Monday, June 27, 2011

The Convergence of Liberalism and Socialism in the Twentieth Century: A Conservative Analysis

Since the Progressive Era, classical, 19th century liberalism, which emphasizes individual liberty, free markets and small government, has been on the decline in America. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries two different trajectories have been followed.

On the one hand, the cultural elites have increasingly rejected orthodox Christianity in favor of one sort of secularist ideas or another. The influence of Darwinism, German higher criticism, and scientific positivism led to the abandonment of basic Christian doctrines, especially in the liberal Protestant denominations.

On the other hand, liberalism's concept of equality before the law or equality of opportunity, was increasingly put on the defensive by the Marxist concept of equality of outcomes embedded in the welfare state ideal. Progressives, whose philosophy was rooted in romantics like Rousseau and Marx, pushed the idea that government should ensure social equality and the catchy phrase that came to express this idea was "social justice," which was seen as clearly superior to plain old-fashioned "justice."

This new notion of equality came to be treated as equal in importance to liberty; thus we see the philosopher John Rawl attempting to square the circle of having two at least partially incompatible first principles in liberal political philosophy in A Theory of Justice. His grand attempt was a failure and showed that when push comes to shove, liberals had nothing more substantial than utilitarianism to serve as a basis for resolving conflicts between equality and liberty. Alasdair MacIntyre shows in After Virtue that this utilitarianism resolves into emotivism and depends on social consensus for its legitimacy. When social consensus breaks down, as for example on abortion after the Supreme Court's ill-considered ruling in 1973, which did so much to call into question the legitimacy and impartiality of the judiciary, emotivism serves as nothing other than a mask for a Nietzschean will-to-power.

But if the new "social justice" liberalism or "socialist liberalism" was increasingly incoherent in terms of philosophical foundations, the old, classical, 19th century liberalism suffered from a similar deficit of philosophical foundations. The problem here was the drift of the cultural elites in America away from Christianity during the Progressive Era and the inadequacy of liberal democracy without a religious foundation was exposed. Liberalism is a fine social philosophy except when it loses a pre-political concept of the Good, which was supplied in the 18-19th centuries by Christianity. This is the significance of Tocqueville's remark in Democracy in America that the American constitution was fit for a religious people and no other. It is only safe to have a constitution that fails to name the highest Good as the foundation of society if the people for whom that constitution is designed share a common faith in God, morality and the soul that provide a commonly agreed upon core of behavior that all agree is basic to political life. The classical 19th century liberalism, which left individuals freer to pursue their own ideals than any political philosophy before in history only worked because a Christian culture made it "ordered liberty" rather than something more like amoral social Darwinism.

The intellectual incoherence of liberalism, as criticized by, for example, Louis Groarke in his article: "What is Freedom? Why Christianity and Theoretical Liberalism Cannot Be Reconciled," meant that liberalism increasingly became suspect for Christians and, at the same time, increasingly vulnerable to the arguments of socialists that equality can supply the missing content in an increasingly vacuous liberalism.

Some Christians, faced with the emptiness of liberalism and lacking the courage to advocate for the Judeo-Christian worldview as the necessary basis for Western culture in an increasingly secularized social context, were seduced into thinking that the Marxist idea of equality could make the empty liberalism (often scornfully known as "neo-liberalism," especially in Europe) more humanistic. They thought that the Marxist idea of equality could serve as a substitute for the Judeo-Christian doctrine of man created in the image of God. Just as Christianity had provided a moral foundation for 19th century liberalism, so Marxism might be able to provide a moral foundation for 20th century liberalism, they thought.

After the collapse of economic Marxism in 1979 as the Soviet Union dissolved and the Chinese Communist Party embraced a kind of "crony capitalism" or "state capitalism" in a series of pragmatic reforms that recognized the necessity of the market in wealth creation but retained the dominance of the Party in Chinese society, it seemed to some that Marxism was dead. But this was an illusion. Marxism continued to serve as a substitute religion for Western liberal elites who could no longer believe in traditional Christianity by purportedly contributing to political philosophy the ideal of equality of all as the raison de etre of the state.

Liberalism in the 21st century is really an amalgam of classical liberalism (J. S. Mill) and socialism (Karl Marx) and its intellectual incoherence, unresolved by the heroic efforts of John Rawls, remains problematic. Conservatives are those who believe that 19th century liberalism plus the West's Judeo-Christian heritage provides a way forward that marries tolerance and cultural creativity with solid pre-political, religious foundations.

The Conservative critique of contemporary liberalism is that of Dostoevesky in the Grand Inquisitor scene in The Brothers Karamazov: that the West is being tempted to give up freedom in exchange for security and equality. The Grand Inquisitor represents the State which has assumed religious functions to itself and presents itself to the populace as the Great Liberator and Provider which can be relied upon to make life safe and secure. Conservatives fear that the end point of contemporary liberalism is a soft totalitarianism of the sort described in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World.

Western culture, having roused itself for one last heroic battle against the hard totalitarianisms of Fascism, Nazism and Communism in the mid-twentieth century, is now exhausted and slowly declining into the soft totalitarianism of the welfare state. The current teetering of the Euro, the decline of Europe in general and the sovereign debt crisis threatening the Western world as a whole, however, make the West vulnerable to a new hard totalitarian threat in the form of militant, oil-money fueled Islam.

The liberal response to the conservative critique is simply to say: "Don't ask us to believe in Christianity again because we can't." Yet, one get the impression that the main problem they have with Christianity is not metaphysical or scientific in nature, but simply a refusal to give up the personal anarchism (let's not dignify it with the label of freedom) of the sexual revolution. They are open to believing in any god that allows sexual license, which makes pantheistic nature-worship attractive to some and a vague moralistic therapeutic deism attractive to others. But these gods do not provide a moral core of doctrine or a theory of human nature that could fund a reinvigorated political liberalism.

So debate about whether or not Obama is a socialist is moot. It is as equally meaningless to scornfully dismiss the idea that he is a Marxist Leninist as it is to dismiss the idea that he was not born in the United States. Of course, he is not a 1930s Stalinist and of course he is not an alien. But to think that saying this means that he is not an enemy of classical liberalism or a proponent of a socialist-shaped kind of liberalism is equally ridiculous. He is a product of the 20th century fusion of the socialist ideal of equality with a drifting, incoherent political liberalism, which has been detached from its Christian roots.

What contemporary liberals need to understand, and often don't, is that the conservatives are as strongly opposed to contemporary progressivism (contemporary socialist-shaped liberalism) as they are to Marxism itself. The critique is not just about levels of taxation, amount of government regulation or social conservative moral views. The critique is far deeper and more profound that that. The basic critique of contemporary liberalism is that it lacks the philosophical foundations that are necessary to resist creeping soft totalitarianism and therefore it is inadequate as a cultural foundation for the West going forward. It is shallow, out-of-date, and dangerous, and represents a hollowed-out, secularized form of Christianity that is merely a pale reflection of the real thing, a reflection that is rapidly fading into history as the West continues its long, sad, decline.

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