Liberalism; Not Neutral, Not Natural

We live in a more or less Liberal West. Liberalism is an ideology. It proceeds from a view of human nature in which people are individuals who must maximise themselves. Some liberals believe that the way to do this is to let people compete from the beginning, and others believe that the state should make opportunities equal by advancing some or holding others back. Most liberals want to turn their views into laws and rules, and, tellingly, though they believe that race, sex, sexuality, disability, age, or creed could be the basis of discrimination, most reject class as a universal fact. Liberals find it difficult to conceive of attachments to faith, family, and motherland, and tend to view these things as impediments on the way to a cosmopolitan world of federated republics. Many of them turn out to be self-serving warmongers and crooks whose main interest is to run their immediate circle like a company and advance their children upon the world whilst preaching bourgeois morality with a passion that parodies itself.*

Liberalism's view of life is dependent on the elevation of the idea of reason, and also on the importance of a belief in a set of fictional things called 'rights', which either can be accessed through the courts or enforced through administrative rules on all in society. The creed sees everything through the prism of secular, individualist and usually capitalist lenses, often elevates science into a sort of drooling scientism, and has a tendency to pretend that economics or government can be isolated from history and culture; sometimes it even ignores human nature in favour of the idea of a perfectible person, who can reason away their flaws.

It's a revealing thing that the foe most likely to raise liberal ardour is not the faraway one--it is perfectly possible to combine a fascist worship of corporate power or a mindset in which abortion, electronic proaganda, and moral collapse are features of freedom with market liberalism. The American right and left do that. 'Modern' liberals are also more or less happy versions of social democrats. The worst foe of liberalism is the near enemy--the communitarianism which looks a lot like a version of liberal-land, or at least enough that market and modern liberals can sometimes flirt with it--but which ultimately challenges every one of liberalism's precepts. Such a challenge to Liberal ideas can be found in the Salamanca school and specifically in the works of Francisco de Vitoria, who wrote around five hundred years ago. I have been reading them. Rather tellingly, the otherwise excellent Stanford Encycopaedia of Philosophy either ignores them or mischaracterises them as 'medieval'

For the Spanish renaissance theologians, reason was not the defining quality of human beings. It was an instrument. The purpose of the instrument was to allow people to live in Society. People lived in societies as flawed but partially plastic creatures possessed of free will. In these societies, they learned how, from the family upwards, to treat people with whom they had less and less in common except their humanity. In well balanced societies, people were happy, and won freedom because of a devotion to duty as human beings. This 'Great Society' was therefore built an a good Aristotelian combination of reason and duty, as St Thomas might have filtered it.

A word to the wise; 'duty' has connotations. What the Salamanca men meant was not the duty which might in our minds be associated with an army toothbrush and a toilet, or the exported chores which certain London councils insist pensioners perform when putting out their rubbish--the tedious impositions of a tired state. Instead, for the Salamanca school, a duty existed which arose from our humanity to be accountable for ourselves and for others, and to behave ethically. Account was given to God, our conscience, and our fellow men.

What did this mean? It meant that 'privacy' was irrelevant, but courtesy and happiness were not; that conscience and the rules of natural justice were better guides than a balance of rights; and that states were not in competition but under a sort of universal law in which they should never perpetrate evils except to prevent worse ones. The tradition respected tradition, and offered a glimpse of what might have become the dominant form of European governance had the disaster of the reformation not intervened. That reformation itself, of course, followed on from the discovery of America and the imbalanced wealth and markets that the rape of the New World brought meeting with the corruption of a very human church which refused to reform until it was too late.

As Catholics, the Salamanca school also understood that human beings were flawed, and capable of being wrong, a lot. They therefore respected a tradition balanced by reason as better than the competition of egoistic individual visions. Ironically, the best example of such a thing to my mind was the old English Common Law, now almost wholly displaced by statute, in which Judges normatively applied cultural rules to identify on a case-by-case basis what was law and what was not. Common law depended on liberties, and the idea of the free man-- a creature of duty--mixed with a little, but not too much, Roman knowledge at second hand. Liberals and Marxists hated it, and have replaced it with stautes and rights which their largely bourgeois children get to control.

It's odd to think of a school from half a millennium ago as one that can offer a refreshing view to the modern West. But, when in trouble, look to oneself. Liberalism's options are exhausted. We are mired at the meeting point of several massive contractions in our economy--financial, commercial, and macroeconomic--which cannot be fully explained except by an ethical analysis of those who overborrowed and those who overlent and overgambled. We face mad and convoluted supranational issues which the international anarchy of liberalism can only meet with the model of an emergent tyrannical state because it has no real model of cooperation. The ideology of rights is ruining the capacity of the community to organise its law and disciplines; and people keep trying to regulate or enclose the internet on the basis of property or security rather than of duty and society.

We can refresh ourselves with common sense, with distributism and mutualism, with government by amateur citizens and not pseudo-professionals, with family and faith in things and a proper balance of nationality and humanity. In fact we must; we must free ourselves from the bankers and quacks, the shills and the scroungers. They'll collapse anyway, but there's no real need for them to take us with them. As I have been writing for half a decade now, it is not hard to see what needs to be done.

I fear that the crisis of faith and economics which is upon us, aided by scientism which forces the methods of politics on scientists, are otherwise on the high road to a continuing and monumental cultural disaster. I do not think that liberalism can offer a way out. I think that those who will find the way will be those who take a clue from the balance of tradition and reason, duty and liberty, and self-governing ethics mixed up in the Salamanca school and the Common Law; and I hope that people smarter than myself can see that quickly. It's never too late, except, well, when it is.

*A point, of course, which does not apply to my liberal friends on either side of the American divide. Just, you know, the others....


Steve Hayes said…
I was doing a web search to check some facts for a blog post I was writing, and your blog was one of the sites that came up, and I was quite surprised to find a link to my blog on the page.

So I thought you might be interested in the post I was writing, here: Tales from Dystopia XII: Vorsterism, sabotage and liberalism | Khanya.
Martin Meenagh said…
I was indeed interested in the post, and would direct readers to it as a counterpiece to this one--when the choice was liberalism, fascism or communism, I'd understand and honour anyone who went with the best of what liberal could mean. In the modern West, when the choice is market corporate state liberal or statist liberal, I have a problem....
Martin said…

Earlier this year, I read Emerson's critique of Napoleon, and as I'm sure you'll imagine his principal beef with the wee man in the big hat was that he personified the very worst of all petit bourgeouis traits, the desire to deny others any credit while grabbing it all for your self.


Martin Meenagh said…
We have a whole society like that; though I am conscious that I am acknowledging your complaint about narcissism on a blog named after myself and filled with my ramblings. To my shame, I have never read the critique and shall look it up--many thanks.