In countering critics of liberalism, the establishment left and right tend to mirror each other. This shared defence ostensibly goes along the following lines:
Liberalism may have caused significant social, economic and cultural disruption. But these changes must remain impeded lest we irrationally resist the inevitable arc of history. Whatever costs–imposed on the family, religion, economic security and community–these are outweighed by continued advances in material well-being. Since the close of World War Two, Western countries have experienced less poverty, hunger, disease and war than any prior civilisation. By virtue of these material metrics, liberalism is the greatest ideology yet devised. For this reason, we ought to avoid any initiative that could threaten the logic and consequences of liberal doctrine.
This line of reasoning in one form or another, plays a central role in our modern social contract. Alongside the belief that real change may be achieved through elections, because of our anticipated increase in living standards, people give effective consent to continuing our political system–seen in the absence of significant violent or non-violent resistance.
So much hinges on this faith in a perpetually upward standard of living. However, in the long run, materialism is insufficient in answering the comprehensive range of human needs: there are exigencies that extend beyond our access to ample material amenities.
Out of what can be observed from history and human nature, essentially, there are four non-material needs found desperately wanting in liberalism–which starkly manifest themselves in modern times.
The first of these is the absence of a meaningful group identity. As social creatures, we seek to attach ourselves to particular groups, places and people. This process is by definition particularist, which must exclude other distinct non-entities in order to carry real weight. This desire is frustrated under a government sceptical of identity politics: as Scott Morrison said himself, he objects to ‘demarcation lines’ because they challenge individual autonomy. Instead, Morrison favours a national identity that blandly and inexplicably ‘unites’. Naturally, this hollow conception of national identity appeals to no-one, thus being unable to abate widening racial, religious and cultural divisions.
Heavily related to the first, the second is the human attraction towards life transcendental values. When certain interests, people or ideas are under mortal threat, humans have shown a consistent willingness to put aside material interests and fight to the death for their conception of the greater good. This tendency is critical from the standpoint of human nature: the willingness to commit towards life transcendental causes is a large part of what characterises our kind.
In our liberal democracy, issues that carry an abiding potential for violence are downplayed. This is seen in the phenomenon of ‘conscience’ votes, whereby politicians mitigate terse disagreements by simply abdicating the fight for deeply held moral beliefs.
Despite this present timidity, the human predilection to fight for life transcendental values–or taking extreme measures to secure them–cannot be eternally staved off. Take Greta Thunberg, Time’s 2019 ‘Person of the Year’, who called for politicians unconcerned with climate change to be “put up against a wall.”
The third is the human desire for glory and upheaval, often sought out in conditions of uninspiring politics. In Progress and Its Critics, Christopher Lasch describes how this impulse shored up popular support for the Third Reich:
In 1940, George Orwell made the same point about fascism. The Western democracies, he observed, had come to think that “human beings desire nothing beyond ease, security and avoidance of pain.” Whatever else could be said about it, fascism was “psychologically far sounder than any hedonistic conception of life.” Hitler knew that men and women wanted more than “comfort, safety, short-working hours, hygiene, birth control.” “Whereas socialism, and even capitalism … have said to people, ‘I offer you a good time,’ Hitler has said to them, ‘I offer you struggle, danger and death,’ and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet.”
The fourth is not so much a need, instead a factor which additionally calls into question the supposed pre-eminence of material well-being. Specifically, what we imagine as exemplifying material discomfort–war–is not in each and every instance an entirely terrible thing.
Again in Progress and Its Critics, Christopher Lasch explicates the early 20th century fears held by British elites of a material-induced decadence, and their view to addressing it:
National “opulence” led to “national effeminacy and effeteness”: “corruption exists in direct ratio to the wealth of a nation.” Lea blamed “excessive national wealth” for the spread of “luxury, feminism, theorism, [and] the decay of martial inclination and military capacity.”
This fear of decadence haunted all the “over-civilised” industrial nations at this time, especially the patrician classes, who embraced imperialism not so much as a higher stage of capitalism but as the cure for capitalism–for the “purposeless gluttony,” as Lea put it, that sapped the fighting spirit. In order to win businessmen to the cause of expansion, imperialists had to argue, somewhat inconsistently, that colonies would enhance national wealth; but they were happier when they could urge war and conquest for their own sake.
Because it is so testing, war is uniquely able to foster attributes of courage, honour and hardness. Such qualities are all markedly absent from the modern-day, as we have sunk further into a ‘purposeless gluttony’ than prior conceived as possible. Significantly, the above is not to downplay or trivialise the human cost of war. It is to say, however, the complete absence of war (or analogous challenges) altogether tends to emasculate, demoralise and bring about a weaker type of man.
Given the above unaddressed needs, the ultimate collapse of liberal hegemony and its strictly materialist conception of human wellbeing seems assured.
The question thus becomes not if, but when liberalism shall collapse as our state ideology; and how this process can be best managed to serve our interests.