Category Archive 'Ideology'

01 Dec 2017

Liberals Chasing Their Historicist Tails

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Barton Swaim finds the spectacle of contemporary Liberalism caught publicly embarrassed in self-contradictory moral Absolutes an endless source of entertainment.

Today’s liberal elite do not look backward for their authority—there are no scriptures and no inviolable traditions in modern liberalism. They look to the future. The rules issuing from the modern liberal clerisy are thought to be the latest manifestation of moral progress, to which educated people must adhere if they wish to be thought of as good people. So for instance American liberals can, in the space of a decade or even less, go from believing marriage is a sacred institution between one man and one woman (Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama said they believed this) to holding that it’s a contract between two people who love each other, even if those two people are of the same sex. They can embrace the latter doctrine just as fervently as they did the earlier one.

The real trouble with this system is that the clerisy, in its enthusiasm to keep up with the times, issues new rules that contradict the old rules. The conflicting nature of its demands is not news, but of late those contradictions have become acute and more obvious.

17 Aug 2014

A Dogmatic “Libertarian” Age?

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Eric Fischl, The Old Man’s Boat and the Old Man’s Dog, 1982. –Our time’s version of The Raft of the Medusa.

Mark Lila, back in June, published an important essay on contemporary ideology in the New Republic, which I would say misidentifies the contemporary ideology of secular egalitarianism as “Libertarianism.”

The social liberalization that began in a few Western countries in the 1960s is meeting less resistance among educated urban elites nearly everywhere, and a new cultural outlook, or at least questioning, has emerged. This outlook treats as axiomatic the primacy of individual self-determination over traditional social ties, indifference in matters of religion and sex, and the a priori obligation to tolerate others. Of course there have also been powerful reactions against this outlook, even in the West. But outside the Islamic world, where theological principles still have authority, there are fewer and fewer objections that persuade people who have no such principles. The recent, and astonishingly rapid, acceptance of homosexuality and even gay marriage in so many Western countries—a historically unprecedented transformation of traditional morality and customs—says more about our time than anything else.

It tells us that this is a libertarian age. That is not because democracy is on the march (it is regressing in many places), or because the bounty of the free market has reached everyone (we have a new class of paupers), or because we are now all free to do as we wish (since wishes inevitably conflict). No, ours is a libertarian age by default: whatever ideas or beliefs or feelings muted the demand for individual autonomy in the past have atrophied. There were no public debates on this and no votes were taken. Since the cold war ended we have simply found ourselves in a world in which every advance of the principle of freedom in one sphere advances it in the others, whether we wish it to or not. The only freedom we are losing is the freedom to choose our freedoms.

Not everyone is happy about this. The left, especially in Europe and Latin America, wants to limit economic autonomy for the public good. Yet they reject out of hand legal limits to individual autonomy in other spheres, such as surveillance and censorship of the Internet, which might also serve the public good. They want an uncontrolled cyberspace in a controlled economy—a technological and sociological impossibility. Those on the right, whether in China, the United States, or elsewhere, would like the inverse: a permissive economy with a restrictive culture, which is equally impossible in the long run. We find ourselves like the man on the speeding train who tried to stop it by pulling on the seat in front of him.

Yet our libertarianism is not an ideology in the old sense. It is a dogma. The distinction between ideology and dogma is worth bearing in mind. Ideology tries to master the historical forces shaping society by first understanding them. The grand ideologies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries did just that, and much too well; since they were intellectually “totalizing,” they countenanced political totalitarianism. Our libertarianism operates differently: it is supremely dogmatic, and like every dogma it sanctions ignorance about the world, and therefore blinds adherents to its effects in that world. It begins with basic liberal principles—the sanctity of the individual, the priority of freedom, distrust of public authority, tolerance—and advances no further. It has no taste for reality, no curiosity about how we got here or where we are going. There is no libertarian sociology (an oxymoron) or psychology or philosophy of history. Nor, strictly speaking, is there a libertarian political theory, since it has no interest in institutions and has nothing to say about the necessary, and productive, tension between individual and collective purposes. It is not liberal in a sense that Montesquieu, the American Framers, Tocqueville, or Mill would have recognized. They would have seen it as a creed little different from Luther’s sola fide: give individuals maximum freedom in every aspect of their lives and all will be well. And if not, then pereat mundus.

Libertarianism’s dogmatic simplicity explains why people who otherwise share little can subscribe to it: small-government fundamentalists on the American right, anarchists on the European and Latin American left, democratization prophets, civil liberties absolutists, human rights crusaders, neoliberal growth evangelists, rogue hackers, gun fanatics, porn manufacturers, and Chicago School economists the world over. The dogma that unites them is implicit and does not require explication; it is a mentality, a mood, a presumption—what used to be called, non-pejoratively, a prejudice. Maintaining an ideology requires work because political developments always threaten its plausibility. Theories must be tweaked, revisions must be revised. Since ideology makes a claim about the way the world actually works, it invites and resists refutation. A dogma, by contrast, does not. That is why our libertarian age is an illegible age.

A must read.

06 Aug 2014

The Contemporary Left and the Arts

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Don Bergland, Ideology, Digital drawing

Jed Perl gets down to some serious chin-stroking in the New Republic about the contemporary Left’s preference for ideology over aesthetic considerations.

Back in 1950, in the preface to The Liberal Imagination, Lionel Trilling worried that liberalism’s “vision of a general enlargement and freedom and rational direction of human life . . . drifts toward a denial of the emotions and the imagination.” Liberalism, he argued, “in the very interest of affirming its confidence in the power of the mind . . . inclines to constrict and make mechanical its conception of the nature of the mind.” In the sixty-four years since Trilling published those words the process of constriction and mechanization has only become more pronounced. This process is reflected in the ever-growing obsession with polls, surveys, and sundry forms of bureaucratic analysis, which threaten to reduce all art’s unruly richness to a set of data points. Instead of viewing life’s unquantifiable artistic experiences as a check on quantification, the well-intended impulse among many liberal commentators is to try and quantify the unquantifiable. But the power of art, which is so personal and so particular, is finally unquantifiable—and therefore a source of embarrassment to the rationalizing mind. What is at stake is art’s freestanding power.

I suppose it is the casualness with which that freestanding power can now be dismissed that struck me in what was on the face of it a fairly off-the-cuff observation in a review that Alex Ross published in The New Yorker not too long ago. Ross is a winningly fluid writer, and he knows how to report on the musical performances that mean the most to him in such a way that his readers become as excited as he is; we share his avidity, his intentness, his keen pleasure. He is a friend of the arts, and he obviously cares passionately about the musical arts. This is why a passing remark in a piece about the Russian conductor Valery Gergiev has held my attention. In the midst of a discussion of Gergiev—who was conducting the opening night of Eugene Onegin at the Metropolitan Opera, and had voiced his strong support for Putin in spite of the Putin regime’s abhorrent support of homophobic legislation in Russia—Ross complained that Gergiev “dabbles in politics, yet insists that politics stops at the doors of art.” And then—and this is the remark that pulled me up short—Ross announced, referring to the idea that politics stops at the doors of art: “This is an old illusion.” There was something in the mingled broadness and offhandedness of Ross’s comment—the sense that this was not just an illusion but an old illusion—that set me to wondering and worrying.

Note that there is no place in contemporary culture for conservatives. We will be lucky, at best, as Auden put it, to be pardoned.

Time that is intolerant
Of the brave and the innocent,
And indifferent in a week
To a beautiful physique,

Worships language and forgives
Everyone by whom it lives;
Pardons cowardice, conceit,
Lays its honours at their feet.

Time that with this strange excuse
Pardoned Kipling and his views,
And will pardon Paul Claudel,
Pardons him for writing well.

11 Dec 2010

The Crisis of the Intelligentsia

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Walter Russell Mead argues that the real weak point of American society is its intelligentsia, mired in self-interest and passionately committed to a 19th century world-view. The future is going to pass this clerisy by, but they are certainly putting up a determined fight on behalf of an already discredited ideology..

Since the late nineteenth century most intellectuals have identified progress with the advance of the bureaucratic, redistributionist and administrative state. The government, guided by credentialed intellectuals with scientific training and values, would lead society through the economic and political perils of the day. An ever more powerful state would play an ever larger role in achieving ever greater degrees of affluence and stability for the population at large, redistributing wealth to provide basic sustenance and justice to the poor. The social mission of intellectuals was to build political support for the development of the new order, to provide enlightened guidance based on rational and scientific thought to policymakers, to administer the state through a merit based civil service, and to train new generations of managers and administrators. The modern corporation was supposed to evolve in a similar way, with business becoming more stable, more predictable and more bureaucratic.

Most American intellectuals today are still shaped by this worldview and genuinely cannot imagine an alternative vision of progress. It is extremely difficult for such people to understand the economic forces that are making this model unsustainable and to see why so many Americans are in rebellion against this kind of state and society – but if our society is going to develop we have to move beyond the ideas and the institutions of twentieth century progressivism. The promises of the administrative state can no longer be kept and its premises no longer hold. The bureaucratic state is too inefficient to provide the needed services at a sustainable cost – and bureaucratic, administrative governments are by nature committed to maintain the status quo at a time when change is needed. For America to move forward, power is going to have to shift from bureaucrats to entrepreneurs, from the state to society and from qualified experts and licensed professionals to the population at large.

A must read.

Hat tip to the Barrister.

09 May 2010

Education, Ideology, and Economics

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Zeljka Buturovic and Daniel B. Klein just published a study of the correlation between an elementary understanding of economics and people’s levels of education and political ideologies.

The 8 simple questions used as measuring sticks of “economic enlightenment” were:

1. Restrictions on housing development make housing less affordable.
• Unenlightened: Disagree
2. Mandatory licensing of professional services increases the prices of those services.
• Unenlightened: Disagree
3. Overall, the standard of living is higher today than it was 30 years ago.
• Unenlightened: Disagree
4. Rent control leads to housing shortages.
• Unenlightened: Disagree
5. A company with the largest market share is a monopoly.
• Unenlightened: Agree
6. Third-world workers working for American companies overseas are being exploited.
• Unenlightened: Agree
7. Free trade leads to unemployment.
• Unenlightened: Agree
8. Minimum wage laws raise unemployment.
• Unenlightened: Disagree

They found that education produced only a slight difference in economic enlightenment, but that political ideology produced far more significant differences.

(Although the authors note that none of the questions actually challenge conventional conservative positions, they) think that the measurement as-is captures something real. At least since the days of Frédéric Bastiat, many have said that people of the left often trail behind in incorporating basic economic insight into their aesthetics, morals, and politics. We put much stock in Hayek’s theory (Hayek 1978, 1979, 1988) that the social-democratic ethos is an atavistic reassertion of the ethos and mentality of the primordial paleolithic band, a mentality resistant to ideas of spontaneous order and disjointed knowledge. Our findings support such a claim, all the caveats notwithstanding. Several of the questions would seem to be fairly neutral with respect to partisan politics, particularly the questions on licensing, the standard of living, monopoly, and free trade. None of those questions challenge policies that are particularly leftwing or rationalized on the basis of equity. Yet even on such neutral questions the “progressives” and “liberals” do much worse than the “conservatives” and “libertarians.”

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