a tangible object of loyalty in particular institutions that embody it. It seems unlikely such an arrangement, as it matures and perfects itself, would be enough to maintain political attachment. How rewarding can it be to say “civis Americanus sum” when everyone who wants is equally a American citizen and “America” is a universal order continually redefined by experts? Previous universal empires, like Rome and China, relied essentially on a divine emperor, on genuine local particularities like family, class and local patriotism, and on the threat of outer barbarians. Why should not future universal empires also depend on truly particular identities, loyalties and antipathies? There is also, of course, the difficulty that not everyone may want to be a citizen of a universal American empire, while more truly international institutions such as the UN or even the EU seem incapable of generating much loyalty and so seem eternally destined to disable themselves through inefficiency and corruption.

Adam Smith said that there is a great deal of ruin in a nation. The same principle has notably applied to liberalism, which has more than once bounced back from apparent decadence. Today it seems more prosperous, dominant and stable than ever. Still, nothing lasts forever, and flexible systems eventually petrify. The Soviet experience demonstrates that as society becomes more and more bureaucratized the ability to muddle through based on common sense, luck and the possibility of a turn for the better disappears. Liberal modernity is too rationalized to change course. Its conceptions of justice and rationality strive for ever greater clarity, consistency, and independence of cultural preconceptions. Such things are very difficult to put in reverse. Once an inequality has come to seem illegitimate and the attempt to abolish it has begun, a proposal to accept it once again seems a limitless embrace of oppression as such and is thus utterly intolerable.

There seems no way within liberalism to resolve the crisis outlined in the first part of this essay. That crisis means serious problems for America. America was based on a compromise between liberalism and tradition.[fn: See my “Traditionalism and the American Order”, published as “Traditionalismen och den amerikanska ordningen”, Contextus (no. 4, 1998).] Before the final collapse of that compromise in the ’60s of the last century, American government neither defined ultimate goods nor ignored them categorically. Government functions were limited, especially at the national level, but they took ultimate goods into account. America in fact had an unspoken established religion, a sort of moralistic but otherwise minimalist Protestantism that knit together the public order and popular understandings of ultimate things. As the Supreme Court observed as late as 1952, “We are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being.”[fn:Zorach v. Clauson, 343 US 306 (1952).

With the final breakdown of the American compromise, the link was broken between government and American tradition as a whole, and thus between government and the people. Politics became definitively an affair of interest groups and ideologized elites, and their relationship to popular interests and concerns became decisively manipulative rather than organic. In the absence of an adequate understanding of human life and the common good the American public order entered a state of permanent crisis that features a combination of anarchy and soft totalitarianism.

The balance of tradition, faith and reason has been lost in the Church as well. The decline of tradition and faith as principles that add something substantive to reason and experience can be seen in the emphasis on expertise, the growth of bureaucracy, the emphasis on professionalized training, the primacy of ecumenism, the reinterpretation of religion as liberal social concern, scholarship that turns scripture and doctrine into an all-purpose inkblot, the disdain for traditional popular devotions, and the top-down liturgical and other “renewal” movements that leave nothing untouched in their attempt to eradicate memory.

Exhaustion and collapse do not mean that radical change and rebirth are near. Indeed, the liberal order is imposing the practical implications of its basic principles more comprehensively and radically than ever, maintaining itself not by its plausibility but by the abolition of any social base for new growth so that no alternative seems possible. Prosperity, the world market, and electronic communications loosen personal and cultural ties. The welfare state deprives the informal personal connections on which non-state structures are based of their functions, and imposes high levels of taxation and regulation that weaken them further. Sexual freedom and blurring of sexual distinctions dissolve the family. Multiculturalism abolishes the functions of ethnicity and culture and turns them into pure principles of opposition that must be mediated by the state to avoid communal violence. And the centralization and professionalization of intellectual and cultural life makes it impossible to raise questions about fundamentals and have them taken seriously.

It seems that until something unpredictable happens we are stuck within liberal modernity, except to the extent individuals and small groups can escape on their own. How long our present situation will last is unclear. Liberal democracy cannot last forever, because it increasingly defeats its own goals of public rationality and private satisfaction, to the extent of preventing its own social and even physical reproduction. One possible outcome is a Soviet-style implosion. If everything becomes dependent on the administrative state, when that becomes terminally corrupt and nonfunctional everything goes. Another is the growth of inward-turning religious communities, leading either to a new Constantinism or to a neo-Levantine form of society composed of loose assemblages of ethno-religious groups. The growth of religious communities seems likely since people have to get their lives organized somehow, and secular Western society does not reproduce itself. Whether such communities will lead to a rebirth of public life or to its final collapse cannot, however, be predicted.

A crisis eventually resolves itself one way or another. Faith is necessary to knowledge, tradition is the natural way for human life to order itself, and what is fundamental is resilient. It follows that in important ways the future will resemble the past more than the present. One cannot cure a sick tradition by enacting and enforcing health, since fundamental things come and go in accordance with their own nature. Nonetheless, political and public action in the cause of rational traditionalism has a role to play. As an immediate and practical matter, rational traditionalists need to do what they can to maintain the possibility of a life according to faith, tradition and reason for those who are attached to it. In particular, they need ferociously to defend family and institutional autonomy against PC imperialism. More generally, they should do what they can to maintain a presence in politics, no matter how small numerically, so that their principles remain a public possibility that can exert whatever influence situations permit. At a minimum, the presence of those principles will extend the range of what is politically possible and so relativize modernist absolutism and help limit its overreaching.