On the Dangers of Liberal Society, part IV

On the Dangers of Liberal Society, part IV June 25, 2009

part III

part II

part I

When I began re-posting these essays I admitted that I was unsure about whether the point to be made in this series was important to me or not. Now, that I have re-posted all the sections that I had already written, I am more convinced than ever to continue this series and try to connect to what I was trying to say previously.

I largely have to thank the astute comments in Part III from Zach, Ian Boudreau, and Josh Brockway for crystallizing this affection in me. In their straightforward critiques of this series’ “defense” of fascism, they actually clarify the very dialectic I am trying to deconstruct in these essays. Describing that dialectic in reply to their objections and pointing to the inner problem with the axiology embedded in that dialectic will be the purpose of this post.

All of the objectors repeat, in different ways, a point initially made by Zach that seems (to them) to be quite obvious: “Liberal societies are better than illiberal ones.” Ian reiterates this by saying that my series “is a dead end. It ignores what is important about liberal and illiberal societies.” Josh, the most robust critic, makes his own similar points by saying that “the alternatives [to liberalism] are worse.”

My own intuitions are not far from the general point made by these most honorable critics. (Something I noted in part III, citing my own cowardliness in writing so glowingly about fascism.) I, too, find liberality—freedom, in other words—to be preferable to illiberality—oppression, in other words—in many ways, especially when those are the only two options on the table. But that preference is largely conceptual. In the world we live in, I am not so sure that what we consider to be liberal, or free, is, in fact, the case. I think that we can find a great deal of freedom in what seems to be remarkably oppressive and a great deal of oppression in what seems to be remarkably free.

That is to say, my point is not to merely advocate for an ethical preference or a theoretical fancy. Instead, I am commenting on the actual things we find in the world: the liberal state, the fascist state, the free market, the gulag. In that commentary I think it is important to point out that a liberal society is dangerous in ways that a illiberal one is not. In fact, when we look closely, we may find that what we usually consider to be “liberal” is actually quite “illiberal.” Following that somewhat uncontroversial observation, it follows that fascism presents us with degrees of liberality we often miss completely.

This shouldn’t be such a bombastic thing to say among Catholics. After all, “the blood of martyrs” is often referred to as “the seed of the Church.” Do we relish in the torture and death of the martyrs? Do we relish in the torture and death of Christ? (Something I wrote about in more detail here.) Not exactly, depending on what is meant by “relish.” Certainly not without a great deal of reverence and awe. What is understood by this sensibility is that the manifestation of oppression and even evil can still be pregnant with meaning—even the seed of the Church itself.

This sensibility would not be possible encased in the dialectical reasoning between the liberal and the illiberal. This would be, primarily, because there is nothing around that can be found to be reliably liberal or illiberal in total. And this only adds to the strangeness of the devotion we have acquired in the modern world to liberty as an end in itself.

That is to say that, this dialectic (between liberality and illiberality) is not only mysterious to me in the world we live in, it is also an odd axiom to begin with. Freedom and liberty seem to be rather sterile things to desire in and of themselves. I recently mentioned to a friend that that “fighting for freedom” is absurd, and I mean that. What I mean is this: No one “truly” fights for freedom, pure and simple. Not even when the fight is for the best we could possibly fight for.

Freedom is not an end in itself. So, it should come as little surprise that the dialectic between liberal and illiberal societies reveals a certain void. If all we desire as a society is to be free, then, we are not anarchists: we are fools.

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