Portrait after a bust of John Locke (Photo by Ullstein Bild)

Unreal liberalism for an unreal world

Individualism looks very different to the lives it excludes and discards

Artillery Row

The ghost-land of the digital realm is a poor substitute for real-world interaction, for the internet is a dreamworld. This is the crux of the issue: liberalism is just as unreal. While conservatives can also be prone to partisan fictions, my central argument is that liberalism as a philosophy is based in fantasy, disconnected from our human reality, creating a world that’s inimical to the common life.

With this in mind, let’s lay out three core propositions, and go through them one by one:

  1. Liberalism’s core tenets are detached from reality.
  2. Liberalism creates an unreal, and therefore harmful, view of the world that’s inimical to the common life lived in harmony with our social nature.
  3. Conservatism accords with reality, with our embodied nature, and enables flourishing through the common life.

Firstly, liberalism itself.

Familial, local and national ties are abstracted away in a universal nowhere

The 17th century thinker Thomas Hobbes laid the groundwork for liberalism when he removed any sense of the transcendent from playing a central role in human affairs, arguing that individuals gathered together and consented to the force of an overwhelming sovereign Leviathan to put an end to our inherently brutish state. Hobbes was followed by John Locke, who argues in his Second Treatise of Government that individuals are born in “perfect” freedom and equality. He defines the goal of life and politics as pursuing life, liberty and property in a world of transactions based on consent, derived from universally valid principles accessible to individual reason. Individual rationality and knowledge are therefore sufficient for social and political formation, while experience and tradition are irrelevant. The familial, local and national ties of mutual loyalty are abstracted away in a placeless, timeless, universal nowhere.

The individualism of Hobbes, Locke and their descendants is utilitarian, designed to maximise autonomy and choice through self-interest and security. Anglo-American law and culture in particular have, over time, become oriented to an anthropology of expressive individualism. Expressive individualism, enabled by the ever-expanding state, is the logical outcome of liberalism’s atomised conception of the individual. It views autonomy and self-determination through the cultivation of the inner self as the highest good. Unchosen obligations and bonds of mutual loyalty are erased in favour of self-fulfilment and self-actualisation. On the left, this works through the social sphere, while on the right it applies to the economic sphere.

Now, a reasonable objection might well be that Hobbes and Locke were conducting thought experiments about social relations and how society should be formed, rather than describing an actual state of nature. The answer to which is, well, yes, and this just strengthens the argument that liberalism, at its core, is completely detached from the world as it is and humans as they are.

Now, let’s move to the second proposition, on liberalism’s harmful unreality and impact on the common life. It is not hard to see how this vision of the self-creating and self-choosing individual, living out their self-defined inner and authentic truth, has left us disorientated and atomised, cloistered in the solitudes of our own hearts. We are weighed down by the despair of liberalism’s successes. We’re caught in a cage of our own making, trapped by the very vision we hoped would grant complete freedom.

Liberals from Locke onwards wrote for their fellow elites

Liberals from Locke onwards viewed their unconstrained rationalism as available only to a select few: all were rational, but some were more rational than others. They wrote for their fellow elites, in the hope that their ideas would permeate the elite institutional networks that inevitably run society. Ideas may have consequences. But the most consequential ideas are those which are entrenched and implemented through the networks and institutions that comprise the ruling class. As a result of this, the West saw the ascension of a public liberalism in the post-war years, one that thankfully ended a series of injustices, but also ignores and denigrates those goods which give our lives shape and meaning: those of family, community, national identity.

We have seen the social and economic devastation growing since the 1970s: dissolved community ties; skyrocketing dislocation, isolation and loneliness; increasing numbers of people lost in the depths of depression; communities, like those across “Peripheral France”, adrift and bereft of purpose; income and wealth stratification married to social fragmentation; meritocracy pushed as the solution, while actually a means to reinforce the self-congratulatory dominance of the ruling class. For Benjamin Disraeli, “Liberal opinions are the opinions of those who would be free from a certain dependence and duty which are deemed necessary for the general or popular welfare. Liberal opinions are very convenient opinions for the rich and powerful.”

It’s hard to imagine anything further from the reality of our embodied and social existence than the self devoid of attachments, loyalties and obligations. This is what Michael Sandel calls the “unencumbered self”, a complete illusion that is nevertheless hegemonic in our governing classes, inculcated through education, communicated through the means of cultural production.

The senselessness of the liberal worldview is shown by the war in Ukraine. Setting aside Ukraine’s political structures, the Ukrainian people are demonstrating through their valiant actions the unreality of liberalism. These men and women are fighting to protect their national home, their communities, their families not only, or even mainly, for abstract notions of equality, international law, universal rights and the rest. They are fighting to save what gives them a reason to exist, reminding us of some old virtues: courage, duty, dignity, heroism, honour, loyalty, responsibility and sacrifice.

Postliberal conservatism represents the best hope for preserving what we have left

The fact that many in the liberal commentariat often don’t appreciate why people fight and die for things like history and religion is surreal. What do they think people die for? As foreign policy commentator Gray Connolly has said, what do they think people pull triggers and put bayonets in for? People die for their shared home. Like Horatius, Captain of the Gate, they fight and die for the ashes of their fathers and the temples of their gods.

The war in Ukraine shows how many in the Clerisy, those who clothe the ruling class in cultural legitimacy, have become immersed in the digital economy and an increasingly contactless culture. They fail to understand the effort it requires to conduct such complex undertakings, and, for example, were surprised at the difficulties faced by Russian forces. The Clerisy has forgotten what conventional war entails because it is less and less aware of the constraints of the physical world.

The idea that we were on an ever upward trajectory, following Western victory in the Cold War, could only be believed by an elite able to live as they do because of an economy and society shaped to their benefit. They refuse to accept the existence of a perennial human nature, committed to a faith that globalised commerce and cultural contact would cause a convergence on Western, liberal-democratic norms. We now see the folly of this expectation. As Samuel Huntington wisely wrote, “Economic exchange brings people into contact; it does not bring them into agreement.” History does not end; it continues.

Let’s end with the final proposition. The answer to the problem of unreal liberalism and its very real consequences is both simple and complex: a truly postliberal conservatism represents the best hope for the preservation of what we have left, and the recovery of what we have lost. This conservatism sees man in his social context, embedded in a time and place, enmeshed in mutual loyalties with family, friends, community and nation. With Edmund Burke, we view the interconnected individual as moving in history, embodying a covenant maintained through tradition of the dead, the living and those yet to be born. The goods of inheritance and legacy are fundamental to our view of life and its purpose.

For Roger Scruton, we “enter a world marked by the joys and sufferings of those who are making room for us”. We grow within this web of relationships, cultivated by others from whom we “enjoy protection in our early years and opportunities in our maturity”. Out of this grows an extended self where one’s own experience, perceptions and feelings are intertwined with one’s family and wider community. There must be a “we” for there to be a “me”.

Conservatism sees the human person as sacrosanct, made in the image and likeness of God, suffused with dignity. However, we are all subject to the fallenness of our hearts, divided down the middle between good and evil as Solzhenitsyn so eloquently described. The fact of our flawed nature and our place in a broken world lends a tragic view of life, one aware of its inherent limits and the constraints on our ability to shape the world according to our whims.

In my own life, conservatism coheres with living with a disability more than liberalism ever could

Conservatism is the constrained view of life. The conservative insight is that the cultivation of virtue, through self-restraint born of long habituation, means that limits are in fact liberating. Conservatives agree with Christopher Lasch that there are “inherent limits on human control over the course of social development, over nature and the body, over the tragic elements in human life and history”. Liberalism rages at our imperfectability. Conservatism has hope for our final redemption in the hereafter, not the here and now. We accept and reconcile to the finitude of our existence, and see liberalism’s proclamation of limitless choice leading only to existential paralysis. This hallmark of late-modernity induces a lassitude seen across the West and the wider world, with many cultures unwilling even to continue their own existence through having children.

In my own life, conservatism coheres far more with the experience of living with a disability than liberalism’s illusions ever could. Having a disability reveals in visceral terms the truth of conservatism’s moral realism and human anthropology. Liberalism cannot account for the givenness of the human condition, the universality of relationship, and the interdependence revealed in the particular embodiment of the disabled life. The conservative view has been a source of sustenance that brings consolation in sorrow, and affirmation in joy.

By contrast, the atomised worldview of our rulers results in what Bertrand de Jouvenal called “a chartered libertarianism for the strong”. The unfettered individual stands alone, careless of the bonds that define his existence, the bonds which allow the making of a life together with those around him. We are seeing this ideology of cruelty, with a mask of kindness, tear its way through the fabric of European and Anglo-American society. The increasing push for euthanasia is liberalism’s endpoint: final control over the end of life itself, choice elevated to the highest good to achieve the lowest result. Indeed, we recently experienced another push to see euthanasia legalised in Britain.

Meanwhile, the Princeton Professor of Bioethics Peter Singer has said that those born with my condition are better off being killed just after birth, to spare us the burden of our suffering. Oh, brave new world that has such creatures in it! It’s not every day you hear someone at the height of liberal institutional prestige say how little worth your existence holds. We shouldn’t be surprised, as it was two good liberals after all who coined the term, “life unworthy of life”. If one is unable to fulfil the liberal ideal of the autonomous, rationally choosing individual, and is not held even in physical frailty to be made in the image and likeness of God, how does liberalism argue against its own lethal endpoint of euthanasia for the suffering, out of compassion?

The central goal of conservatism going forward must be a reassertion of the worth of the individual. Not as an isolated atom, but through our membership of familial, local and national community, our lives the chords that comprise the melody of our civilisation, echoing down the years — now in danger of falling silent. It is up to us to chart a way forward: to begin the task of recovering the good, the true and the beautiful. To rebuild from the economic and social rubble of what has been lost. Michel Houellebecq wrote last year that “when a country — a society, a civilisation — gets to the point of legalising euthanasia, it loses in my eyes all right to respect”. He calls for destruction; I call for restoration, not just for the protection of those like myself, but for the flourishing of all of us who participate in the common life of our national homes. This is our most urgent task.

Reprinted with kind permission from a speech to the National Conservative Conference

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