Facing Up to the Enormity of Our Problem
There will be no short term solution to the problem now facing Western civilization in general, and America in particular. Modern leftist authoritarians and their intellectual progenitors have created a special historical circumstance, from which recovery must be painful, slow, and often heartbreaking – namely, the complete breakdown of the shared birthright of reason and character which has traditionally allowed nations to forge ahead on common ground in the aftermath of even the most violent eruptions.
There is a fond hope in some conservative circles that the inevitable destructiveness of Obama’s second term will deliver a broke and broken populace straight into the arms of the kind of common sense conservatism that promises a return to financial stability and civil order, or even into a “second American Revolution.” Attractive as this hope may be, its plausibility depends on a number of societal conditions that are unmet in present circumstances.
Allow me to preface my argument against this dream of a leftist implosion by emphasizing that I mean to be neither a doomsayer nor a naysayer. Rather, I certainly believe there is a path to civilizational renewal – there always is – but not one likely to fit a neat pattern or short term game plan. Far from any contrarian intentions, throwing the cold light of reason on our dearest wishes helps us to understand the nature and extent of the challenge before us, a necessary first step towards the ultimate victory we will certainly win. Now to the point.
First of all, the historical precedent implied in the prediction of socialist self-destruction is not applicable to today’s situation. The typical expression of this precedent goes something like this: “Centralized control fails every time it is tried; ergo, it will fail again in America.” From this precedent, so the argument goes, it follows that America’s collapse under socialism will produce popular grounds for a gradual revival of liberty.
This reasoning is doubtful on two fronts. For one thing, while history shows that socialism does indeed fail, it does not show that this failure always leads to a revival of liberty. The Soviet economy collapsed. The empire dissolved. Successive Russian leaders loosened restrictions on private economic activity. Now Russia has Vladimir Putin, a “democratically elected” KGB dictator for life. If there is a lesson here, it is one very familiar to American conservatives, namely that thugs and demagogues can exploit a failed economy.
China, learning from Russia’s mistakes, pulled itself out of communist stagnation by ingeniously intuiting that mere relative liberty can unleash private aspirations powerful enough to sustain economic activity. Thus, a land without property rights, freedom of speech, or political pluralism has manufactured enough ersatz “economic freedom” to invigorate the dormant profit motive in the hearts of the Chinese. The Chinese Communist Party has mass produced “Capitalism: The Parlor Game,” and so far that superficial simulacrum of liberty has engendered real world economic results.
It remains to be seen whether the effects of this brilliant psychological manipulation can last. Europe has been functioning on a similar model of carefully regulated business activity permitted within an increasingly oppressive political apparatus for decades now – with the added Brave New World (Order) cleverness of substituting moral permissiveness for political freedom – and we are beginning to see the ultimate outcome: an infantilized public employee population screaming for more speed from the back seat as Über-Daddy takes the EU car careering off a cliff and towards a thousand-year descent into the black.
What few cases one can cite of truly revitalized former leftist authoritarian states were buttressed in their recovery by the direct political and economic assistance, as well as the indirect example, of the United States. This is a key point. The failure of socialism is relative. Without a point of stark comparison, failure is less recognizable. Poverty must have a point of reference against which it can be judged as poverty. This, of course, is the main reason modern totalitarian states have always tried to restrict access to the outside world, and to erase their own national history – they do not want their suffering subjects to see what might have been.
As for the socialist authoritarians themselves, we must not fall into the trap of judging radical leftists as if they think like decent or reasonable people. (The “well-creased-pant-leg-means-he’ll-make-a-good-president” fallacy.) What you and I judge as societal failure is, to them, of little consequence in and of itself. For general prosperity is not their goal. In short, the intellectual leaders of the left know as well as you do that their regulatory state with its confiscatory taxation, propagandistic education, and morally subversive cultural elite will not produce prosperity and individual happiness, i.e., that their regime will “fail” the true test of good government. In the authoritarian’s eyes, however, the only failure that matters is the loss of his power. With no clear external examples of freer, more prosperous nations, American authoritarians will not face the stress of competing models against which their rule may be judged and found wanting. They will never be put on the spot to justify their oppression with practical results. When the U.S. economy collapses, it will take the world with it. There will be nowhere to go. And there will be no light to look to for hope.
The second major problem with our hopes that a phoenix of American liberty will rise from the ashes of Obama era statism can most easily be seen by looking again at the example of those former Soviet bloc nations, such as Poland or the Czech Republic, that have managed to exhibit some allegiance to the idea of freedom in the aftermath of Russian oppression. The key point of comparison is precisely the fact that these countries were invaded and occupied by external aggressors.
Much was done by the invading force to subvert and undermine traditional ways and ideas, of course, and to inculcate a communist sensibility. Artists were seduced into the leftist cause, the bureaucracy was trained in the methods of intimidation and forced “compliance” – a word that is now used very proudly and comfortably by all U.S. federal agencies – and the ruling elite was purged of resisters and holdovers from the pre-Soviet era.
And yet the basic fact of having been invaded and perverted by force from without created a natural undercurrent of resistance in the population. Had the Soviet occupation lasted a few more generations, all remnants of the pre-existing society might have vanished completely. Fortunately, the imposed dictatorship lasted no longer than the single lifespan of some of the oppressed citizens. The memory, morals, and psychology of a pre-communist world were preserved, albeit in a damaged and weakened form.
In the case of America and the rest of the West, the leftist superstructure (to borrow the appropriately Marxist terminology) is not generally perceived as having been imposed from without. Rather, it has grown from seed within the modern West itself, carefully cultivated by successive generations of an anti-individualist educational elite, an anti-liberal governing class, and an anti-virtue, anti-rational intellectual establishment. As a result, the citizenry has gradually given way to a new entity, “the masses” (once again using the suitable Marxist language), a collectivist majority without any of the reflexes of self-reliance, self-restraint and shame that a virtuous citizenry would have; without any of the respect or capacity for rational deliberation, forethought, and common sense that a properly educated citizenry would have; and without the universalizable notion of freedom – freedom as an equal, natural right, rather than a childish wish-fulfillment fantasy – that a citizenry not enmeshed in the mass manipulations of class envy would have.
In simple terms, Western man may, in the main, no longer be capable of living in liberty. He does not want it. He does not know it. And he has been bribed and brainwashed out of the primal feelings that would have made it attractive to him.
In principle, this is nothing so extraordinary. It was clearly foreseen by thoughtful statesmen of the not so distant past. This diminished Western man is what Benjamin Franklin was intimating when he described America’s new government as “A republic, if you can keep it.” It is what George Washington was foretelling when he warned that the American system of government depends on the maintenance of virtue. And it is, of course, what Alexis de Tocqueville was predicting when he spoke of the peculiar dangers of “soft despotism.”
These last considerations bring us to a final important point, related to those who see this as the moment for a “second American Revolution,” in which constitutional ideals, clearly presented in open intellectual warfare, will win over a majority of the public and lead, in short order, to a revitalized republic, and a reinvigorated modern civilization.
Defenders of this view remind us that the original American revolutionaries were also a courageous Tea Party minority, forced to fight not only against a more powerful British empire, but also against the acquiescence or complacency of the broader population.
This is true. But we must not neglect something else that is also true: the late eighteenth century in the Western world was a time of general rationalism and virtue-based ethics, as opposed to the irrationalism and moral subjectivism of “values,” which we have inherited from late nineteenth century European philosophy. Moral relativism was not the norm; moral debate concerned how best to achieve, manifest, and promote the virtues that were understood as essential to a good life.
At the junction of ethics and practical politics, liberty was broadly understood in those days as a good; disputes concerned how best to achieve it. Property was generally understood as a natural product of human life and endeavor, to be violated, if at all, only if one could somehow justify such violation as a rational exception to the rule that men own themselves and their labor.
To state this most simply, in 1776, basically virtuous men fought for the cause of self-determination and limited government against basically virtuous defenders of an established political authority, while many basically virtuous colonists remained uncommitted to either side, thus offering tacit support to the more powerful British. This does not mean the stakes were small, or the dispute insignificant; but the disagreements were fundamentally intellectual – the fighting was an extension and outgrowth of an intractable rational argument.
On November 6, 2012, by contrast, a basically virtuous minority fought to preserve the cause of 1776 – life, liberty and property – against a basically immoral, merciless mob and its conscienceless, power-hungry puppet masters, while a basically amoral, self-obsessed mass of bloodless, happy-pilled pod people sat on its collective hands and, bored of watching America die, changed the channel to watch American Idol instead. The war this time is not the final escalation of an intractable intellectual dispute. Rather, this time the war is between reason and irrationality themselves, virtue and vice themselves. There is no common spiritual ground to guarantee resolution and reunion after the dust settles.
Barack Obama and his leftist kin are far less concerned with the justice and legitimacy of their authority than was King George III. Their policies are far more restrictive and damaging to real individual liberty than were King George’s. England and the colonies were neither ruled nor populated by men oblivious to the basics of moral character or respect for human life beyond their own. America, like the West in general, is ruled and largely populated by precisely such men today.
Washington spoke truly: a democratic form of government, republican or otherwise, is only as virtuous as the citizens who form it. Institutions of liberty, equality, and mutual respect cannot be sustained in, let alone re-imposed upon, a society that has generally forsaken every single virtue named in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, and has in turn filled the soul’s moral void with hatred, envy, gluttony, sloth, covetousness, lust, and collectivism’s unique license to pillage, namely its presupposition that individual men – that is, other men – do not really exist.
The entire moral and intellectual structure of the West has rotted out from within, over the course of generations. Winning elections is still valuable – as is choosing the most principled candidates. (The two are not contradictory goals, contrary to the delusions of the entrenched political establishment.) But winning elections, even with good candidates, cannot solve the West’s existential crisis. The divide this time is not tempered with a measure of long-developed moral common ground. Two fundamentally opposed views of life are represented, and the side of reason and decency is by far the outnumbered force.
The modern left’s anti-rational, anti-virtuous, anti-individualist superstructure must be destroyed, mercilessly and thoroughly. It took generations for this brilliant scheme of reassuring repression – soft despotism – to be wound around the West, like spider’s silk around its paralyzed prey. It might take generations to unravel it. The alternative to this fight, however, is to sit passively by as the world enters a new dark age.
This is going to be hard, and it is going to take much longer than the American Revolutionary War, for reasons I have explained above. But we can win, and we will win. Time is not on our side; but truth is.
(This article originally appeared at American Thinker.)