October 11, 2018


Deluded liberals can't keep clinging to a dead idea : Anyone looking to classical liberal thinkers to deliver the West from its present difficulties is fixated on an irretrievable past (John Gray, 03 OCTOBER 2018, UnHerd)

Writing in the introduction to On Liberty, Mill tells us that he grounds his argument for freedom not on "abstract right" but "utility - the ultimate appeal on all ethical questions; but it must be utility in the largest sense, grounded in the permanent interests of man as a progressive being". What is "man", though? Certainly not an empirically observable species.

All that can actually be observed is the miscellaneous human animal, with its many contending values and ways of life. Again, there are many understandings of progress. If Mill believed it meant increasing freedom and individuality, for the founder of modern utilitarian ethics, Jeremy Bentham, it meant maximising the satisfaction of wants. Mill spent much of his adult life vainly trying to reconcile the two.

Mill's liberalism did not rest on experience or observation. Though he was not raised as a Christian - his father, a disciple of Bentham, made sure of that - Mill was like other Victorian thinkers in relying on ideas that make little sense outside of a theistic world-view. The belief that "man" is a collective agent working out its destiny in history is a relic of Christianity, unknown in polytheistic cultures and non-western religions such as Buddhism and Taoism.

The very idea that humans share a common historical destination is a remnant of monotheism. Reframing the universal clams of western religion, Mill's secular liberalism - like his science of society - was not the result of any process of rational inquiry but an expression of faith.

Viewed historically, the liberal era was a moment in the aftermath of post-Reformation Christianity. If Europe had not been Christianised, it would most likely have been shaped by the polytheistic and mystery cults of the ancient world. Today it might resemble India. A universalistic, evangelising impulse would be weak or absent. Whether it would have been better or worse - or both - the West would not have produced political faiths like liberalism, that aim to project their values throughout the world.

Core liberal values, such as freedom of belief and expression, are by-products of early modern struggles within Christian monotheism. This fact could be passed over as long as successive versions of liberal values were underwritten by Western power. In Mill's day they rested on European colonialism, and following the collapse of communism on the supposed triumph of free-market capitalism. The illusion persisted that the rise of liberalism revealed a universal law of human development.

In the event, a liberal world order has lasted only as long as Western hegemony. 

The main problem with Jonah Goldberg's Suicide of the West is his failure to accept that the West he seeks to defend can only be grounded in Christianity. The problem for reactionaries like Mr. Gray is that no one has offered any alternative to Western hegemony (democracy, capitalism, protestantism).

Posted by at October 11, 2018 4:19 AM