The striking claim in Ryszard Legutko’s ‘The Demon in Democracy’ is that both communism and liberal democracy share essentially the same central ideology, namely an unquestioned commitment to social improvement and unravelling of historic injustices, with a concomitant attitude of de-legitimation and derision towards historical culture. As Legutko acidly comments, liberalism no less than communism identifies opposition to its prevailing ideology as either maverick or heretical, to be either dismissed or eliminated via a pervasive politicisation of culture and society.
A powerful idea at the heart of Legutko’s book is that liberalism is actively destroying the pluralism on which much of its philosophical legitimation rests. He echoes what Patrick Deneen has recently written in ‘Why Liberalism Failed’, a central contention of which is that liberalism actively undermines its own cultural foundations. Both writers look back to Tocqueville who early on saw the dangers of conformity, simplification and sentiment which liberal democracy would give rise to.
It is a commonplace today that communist societies were totalitarian and monochrome, and that obedience, conformity and thought-policing were intrinsic to them. Legutko’s argument is that liberal democracies are increasingly not so different. Whereas communism openly avowed the need to destroy all pre-existing culture and recreate ‘citizens’ in a new model, devoid of arcane inheritances from family, church or any other pre-existing ‘structure’, liberalism feigns a conversational plurality in which it promises to pay respect to different identities, values and inheritances, with an offer to minimally arbitrate or facilitate between them. But liberalism has increasingly come to see culture and values as a key battleground and is no longer content to mediate a pluralistic demos, but rather seeks to refashion it.
The demos has always been problematic for liberalism, and indeed the electoral franchise was restricted for so long precisely because of uncertainty over where genuine ‘democracy’ might lead. To their great relief, the great ‘democratising’ conservative leaders of the late 19th. century, like Bismarck and Salisbury, saw that extending the franchise did not inevitably lead to leftism and a wholesale attack on privilege, but that there was a significant conservative ballast even amongst those apparently least privileged. In the social and political turmoils in the aftermath of the First World War and the Russian Revolution this conservative ballast not only resisted socialism, it also leant support to Fascism, to the stupefied chagrin of the Frankfurt School and other Marxists. The problem of ‘deconstructing’ this conservatism inherent in the demos became the central project of the intellectual left throughout the 20th century.
The latent conservatism in any demos could be said to lie in two principal areas: defence of privilege and resistance to change. As the current intellectual fashion of ‘intersectionality’ highlights, privilege and underprivilege exist across different dimensions, and in the right circumstances the coalition of ‘privileged’ can be very large indeed, especially when the whole social structure is in play. Indeed, it was precisely the realisation of this that made communists so vociferous in their counter-revolutionary brutality: the more evident their radicalism became, the bigger became the conservative coalition that tried to resist them.
While resistance to change is partly also motivated by defence of privilege, it is more importantly generated by scepticism that is properly suspicious of the political process, and particularly all political ‘ideology’. A fundamental insight that has recently been rehearsed by, for instance, Nassim Taleb’s ‘Anti-Fragile’ and Jordan Peterson’s ‘12 Rules for Life’, is that it is a difficult and primarily experiential task for a human being to gain understanding in the world. There is a lot of opacity, which trial-and-error, with real exposure to consequences, is much better at helping us to understand than ‘reading’ or thinking. The place one takes in the world depends on a matrix of one’s abilities, access, luck, and above all on the moves and trade-offs one has made in one’s life. Resistance to change is partly resistance to having all of those moves thrown into question by a radical re-writing of the game. But more than anything, purposive engagement with life teaches humility about all simplifications, all rationalistic ‘impatience’ that wants to get quickly from an A to a B. Any move in the game has repercussions, often impossible to foresee. It also gives rise to a grounded, nuanced perspective, which when socially aggregated sums to genuine distributed knowledge that, in Hayekian terms, is much greater than the sum of its individual parts. A demos that is properly experienced and invested in life, and appreciative of the subtleties and difficulties in each and every achievement, is the ideal demos in which liberal plurality is theoretically founded.
Contrary to this experientially embedded plurality, Legutko argues that the ideology that rules liberal democracy no less than communism is simplistic, leftist and utopian: a belief that society really can be made much more just, that intellectuals and politicians will lead the way, and that the public needs to be refashioned and led. Whether an intellectual-led utopian political programme could be brought to fruition, or indeed, if it has any meaning at all, is a profound question that has haunted the world since the middle of the 19th century. The list of depressing communist experiments has slapped down the naive but insistent optimism that characterised leftists in the first half of the 20th century, but has not ended the question by any means. Legutko’s is a sharp counter to a Fukuyama viewpoint that saw liberalism and communism as alternative systems, one of which proved superior to the other, hence ‘ending’ history: rather, he argues, liberalism contains the same central problem as communism, and we are far from being at the point where liberalism is fully played out.
Legutko’s characterisation of the ideology of both liberalism and communism as essentially simplistic and simplifying echoes a central idea of René Girard, who saw communism as nothing more than a deviation of Christianity: all that is going on in leftist politics is the progressive ‘uncovering of the victimological principle.’ Girard saw Western culture, because of the centrality of Christianity in its evolution, as doomed to endless self-criticism in which each generation would look back aghast at the ‘injustices’ of the generations that preceded them. Only the utopian eschatology baked into the Enlightenment saves the West from dizzyingly falling sick with its persistent relativism, as it is able to convince itself that all this criticism is an advance of ‘progress’. The centrality of this eschatology in the cultural self-perception does much to explain the need to ridicule and delegitimize history.
Suspicion about what this dominant leftist ideology really amounts to is harboured by many people and is a powerful source of conservatism. But whether a leftist ideology of ‘restituting injustice for all victims’ might be chaotic or meaningless - that injustice might spring from difference before it springs from power - does not constrain it from having substantial mimetic force.
Legutko’s pessimism is precisely that this mimetic idea, of ‘eliminate all injustice’ not only has taken hold of intellectual and political elites in liberal democracies, just as it did under communism, but that it is burrowing into the demos to undermine and destroy real culture where there exists actual wisdom and practical knowledge. The Christian West has always been perplexed by the deeply existential empathy of the core message of the gospel and the impossibility of fashioning a practical politics out of it, and theologians wrestled for centuries with the problem. The practical religion of the Church, and similarly the what one might call neo-Christianity of Jordan Peterson, attempts a fusion of virtues like individuality, responsibility, restraint, love, duty, and above all an embracing of difficulty and an acknowledgement of incommensurability of values, which tries to give due weight to the challenges of individual life, prosperity and social order, as well as charitable empathy. Extending beyond theology, Western culture also discovered the ‘politico-philosophical goods’ of, among others, tolerance for difference, respect for individual autonomy and decentralisation of property, power and agency. And as Legutko points out, these goods often have their roots in conservative and classical rather than in modernist or leftist thought.
The peculiar danger that liberal democracies are experiencing is that education in these virtues, and appreciation of these philosophical goods, is being flattened, eroded on the one hand by a docility-inducing culture of consumerism and gratification, and on the other by the political assault on history itself, and the characterising of all historical culture as oppressive and blindly unperceptive. Liberalism has entered this remarkable period wherein the educated public belongs almost exclusively to a professional precariat class, whose identities of community, religion, social class, and increasingly, nationality and gender, are being persistently flattened, to leave, as Patrick Deneen has recently written, political affiliation as the new and only signifier. Social media and political accelerationism have turned this once private thing into the litmus test of social acceptability. Evidencing the correct platitudes of political affiliation for social and career favour has displaced the ‘responsible activity’ of how one comported oneself in the world - one’s personal ethics of courage, fidelity, honesty, self-sufficiency and practical altruism - which used to be the currency of social virtue and which has become ‘privatised’ and, as Deneen says, off-limits to opinion as long as merely law-abiding.
Accelerated liberalism which is inebriated with the mimetic ecstasy of ‘persecuting the persecutors’ and uncovering ever more victims is not, any more than communism was, leading to any kind of utopia, however gratifying the victory over each latest injustice. The political order, and the mythical ‘social contract’ that underlies it, is not a rational, transparent or inherently virtuous thing. One could subscribe to Girard, who saw that sacrificial injustice is intrinsic to the social order, or to, say, Jean Baudrillard, who saw that the social bond is not simply one of shared interests, identity and co-operation, but rather is multi-faceted and tactical, with as much competition and distance as alliance and closeness, “a pact which is the contrary of the social contract, a symbolic pact of allurement, complicity, derision.” Every move which ‘rescues’ a victim is a shift in the tactical alignment of the ‘pact of allurement’ which constitutes the social bond.
Accelerated liberalism operates by a sleight of hand that focuses only on the rescue of the victim and ignores the impact of the move elsewhere. Often a ‘victim’ is a collateral casualty in a cultural discourse, or tactical disposition, which has evolved to provide a solution or at least an equilibrium to a certain social phenomenon. For instance, ‘traditional sexual morality’ regulated a complex interaction of sexual feelings, family-formation and paternal authority, in which ‘freedom of sexual expression’ was a collateral casualty. In old cultures, there existed interstices wherein there could be derogations from the ideals of cultural morality, albeit always carrying the risk of scandal, but uniform obeisance was always seen to be ideal rather than credibly practical. While liberalism shows an ever more hysterical intolerance to the injustice of any one ‘collateral casualty’, by its simplifying monomania it externalises the collateral costs which emanate from the moves made to assuage its victimological obsessions. In an obvious contemporary example, liberal public policy debate seems incapable of acknowledging the fundamental exclusion and privilege on which all nation states are based, and instead plays a fantasy politics in which an indefinable number of refugees, asylum seekers and economic migrants can be ‘accommodated’, because drawing attention to the collateral effects is branded as scaremongering or ‘alt-right nationalism’.
But the social contract is a finely woven cultural object and dismissing as ‘illegitimate’ any objection to what liberals determine should be its reconfiguration, above all when the liberal ideology seems to contemplate no visible limit on the horizon, is to threaten to destabilize the deeply invested tactical alignments which it is based on. Populism is arising now through a growing, ever more widely held conviction, that liberal ideology, and the moves it is making within the culture to police speech and opinion, can only be countered by a brusque, even brutish, refusal to respect its pieties. As Deneen has written, elite liberals have converted meritocracy into a citadel of privilege for themselves, and yet actively embrace an ideological rhetoric that attacks every privilege but their own, an incoherence that invites sceptical derision rather than engagement on its own terms.
Islamic communities in the West paradoxically offer islands of resistance to the liberal mimetic onslaught, just as Legutko says rural Catholicism did in communist Poland. René Girard said fascinatingly of religious fundamentalists who, despite defending ideas which he deplores, that “their revolt looks more respectable to me than our somnolence. In an era when everyone boasts of being a marginal dissident even as they display a stupefying mimetic docility, the fundamentalists are authentic dissidents.” The immunity of followers of non-Christian religions from the victimological zealotry of the liberals is fascinating to observe, and shows the importance of properly maintained traditional practice as something that can resist mimetic cultural despoilation. But the tactical dispositions matter, and a liberal politics that refuses to consider the importance of what size, for instance, an Islamic minority should become, or what the consequences might be of how much or little integration with wider society it undertakes, willfully ignores something that the demos know matters very much.
Populism is arising because liberal elites are in thrall to a simplistic ideology of a utopian elimination of all injustice yet see themselves as technocratic philosopher kings, who take it upon themselves to silence troublesome parts of the discourse. Indeed, Legutko excoriates the European Union as being the technocratic project par excellence, with practical insulation from the demos its fundamental feature . John Gray has recently commented despairingly, and fearfully, how communist ideas have returned to respectability, something which should be inconceivable given the history of the 20th century. What is evident is that accelerated liberalism offers little protection against this. By its delegitimation of history, its attempted evisceration of the constellation of undertstandings that make up conservatism, and also from what Legutko calls its logic of minimalism - its opting for ease, convenience and gratification - it’s demos is easily swept up in mimetic contagion, which is fertile ground for a left populism of its own.
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