Social issues are messy. They have to do with basic human connections, orientations, and aspects of identity. These include family, cultural community, religion, and relations between the sexes. So they have to do with basic and very complicated aspects of life that people feel strongly about.
That causes problems for people who run things today. Their ideal of reason and principle of legitimacy means they want to handle everything through supposedly rational, neutral, and transparent institutions like global markets and expert bureaucracies. But personal loyalties, ultimate commitments, and ideas about how best to live can’t be sold, traded, bureaucratized, or turned over to experts. So from the standpoint of liberal institutions they are unmanageable and incomprehensible. They mess things up.
The result is that our rulers refuse to deal with them on their own terms but insist on treating them as private hobbies or consumption choices that shouldn’t be allowed to affect anything. That’s a big reason liberal institutions try to suppress, disrupt, and trivialize arrangements based on such concerns: they want to suppress values and ways of doing things that complicate or compete with their own way of operating. That’s the reason liberalism was backed by the bourgeoisie during the French Revolution and is now backed by bureaucrats, billionaires, and all significant centers of power.
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As an example, if you want women to be totally available for use by employers, and you want purchased goods and services—like daycare and fast food—to replace home production, and you want government policy rather than domestic, cultural, or religious influences to determine how children grow up, you won’t be favorable to family and community life. One way of suppressing them is to substitute social service agencies for family and community, disrupt informal traditional arrangements through mass immigration and comprehensive promotion of diversity, and encourage people—through the media, educational system, and culture industry—to concentrate on career, consumption, and other individual pursuits, and view nonliberal arrangements like religion and the family as irrational, oppressive, and morally problematic.
That attitude toward social issues lines up with basic liberal theory. Liberal theory, like liberal practice, wants to keep things simple, comprehensible, and manageable. The social issues are complicated, and the idea of a social contract—which has been basic to liberal theory since Hobbes and Locke—is a way of avoiding them. Instead of basing society on inherited or transcendent loyalties or some conception of the good life, social contract theory tells us to put such things aside and view society as a collection of equal individuals who think they can advance their own goals by establishing a legal order based on neutral standards of equality and personal choice.
The approach sounds good to a lot of people but it has consequences that aren’t pleasing. If we’re all equal independent individuals with our own idiosyncratic goals, then informal authorities like cultural tradition vanish, and the social order is no more than the legal and commercial order. Anything else that becomes influential enough to be worth noticing, like informal expectations regarding behavior, is illegitimate and oppressive if it doesn’t directly support the liberal order. That’s why both Mrs. Clinton and international human rights conventions tell us that if religious and cultural patterns don’t line up with liberal ideals, for example with regard to feminism and abortion, we—meaning those in power—must change them.
So when liberal theory tells us the law must be based on equal freedom, it turns out to mean that all social relations must be based on equal freedom. And from that it follows that a government that exists to protect us from oppression should reorganize the whole of social life, forcibly if need be, so that everyone is equally free, satisfied, respected, and catered to, consistent with the coherence, efficiency, and stability of the system.
That last proviso is a big one, since coherence, efficiency, and stability end up meaning that a small class has to run everything, very large differences in wealth and power are permissible, and the only goals people are allowed to pursue are career, consumer goods, progressive social change, and private indulgences that don’t much affect other people. Unless people are controlled and neutered, human contrariness is going to muck up equal freedom. So it turns out that freedom and equality as standards that trump everything require totalitarian rule by a small class in accordance with a very narrow view of the kind of life people ought to live.
As liberal society has developed, its efforts to transform human life have grown more and more ambitious. It started with traditional religion, saying it respected its importance for people who liked that sort of thing while pushing it out of public life and insisting that everyone could make up his own and get equal respect and treatment. The result, of course, was that no traditional religion could have any influence on anything.
Antidiscrimination law extends the same strategy to cultural community. Inclusiveness, “affirmative action,” multiculturalism, and now the concept of “microagressions” mean cultural community is not allowed to matter. The same applies to sex, sexual differences, and the family. Today you can invent not only your own religion, but your own family arrangements and even your own sex, and everyone has to accept whatever you invent as worthy of equal respect and support. In New York City, for example, you can be fined a quarter of a million dollars for not using someone’s preferred pronouns.
That’s where we are today.
Realities Liberal Theory Can’t Ignore
Naturally, there are problems. The liberal theory of neutrality masks profoundly non-neutral and non-liberal realities. Inconsistencies in the system suggest some of them. We’re required to accept people’s gender identification, but it’s not clear what that means when we’re not allowed to infer anything based on gender. White identity is said to be an oppressive fiction, but if Miley Cyrus twerks that’s cultural appropriation, and she ought to be ashamed, because twerking is black and not white.
The project of creating a society in which arrangements like family, religion, and ethnic ties and culture don’t matter is based on the idea that those things have no legitimate or rational function. Swede or Somali, Christian, Muslim, or Jew, man, woman, or other, however we identify, whatever our preferred pronouns or domestic arrangements, we are all equally consumers, employees, and functionaries in a global society that recognizes only markets and neutral expert bureaucracies as authoritative institutions. That’s where the serious business of life goes on, and everything else should be recognized as freely chosen hobbies, indulgences, fantasies, or personal consumption choices.
That’s the view, but it makes no sense, because sex, religion, and communal membership are ineradicably at the center of people’s understanding of themselves and their connection to others. Sex and sexual dimorphism have been around for hundreds of millions of years, and they have obvious functions that are hard-wired into us no less than other higher animals. Ethnic culture is a web of common habits and understandings that grows up among people who live together for centuries that makes it possible for them to cooperate in ways that take into account the whole range of human concerns. If you try to get rid of it you’ll get rid of inherited social experience, and social relations will become stupid, brutal, and mostly nonfunctional. And religion is a fundamental understanding of what the world and human life are all about that provides the setting for making sense of everything else. Every society and every human being must have something that functions as such to think and act coherently.
Such things can’t possibly be dealt with as a matter of purely private concern. If people try to do so they’ll go on having an effect, but it won’t be possible to deal with them in accordance with what they are. The result will be irrationality, dysfunction, and a regime of lies. Sex will become less a principle of human connection than a mindless combination of license and puritanism that mostly sets people against each other. Communal membership will no longer promote cooperation but instead become a matter of opposing battle flags. And religion will become more absolute than ever, but it will be a religion of content-free default principles like equality that can’t discuss itself, because it can’t recognize what it is, so it will become mindless, fanatical, and utterly intolerant.
These tendencies are all the more serious because they relate to matters that precede normal political life. Politics as a rational activity involves discussion and decision regarding common concerns. As such, it assumes that there is a people capable of having and discussing common concerns. If the concept of legitimate particular community is suppressed—because communities have boundaries, boundaries are exclusionary, and exclusion is evil—then what we have won’t be politics as normally understood.
Also, political decisions are explicit, so they have to be limited in number and scope. For that reason politics requires customary arrangements like the family to take care of most basic aspects of life. If those arrangements lose their authority and become nonfunctional, so that the whole of life becomes subject to state policy and administration, then politics disappears because the issues become too complicated and open-ended for public discussion and decision to be possible.
And politics has to do with ways and means of advancing the common good, which means there has to be some generally accepted understanding of man and the world for it to go forward at all. If there is no such thing, or if what we have is radically defective, like the view that equality and doing and getting what we want are the highest goals, then political discussion can’t even get started.
Recent conflicts over social issues have led to a situation in which none of the conditions for normal political life are satisfied. That means that it’s increasingly difficult for politics to exist as anything but a combination of force, fraud, and chaos, or perhaps a truce in what is fundamentally civil war.
How to Deal with the Challenges We Face
So what does the history of attempts to deal with the trends that have put us where we are tell us about all this? Does it show a way out, or does it mostly suggest, through their failure, that barring unforeseeable developments, like a widespread religious reawakening leading to transformation of the principles on which public life are carried on, we will have to wait for the self-demolition of the current system before a new and better world can arise from the ruins?
Unfortunately, the latter seems more likely. When we look at the historical right it’s hard to see much that’s helpful. The original form of Anglo-American conservatism, that of Edmund Burke, explains why the current situation is bad and why we should have avoided it. It tells us that society is extremely complex, it can’t be designed or reduced to a single principle like equal freedom, and it takes a long time to evolve, so if you have a reasonably functional society you shouldn’t wreck it, and if you’ve unsettled an inherited social order you should step back and do what you can so it can re-establish itself. It’s hard to see how any of that can apply in an age of institutionalized revolution symbolized, for example, by an ever more radical and sacralized principle of inclusiveness.
The failure of Burkean conservatism as a program has been obvious for a long time. During the interwar period the result was a variety of more constructivist initiatives on the right. Since social continuity had been radically disrupted a new social order would have to be created by an act of will. The effort failed for reasons Burke could have explained. Social order depends on connections, understandings, and loyalties that precede decision, so you can’t decide to construct it. Attempts to do so either come to nothing or lead to irrational and unsustainable tyranny.
That’s why we’ve been surrounded by all our lives by various non-serious forms of conservatism—constitutional conservatism, values conservatism, and so on. All these would be better than what we have if they could somehow be made effective, but they can’t because they offer no solution for basic problems. We won’t have constitutional conservatism without republican virtues that don’t exist, and we’re not going to have values conservatism without a fundamental reorientation of life that supports functional common values. It seems unlikely that think tanks and journalistic chit-chat are going to give us anything close to that.
Hence the talk about secession, separatism, blowing everything up, and the “Benedict Option,” a sort of religious version of secession. Something of the sort—the collapse of extreme cosmopolitanism into extreme particularism—may indeed result from current trends. If so, it’s likely to be a much longer and messier process than anyone expects, and what happens isn’t likely to happen because someone planned it. So in the absence of a grand strategy it seems that the best we can do is promote understanding of what’s going on, and keep supporting what seems good and opposing what seems bad, given our understanding of what’s good and how the world works. For Catholics, of course, that means developing and holding to their best understanding of the social implications of their faith. History has lots of wild cards, man remains a somewhat social and rational animal, and who knows but that such efforts may yet bear fruit.
Editor’s note: The essay above is an abbreviated version of a talk delivered at the 2016 Mencken Club conference. (Photo credit: Jim Bourg / Reuters)