A Diagnosis Of Liberalism, 1964

I’ve been reading James Burnham’s Suicide of the West. Published in 1964, it is an anti-liberal jeremiad, and a corking good one. It also anticipates a number of themes that have become central tenets of both traditional-conservative and neoreactionary criticism.

I’m still only about three-quarters of the way through, but I’ll offer some excerpts.

Burnham begins by noting as a simple fact — devoid of political spin — that the West is shrinking:

For the past two generations Western civilization has been shrinking; the amount of territory, and the number of persons relative to the world population, that the West rules have much and rapidly declined.

Is this “suicide”?

I know, again from direct experience of discussion, argument and conversation, that my use of the word “suicide” to describe what is happening to the West is even more disturbing to many persons than the use of such words as “contraction.” “Suicide,” it is objected, is too emotive a term, too negative and “bad.” Oddly enough, this objection is often made most hotly by Westerners who hate their own civilization, readily excuse or even praise blows struck against it, and themselves lend a willing hand, frequently enough, to pulling it down.

Abetting this diminution of the West is, to Burnham, central to liberalism:

I do not mean that liberalism is—or will have been—responsible for the contraction and possible disappearance of Western civilization, that liberalism is “the cause” of the contraction. The whole problem of historical causation is in any case too complex for simple assertions. I mean, rather, in part, that liberalism has come to be the typical verbal systematization of the process of Western contraction and withdrawal; that liberalism motivates and justifies the contraction, and reconciles us to it.

Burnham identifies the self-coordinating liberal hegemon for which Mencius Moldbug coined the term “the Cathedral” (my emphasis):

In sum, then: liberalism rather broadly designated—ranging from somewhat dubious blends to the fine pure bonded 100 proof—is today, and from some time in the 1930’s has been, the prevailing American public doctrine, or ideology. The predominant assumptions, ideas and beliefs about politics, economics, and social questions are liberal. I do not mean that a large majority of the population is, by count, liberal. Perhaps a majority is liberal, but that is hard to determine accurately. What is certain is that a majority, and a substantial majority, of those who control or influence public opinion is liberal, that liberalism of one or another variety prevails among the opinion-makers, molders and transmitters: teachers in the leading universities—probably the most significant single category; book publishers; editors and writers of the most influential publications; school and college administrators; public relations experts; writers of both novels and non-fiction; radio-TV directors, writers and commentators; producers, directors and writers in movies and the theater; the Jewish and non-evangelical Protestant clergy and not a few Catholic priests and bishops; verbalists in all branches of government; the staffs of the great foundations that have acquired in our day such pervasive influence through their relation to research, education, scholarships and publishing.

I’ve spoken often (for example, here and here) about the futility of argument across the gulf that separates liberals from the rest of us. Rational discussion, at its best, is like making and testing theorems — but two people can never agree that a theorem is proven if they are starting from incommensurable axioms. If one is embedded in a purely homogeneous ideological environment, however, political and moral axioms can often go completely unexamined. Burnham writes:

In short, liberals differ, or may differ, among themselves on application, timing, method and other details, but these differences revolve within a common framework of more basic ideas, beliefs, principles, goals, feelings and values. This does not mean that every liberal is clearly aware of this common framework; on the contrary, most liberals will take it for granted as automatically as pulse or breathing. If brought to light, it is likely to seem as self-evident and unquestionable as Euclid’s set of axioms once seemed to mathematicians.

It is a common observation lately that political polarization has deepened in America, that the center is increasingly hollowed out. Burnham saw this happening, though, even in 1964:

The ideological spectrum between the leftmost wing of liberalism and the rightmost wing of conservatism is not an evenly graduated gray continuum. The L’s and the C’s are bunched; and we can usually tell the difference intuitively. A connoisseur, in fact, can tell the difference intuitively just from a momentary sample of rhetoric at a Parent-Teacher meeting or a cocktail party, even without a specific declaration or proposal to go by, much as a musical connoisseur can distinguish intuitively a single phrase of Mozart from a phrase of Brahms.

Burnham comments on the remarkable coordination of liberal opinion:

The judgments that liberals render on public issues, domestic and foreign, are as predictable as the salivation of Pavlovian dogs. Whether it’s a matter of independence for Pogoland or school integration for some Southern backwater; the latest loyalty oath or a nuclear test ban; the closed shop or the most recent inquiry of the Committee on Un-American Activities; foreign aid or poll taxes; the United Nations or Fair Employment; whether it’s X, Y or Z, you can know in advance, with the same comforting assurance with which you expect the sun to rise tomorrow, what the response of the liberal community, give or take an adverb or two, will be. The editorials in the Washington Post, New York Times, New Republic, or indeed Paris’ Le Monde or London’s Sunday Observer; the liberal columns, speeches and sermons; the deliberations of the faculties of any Ivy League university;1 the discussions of the Foreign Policy Association, League of Women Voters or American Association of University Professors—the small flourishes of special rhetoric in their commentaries are like the minor decorations permitted on a rigorously fixed style of painting, architecture or music.

This last observation preceded Neoreaction’s ur-text by 45 years. In 2009, Moldbug wrote:

Except for a few unimportant institutions of non-mainstream religious affiliation, we simply do not see multiple, divergent, competing schools of thought within the American university system. The whole vast archipelago, though evenly speckled with a salting of contrarians, displays no factional structure whatsoever. It seems almost perfectly synchronized.

There are two explanations for this synchronization. One, Harvard and Stanford are synchronized because they both arrive at the same truth. I am willing to concede this for, say, chemistry. When it comes to, say, African-American studies, I am not quite so sure. Are you? Surely it is arguable that the latter is a legitimate area of inquiry. But surely it is arguable that it is not. So how is it, exactly, that Harvard, Stanford, and everyone else gets the same answer?

I’m afraid the only logical alternative, however awful and unimaginable, is the conclusion that Harvard and Stanford are synchronized because both are remoras attached, in some unthinkable way, to some great, invisible predator of the deep – perhaps even Cthulhu himself.

Certainly, the synchronization is not coordinated by any human hierarchical authority. (Yes, there are accreditation agencies, but a Harvard or a Stanford could easily fight them.) The system may be Orwellian, but it has no Goebbels. It produces Gleichschaltung without a Gestapo. It has a Party line without a Party. A neat trick. We of the Sith would certainly like to understand it.

Burnham goes to great lengths in this book to identify the defining postulates of liberalism. (He settles, finally, on 19 of them; I will sum them up in a later post.) At the most general level, the idea is this:

Liberalism is confident that reason and rational science, without appeal to revelation, faith, custom or intuition, can both comprehend the world and solve its problems.

If reason and science can indeed solve the world’s problems, then what does the liberal worldview imagine stands in the way? The answer is: ignorance, and faulty institutions. Both of these the liberal imagines to be remediable, by carefully controlled education and enlightened government reforms.

There is, beneath this optimistic outlook, another axiom: that human nature is infinitely malleable.

Inside the liberal system of ideas … human nature is changing and plastic, with an indefinitely large potential for progressive development. Through reason, freed from superstition, authority, custom and tradition, human beings can discover the truth and the road toward the betterment of society. There is nothing inherent in human nature that prevents the attainment of peace, freedom, justice and well-being—of, that is, the good society. The obstacles are ignorance and faulty social institutions. Because both these obstacles are extrinsic and remediable, historical optimism is justified. Social problems can be solved; the good society can be achieved, or at any rate approximated.

… For liberalism, the direct purpose of education cannot be to produce a “good citizen,” to lead toward holiness or salvation, to inculcate a nation’s, a creed’s or a race’s traditions, habits and ceremonies, or anything of that sort. Nor is there any need that it should be, for the logic of liberalism assures us that, given the right sort of education—that is, rational education—the pupil, in whose nature there is no innate and permanent defect or corruption, will necessarily become the good citizen; and, with the right sort of education universalized, the good citizens together will produce the good society.

… The child, for liberalism, approaches the altar of education—for the school is, in truth, liberalism’s church—in all his spiritual nakedness as a purely rational, or embryonically rational, being, shorn of color, creed, race, family and nationality: the Universal Student before the universal teacher, Reason.

Another essential quality of liberalism is the rejection of natural hierarchies and discriminations:

In liberalism’s relativist theory of truth and democratic political doctrine, as in its account of human nature, there is no room for qualitative distinctions among men.

Burnham addresses in detail the important role of guilt in the liberal worldview. He notes that statism provides a remedy (my emphasis):

Let us consider the situation of a member of our affluent society, and let us assume him to be from the more rather than less affluent half, who is no longer deeply committed in spirit to the interlocked Christian doctrines of Original Sin, the Incarnation and Redemption, which constitute the Christian solution. His guilt nevertheless exists; he is conscious of it, and feels the anxiety that it generates. What is he going to do about it, and think about it? Liberalism permits him to translate his guilt into the egalitarian, anti-discrimination, democratist, peace-seeking liberal principles, and to transform his guilty feeling into that “passion for reform” of which Professor Schapiro speaks. If he is an activist, he can actually sign on as a slum clearer, Freedom Rider, Ban the Bomber or Peace Corpsman, or join a Dr. Schweitzer or Dr. Dooley in the jungle. But activists of that literal sort are always a minority. The more significant achievement of liberalism, by which it confirms its claim to being considered a major ideology, is its ability to handle the problem of guilt for large numbers of persons without costing them undue personal inconvenience. This it does by elevating the problem to representational, symbolic and institutional levels. It is not necessary for me to go in person to the slum, jungle, prison, Southern restaurant, state house or voting precinct and there take a direct hand in accomplishing the reform that will unblock the road to peace, justice and well-being. Thanks to the reassuring provisions of the liberal ideology, I can go about my ordinary business and meanwhile take sufficient account of my moral duties by affirming my loyalty to the correct egalitarian principles, voting for the correct candidates, praising the activists and contributing to their defense funds when they get into trouble, and joining promptly in the outcry against reactionaries who pop up now and then in a desperate effort to preserve power and privilege.

The need to assuage this guilt outweighs practical considerations:

The guilt of the liberal causes him to feel obligated to try to do something about any and every social problem, to cure every social evil. This feeling, too, is non-rational: the liberal must try to cure the evil even if he has no knowledge of the suitable medicine or, for that matter, of the nature of the disease; he must do something about the social problem even when there is no objective reason to believe that what he does can solve the problem—when, in fact, it may well aggravate the problem instead of solving it. “We cannot stand idly by while the world rushes to destruction . . . or women and children are starving . . . or able men walk the streets without jobs . . . or the air becomes polluted . . . or Negroes can’t vote in Zenith . . . or immigrants live in rat-infested slums . . . or youngsters don’t get a decent education . . .” or whatever. The harassed liberal is relentlessly driven by his Eumenidean guilt. It does not permit him to “let well enough alone” or “stick to his own cabbage patch” or decide that the trouble is “none of his business”; or to reflect that, though the evil is undoubtedly there and he is sincerely sorry for its victims, he doesn’t understand damn-all about it and even if he did he hasn’t got the brains and resources to fix it up. He may not know much, generally speaking he does not know much, about economics, but that lack in no way inhibits him from demanding that industry and government do this, that or the other to cure unemployment; he may not have a single serious idea about strategy and international affairs, but he will nevertheless join his fellow liberals in calling for grandiose measures concerning arms, alliances, bases, and colonies; he may have no acquaintance with the actual problems of mass education, but he will nevertheless insist on the most far-reaching reforms of the school system… The real and motivating problem, for the liberals, is not to cure the poverty or injustice or what not in the objective world but to appease the guilt in their own breasts; and what that requires is some program, some solution, some activity, whether or not it is the correct program, solution and activity.

Burnham also offers this brilliantly incisive insight:

For Western civilization in the present condition of the world, the most important practical consequence of the guilt encysted in the liberal ideology and psyche is this: that the liberal, and the group, nation or civilization infected by liberal doctrine and values, are morally disarmed before those whom the liberal regards as less well off than himself.

“Morally disarmed”. Exactly right.

That’s enough for one post, I think. Back soon with more.

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  1. > His guilt nevertheless exists;

    Why? Something does not add up. As he himself notices, Paris’ Le Monde is pretty much the same sort of liberalism and those guys were mostly atheists for a long time.

    Guilt is a strange thing. It is on one level feeling bad about yourself. But on another level feeling good about yourself because you know you at least have a conscience and that is better than not having it. Saying you are worse than others is a very roundabout way to say you are better than others because you are more humble.

    Posted October 31, 2017 at 6:07 am | Permalink
  2. JK says

    Some may be coming to realizing the extent of that guilt, what it portends:


    Posted October 31, 2017 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

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