Two weeks ago, in Epidemic Irrationality, I reviewed Stephen Hicks’ book Explaining Postmodernism. I’d like to build on one feature of his analysis because it goes a long way to explaining some of the political upheaval in recent years.
The three-way battle I highlighted in that earlier post used phrases like “classical liberalism,” “leftist illiberalism,” and “right-wing illiberalism” to describe three battle fronts. Because we’re talking about some variant of “liberalism,” let’s first figure out what that word means.
One is “liberated” from constraints. Once freed, one enjoys “liberty.” So liberalism is properly associated with freedom. Many political philosophers agree that freedom is the defining characteristic of political movements over time, though of course they may proceed on differing conceptions of what is freeing.
If we look back several hundred years, we would observe lifetimes being lived out inside social constraints that we would today regard as unacceptably rigid. These would include constraints imposed by the church and by aristocracy, for two chief examples. The church would impose norms of conduct that were an expectation placed on everyone in the society. Its doctrinal norms would of course have a profound impact on the faithful and, indirectly, on the society influenced by the faithful. In a similar way, the aristocracy would impose constraints, stratifying society in ways that individuals absorbed so that the constraint seemed natural.
A significant historical development has been removal of constraints such as these. It is sometimes described as an Enlightenment development: the idea that individuals have natural rights, and that no person has inherently greater worth than another. We could look to John Locke (1632-1704), for example, for early articulation of these ideals. As another example, at the time of the French Revolution at the end of the 18th century, the cry was for overthrow of the “ancien’ regime,” the constraints of church and aristocracy, in the cause of individual freedom.
Individual freedom was the object of this liberalizing movement. This was a time for the rise of the individual vis-à-vis institutions like church and aristocracy and state. With regard to the church, in Europe the Reformation broke the exclusivity of the Roman Catholic Church, and very quickly denominations arose for differing expressions of conscience and doctrinal consistency. That has expanded such that at the present day, there are not merely a wide range of Christian denominations, but every stripe of metaphysical leaning imaginable, including anti-metaphysics: atheism.
While this liberalizing trend was proceeding in the West, nation-states arose. In the middle ages and early Enlightenment era, there were of course kings who were sovereign over large areas of land and lesser nobles, but the aristocratic system based on the land was the predominant hierarchical power structure. As greater representation in government came about, the power center became the state, rather than the personal sovereign. Thus, the institution (apart from the church) which would exercise authority over individuals was not so much the aristocracy, as the state. At the same time, the church as a monolithic institution was seriously weakened by the Reformation and other influences, so that, over time, the institution from which one would be considered “liberated” was primarily the state.
In this way, “liberals,” those who advocated for the individual rights of persons vis-à-vis institutions, came to be those who regarded the state as being adversarial to those rights. This liberalizing movement has come to be called “classical liberalism,” to distinguish it from more recent usages of the word “liberal,” as with leftists in the United States. A classical liberal is one who promotes individual autonomy as against the authority of the state. This can be confusing because a person who meets that description in the United States today would be called a “conservative,” and even more confusingly, conservatives stand in opposition to those on the left now called “liberals.” But this historical precis is necessary to grasp that it is modern limited-government conservatives who more directly follow in the principles of classical liberalism.
The rise of the nation-state combined with the decline of the church has meant that power not exercisable by individuals has become progressively more concentrated in the remaining political power structure, the state. And so the institution from which one should protect one’s freedom would be, primarily, the state.
At the same time, the advance of near-universal suffrage has meant that individual rights are expressed within that state, but this has not necessarily had a liberalizing impact. To the contrary, one’s vote is only for the direction of the predominant institution, the state. The franchise is manifestly not exercisable to remove matters from state authority. It is therefore only a gesture of participation in the direction of the collective will. The tension between collectivist action and the desire for personal autonomy is partially mediated through Constitutional and parliamentary procedure which recognizes that one’s individual rights mean something more than having a single, equal, voice in the direction of the state as an expression of collective will.
No one thinks “illiberalism” is a good thing. It is not merely a check on too-rapid advance of liberalism. “Illiberalism” describes tendencies contrary to the individual freedoms that classical liberalism championed. It suggests a return to institutional, as opposed to individual, authority.
Much of modern political debate is over which party is more on the side of classical liberalism. The criticism could be that one’s opponent’s point of view is illiberal. The word – illiberal – is not so often used, but certainly the idea behind it, which I’ve described here, is. (Lots of other words are used, too, which ought not be). Usually when someone is complaining about the viewpoint of their political opponents, they are essentially saying their opponent is illiberal; that is, that they are not faithful to the principles of classical liberalism that this country was founded upon, and which is thought to continue as the mainstay of our republic.
The thing about this illiberalism which is often missed in public discourse is that illiberalism can take a left-wing form and a right-wing form, and neither of those forms is classical liberalism. Classical liberalism means freedom from undue government intervention in our lives. It is a recognition that institutions with coercive power over us have a constraining effect on individual freedom. The principle is that people should be free, as much as possible, from such restraint. On the left and on the right, arguments are made which should be considered illiberal; inconsistent with the classical liberal baseline principles we say we stand for. Thus, there is really a three-way battle, it’s not just a matter of right vs. left.
This is perhaps best demonstrated by tracing historical developments. On the left, a line of thought can be traced from Enlightenment scientism to Hegelian direction to history resulting from a desire for freedom, to Marxism. Marxism developed as atheistic materialism applied to historical direction and economic socialism. It was applied by Mao, Stalin, Pol Pot, and others, to disastrous effect. Marxism has been discredited, but is being replaced by postmodernism, a turn from the notion of truth as an objective, out-there phenomenon. This occurs in service to an irrepressible yearn for freedom without boundary or hindrance. The ancien’ regime may not be telling you to sit down and shut up, but other forms circumscribing your feelings may, including the form we would call absolute truth.
On the far right, a strong-man mentality arises from fear of the unknown, as leftist illiberalism has taken us into uncharted territory and a sense that order and discipline to society is dissipating. I commented on the psychology of this in Strong Gods. Hitler is sometimes regarded as this kind of right-winger, along with Mussolini and Franco. We can think of this as fascism: radical authoritarian nationalism. Fascism does not repudiate state involvement in private enterprise, however. To the contrary, it contemplates central control of commerce. Nor does fascism work in tandem with religion, as classical liberalism can. Far-right-wing experiments have been as strongly atheist and materialist as left-wing experiments. Fascists might point to the inevitable and inexorable outworkings of Darwinism, for example, to support a tribal political philosophy.
American leftism is illiberal because it does not aspire to individual freedom from constraining institutions. In fact, it affirmatively seeks to bring more power to the one overarching institution left: the government. It seeks reflexively to employ the power of the state. The goal of leftists is economic socialism, obviously, but also a socialism of thought, which is manifested in political correctness. This is not some accidental oddity of history. It is the natural result of the thinking of people like William James, John Dewey, and John Rawls. Postmodernist philosophers (Foucault, Derrida, Rorty) supply the tools to effectuate this form of illiberalism.
A question worth considering is whether there is a substantial right-wing in America that might also be illiberal. Apart from white supremacist or neo-nazi nut-cakes, one might say “no,” because conservatives tend to favor limited government and self-reliance, and that’s the essence of classical liberalism. But there are strands of illiberalism on the right in America, too. Conservatives sometimes complain about the Republican establishment, and usually their complaint is that that establishment is, with respect to its attitude toward big government, nearly indistinguishable from the Democrats. That is a charge of right-wing illiberalism.
We think of the founding fathers of the country as geniuses because they embarked on a grand experiment of trusting individuals with freedom, rather than forming illiberal institutions that would constrain people in a way different only in kind from what had been experienced in Europe. In actuality, the American experiment was a natural next step from the developing liberalism of the West at the time. It was a grand experiment anyway, because it involved unprecedented individual freedom. How could this experiment in classical liberalism work, with so little restraint on individuals? How could the new American republic succeed, without devolving to violent, animal self-interest?
It could only work because of self-restraint. There would have to be a shared culture in which these free individuals would respect each others’ freedoms while acknowledging natural boundaries on their own. The rule of law would have to be understood as originating as much in the hearts of people as in external politically-imposed restraints. The resulting self-restraint would make individual freedom possible. That self-restraint was the gift of religion to man’s self-governance. This is what made us a nation, not cleverly-devised balances of power in our government’s structure.
The United States could never form on its founding principles today. In 1776 it was wholly devoted to principles of classical liberalism. Those principles do not obtain today, and no one seriously thinks they could. The element of self-restraint is all but gone, and in its place has arisen external restraint, through economic socialism and socialism of thought. Classical liberalism without religious influence inducing self-restraint collapses to a debate between competing illiberalisms, from the left and from the right.
We’ve lost our way. Left and right flail away at each other, ever more savagely, both seeking but not seeing the lodestar, the classical liberalism this nation abandoned in its youth. It is lost to us because we’ve lost its quiet twin sister: the self-restraint of individuals who worship a God higher and more authoritative than any human-made government. Leftist illiberalism and right-wing illiberalism are ignorant armies arrayed against each other in the stygian murk of night-time battle.
Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach was personal, but its closing lines apply also to our losses collectively. Modern left and right illiberalisms are curdled simulacra of that classical liberalism that was our birthright. The withdrawing Sea of Faith leaves us thus:
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.