Sunday, August 13, 2006

Samuel Francis and The Enigma of Modern Liberalism

I saw something interesting the other day. For the longest time, I haven't been able to understand the ideology of modern liberalism. Oh sure, I understand its fundamental tenets. But the canon of thought that defines liberalism seems, for lack of a better word, mistaken. Its conception of man, its view of the world and the goals of society, its understanding of the transcendent - they are all flawed and demonstrably incorrect. Since the early 60’s, with the publication of Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom, liberal policies have been systematically exposed as utter failures. In fact, it is well known that the neoconservative idea arose primarily as a reaction to the failure of liberalism. As Irving Kristol put it, neoconservatives are simply "liberals who have been mugged by reality." And Norman Podhoretz suggested that neoconservatives should more properly be called neo-liberals.

Of course, the idea that one's intellectual rivals are patently mistaken might cheer some partisans, and to a certain degree, I too partake of this cup. But frankly, it flummoxes me more than it delights. How can it be that so many people subscribe to ideas that are so clearly mistaken? How, just to name one example, can anyone in their right mind support affirmative action, when its policies have proven to exacerbate rather than assuage racial divisiveness?

Obviously, I know the conservative view of modern liberalism - it is nothing more than the manifest destiny of individualism and egalitarianism lacking the normative checks of the past; in Bork’s terminology, radical individualism and radical egalitarianism. I mean by this that according to conservative intellectuals, there does not exist a defense per se of modern liberalism. It is not an ideology that one might subscribe to, but rather an insidious perversion of the formerly noble goals of true (albeit flawed) thinkers such as Locke, John Stuart Mill and Emerson.

And yet, I assume, surely this is not the way modern liberals view themselves. Surely there are liberals out there that have produced a coherent exposition and defense of the modern liberal idea. So I began to read what they had to offer, from the punditry of Alan Colmes and Al Franken, to more serious works by Robert Reich, John Rawls and others. I spoke to my liberal friends. I trolled political discussion boards.

But nothing helped. The ideas of modern liberalism are, quite simply, so much bunkum. In all my life, I’ve never seen so many arguments based on sentimentality, disingenuousness, appeals to amorphous and fluid concepts, and just plain stupidity.

This is to say nothing of what passes for partisan political discourse on the J-Bloggosphere. I'm practically embarrassed to recount some of the liberal positions I've seen espoused by supposedly rational commentators. The most recent I recall was a group of liberal commentators who took the jaw-dropping position that a druggist who refused, on principle, to carry a certain drug (a type of birth-control pill) was “forcing his views on others.”

This brought me to the next question. If modern liberalism is illegitimate as an intellectual idea, how is it that it gained ascendancy? And more worrying still - why does it continue to instill allegiance? Is it really true, as Ann Coulter claims, that the electorate simply has no conception of the real agenda and intellectual underpinnings of the "liberal party"?

And then I saw something that explained it neatly, an essay in Samuel Francis's Beautiful Losers. I'll admit that I haven't been overly impressed with the work thus far (and I'm nearing the end.) Francis was recommended to me as the most eloquent of the paleoconservative theorists, and frankly, if this is the best the paleos have got, I can see why the neoconservatives are having their way. Nevertheless, he did make a couple of interesting points, and his explanation of the influence of ideas is one of them.

Francis begins by recounting that ever since the renewal of conservative thought in the 40's, conservative intellectuals have been wedded to Richard Weaver's principle that “Ideas Have Consequences.” In Weaver’s own words,

I take the view that the conscious policies of men and governments are not mere rationalizations of what has been brought about by unaccountable forces. They are rather deductions from our most basic ideas of human destiny, and they have a great, though not unobstructed, power to determine our course.

Put more simply, society is a consequence and an outgrowth of the ideas that empower it. It followed that if conservatives could somehow "win the battle" of ideas (i.e. logically discredit liberalism) then eventually society would, by osmosis, become more conservative. But Francis claims that this assumption is false. He explains,

I have less faith in the power of intellectual abstractions than most of my conservative colleagues. The historian Lewis Namier remarked that "new ideas are not nearly as potent as broken habits"...In the tradition of Namier and Burnham, I place more emphasis on the concrete forces of elites, organization, and psychic and social forces such as class and regional and ethnic the determining forces in history.

So according to Francis, although ideas have power, that power is meager compared to the manipulations of societal elites. In fact, the elites often espouse an idea not because of its intrinsic worth, but rather because it meshes well with their own agenda and weltanschauung. In a sense, this is the polar opposite of Weaver's view - it is not ideas that creates society, but society that creates the ideas. This is where liberalism enters the picture. Francis writes,

Liberalism barely exists as an independent set of ideas and values. Virtually no significant thinker of this century has endorsed it. Internally, the doctrines of liberalism are so contrary to established fact, inconsistent with each other, and immersed in sentimentalism, resentment, egotism, and self-interest that they cannot be taken seriously as a body of ideas.

Harsh words. If liberalism is a bankrupt idea continues Francis, what explains is ascendancy? He answers that "the ideology or formula of liberalism grows out of the structural interests of the elite that espouses it." He then goes on to delineate the connections he perceives between what he refers to as the managerial elite and the mass-scale aspects of liberalism (which is beyond the scope of this piece.)

Of course, I have serious reservations about his thesis. The kernel of the idea comes from James Burnham, who sought only to explain the impact of the separation of control from ownership in corporate America, and it seems that Francis has stretched the thesis in directions that Burnham never intended. Also, many of the connections Francis draws are dubious at best. And it may just be that Bork is correct - liberalism is nothing more than the radicalism of otherwise healthy values. Nevertheless, if we accept his premise, our original question is answered. Yes, liberalism is bunkum; the reason it remains a powerful influence is because the managerial elite finds it a useful tool. As you can see, I still haven't made up my mind here – I welcome any and all further discussion, as well as any book recommendations that might finally explain the enigma that is modern liberalism.

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