New Year, Same Nutter
I want to take a small detour from the normal focus of this blog and just write down, in raw and somewhat unedited form, what I think of as the main philosophical problem facing anyone in a society on the Atlantic rim at the minute. We have huge difficulties, of course, but I’m not fully a materialist. I don’t think that economics or politics, or culture in general can be divorced from civil society, nor that civil society can be divorced from the resources and production methods of the environment, but I do think that this isn’t everything. Ideas matter. The dominant idea, in ‘right’ or ‘left’ form at the moment, for very many decision makers and people in public life and the law in general is Liberal. It is based on the divorce of society from the state, and of both from ‘the individual’, and characterises relationships between all three in terms of markets, rights, and invented rules which at some level or other are reasonable. This idea is full of contradictions and is unnatural. It is also under tremendous outside strain. Anyone observing the world whether as a pointless blogger or a person with a modicum of power or influence, needs to understand this point.
Cardinal Manning once wrote that all human differences eventually boil down to differences of theology. In the case of modern liberalism, however, either in its corporate or faux-left form, politics is really about the linkage of several metaphors to the lurking violence of the possessed. Thus, everything is capable of liquidation, and indeed, everything is eventually liquidated as an immediate asset, including memory (the surest sort of negative liberalism is the one that makes entire histories, and their consequences ‘inoperative’ in terms of explanations that don’t fit the storyline).
This is all entirely consistent with the emergence of liberal ideas in the ultimately successful attempt to demolish the idea of a Christian commonwealth and to replace it with the prejudices of small coteries of revolutionaries who worshipped their own reason about three hundred years ago. In any other age, they would have failed; but, added to the emergence of the New World and its resources, and Europe’s technological supremacy and financial sophistication, both of which predated Liberals, they literally captured ‘the future’ whilst trying to erase the past.
Neither science nor money are, after all, modern things in themselves. Romans trading wine had what were arguably futures contracts, and modern science essentially arises in the schemes of Thomas Aquinas or John of Salisbury to reconcile the cities of God and Man. Despite the best efforts of some to claim them to their side, neither man, nor indeed Giordano Bruno or Gallileo Gallilei were liberals in any sense. I even have my doubts about Thomas Hobbes, who was clearly inspired by a sort of admixture of scientism, fatalism and monarchy more than any idea of human reason.
In America, serious debates have focussed on the evolution of money and the economic consequences of different perspectives; if money emerged as a token of individual value, it is embodied by bitcoin and agorism. If it was communal, and represented the wealth of the tribe or the group, it is served by fiat; and if it is an objective expression of value, it is served by a Gold Standard. These are real debates. The IMF has published on them, and they illuminate some of the ways in which our society can conceive of the mad monetary and debt regimes in which we are currently trapped.
So why is it that we view a world of money and science as inevitably modern, and allow liberalism a pass in its wake? It must be because the things on which the ultimate liberal societies of the Atlantic rim are based upon benefitted from three things which still empower it.
One is the fact that, unlike, say, Naziism or Soviet Socialism, Liberalism has successfully explained or concealed its holocausts. One doesn’t generally read John Locke’s second treatise, setting out a labour property theory of virgin lands, and think about the piles of Native American and Slave bones all this was built on, because that sort of observation has been confined to the usual dismissable subjects in universities, and a few blacks, Asians and Irish. In fact, when one does think about the dead and repressed of liberalism—from the lives consumed in the wars, executions, anticlerical orgies of violence through to the obvious predation of the weak in markets and abortuaries—the figures are so staggering that one can’t really think about them. Does one think about the long dead as those deprived of life before their time? Well, if you are a liberal, that sort of thing happens only in a privileged way.
A second factor has been the frankly seductive nature of liberal metaphors. They are actually quite comforting. The rule of law should be classless, privacy and freedom would be nice, and it would be good if education led to wisdom and if wisdom could be linked to an ethical and relatively-embedded pragmatic good. That the rise of these delusions happened at a time when the West was expanding, through space and cheap energy, so that its dreams and embedded ideas of a future that broke from the past were literally intoxicating and overwhelming, was a piece of liberal luck.
The problem was that the human soul, with all its flawed capacity for badness, and the past—either in parallel or continuous form—simply refused to go away. They were drowned out, sure, but the trade of obvious inequality and exploitation now for a future that was progressive and which offered a material reward for the demonstration of universalisable virtue was just too much. Until things started to go wrong, of course.
The picture since the beginnings of Western economic decline in the nineteen seventies has been one of one mad regeneration of the delusional metaphors after another, either in the form of demented optimism or a new apocalypse which is still avertable if only one listens to liberals. Finance would save us, until it didn’t. So would nuclear scientists. Global Trade. Regional Trade. Welfare reform. Healthcare. Secular education. Mass ‘university’ education’. When none of these things worked, well, we could square the metaphor with dodgy ideas of climate change based on manipulated data, carbon markets, anti-racisim which never applied to other races, an invigorating bath of mass immigration into Atlantic and Australian societies, bombs for democracy, the destruction of religion other than misunderstood Asian ones, population control; anything was still a fix. Because, well, isn’t liberalism heroic?
This latter point spoke clearly to the third reason why liberalism emerged and survived, which was the nature of its active enemies. It’s easy enough for me to rage against liberalism, but really its failings are emboitements of its more attractive fruit. It’s quite nice for me to be sitting here at 430am or so ranting on a computer and knowing that there won’t be secret police at the door at 530pm, unless of course I say something mad or discourteous that could be characterised as hateful. Liberalism, unless you are a foetus, or bankrupt, or incarcerated in one of its many jails, or being bombed by NATO, is largely a trap of silken cords and quilts and freedoms which suffocate gently from the inside. Indeed, even more than many bad ideas, if accompanied by courtesy, a conscience, and a society strong enough to support those who say ‘no’, it’s more appealing than not.
Liberalism’s active enemies, on the other hand, don’t need caricaturing. Religious fundamentalists, Communists, Nazis, Fascists, Racists, Ecologists, Materialists and Terrorists have all more or less written tyrannical scripts which have, over time, had the effect of making the sort of society we live in more secure in its own delusions. They are demonstrably worse; it follows that we are progressively better. Simple mathematical mistakes are easy; a nominal gap becomes a differential speed, and a representative map becomes an actual space. The need to maintain this ignorance is possibly why only a very few liberal mass education systems are any good at teaching compound interest or maths in general.
The standing temptation for a person in a liberal society is to divert themselves from the yawning chasms opening up in our moral credibility by shouting about the perceived or real badness of the pretended alternatives. Most of these alternatives will collapse of themselves; some of them will collapse behind walls pierced only by subversive trade and finance of the kind that liberalism specialises in. Few require a fundamental abandonment of liberal values, though terrorism and poverty come close if one views them as threats. This temptation is made worse by a fairly rotten media, though the internet, and the burgeoning electronic book industry, are changing the terms of debate and allowing much more discussion and even some hope of regeneration.
Yet it’s a temptation to be avoided. The societies of the Atlantic rim have caught a kind of malignant disease which is worsening by the day. These things do not normally end well but we still should fight. A combination of clear sense and demented optimism is necessary. We face the collapse of a constructed relationship of energy, governance, finance, law and mass education which has been growing for decades. We must disenthrall ourselves of liberalism because, silly exceptionalism aside, human history does not guarantee any particular society a continued living.
The alternative, and it is I suppose equally attractive, is to withdraw, wait for Rome to fall, and make sure that we have as good a life for ourselves and those we care about as we can. Because of course, the State isn't us.