“Liberal modernity,” you’ve argued, “has prepared the ground for its destruction” by unleashing forces that are “uncontrollable.” Have these forces contributed to the resurgence of the right in countries where, thanks to modern liberalism, a premium is placed on the autonomy of the individual?
There are many ways to answer this question, and one’s choice will inevitably be determined by the political context of the day. There is no doubt that the individual freedoms central to liberalism ought to be cherished and protected. The question is how, and by whom? Are many self-declared liberals the best defenders of individual liberties? As it happens, many powerful and influential people who call themselves liberals are mostly interested in advancing their professional ambitions and financial interests while claiming the moral prestige of progressivism for themselves. They are best seen as opportunistic seekers of power, and they exist in India as much as in the United States and in Britain. Bush’s “useful idiots” (Tony Judt’s term) had their counterparts in India, where some liberals chose to see Prime Minister Modi as a great “modernizer.” They are happy to whisper advice to power, and they recoil from the latter only when power rejects or humiliates them — as in the case of Trump and Modi, who have no time for eggheads in general. The dethroned “liberal” then transforms himself into a maquisard of the “resistance” and prepares the ground for a Restoration where he’ll likely be hailed as a great hero. It’s a nice racket, if you can get into it.
As Trumpism and other authoritarianisms become powerful, their liberal critics engage in a kind of moral blackmail based on a spurious history: “Are you against the ‘liberal order’ which guaranteed peace and stability, and other wonderful things for so long?” The obvious answer is that your much-cherished liberal order was the incubator for Trumpism and other authoritarianisms. It made human beings subordinate to the market, replacing social bonds with market relations and sanctifying greed. It propagated an ethos of individual autonomy and personal responsibility, while the exigencies of the market made it impossible for people to save and plan for the future. It burdened people with chronic debt and turned them into gamblers in the stock market. Liberal capitalism was supposed to foster a universal middle class and encourage bourgeois values of sobriety and prudence and democratic virtues of accountability. It achieved the opposite: the creation of a precariat with no clear long-term prospects, dangerously vulnerable to demagogues promising them the moon. Uncontrolled liberalism, in other words, prepares the grounds for its own demise.
That liberalism may be a tendency towards something very different from itself, is a possibility in its nature. For it is something which tends to release energy rather than accumulate it, to relax, rather than to fortify. It is a movement not so much defined by its end, as by its starting point; away from, rather than towards, something definite. Our point of departure is more real to us than our destination; and the destination is likely to present a very different picture when arrived at, from the vaguer image formed in imagination.
By destroying traditional social habits of the people, by dissolving their natural collective consciousness into individual constituents, by licensing the opinions of the most foolish, by substituting instruction for education, by encouraging cleverness rather than wisdom, the upstart rather than the qualified, by fostering a notion of getting on to which the alternative is a hopeless apathy, Liberalism can prepare the way for that which is its own negation: the artificial, mechanized or brutalized control which is a desperate remedy for its chaos.
In other words, liberal democracies run on a fuel they can’t produce themselves. A society with thick local community and a high regard for tradition is the sort that can explode into new forms of life under a liberal democratic order. Yet as the liberal democratic order becomes more entrenched, the very things that first gave it life will wither, at which point it’ll have to transform if it’s to endure. Here Jacobs’s treatment of force is particularly helpful, as the powers of science, bureaucracy, and the general ethos of technique (as understood by the French critic Jacques Ellul) would become ascendant as a means of propping up the decaying structures of liberalism.
Matthew Loftus teaches and practices Family Medicine in Baltimore and East Africa. His work has been featured in Christianity Today, Comment, & First Things and he is a regular contributor for Christ and Pop Culture. You can learn more about his work and writing at www.MatthewAndMaggie.org