September 12, 2007


The Age Of Political Theology (ADAM KIRSCH, September 12, 2007, NY Sun)

For a brief moment at the end of the Cold War, it was possible to believe in the end of history. With the defeat of communism, the Western world seemed to have arrived at a final, irrevocable belief that liberal democracy was the best form of government. If 1789 ushered in an era of ideological warfare, in which nations fought primarily in order to decide how men should be governed, then 1989 brought that era to an end. Today, however, the very phrase "the end of history," made popular by Francis Fukuyama, seems like a relic of an impossibly naïve moment. For in the post-Cold War euphoria, the political scientists forgot a truth that a novelist, Marcel Proust, enunciated long ago: Not all people living at the same time are occupying the same moment in history.

It took the West 500 years to reach our current consensus that messianic passions should be banished from secular politics. This does not mean that religious values have no role to play in public life. On the contrary, it was only by draining the theological fury from political debate that the West, and especially America, was able to harness the constructive power of faith, to make belief an ally of the secular order. America, to the confusion of many observers in postreligious Europe, is both the most religious society in the West and the most democratic.

Which is to fundamentally misapprehend, as so many do, what Mr. Fukuyama said in The End of History, not to mention the centrality of messianism to the Anglo-American model. First, Fukuyama:
The twentieth century saw the developed world descend into a paroxysm of ideological violence, as liberalism contended first with the remnants of absolutism, then bolshevism and fascism, and finally an updated Marxism that threatened to lead to the ultimate apocalypse of nuclear war. But the century that began full of self-confidence in the ultimate triumph of Western liberal democracy seems at its close to be returning full circle to where it started: not to an "end of ideology" or a convergence between capitalism and socialism, as earlier predicted, but to an unabashed victory of economic and political liberalism.

The triumph of the West, of the Western idea, is evident first of all in the total exhaustion of viable systematic alternatives to Western liberalism. In the past decade, there have been unmistakable changes in the intellectual climate of the world's two largest communist countries, and the beginnings of significant reform movements in both. But this phenomenon extends beyond high politics and it can be seen also in the ineluctable spread of consumerist Western culture in such diverse contexts as the peasants' markets and color television sets now omnipresent throughout China, the cooperative restaurants and clothing stores opened in the past year in Moscow, the Beethoven piped into Japanese department stores, and the rock music enjoyed alike in Prague, Rangoon, and Tehran.

What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government. This is not to say that there will no longer be events to fill the pages of Foreign Affair's yearly summaries of international relations, for the victory of liberalism has occurred primarily in the realm of ideas or consciousness and is as yet incomplete in. the real or material world. But there are powerful reasons for believing that it is the ideal that will govern the material world in the long run.

Of course, the evolution will be seen to have ended no later than 1776, not with the Declaration of Independence so much, which, after all, was rather derivative of our English political heritage, but with The Wealth of Nations, which gave economics a coherent basis in accordance with the pre-existing ones for protestantism and democracy.

Second, Messianism, which the Western triumph is entirely dependent upon. What had to be banished was, rather, Utopianism. The latter, which entails the belief that Man can construct a perfect society, lies at the heart of Socialism, Nazism, Communism, and Islamicism--the various isms against which we've fought The Long War. The former, which assumes that Man will make somewhat of a hash of things until He comes, undergirds Christianity, Judaism and Shi'ism. It allows us to live as the "free men" described by Eric Hoffer:

Free men are aware of the imperfection inherent in human affairs, and they are willing to fight and die for that which is not perfect. They know that basic human problems can have no final solutions, that our freedom, justice, equality, etc. are far from absolute, and that the good life is compounded of half measures, compromises, lesser evils, and gropings toward the perfect. The rejection of approximations and the insistence on absolutes are the manifestation of a nihilism that loathes freedom, tolerance, and equity.
This allows us to clear up the European confusion about why the postreligious have such trouble living as free men, but Anglo-Americans such ease. And, of course, the very fact of Europe's postreligiosity demonstrates that the End of History won't magically benefit everyone. Recognizing how state and society ought to be arranged will avail folks not if they do not maintain the faith that arrangement requires. Adopting the form of the End without the content can only make for a more comfortable death for secular societies. Only the Messianists, fittingly, have a hopeful future to look forward to.

(*) NB: Let us note, in passing, the delicious paradox implicated here, that those who claim to be absolutists on each of these values--libertarians, multiculturalists and egalitarians--are instead nihilists, who would make even an approximate realization of their own ends impossible.

Freedom Fetishists: The cultural contradictions of libertarianism. (KAY S. HYMOWITZ, September 12, 2007, Opinion Journal)

On the one hand, libertarians make a fetish of freedom; it is their totalizing goal. On the other hand, libertarians depend on the family--an institution that, in crucial respects, is unfree--to produce the sort of people best suited to life in a free-market system (not to mention future members of their own movement). The complex, dynamic economy that libertarians have done so much to expand needs highly advanced human capital--that is, individuals of great moral, cognitive and emotional sophistication. Reams of social-science research prove that these qualities are best produced in traditional families with married parents.

Family breakdown, by contrast, limits the accumulation of such human capital. Worse, divorce and out-of-wedlock childbearing leave the door wide open for big government. Dysfunctional families create an increased demand for state-funded food, housing and medical subsidies, which libertarians reject on principle. And in courts all over the country, judges who preside over the manifold disputes occasioned by broken families are forced to be more intrusive than the worst mother-in-law: They decide who should have primary custody, who gets a child on Christmas or summer holidays, whether a child should take piano lessons, go to Hebrew school, move to California, or speak to her grandmother on the phone. It is a libertarian's worst nightmare.

A libertarian, according to Brian Doherty, "has to believe" that "the instincts and abilities for liberty . . . are innate," that we possess "an ability to fend for ourselves in the Randian sense and to form spontaneous orders of fellowship and cooperation in the Hayekian sense." But this view of the relationship between the individual and society is profoundly and demonstrably false, especially when applied to the family.

Children do not come into the world respecting private property. They do not emerge from the womb ready to navigate the economic and moral complexities of an "age of abundance." The only way they learn such things is through a long process of intensive socialization--a process that we now know, thanks to the failed experiments begun by the Aquarians and implicitly supported by libertarians, usually requires intact families and decent schools.

Libertarianism did not have to take this unfortunate turn. Ludwig von Mises himself warned that the attempt (of socialists) to undermine the family was a ploy to strengthen the state. Hayek, too, grasped the family's role in upholding the free market. Coming of age in Europe around the time of World War I, he stressed the state's inefficiency but also warned, more generally, of the limits of human reason. "Hayek's economics was rooted in man's ignorance," Mr. Doherty writes; so were his political views, which included both an enthusiasm for freedom and a Burkean respect for customs and institutions.

It is difficult to say why this aspect of libertarianism has faded away, but the sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset once provided a partial answer. In Europe and elsewhere, he observed, modern radicals have tended to be of a Marxist, collectivist bent; in America, with its peculiar Lockean legacy and Jeffersonian ideals, radicals have gone to the other extreme, searching for absolute freedom. It is a quest that has left little room for the confining demands of family and other unchosen social bonds.

Libertarians come in many flavors, of course, but they share certain enthusiasms beyond free-market economics. They are often great consumers of science fiction, with an avid interest in space travel. And they have an almost unlimited enthusiasm for biotechnology, especially for advances that might allow us to manipulate our natures and extend our lives. Taken together, these elements constitute what might be called the libertarian dream--the dream of shaping your own meaning, liberated from family, from the past, from tradition, from biology, and perhaps even from the earth itself.

Such utopian ambitions are difficult to satisfy or even contain in the mundane world of American politics. For some time to come, they are likely to make libertarianism the natural home of assorted cranks and crazies, and thus to continue to provide fodder for its at least partly deserved caricature.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 12, 2007 8:45 AM

Ya know, I cruise a lot of blogs and this is the only one with repeat references to Hoffer. Makes my day every time.

Posted by: ghostcat at September 12, 2007 12:51 PM