Monday, October 10, 2016

Etiolated liberalism, the hollow triumph of the superego

From Ross Douthat's op-ed piece in the NY Times (via Marginal Revolution).
"THE Western system — liberal, democratic, capitalist — has been essentially unchallenged from the inside for decades, its ideological rivals discredited or tamed. Marxists retreated to academic fastnesses, fascists to online message boards, and Western Christianity accepted pluralism and abandoned throne-and-altar dreams.

"The liberal system’s weak spots did not go away. It delivered peace and order and prosperity, but it attenuated pre-liberal forces – tribal, familial, religious — that speak more deeply than consumer capitalism to basic human needs: the craving for honor, the yearning for community, the desire for metaphysical hope.

"Those needs endured, muted but not eliminated by greater social equality and rising G.D.P. Nonetheless the liberal consensus seemed impressively resilient, even in the midst of elite misgovernment. 9/11 did not shake it meaningfully, nor did the Iraq war, and it seemed at first to weather the financial crisis as well.

"Now, though, there is suddenly resistance. Its political form is an angry nationalism, a revolt of the masses in both the United States and Europe. But the more important development may be happening in intellectual circles, where many younger writers regard the liberal consensus as something to be transcended or rejected, rather than reformed or redeemed.


"The first post-liberal school might be called the new radicals, a constellation of left-wing writers for whom the Marxist dream lives anew.


"The illiberalism of these new radicals is mirrored among the new reactionaries, a group defined by skepticism of democracy and egalitarianism, admiration for more hierarchical orders, and a willingness to overthrow the Western status quo.


"Then finally there is a third group of post-liberals, less prominent but still culturally significant: Religious dissenters. These are Western Christians, especially, who regard both liberal and neoconservative styles of Christian politics as failed experiments, doomed because they sought reconciliation with a liberal project whose professed tolerance stacks the deck in favor of materialism and unbelief.


"And all three post-liberal tendencies are in synch with aspects of the populisms roiling the West’s politics: the radicals with Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn and Podemos and Syriza, the neo-reactionaries with Trump and Brexit and Le Pen, the Catholic integralists with Eastern Europe’s rightward turn.

"So their ideas are, perhaps, genuinely dangerous to the order we take for granted in the West. Or — it all depends — they might be beneficial, because liberal civilization’s flourishing has often depended on forces that a merely procedural order can’t generate, on radical and religious correctives to a flattened view of human life.

"When those correctives are in short supply, the entire system becomes decadent. When they re-emerge, it’s best to learn from them — or else the next correction will be worse."

Douthat is writing in the ultraliberal New York Times which accounts for his dessicated take on all this. The ring of truth in his piece is that liberalism imposes a model of unfailingly prosocial, utterly good-natured citizenship which could consistently be carried through only by genetically-engineered or lobotomised humans.

It only works at all if normal human emotions can be atomised and damped down: a society without ego or id.

But these are not normal times, as Mr Douthat has observed.

Worth reading the whole thing.

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