The Cosmic Tragedy of Modernity and the Virtues of Liberalism: Safeguarding personal and social autonomy from the ever changing conditions of modernity (Ábris P. Bendek, Dec 5, 2023, Liberal Currents)

Liberalism is not an organic part of modernity as much as one possible framework of social response to its intrinsic moral vacuum and self-developing informational complexity. This is not to stay that, as a framework of response, liberalism did not contribute to modernity’s substance or accelerate many of its more intrinsic processes, particularly the rise of the state. Rather that some kind of social response was necessary to modernity and its cosmic tragedy, and it is especially in this context of necessity that the virtues of a liberal social organization become apparent.

Of course, such necessities are not acknowledged by Deneen and his creed: they are thrown away in favor of a historicised, yet radically ahistorical, time. The Rousseauian temptation in postliberalism is apparent. Its reactionary psychology does not admit the observation that before bourgeois modernity, the huge majority of people at any rate lacked the mental and material autonomy necessary to reflect on their supposedly flourishing spiritual contexts. Life by any means was “nasty, brutish and short“, and even if a certain amount of people truly found joy and meaning in their culture and communities, as the little Rousseau inside postliberalism suggests, for most it could not be the predominant sensation in life. Once modernity has been unleashed, gains in literacy and wellbeing certainly allowed some, and then quite a many, to long back for a historicised illusion of meaning that people in turn could anxiously project into their modernity-structured political hopes.

But this longing and this projection are ultimately self-defeating. They cannot in fact recover the meaning thought to be once possessed; they only impoverish its symbolic remnants through the use of power. Nietzsche writes: “Attempts to combat nihilism without enacting a change in values only deliver the opposite result, and sharpen the original problem (my translation)”. The remedy becomes poison. Subjected to power, the meaning of God, family and country reformulates into totalitarian nihilism. The anxiety and inner conflict with which modernity is contrasted with meaning translates only to will’s radical claim towards belonging and existential security, ultimately nurturing a totalitarian psyche and a secular religion around the leader, all grounded in the forced march on nihilism in which postliberalism has now partaken.

The other way the totalitarian spirit haunts the reactionary mindset, of course, is the latter’s necessary resort to the state’s power-machinery. To fulfill the mission of discharging from bourgeois modernity—from the historical dynamism of capitalism, reformation, science, Enlightenment and beyond—postliberalism cannot but build an omnipotent state. Either way (or both), reaction renounces itself in flirting with the totalitarian – and inescapably modern – mind.

Totalitarianism’s own way to responding to the cosmic tragedy is not trying to recover meaning; it is to replace it by the immanent (and radical) design of the transcendent. The totalitarian cosmology is rooted in the revolutionary psyche; it is the perpetuation of the Le Bonian moment when Durkheim’s infamous maxim that society is God emerges to absolute immanence, and the crowd’s whims and passions dictate moral and political consciousness. Yet in order to cool down, control and finally direct the crowd’s will, one further step is necessary. One needs to embody that will in the state and the leader; one needs to build a perpetual, deranged magic in which the nation is one and one is the nation. One needs to “reenchant“ the world through the crude essence of state, technology and ideology. One needs to build a Volksgemeinschaft.

The logic of a liberal social organization, needless to say, is radically different from that of reaction or of totalitarianism. Liberalism does not aim to secede from bourgeois modernity, and thereby create its own. It tries to continuously adapt to the evolving problem—and power-configurations—of modernity, so we can protect our personal and social autonomy against its changes, and not be subjugated by the will to power which would deny us this very autonomy. From the logic of adaptation, in turn, it derives that a liberal social organization can only live up to itself if it not only enables, but positively contains both socialist and conservative voices which sufficiently increase the whole paradigm’s responsivity to the corrosive effects of modernity, and to its very own, general need to continuously balance itself along the changes of the latter. Indeed, the emphasis is not on liberalism as an ideology as much as liberalism as a social order, which permits a diversity of viewpoints in the pursuit of autonomy against facing modernisation.

This process necessarily implies a great deal of uncertainty.

Liberalism’s dirty secret is that it is pre-modern.