Here’s another Roman Forum talk, this one from the 2019 Summer Symposium, held in Gardone, Italy, on July 8-19, 2019. It’s about the political, social, and moral black hole we seem to have fallen into:
Nothing human lasts. Times change, and waves of the future break and recede. But people believe liberalism is different. It represents a new and higher stage in human evolution that cannot be reversed short of horrific civilizational collapse. Why do people believe that? And why does it seem impossible for our contemporaries to think seriously about anything outside the liberal horizon?
1.1 Basic features
First, some definitions. People use the word “liberalism” in a variety of ways. I am using it broadly, to refer to the form of political modernity that has won out on both sides of the Atlantic.
So when I speak of “liberals” and “liberalism” I am speaking less about particular people and parties identifying that way, whose views may be conflicted or idiosyncratic, than about assumptions that are publicly treated as authoritative, and so determine how arguments are carried on in today’s world.
As such, liberalism is a political and moral tendency that aims, at least ideally, at the maximum equal freedom of individuals. Everyone should be able to do, be, and get what he wants, as much and as equally as possible, to the extent that can be organized in a stable and reliable way.
Because of its reformist strategy and establishment connections proponents view liberalism as an evolutionary approach to social reform that is moderate, reasonable, non-dogmatic, and non-utopian. Compared with some modern views, Leninism for example, that is no doubt true.
Even so, the abstract simplicity of equal freedom as a standard gives it a utopian and dogmatic streak that grows stronger as its logic works itself out. That tendency is invisible to liberals. They consider their views entirely reasonable, and believe that it is people who drag their feet on their latest innovation, transgenderism for example, who have gone crazy.
1.2 Socialist tendencies
Liberalism has a close relation to socialism, another form of political modernity. Socialism wanted to treat human life as a matter of economics and rationalize everything administratively. That turned out not to work.
One reason was that man does not live by bread alone. But liberalism has the same problem, although it claims to avoid it by letting everyone pursue his own idiosyncratic bliss, so we will put that aside for now.
A second and more immediate reason socialism did not work is that administrators cannot understand and control everything. A complex society will not function well in a changing world unless people and groups can organize themselves, pursue their own purposes, act on their own knowledge, and gain or lose by their actions.
Experience therefore forced socialists to accept the implicit rationality of markets as a necessary part of modern social organization. That is why one-time socialists have given up on state ownership of the means of production and become left-liberals.
From the other direction, liberals, who began by emphasizing small government as the key to freedom, equality, and prosperity, found they could not rely entirely on the invisible hand of the market. They came to count on state management to promote equality, deal with the side-effects of private action, moderate economic instability, and neutralize the effects of sexual, cultural, racial, religious, and similar differences that seem to them out of place in a mass technological society. So they became first welfare state liberals and then today’s politically-correct ecologically-minded progressives.
The form of liberalism that has triumphed is thus a sort of compromise between socialism and classical liberalism. Rational management is central to it, as in the case of socialism, but pursuit of individual self-interest is accepted as well. And the highest theoretical goal is maximum equal preference satisfaction for individuals rather than anything more social.
The effect is that liberalism wants to give us liberty and equality but not fraternity. It is a comprehensive social system that is designed to make us asocial, supposedly so that each of us will be free to pursue his personally-chosen ends.
There are a couple of key points to notice here. One is that freedom, equality, choice, and so on are limited by the need for a stable, efficient, and manageable system. That means that equality is limited by the need for incentives, which in practice means acceptance of very large inequalities.
Also, people do not really get to pursue any goal they want. Instead, they are guided toward manageable goals that support the liberal system. So they are encouraged to be politically correct careerists who are otherwise mostly interested in consumer goods, leisure time activities, personal indulgences, and so on. And they are increasingly encouraged to keep their mouths shut on sensitive or contentious topics so that they do not cause problems.
The result is that liberalism, the great champion of freedom and equality, turns out to be a system made to order for billionaires, bureaucrats, and professional nags. It sets out to liberate the individual, and ends by turning him into a resource to be managed by business, bureaucracy, and social workers.
1.4 Social organization
That leads to a second point, which is that liberalism sees global markets and bureaucracies as the only truly legitimate principles of social order.
Traditional ordering principles, like religion, sex distinctions, defined family forms, and inherited cultural community, do not fit the system. The family, for example, is now considered a creation of the state—the American “gay marriage” cases12 make that clear—so the duties spouses owe each other, and the authority parents have over their children, are simply what government says they are. So if a fifteen-year-old wants to get an abortion or have “gender confirmation surgery,” she or he can do so without parental consent or even knowledge.3
Since traditional principles of order are at odds with liberalism, which is considered the one free, equal, and rational system of government, they are considered irrational and oppressive. Eliminating the effect of traditional distinctions—what is called fighting discrimination and promoting inclusion—has thus become ever more prominent as a liberal cause, along with mass immigration, defining family, religion, and sex distinctions out of existence, and denying the value and increasingly the very reality of historical cultural community. We are increasingly told, for example, that there is no such thing as French culture4 or Western civilization.5
These issues have come to define the limits of liberal discussion. To be a respectable liberal you must be a thorough technocrat who takes only markets and bureaucracies seriously. If you say “I am a socialist” or “I am a libertarian” people may say you oversimplify the issues by exaggerating what government or markets can do by themselves, but they will be willing to discuss your points. In contrast, if you say “France should remain French” or “marriage is the lifetime union of a man and woman” people will not discuss the matter and you may have trouble finding employment. And if you say “long live Christ the King” you will simply be considered insane.
It is worth noting that there is always a difference between stated goals and actual functions. As they say, the issue is never the issue. Globalization has been throwing masses of people from very different backgrounds into close contact and making them part of a single world economic and administrative system. These tendencies have exacerbated racial, cultural, and religious friction. They have also greatly increased social and economic inequality, as the rich and influential of every country merge into the global rich and influential, and the poor and powerless merge into the global poor and powerless.
So one function of the emphasis on discrimination is to divert attention from growing social and economic inequality. It makes good business sense for corporations to celebrate diversity and wrap themselves in the rainbow flag. It is a cheap way to put themselves on the side of all that is publicly considered good, and it promotes a world in which all human beings are interchangeable resources. It also means that progressives who believe they are bold revolutionaries fighting entrenched power are in fact fighting on its side. Antifa, supposedly a leftist movement, has become shock troops for the ruling class.
1.5 Fascism and communism
I have noted that liberalism has come to incorporate features of socialism, so much so that the two seem basically to have merged.
Fascism, another failed modern political tendency, was quite different. Its definition is contentious and its historical forms quite various, but as with liberalism and socialism the name can usefully be used to refer to a broad tendency of thought and social organization. As such, it accepted most modern tendencies, the emphasis on technology and human autonomy for example, but tried to resist their leveling tendencies by insisting on the importance of some concrete non-economic institutions like the nation and some virtues like loyalty and courage that do not reduce without remainder to equality and utility.
So it tried to be modern without being individualistic, and it tried in a simple way to deal with the problem that man does not live by bread alone. But there were other problems. In the absence of a broader range of concerns, especially a genuinely transcendent principle to make sense of the system and the function and relative importance of the parts, it came to base itself on pure assertion and favored the combative virtues above all others. The triumph of the will that is the goal of political modernity generally became the triumph of aggressive willfulness, and that ended badly.
Liberalism and socialism see fascism as their great opponent because it opposes them from within modernity. That is why today’s liberals believe that if you are not liberal or socialist you must be fascist. They cannot imagine an alternative because they cannot imagine rejecting basic features of modernity. Thus, they believe that human beings make their own world, so that politics is necessarily a matter of the triumph of the will. The only question, then, is whose will it will be—everyone’s will equally or the will of some particular group and its leader.
I should also mention communism, which can be viewed as socialism in a hurry that adopts features of fascism partly for their own sake, and partly for the sake of a more effective struggle. Instead of the nation and its leader struggling to create a new order it has the working class and its leader making the same effort. It thus combines the strengths and weaknesses of fascism with those of socialism.
1.6 Non-modern views
All these views are radically different from the non-modern views traditional Catholics generally accept and a great many others also accept to some degree, even if they usually do not know how to articulate them effectively.
These views usually involve a natural law perspective that bases politics on human nature. By nature, they say, man is a social being who joins together starting with the family in communities oriented toward a common good. That good cannot be chosen arbitrarily, because our goods are mostly natural to us. These natural goods are deeply affected by innate features of human life, like sexual complementarity, and define a natural law valid for all communities.
Natural law principles are of course too abstract to be the sole basis for a community. They need to be reinforced by other connections, such as historical ties, and made concrete and practically usable through a tradition of social and political life. The historic European nations provide examples.
Such traditional views recognize that human life is not self-sufficient. A political community needs the validation that comes from connection to an overall understanding of man, the world, what is natural, and what is ultimately good, true, and real. So an effective view based on natural law must take tradition and religion seriously. Since both are natural features of human life, that creates no difficulties.
The contrast with modern views is obvious. Modern views see social life as self-contained. Liberalism, for example, treats it as a matter of the particular projects of individuals, the invisible hand of the market, and expert management. As noted, non-modern views do not.
Modern views therefore tend to deny innate features of human life, like the distinction between the sexes. Liberalism in particular treats us as featureless Cartesian egos inhabiting bodies and a surrounding world that we are entitled to treat as a physical resource, like modeling clay, to be used for whatever purpose we choose.
Also, modern systems are concerned with very simple ultimate goals, desire and satisfaction on the one hand or power and victory on the other. Non-modern views in contrast are concerned with complex hierarchies of goods ending in something ultimate that cannot be fully understood, because it is something we do not construct but continuously need to discover.
2 Liberal intolerance
On all those points the non-modern non-liberal view is plainly more sensible because it includes more of reality. What disconcerts non-liberals today is not that liberals say odd things, like denying the objective existence of two sexes. It is that they find any view that conflicts with their own increasingly strange and demanding views incomprehensible and indeed hateful and repulsive.
As noted, from the liberal standpoint it is OK to be socialist and even somewhat OK to be libertarian. For most of them that just means you are a bit softer or harder than you should be.
That relative tolerance does not apply to any view that makes tradition, religion, inherited community, or natural law authoritative. Liberals do not recognize the social function of such concerns, and view them as non-rational private tastes to be pursued only as individual hobbies or consumption choices. To treat them as authoritative, they believe, is to impose arbitrary demands by force, and that they view as the essence of fascism.
Why, they ask, would anyone impose their preferences on others? They view all preferences as equally valid, at least if they are tolerant of other people’s preferences, and believe they define what people are. That is notably true of the sexual commitments that, as in the case of marriage, do so much to orient people’s lives. So if you oppose “gay marriage,” they believe that the only possible explanation is that you have an irrational animus against people attracted to those of the same sex and want to deny them human connections that are basic to their self-definition and thus, since man is the being that defines himself, their human essence. In effect, you want to deny their humanity. Opposing “gay marriage” or transgenderism is therefore the same sort of thing as genocide.
There are numerous examples of such attitudes. For the sake of illustration I will give a couple from the highest and (one would expect) most thoughtful levels of Church and state.
The justices of the United States Supreme Court are not stupid, uninformed, unadvised, or incapable of adjusting their positions to complex considerations. They work closely together and know each other well. Several recent justices have been conservative Catholics able to argue intelligently for the traditional definition of marriage. Even so, the Court’s majority in United States v. Windsor, a 2013 estate tax decision, found no difficulty in finding that a statute that did not recognize homosexual unions as marriages
is invalid, for no legitimate purpose overcomes the purpose and effect to disparage and to injure those whom the State, by its marriage laws, sought to protect in personhood and dignity.6
So people who favor the natural, traditional, and until very recently universal definition of marriage are simply people who want to disparage and injure other people for no good reason. That proposition is now part of the fundamental law of the United States.
In today’s Church, of course, things are often not much better. Among many other examples, we have Fr. Antonio Spadaro, the editor of La Civiltà Cattolica and one of the Pope’s close associates, defining joint political opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage among American Catholics and Evangelicals as a bizarre “ecumenism of conflict that unites them in the nostalgic dream of a theocratic type of state.”7
So if you think natural law applies to present-day societies, you are a hater misusing religion to impose your arbitrary will. That is evidently an accepted view at the highest levels of the Church.
2.2 Theory of knowledge
But why? Why are economic and egalitarian concerns the only ones thought rational in public life? Why does fascism, which seems to be the basic modern alternative to liberalism and socialism, have so narrow a range of concerns and such an inability to order itself reasonably? Above all, why not have a transcendent reference point for ordering our lives together? Is that not obviously necessary?
To answer these questions we have to discuss the basic understandings that support political modernity. I have emphasized how narrow the liberal and fascist range of interests is. The narrowness points to a basic philosophical problem, the modern understanding of knowledge.
A big reason the modern world is what it is is that people do not know any better. And a big reason they do not know any better is that they have convinced themselves that better knowledge is impossible.
Medieval thinkers tended to view our knowledge of the world in a commonsensical Aristotelian way. A tree as we experience it is the real tree, so knowledge that orders and sums up our reflective experience of the tree is knowledge of the tree as it actually is. As such, it is a unity of form and substance, it comes into being through the doings of something other than itself, it characteristically acts in a way that brings about certain states of affairs, and so on.
That is still a natural way for people to look at the world. When dealing with living things it is often a practical necessity. An apple tree has a particular nature that makes it the kind of thing it is, it comes about in a well-known way, and it has natural tendencies like growth and reproduction that conditions can favor or not. If you do not keep those things in mind you will not have much success managing an orchard.
But that way of looking at things is now considered a sort of stopgap, so people try to avoid it when possible. If they want to feel intellectually respectable when they talk about trees, they would rather talk about molecular biology than direct human experience.
It also tends to drop out of high-end political discussion. People would rather talk about statistics, market prices, legal regulations, and abstract principles like equality than characteristic structures and ways of behaving. The former seem rigorous and the latter impressionistic, and above all politically suspect.
What, for example, are these characteristic structures that are supposed to be so important? Families? Historically-evolved communities? It would be racist, sexist, and heteronormative to take such things seriously, or to accept that they have essential features, so it is better to ignore them, lie about them, or effectively to abolish them by denying them any stable definition.
What ultimately lies behind such attitudes is an approach toward knowledge originally associated with the rise of modern natural science. Instead of explanations of the general features of the world as we see it around us, which aim to help us understand it as a system we take part in, researchers would seek exact knowledge that enables them to control things. Instead of contemplation and the traditional practical arts they would promote technology. Francis Bacon is the big name here. He wanted us to “put nature to the question”—that is, perform experiments—so we could derive knowledge useful for the “relief of man’s estate.”
The result was that measurement and exact prediction became central to the study of nature. That meant treating the physical world as much as possible as a collection of objects with purely numerical attributes like size, shape, and mass acting in accordance with mathematical laws that make prediction and control possible.
The approach has been enormously successful on its own terms. Modern natural science works. Its great success seems to support its unique validity, so that educated people today who have an explicit view on the matter generally believe that the real world is simply the world described by modern physics. In what counts as serious public discussion today that view has ultimate authority.
Rationally speaking the success of a method of investigating certain questions does not mean that it will succeed everywhere let alone give us the ultimate truth about reality. But success has glamour, people succeed by exaggerating the importance of what they do, and other people are impressed and take them at their word. And metaphysics is difficult and uncertain, so why not go with what looks simplest and stick with well-defined physical objects and their mechanical interactions as our total account of the world?
2.4 Natural law
Educated people have therefore come to accept that the real world is numerical and mechanical. But if so, what happens to our experience, which includes qualitative distinctions and has features like intention that are neither numerical nor mechanical? It is entirely unclear. Modern natural science cannot deal with such matters, so when it is accepted as the fundamental account of the world experience loses any definite connection to the objective physical world and becomes purely subjective. We end with Cartesian dualism: there is mind, which is where experience resides and which no one understands, and there is body, which is what science studies, and the connection between the two is impossible to make sense of.
That means that the world is no longer an integrated system in which nature, whether the human body or the cosmos, can have meaning and moral implications. There is matter, which means nothing apart from whatever meaning we project onto it, and there is subjectivity—sensation, feeling, thought, desire, and will. The latter has no intelligible connection to anything outside itself, so it is thrown back on its own resources to decide what things mean and are.
The result is that meaning is now something we make up. Since our beliefs about reality are beliefs through the meaning they have to us, the same applies ultimately to our entire understanding of reality. The only world we can know is the world we invent.
The United States Supreme Court has incorporated those principles into the constitutional law of the United States. In the famous Mystery Passage, the Court tells us that
At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.8
Since liberty is thought to define the United States as a political society, it follows that our fundamental principle as a society is that everyone establishes his own moral and cosmic reality. So if a mother does not think her unborn child is a child she can dispose of it as she wishes. And if a same-sex couple thinks their partnership is a marriage then that is what it is, and everybody must recognize it as such.
As a statement of the theoretical commitments generally accepted by educated and well-placed people, the Court seems to be correct. That is why traditional natural law no longer makes sense to people when they try to think about things in the way now considered publicly serious. Morality and politics, all respectable authority tells them, can have nothing to do with natural goals and ways of functioning, because such things do not exist.
2.5 Genealogy of morals
Logically these principles would abolish all law as well as the common public reality to which law might apply. But their application is limited by the limitation on liberalism mentioned at the beginning, the need for a stable, efficient, and easily administered society. So their effect is that law becomes based on the needs of the governing classes. All other considerations become matters of private opinion that law cannot recognize without violating the autonomy of the individual.
But that is not a situation that can be publicly admitted. What then is said to be the source of morality and politics?
Morals tell people what to do. Desire and will also tell people what to do, and Occam’s razor tells us not to multiply entities beyond necessity. So why not stick with desire and will? If we tell people what to do they will demand a good justification, preferably one that tells them what is in it for them. So why not say that the
summum bonum on which the system is based is satisfying preferences?
But that presents a problem, since different people have different preferences. How can it be determined which are authoritative?
There seem to be two basic ways of doing so. We might take what looks like a realistic approach and say it is the desire and will of the strongest. If you want to know what the social rule is, you find out who is in a position to force his rules on everyone. So it is a question of power.
To supercharge the approach, we might say that the most convincing way for the strongest to demonstrate he is strongest, and therefore put his determination of social standards beyond question, is to overcome other wills in as undeniable a way as possible, for example by conquest, enslavement, abusive treatment, and so on.
That way lies ideal fascism. But reason and experience show that such an approach, regardless of how brutally realistic it may seem, does not work for long. Man is a social animal, and any man can kill any other man—that was Thomas Hobbes’s great point—so no man is strong enough to dominate a society without general cooperation.
Man is also a rational animal, so general cooperation requires a principle that participants can be persuaded to accept. And liberalism provides one that works reasonably well. All desires and choices are equally such. So if simply as such they are to be the basis of morality and politics, then equally furthering all of them, subject to considerations of efficiency, consistency, reliability, and so on, becomes the uniquely rational political and moral standard. Morality and politics become a matter of social technology in the service of egalitarian hedonism.
And that view gives us liberalism. Everyone likes it because it seems to give him what he wants. The weak are happy because it seems to put the social order at their service and give them equality with the strong. And the strong accept it because it gives them an organized society to work with. Also, they can be confident they will not really have to be satisfied with equality because, after all, they are the strong and can—among other things—control what things are called.
But why the change of approach that led to this very narrow but very effective understanding of knowledge, which has done so much to form the world we see around us today?
There are several ways to tell the story. One common account is that people in the early modern period got tired of disputes that could not be settled. Scholastic philosophy did not seem to be going anywhere, and disputes over religion led to bloody religious wars. So they decided to stick to things that were practical and demonstrable, or at least could be agreed on by as many people as possible. Hence the rise of modern natural science and the utilitarian and technological approach to social questions. Both worked, so people stuck with them.
But such stories can be retold. Early modern intellectual life brought not only the rise of modern natural science but also the flourishing of magic, an alternative way to dominate reality. And the modern period has featured not only technological advances but wars and massacres on an unprecedented scale carried out for reasons that are far less rational than those guiding princes during the Wars of Religion.
Also, the religious disputes were not simply or perhaps even primarily religious. Princes wanted to increase their wealth and power. That often meant war, and the most destructive phases of the Thirty Years War pitted Catholic states against each other. It also meant taking control of the Church and her property, whether by limiting Roman influence or breaking from Rome altogether. So religious reformers and malcontents who would previously have gotten nowhere, or accepted that they had to work more or less within the established system of religion, found a ready audience among princes for extreme measures.
On this skeptical view it seems that modern directions in philosophy, religion, and politics have had less to do with a sense that contemplative philosophy and Christendom had proven themselves pointless or self-defeating than with the desire for power. If so, then modern tendencies have to do, in the words of Thomas Hobbes, with “a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death.” They are a response not to too much contemplation and religion but to its absence.
3 Current situation
It takes a long time for a new direction of thought to reveal its full meaning. The Protestant reformers, their patrons, and the early philosophers of science did not know they were knocking the foundation out from under Christian Europe. People want to have things both ways, and they thought that if they made a few changes they would end up with a package that served their own purposes and also had a more secure and rational place for religion.
3.1 Liberalism entrenched
We know better now. But what do we do about it? And why is a view that has such evident problems, that—for example—lacks any ability to make sense of the mind, seem so obviously inevitable and correct to educated people? And why, even without a formal system of doctrinal authority, is it developing in lockstep and at an ever-faster pace?
If the problem is that people are thinking about things the wrong way, it seems that the answer should be education. Tell people to read Aristotle, Aquinas, and so on, and encourage scholars to develop their thought as needed to deal with new issues. The Church once did that, but she evidently did not think she was getting very far because she has mostly given up on the project.
Nor has the Church been alone. A great many other people have proposed alternatives to modern ways of thinking. They have not gotten anywhere either. Individuals may find alternatives to liberalism and naturalism of interest but they have little public relevance. Liberal modernity is not philosophically invincible, but it seems practically indestructible.
3.2 Intellectual defenses
Liberal modernity’s very practical intellectual defenses are one reason nothing better has been able to establish itself. It is a sort of black hole that is hard to escape once you have fallen into it. Science and technology tell you what rationality is, liberalism tells you what morality is, and both give you an endless series of tasks that keep you busy and prevent reflection.
The system seems to work, and it is based on minimal assumptions, so Occam’s razor seems to tell you to stick with it. To treat anything outside it, for example natural human goods other than preference satisfaction, as more than private opinion or feeling would be to impose an arbitrary assumption on other people. Why should they put up with it, when everyone tells them they should not have to?
As we have seen, people believe that way lies fascism. And indeed we can look at fascism as a rebellion against modernity through insistence on arbitrary assertions like the special right of particular people to rule. The rebellion was grossly incomplete, of course, but it is hard to rebel completely when in a black hole.
Romanticism is another example of a flawed rebellion against modernity. Romantics rebelled by seeking truth in strong feeling and poetic inspiration. That may be legitimate, but something more is needed to stabilize and articulate whatever truths are uncovered and tell us how they relate to other truths so they can become usable.
So rebellions against modernity have failed because they relied too much on feeling and did not go deep enough intellectually. By doing so they showed their own essential modernity. A successful rebellion would require dealing with fundamentals by extending the concept of objective truth to something beyond the objects of modern physics, and bringing mind and body within a single system of understanding that does justice to both.
John Henry Newman showed how to do that starting from an essentially modern outlook in his Grammar of Assent. Much earlier Pascal had sketched a somewhat similar approach in his Pensées. Both were based on pattern recognition and thus a rediscovery of formal and final cause. But their work has not caught on either.
3.3 Success of modernity
As mentioned, one reason it is hard to dispute modernity is that it has been so very successful on its own terms. The modern state, modern warfare, modern bureaucratic administration, modern science and technology, modern industry, modern business organization, and modern propaganda have all been enormously effective. It is hard to argue with tanks, bombers, the Internet, modern medicine, and trillions of dollars.
It is also hard to argue with physical comfort and endless possibilities of distraction, which modernity also supplies.
3.4 Success of liberalism
And within modernity liberalism has won decisively. So it too has the argument from success.
Fascism destroyed itself through irrationalism and violence. Many people like the idea of socialism but it does not work. It put economics first and was economically unsuccessful. The same goes for communism.
Conservatism, which people think is another possibility, cannot conserve anything. It has not discovered a way to be anything but yesterday’s liberalism.
Just recently a small number of somewhat prominent American conservatives, many of them associated with the magazine First Things, proposed that since equal freedom is obviously defective as an ultimate social standard we need to talk about the common good instead. But they have run into stiff opposition from their fellow conservatives, their concern for particular community reminds many other Christian thinkers of the Nazis,9 and they have no real idea where to go with the proposal while remaining within the mainstream of political discussion.
Minor tendencies like communitarianism, eco-religion, and the more radical forms of feminism, the ones that call Newton’s Principia Mathematica Newton’s rape manual, are even less serious. They are incapable of governing or sustaining institutions.
Much the same can be said about deconstructionist views that explicitly deny objective knowledge and reality. The dynamic of modern thought may lead in their direction but it is hard for people who run things to follow their lead very far. The need for a stable, efficient, and manageable society prevents them.
And non-modern political views have become publicly incomprehensible, their memory blackened. In any event, liberalism has severely disrupted the traditional sources of authority and order to which they need to appeal. The result is that if you are not liberal or socialist, a conservative who is moderate to the point of uselessness, or a leftist of a type no one takes seriously, you must be a fascist or insane. People see no other possibilities.
3.5 Institutional strength
The biggest reason liberal modernity seems invincible though is that it is basic to the way people do things today. It has been able to institutionalize itself while suppressing alternartive institutions, and it is very hard to fight pervasive social reality.
We live in a hyper-connected age in which electronics makes every person, place and thing immediately present to every other. It is also a hierarchical and hyper-organized age in which people’s amusements and even what they eat for breakfast are provided by huge bureaucratic organizations. In such a situation, where is the hiding place for anything at odds with dominant institutions and understandings?
Technology, contract, and government are now seen as the uniquely rational ways to promote the fulfillment of preferences and therefore as the only legitimate sources of authority.
Moderns identify technology, including the enterprise of modern natural science, with rationality, and see themselves as uniquely rational, so the authority of technology is fundamental. Liberals see contract as almost equally fundamental. They understand it as the source of political authority through a fictional but theoretically necessary contract that joins particular wills into the social will that animates government. And contract also gives us the market, the most effective mechanism for producing wealth and multiplying consumer choice.
Markets and contract cannot do everything, so liberals also need government to establish overall order, regulate markets, enforce contracts, promote equality, manage conflicts among changing social forces, and look after goods like national defense.
But what kind of government and overall public order do all these things lead to? Liberals appeal to democracy rhetorically, but they have always had an uneasy relation to it. Voting seems to tie political measures to the will of the people, so it gains some support from the modern and liberal view that will is the only possible source of moral obligation, but it also tells us that the majority makes decisions and the minority—who may be severely disadvantaged by them—must accept the results. That is not equal.
Also, voting is not reliably liberal. The voters themselves may be illiberal, short-sighted, and self-centered, and they often do not understand the facts or the likely consequences of their choices. And they can be manipulated, especially in an electronic age that dissolves reality into a whirl of images and soundbites that can be reassembled to tell any story whatever. So their choices cannot be relied on to maximize equal freedom or even their own benefit.
The result is a tendency among liberals to move away from voting and consumer choice and toward decisionmaking by supposedly expert bureaucrats who can appeal to the authority of scientific expertise and their ability to manage changing social forces. Consumer choice becomes thoroughly regulated, and voting becomes an ultimate check rather than a normal way of making serious decisions. When votes go the wrong way, as in the case of votes against the EU, established institutions cooperate to minimize or reverse the consequences and to re-educate voters.
That tendency conforms to the technocratic vision of social engineering. It also gives businesses and other institutions an opportunity to lobby, exert influence behind the scenes, and ensure that government actions are not too much at odds with their needs and desires. That makes the way the society is run more coherent overall and so benefits the system.
3.6 Position of individuals
So liberalism leads ultimately to a technocratic and oligarchical society based on universal administrative and market structures. In doing so, it suppresses not only popular government but natural and traditional arrangements like family, religion, local community, and particular evolved culture, which work on entirely different principles.
In the absence of functional and reliable alternatives, practical life in such a society comes to depend wholly on markets and state, quasi-state, and corporate bureaucracies. Independence of the kind once possessed by the Church, local communities, independent producers, and families in their internal life disappears. The EU talks about subsidiarity but it is lip service. Traditionalists may think of the family as the fundamental social institution, but up-to-date people no longer see things that way. They think of family life as a purely personal pursuit with no set nature or function.
The result is that personal identity—what people think they really are and their reasons for valuing themselves—comes to depend more and more on their relation to large liberal institutions. People want to be something, so everyone with talent and energy becomes a careerist devoted to getting along as a bureaucrat or participant in the market.
That tendency penetrates everywhere. The very wealthy are no longer content to form a leisure class, but are convinced they need jobs for their lives to mean anything. And princes of the Church and successors of the apostles are unwilling, even when old age and retirement puts them beyond serious personal consequences, to speak out against grossly abusive conduct when doing so would damage their institutional standing. How can they turn against a lifetime of pursuing their careers in an environment that values career and what is convenient more than anything?
3.7 Minds of men
Career and the smooth functioning of the system therefore become the point of education. For students the educational system promises careers, and for bureaucrats and billionaires it provides compliant subjects, trained operatives, and technical expertise. To those ends we now have not only mass university education but mass graduate study. The absorption of women into the paid workforce has added daycare and early childhood education to the mix.
The result is that minds and plans of life are fully formed by liberal institutions. Children are still influenced by their parents and others outside the educational, childcare, and pop culture industries, but those ties are weaker than in the past. And the people exerting influence have also been formed by liberalism. The effect of all-inclusive institutions and understandings thus becomes cumulative and overwhelming.
Under such circumstances questioning liberalism becomes incomprehensible. It would be an attack on basic social reality and on everything our contemporaries have been taught to believe and hold sacred. It would also be an attack on the life history, personal identity, social affiliations, and dearest hopes of everyone who matters.
Further, it would call for relying on institutions like family, Church, and local community and culture that are less and less functional and have no recognized grounds for claiming authority and so hardly count as institutions.
The result of all this is a governing outlook that insistently leaves out realities as basic as human nature and perfects itself by becoming increasingly detached from reality. It will not last forever, but while it does it is difficult to fight and certain to cause a great deal of damage.
The immediate outlook, humanly speaking, is bad. People remain people, human nature remains human nature, and there are signs of new life, but pyramiding disasters are far more obvious. The job of those who see what is going on is to survive the current situation, defend and carry forward as much of the Faith, civilized life, and sanity as we can, propagate those things as opportunity offers, and eventually prevail as liberalism and modernity destroy themselves.
The Church, in spite of her corruptions, has resources that make all those things possible. She gives us a point outside the world from which the world can be understood and moved. And she gives us a community worthy of supreme loyalty that by its nature fosters tradition, recognizes natural law, embodies transcendent standards acceptable to reason, and possesses a structure of authority capable of resolving make-or-break issues.
These things can be obscured, but they cannot be lost. For 2000 years they have repeatedly brought the Church back from what seemed certain death. And even from a human standpoint, by establishing a pattern that works durably, they are perpetually leading her to revert to type.
So in spite of our weakness and the depth of our problems, we have everything we need to prevail. When we recognize that God is at the center of all things, the fictitious anti-world of liberal modernity dissolves. That recognition is a task for a lifetime, but what others have done, we can do again, with divine help. And that is what we are here for.
1Supreme Court. US v. Windsor. June 2013, 570 US 12 (2013).
2Supreme Court. Obergefell v. Hodges. 2015, 576 US (2015).
3Steve Smith. Gender Reassignment Surgery Is Now Available To Oregon Minors Without Parental Consent. en. July 2015. url:
https://www.medicaldaily.com/gender-reassignment-surgery-now-available-oregon-minors-without-parental-consent-342670 (visited on 08/07/2019).
4Yves Jégo. “Emmanuel Macron et le reniement de la culture française”. ISO639-2 fre. In: FIGARO (Feb. 2017). url:
http://www.lefigaro.fr/vox/politique/2017/02/06/31001-20170206ARTFIG00209-emmanuel-macron-et-le-reniement-de-la-culture-francaise.php (visited on 08/08/2019).
5Kwame Anthony Appiah. “There is no such thing as western civilisation | Kwame Anthony Appiah”. en-GB. In: The Guardian (Nov. 2016). issn: 0261-3077. url:
https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/nov/09/western-civilisation-appiah-reith-lecture (visited on 08/08/2019).
6Supreme Court, US v. Windsor, page 2696.
7Antonio Spadaro and Marcelo Figueroa. “Evangelical Fundamentalism and Catholic Integralism in the USA: A surprising ecumenism”. In: La Civiltà Cattolica (July 2017). url:
https://www.laciviltacattolica.com/evangelical-fundamentalism-and-catholic-integralism-in-the-usa-a-surprising-ecumenism/ (visited on 08/07/2019).
8Supreme Court. Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pa. v. Casey. 1992, 505 US 833 (1992), page 851.
9Various signatories. “Open Letter Against the New Nationalism”. In:
Commonweal Magazine (Aug. 2019). url:
https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/open-letter-against-new-nationalism (visited on 09/10/2019).