Weblog of the Sydney Traditionalist Forum
The strange and increasingly nonfunctional condition of Western political and social life cannot easily be changed, because its causes are quite basic.
To endure any length of time a society needs a coherent system of laws and standards. The system must be capable of attracting loyalty and acceptance of its authority, so it cannot be just a matter of positive law or the will of the powerful. Instead, it must be based on shared understandings of how things are. So a stable and functional society must be based on a common understanding of man, the world, and the goals of life that is thought to be founded on the nature of things and is supported by various conventions, observances, loyalties, and sanctions.
In other words, a functional society must be based on a common culture and what is in effect a religion—an understanding and response to ultimate reality that places man in a larger moral scheme of things. Such an orientation is fundamental, because it provides ultimate standards for resolving basic disputes, principles of connection that tell people what they owe each other, and ways of distinguishing social authority from the will of the powerful.
Such points were obvious to everyone until recently. European monarchies did not doubt them, and it was 1905 before republican France took crucifixes out of schools and law courts, replacing them with the Tricolor. East Asia is often considered rather secular, but China was ruled by the Son of Heaven until 1911 and Japan by a living god until 1945. And in America the Supreme Court asserted as recently as 1952 that “we are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being.”¹ (Ten years later, the same court banned prayers and Bible reading from the public schools, and Americans have since substituted sensitivity training, Martin Luther King Day, and the use of metal detectors for more traditional observances.)
Today Western society also has a religion—people are willing to take Crucifixes and Bibles out of courtrooms and schools only when something is ready or almost ready to put there instead—but it is one that dares not speak its name in mainstream discussion.
That reluctance has good cause. The religion of the contemporary West is ultimately based on a cheapened version of Descartes that fudges but relies on his dualism—it would prefer strict materialism but cannot make it work—and excludes the God that gave him his guarantee that thought and sensation line up with physical reality. So it is a philosophically shaky view that people avoid discussing explicitly and dress up in a variety of ways so they can avoid thinking about what they are actually committed to.
In the view now authoritative in public life, the real world is at bottom the one described by modern physics, a purely spatial and quantitative realm that in principle is fully knowable through mathematics and the methods of the modern natural sciences. A society of course also needs a view of morality. In line with the primacy of the physical sciences, people today try to derive it in as concrete and publicly demonstrable a way as possible, consistent with Occam’s Razor understood as a principle that determines what is allowed to exist rather than one that asks what sorts of things are actually needed to explain our experience of the world.
The line of thought is rather unimpressive, and indeed constitutes an abandonment of reason in the name of reason. Subjective experience—thought, sensation, and desire—is somehow layered onto the physical world, but its ultimate status is left unclear. It is believed that it must somehow reduce to the world of modern physics, since anything else would be too weird and too much opposed to the modern dream of exact quantitative understanding and control. How the reduction would work is unimaginable, but the explanation needed to make the system minimally rational is put aside as a debt owed by the future that can be relied on absolutely even though it is recognized that it may never in fact be paid.
With that in mind, people try to tie moral issues as much as possible to the concrete and physical by concentrating on observable preferences. All of us have preferences, and feel that they have some degree of urgency and therefore some claim to satisfaction. All preferences are equally preferences, and we cannot easily compare one person’s feeling of urgency with another’s, so in the absence of tangible grounds for distinction it is assumed that all preferences have an equal claim to satisfaction.
The principle that it is good to satisfy preferences, together with our ability to manipulate the physical world and other people for that purpose, gives rise to our current version of morality and politics. The point of those spheres of life is taken to be construction of a system that satisfies preferences, as much and as equally as possible, subject to the stability, efficiency, and dominance of the system itself. That is the outlook that has convinced our educated contemporaries, at least if we ignore random individual doubts, variations, and add-ons that on the whole cancel each other out, and dominates our public life to the point that it has developed into what amounts to an intolerant and persecuting religion.
The development of that religion involves further logical oddities. Its basic proposition is that each of us establishes the good by his will, since individual preferences are what make things good or bad. The result is that each of us becomes a sort of divinity that creates ultimate moral reality ex nihilo. The United States Supreme Court has put it this way: “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.”² By making that principle the touchstone for constitutional validity, as it did in the leading case Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the Court has made—or attempted to make, since the effort makes no sense—individual definitions of ultimate reality supremely authoritative in the public order.
On such a view, which is increasingly dominant throughout the West, the social and political problem becomes the problem of complying as much and equally as possible with the will of each of the petty gods that compose the people. A form of political and social life intended to be fully secular thus becomes theocratic and opposition to it blasphemous. Hence political correctness, with its absolute ideals of equality, inclusion, tolerance, and celebrating diversity; hence dogmas such as the radical factual equality of sexes and races, which has recently forced on us transgenderism and women in elite military units; hence all the candlelit vigils, rainbow flags, Martin Luther King days, and other such observances; and hence the abusive treatment accorded skeptics, heretics, and unbelievers who refuse fully to sign on to the project. All those things are expressions of an established religion that is now compulsory, a religion that begins with science and ends by trumping it, since the highest standard among most people, awe before that which is both divine and politically powerful, will always take precedence over lesser standards such as respect for physical evidence.
Like other religions, the religion and system of thought that dominates the contemporary West has strengths and weaknesses. Its great strength is that its principles—whatever the logical gaps—are clear, simple, and forcible in practice, lend themselves to effective propaganda and systems of control, and tell us what to do and how to do it with fewer ambiguities than most other systems of thought. Its extraordinary success transforming Western life is proof enough of that point.
Those principles also align with the active, enterprising, imperialistic, rather ruthless, and ultimately mindless (because anticontemplative) spirit guiding the modern state, modern economic life, and modern technology. They legitimize ruling institutions like global markets and supposedly neutral and expert transnational bureaucracies. Indeed, they make them the only institutions with ultimate legitimate authority. They tell us those institutions are uniquely rational, facilitate their functioning by giving those who dominate them a common understanding of what goals and measures make sense, and help silence the objections of ordinary people by telling them dissent is ignorant, irrational, and presumptively malicious. After all, if you do not accept as the supreme standard equal preference satisfaction achieved through comprehensive technological organization, you must want to suppress some people, enjoy causing them problems as an end in itself, or hate rationality. Why should your views be tolerated?
The outlook now dominant nonetheless has very serious weaknesses that will ultimately destroy it. The greatest is that it is useless as an understanding of human life. Modern thought strives for clarity and power at the expense of completeness. To that end it rejects pattern recognition in favor of mechanistic analysis, and puts all human goals at the same level. In philosophical jargon, it rejects formal and final cause in favor of exclusive reliance on material and efficient cause. That is ultimately why it hates what it calls essentialism, stereotypes, discrimination, and bigotry. Such ways of thinking and acting bring in patterns, distinctions, and understandings of how the world works that it does not want to recognize. Since they are fundamental to ordinary ways of thought, and the arguments against them are not strong, the natural response by those in power is to suppress them through ridicule, abuse, and legal penalties.
The method of mechanistic reduction has been effective in the physical sciences—hence its prestige—but it cannot be used to study everything. Complexly adaptive evolved systems, notably including human beings and societies, are too complicated to analyze in such a way—that point goes back at least to Burke—and must instead be studied by reference to type, function, and tendency. What is the nature of agrarian or industrial society? What are their tendencies? How do they respond to this situation or that? What factors complicate the situation? And likewise for other forms and dimensions of human life.
The modern rejection of pattern recognition discredits such ways of proceeding, and the results of abandoning them are extremely strange. They include, for example, insistence that aspects of human life that are as fundamental as cultural community and sexual connections and distinctions have no legitimate role in the functioning of society. To hold otherwise would mean sexism, racism, homophobia, xenophobia, and other such sins. The denial of human reality is responsible for much of the inability of the modern social sciences to make progress, and the mindlessness of much modern political discussion and policy—for example, the apparent belief of American planners that they could transform Iraq and the rest of the Arab world into Minnesota by eliminating governments, telling the people how great things are in Minneapolis, giving the national police training in correct procedures, and holding elections.
Rejection of patterns also has serious consequences at the moral level. Mechanistic understandings of human life can make sense of reward and punishment, but not identity and loyalty, so modern thought makes it harder and harder for man to see himself as part of a community, nation, or civilization. Hence, for example, the attitude now expected among decent and educated people that it is simply wrong to distinguish a Somalian from a fellow countryman—the evident view is that there is no significant network of obligations that joins us to the one but not the other—so borders should be open to as much immigration as possible from everywhere. Hence also the general disintegration of allegiance, and of willingness to sacrifice personal interest for the sake of something higher. Why be loyal to a social order that is not thought to involve patterns of life that make us what we are? The situation is exacerbated by the insistence on treating human goals as equally valid preferences. If there are no higher goods, why sacrifice for them? Why not be a narcissist?
Liberal modernity tries to avoid such problems in various ways. It puts forth content-free idols like the collectivity, symbolized by the Tricolor that replaced the Crucifix in France. It makes an even more content-free conception—equal freedom, the principle that everyone should be equally able to do and get what he wants—a moral absolute to be worshiped. And it turns the struggle for the vindication and universal triumph of that principle in all departments of life throughout the world into a perpetual jihad worthy of lifetimes of devotion and capable of giving rise to an endless array of saints, heroes, martyrs, and religious observances.
Irrational though it is, the solution has had some success, because nature abhors a vacuum. In spite of current public doctrine, people do not want to live the life of a pig and do not really think all goals are equal. We want what we want, but we want it to make sense, to be worthy of respect, and to be part of an overall pattern of life that we and others can reasonably approve. That means we insist on standards that transcend preference satisfaction and tell us which preferences deserve satisfaction because they are directed toward superior goods.
Content-free idols can serve the function in default of anything else, but they are not satisfying for most people. Making the collectivity an idol worked for a while. It gave everyone something larger and more lasting to identify with and thereby elevated lives and gave them a purpose outside themselves. But its lack of content outside itself meant it could attain convincing practical expression only through the exercise of power and triumph over other collectivities. Two catastrophic world wars and several horrific tyrannies made those drawbacks too obvious to ignore.
So that left equal freedom as the religious ideal that would motivate social order, achieved not through an idolized collectivity but through the kind of universal abstract legal regime symbolized by the UN, the ever-expanding EU, and the bureaucratically-supervised structure of human rights and global trade and development now emerging worldwide.
That is the ideal we now seem stuck with. Devotion to such a regime and its ever-increasing domination of everything everywhere gives those at the top and their hangers-on something larger to have faith in and live by. And it gives people whose business it is to explain the world a way to explain it. But it does not do much for ordinary people, because it is too abstract, inhuman, and distant from everyday life. It also diminishes them. The regime cannot allow the people’s choices to matter, because the point is to make all their choices equal. The practical result is to limit choice to a menu of employment options, consumer goods, and personal hobbies and indulgences that the regime finds easy to provide and manage. After all, how could a regime of universal equal freedom that celebrates diversity and also guarantees individual welfare be possible if ordinary people were allowed to go off, join together, and create situations that might make them unequal, raise awkward issues, or otherwise cause problems?
The specific religious nature of the current regime thus makes it tyrannical as well as blind to basic aspects of life and destructive of humane culture. To make matters worse, the nature of the regime means that it goes to extremes. Common sense and the concept of the normal have to do with the patterns that order everyday life. Public thought today views such things as a mass of prejudice that must be destroyed in favor of expertise and protection of conduct and beliefs that transgress patterns accepted by the people. How long can such an approach be maintained without disaster? Events such as the migrant crisis in Europe and the radical decline of support for established political leaders in America remind us that the long post-World War II period of social and political stability in the West, like other historical periods, will at some point reach its limit and give way to something quite different. What that will be cannot be predicted, but we can be assured, due to the inevitable collapse of the current consensus and the return of a reality principle, that it will not be politically correct.
– James Kalb is an attorney and writer living in Brooklyn, New York. A Catholic convert, he has written on politics, culture, and religion for a number of publications in Europe and the United States. He is the author of two books, The Tyranny of Liberalism: Understanding and Overcoming Administered Freedom, Inquisitorial Tolerance, and Equality by Command (ISI, 2008), and Against Inclusiveness: How the Diversity Regime is Flattening America and the West and What to Do About It (Angelico Press, 2013).
This article is to be cited according to the following convention:
James Kalb, “Liberalism as a Religion” SydneyTrads – Weblog of the Sydney Traditionalist Forum (30 April 2016) <sydneytrads.com/2016/04/30/2016-symposium-james-kalb> (accessed [date]).