The Liberal Ayatolliad and the Covid Coup
The eclipse of ‘liberalism’ in the Covid assault was no accidental effect of transient confusion, but the inevitable outcome of the paradox that liberals desire to change man more than to free him.
A question asked surprisingly rarely over the past two years of trampling on the inheritance of classical European liberalism is: Why no outcry? If we were to judge purely on the degree of emphasis on these values over the course of our conscious lifetimes — be they long or short — from, say, the end of the Second World War to April Fool’s Day 2020, a matter of 75 years — we must surely think it strange, if not disquieting, that so much that was taken for granted could be abandoned with so little commotion. In such an inventory, it would become clear that almost nothing but the basic needs of physical survival have seemed more important than individual freedom under various headings. Some of those headings — it is true — have been occasionally controversial, but only because they have touched on areas where one freedom of one person has encroached ominously upon freedoms of another. But even these disputes have been waged around the premise that the maximisation of freedom is to be qualified only in the reconciliation of such conflicts, and then only minimally and in a manner that is clearly delineated.
As the world took off again after its brief cardiac arrest of the spring of 2020, it seemed that all such scruples had been jettisoned in favour of a new dispensation that seemed worrisomely familiar. In this suddenly erupting regimen, it was as though the emphasis on personal freedom had been some kind of radical mistake, that — valourised unto the day before yesterday — it had overnight revealed itself as some kind of treacherous folly. Without warning, the world seemed to reach an imperceptible philosophical crossroads and abruptly deviate from the path it had been certain of for nearly 3,000 years. As it continued, the general thrust of its conversations appeared to intimate that it had been decided, after all, that a course long regarded as unthinkable had suddenly been subject to a brief re-evaluation, followed by almost instantaneous and near total adoption. At the core of this new way of seeing was an idea that, on first examination — being presented in terms like ‘solidarity’ and ‘the common good’ — seemed to be merely a retreading of the long-applied convention of applying qualifiers on the individual rights of one actor when they rubbed up too abrasively against rights of another or others. But on closer scrutiny it became clear to any shrewd observer that what was afoot was not some minor process of circumscription or recalibration, but a radical rewriting of fundamentals. The ‘common good’ being spoken of here was not some refinement of prior understandings but a redefinition of civilisational reality to co-opt ideas associated with an ideological outlook hitherto regarded as failed, extreme, detrimental and deadly — a form of collectivised understanding that elevated the security of the group above the liberty of the individual — indeed, as rapidly became clear, in which individual rights were to be regarded as dangerous.
In the Preamble of the Constitution of Ireland — by way of an example that may help to tease out the scale of the deviation we seek to capture here — the aim of promoting the ‘common good’ is not defined as any kind of collectivist purpose, but the guaranteeing of 'the dignity and freedom of the individual’ so that ‘true social order’ may be achieved. In this — the classical liberal, common-law model — the purpose of the political community — the polis, in Grecian terms — is not collectivisation, but social cooperation under headings like ‘the material’, ‘cultural’ and ‘moral’, in the interests of the maximised development of each individual person. In this model there is no collective, at least not one deemed deserving of legal protection, and this for the very good reason that such a dispensation would be a fast train to totalitarianism. In a liberal democracy, the purpose of a polis — political community — is in principle to cultivate the ‘common good’ not for the benefit of some abstract collective — the ‘greatest good of the greatest number’ — but so each individual member of that association might prosper to the highest degree possible. In this model, as expressed in the words of the great Irish jurist Declan Costello, whenever the exigencies of the common good are called to justify restrictions on the exercise of basic rights, ‘it has to be borne in mind that the protection of basic rights is one of the objects which the common good is intended to assure.’ Hence, the polis, as such, is not nurtured for its own sake — or at least its cultivation is always predicated on the enhancement of the lives of its individual members. Indeed, in this model, the preference of the collective has no meaning capable of being detached from the fundamental, personal rights or individual citizens. To argue for the ‘common good’ in collective terms is therefore a negation of the very concept of human rights and dignity.
This may seem a subtle distinction, but it is, so to speak, illuminated by means of an analogy between the common good and the concept of street lighting. The system may be collectively owned but its benefits are individually conferred. Each citizen, with the help of the street lights, sees with his own eyes, and is thus enabled to pursue his life in the public space after dark. There is no everyday context in which the lighting is used for collectivised purpose. Even a ‘public’ event, such as a carnival, is enjoyed individually rather than collectively, and it is this the public lighting enables rather than some shared experience of enjoyment.
We know, further, from history and the writings of astute observers, that the idea of collectivised benefit as some category separate from the individual benefit, exists only as a form of hazard — the crowd, or mob, under manipulation or direction of collectivist demagogues. Only under such conditions does anything identifiable as a ‘collective psychology’ materialise, and this ‘group soul’, in as far as it suggests some collective experience capable of being balanced against the rights and dignities of individuals, is both illusory and dangerous.
The key to understanding the democratic implications of what occurred in March/April 2020 is to see the ‘pandemic’ as a subterfuge for a radical assault on freedom predicated on a bogus or exaggerated claim of a potentially lethal contagion — a global coup. The ‘virus’ narrative was used to demolish the edifice of individual rights that had hitherto constituted the core of Western freedom, and to supplant it with an imperative to protect an abstract collective from harm deemed to threaten the group via the individual. This served overnight to annul a raft of rights and freedoms hard won over multiple centuries, and this with the ostensible support of a majority of the individuals affected. Accordingly, for over two years, a minority of befuddled observers in the former Free World has been pondering how it could be that people who have been steeped in the stories of Soviet totalitarianism, the works of survivors and heroes like Solzhenitsyn and Havel, as well as the fictional works of Orwell and Huxley, could so casually embark upon the treacherous path these witnesses and writers had so thoroughly signposted and cautioned of. How this came to pass is the conundrum we face at this possible terminal moment for Western freedoms.
In a May 2022 article, for Unherd, Covid was liberalism’s endgame, the great contemporary American philosopher, Mathew B. Crawford, asks whether it might be the case that liberalism always had an ‘innate tendency towards authoritarianism’ and decides that the answer is yes.
Crawford sets out the conundrum within the topography of philosophical historiography. He is himself much more than an academic — a great practical philosopher of the present moment, who normally grounds his thinking in both personal experience and the inheritance of Western thought. Here, however, his edifice wobbles slightly due to the shortcoming of many efforts to explain some elusive phenomenon of the present in purely philosophical terms: it treats the discrete theories of the masters he has selected to illuminate the conditions under analysis as though together they might add up to an understanding unavailable in their separate parts — in other words, he approaches the thoughts of philosophical icons as building blocks rather than raw lumber to be adapted and reconstituted to the particularities of the conundrum under examination.
Crawford, I would say, from observing his work and contributions over the past two years, has been a thoughtful Covid skeptic, taking for granted that the lockdowns were unnecessary and unhealthy. Sketching a comparison between the Spanish Flu of 1918 and the Covid episode, he observes: ‘There is an inverse relationship between the severity of these pandemics and the severity of measures to control them.’ Two whole years ago he published an article asserting that ‘Grasping bureaucracies are using lockdown as an excuse to choke the human spirit.’
His most recent book, Why We Drive, published in early 2020, ‘accidentally’ relates to some of the central Covid questions, one of its chief themes being the dangers of ‘safetyism’ in the context of the ominous imminence of the self-driving car. Safetyism, he argues, has supplanted all other moral sensibilities, creating a downward spiral of life-enhancing risk, which ultimately delivers us not to zero-Covid, but zero-adventure, moving us ever closer to max unfreedom.
In this latest Unherd article, he examines the use of ‘states of exception’, which suspend the normative charter of self-government and install processes of government-by-decree by politicians unmandated to this end. This, Crawford attests, now threatens to become the norm rather than the exception.
The access key to such a transformation is the use of emergency to trip the democratic circuitry, defaulting to an allegedly unavoidable despotism that rapidly courts totalitarianism. The language of war is used to create one after another ‘emergency’, so that we arrive willy nilly at a state of quasi-permanent crisis, requiring the state to intervene to secure public safety, et cetera. Crawford interestingly relates this concept to that of a contemporary incarnation of the ‘moral panic,’ in which some victim category stands to be protected over and above the norm, leading to an upsurge in bureaucratic supervision, to the detriment of egalitarianism and normative ‘liberal’ expectation. He rightly draws a line connecting these developments in recent political life to the manifestation of the accelerator of Covid in the spring of 2020. By Crawford’s illuminating account, the totalising effect of these syndromes serves to steal the essence of liberalism, dragging society backwards while affecting virtue. These tendencies, already implicit in the modern liberal model, he writes, became rampant in the Covid episode. The ‘pandemic’ both ‘accelerated what had previously been a slow-motion desertion of liberal principles of government’, and ‘brought to the surface the usually subterranean core of the liberal project, which is not merely political but anthropological: to remake man.’
Here, he has put his finger on the central contradiction of liberalism: that it conflates ‘freedom’ with human ‘improvability’ — a belief in radical human progress; the unfettered transformation of social values; antipathy towards the ‘old order’ and its guardians; and the drive to radically change the real, existing man to recreate him as a quasi-perfect hybrid being. This concept of human-improvability is sometimes known as ‘anthropological palingenesis’ — a drive towards ‘rebirthing’ man as radically new phenomenon, born out of the desire that man himself be the sole and overarching ‘creator’, capable of generating or recreating anything within his sphere of influence, including — especially — himself. Crawford at first sets down as mutually contradictory the ideas of freedom and anthropological palingenesis, and proceeds to show how their combination under Covid resulted in a seismic shift in the nature of political freedom. The ‘remaking’ of man, though ostensibly a ‘liberal’ project, requires an illiberal form of government to advance it. But the virtuous aura of collective ‘self-improvement’, renders it ostensibly compatible with the liberal desire for ‘progress’. This is why the lockdown measures met with such little liberal resistance: ‘It seems the anthropological project is a more powerful commitment for us than allegiance to the forms and procedures of liberal government.’
In a philosophical deep-dive, he weighs up the competing metaphysics of John Locke and Thomas Hobbes, plumping for the former’s benign, commonsensical notions of self-government over the latter’s claim that our ‘irrational pride’ makes it essential that we be ruled over for our own good and protection. This — now ascendant — Hobbesian notion is at the root of the ‘technocratic, progressive’ model of politics, which we nowadays identify with the periodic shiny-suited manifestations in Davos, and unmandated manifestos like the 2030 Agenda and the Great Reset. This model has spawned also the behavioural model of politics that assails us now from all directions, apparently requiring that we be ‘nudged’ by our ‘rulers’ in our own interests. In this model, Crawford outlines, we are regarded ‘not as citizens whose considered consent must be secured, but as particles to be steered through a science of behaviour management that relies on our pre-reflective cognitive biases.’ This, indeed, is a post-citizenry form of ‘democracy’, in which the individual mutates to a ‘client’ of the state, carrying our duties and paying tribute in return for protection. This model delivers us to compulsory measures by mandate of ‘the science’, to the cult of the expert, and ultimately the algorithm, by which all visible human agency is bypassed. A once free people wakes up one day to be ruled by shy, ‘self-effacing’ actors whose names and faces have never appeared on an election poster. This process of mystification breaks the chain of democratic accountability and renders inscrutable the systems and process by which a society is governed. ‘Technocratic progressivism,’ writes Crawford, ‘in fact requires the disqualification of experience and common sense as a guide to reality, and installs in their place a priestly form of authority, closer to the Enlightenment’s caricature of medieval society than to [the Enlightenment’s] own self-image.’ It also spawns a fearful, credulous type of non-citizen, who behaves in society like a timid child on his first day in a new school.
This raises an obvious question: Was Thomas Hobbes even a liberal? His philosophy, says Crawford, is ‘liberal in the sense that it is founded on consent. But it turns out this consent depends on a re-education program that reaches quite deep, and is never finished.’ Hobbes believed that each human person, predatory and insatiable, is the enemy of each of the others, thus necessitating a strong state, which he named Leviathan, after the biblical sea creature that only God could tame.
The Hobbesian view of the human is as much a metaphysics — albeit a negative one — as a political philosophy, and tends towards darkness. It is mistrustful and skeptical of the claimed human capacity for discerning and choosing the good. It disputes the reliability of conscience, but then delivers the self-mistrusting humans over to the consciences of ‘higher’ — presumably because more knowing and trustworthy — humans. And here we can observe the centrally oxymoronic quality of the term ‘liberal democracy’: in the logic of the Leviathan, the liberal instinct tends incessantly towards a willed tyranny, since the selfishness and greed of ‘illiberal’ man requires no less. Hobbes, seeing his species as constantly on the brink of civil strife, requiring strict state supervision to guard against it own dark instincts, leaned towards benign monarchism. ‘Ordinary’ humans are weak, vain and egotistical, and thus their own worst enemies, their pride leading them always into trouble, from which only more elevated forms of consciousness can save them.
An obvious problem with this conception relates to whom might be deemed — and by whom? — a worthy supervisor of these unreliable tendencies. Meet Hobbes’s ‘Leviathan’ — the ‘King of the proud,’ to whose will the people must submit in their own interests. The ‘liberalism’ factor enters into this exactly how? By virtue, it seems, of tacit consent: human weakness, pride and victimhood requires a surrendering of individual power, removing the right of dissent until the danger has passed. ‘Men,’ Crawford observes with precision acuity, ‘will submit to Leviathan only if they inhabit a moral universe that has been emptied of transcendent referents.’ God — the sole threat to Leviathan — must be eliminated.
We know, of course, that grotesque propaganda and media censorship of alternative voices magnified the fear about Covid way out of proportion to any risk, and these conditions resulted in a relieved handing-over of personal and collective sovereignty and the most fundamental rights and freedoms into state ‘safekeeping’. This resulted in a toxic circularity whereby control within the escalatingly technocratic political process was amenable to purchase by the state, using propaganda to maintain its massed population in quiescent demeanour. In this contrived climate, alternative interpretations of the unfolding reality were designated ‘disinformation’, pulling the ladder up on the possibility of escape.
The temptation for the modern Leviathan is that the condition of permanent emergency offers the possibility also of unending power. And here, absent the monarch of old, the ruler is someone who has acquired the authority to suspend the normative checks and balances by dint of a claimed democratic consent that is rarely if ever formalised. Modern ‘democratic’ politicians are not supposed to be ‘rulers’ but public representatives, delegates, at most ‘firsts among equals’. The spectacle of the entire panoply of state powers of coercion being summoned up in such a situation, against the very people these mechanisms are supposed to belong to and serve, is ugly beyond description, and yet in the Covid episode this aspect attracted minimal adverse criticism. This effect, says Crawford, is achieved by ‘cultivating the vulnerable self’ — using fearmongering to maintain the individual in a state of trembling so he never thinks to recall his power. The technocratic-progressive state has advanced means of nurturing the vulnerability of the citizen-who-has-ceased-to-be-a-citizen, so as to forestall any such reawakening.
Crawford postulates that, in part, the general acquiescence in Covid excess bespoke a hidden ‘desire to belong’ after the long decades of liberal individualism, a felt need to be required to discharge duties rather than simply claiming ‘rights’ and entitlements. In this context, he posits, the ‘war against Covid’ evinced some positive aspects, including a welcome shifting back to public-spiritedness. But this was itself a reaction to conditions created by the very ideologies that found their culmination in the Covid episode: high levels of social fragmentation and atomisation — arising from secularism and family breakdown and spawning anxieties and aggressions that provided ripe conditions for mass formation. The paradoxical solidarity of social distancing dramatised the nature of atomised society, while providing a common cause that drew people temporarily together. This, as Hannah Arendt observed, provides ideal conditions for totalitarianism, drawing people into the mass — mob — as a form of over-correction where no other means of achieving togetherness is available.
Like the psychologist and analyst of modern mass formation, Mattias Desmet, Crawford argues that it is unnecessary to adduce a conspiracy of elites to explain an operation like this, since the ‘shared public morality of the sacralised victim’ is sufficient to create the necessary cohesion and iron out any contradictions. For example, the apparent ‘unfairness’ of permitting BLM protests in honour of George Floyd, without social distancing, while batoning anti-lockdown protestors for the same alleged liberty: ‘explained’ by underlining the righteous heroism of ‘mainly peaceful protestors’, as against the selfishness of the anti-lockdown campaigners — elevating the victim/martyr above the ‘self-interested’ urge to freedom.
Crawford is chiefly interested in liberals’ ‘lack of curiosity’ concerning the many contradictions of Covid and the remedies brought forward allegedly to counteract it. He points out that there have been no great moves to, for instance, calculate the costs of the lockdown in lives and health, which might indeed be deemed odd given that this was supposed to be the point of the whole thing. ‘The real attachment,’ he decides, ‘seems to be, not to actual health, but to a source of collective meaning that floats free of the empirical: the Covid emergency itself’. But this collective purpose, he writes, ‘was of a peculiar, negative sort.’ It was also blinkered — shutting out its own limitations and contradictions so as to claim the singular and ultimately unattainable outcomes posited at the beginning. Thus, what he identifies and names is almost what might be described as an object within a game — a precise outcome within defined rules, ignoring and discounting everything that does not fit the regulatory definitions. A ball ending up in the net directly from an indirect free kick is not a ‘score’ within the meaning of the rules — just as a death caused by lockdown cannot be counted against the ‘gains’ achieved against Covid. The ‘game’ of ‘pandemic meaning’ evolved around a singular set of objectives, excluding all other considerations: ‘The good that was latched onto as a source of collective meaning during the pandemic was that of minimising deaths attributable to a single cause, never mind the wider field of harms done by the lockdowns outside this tunnel vision.’
And this also, he observes, caused us to discount losses and damage that might, at another time, have generated outrage: masked children, abandoned grandparents, stalled human interaction — together amounting to ‘a kind of enforced nihilism’. The narrow metrics of the ‘game’ permitted the ignoring and discounting of manifold wrongs, including the coercive sanctioning of attempts to seek meaning under different metrics, and appeals to constitutional guarantees trod underfoot.
In these broad strokes, Crawford illustrates how the Covid Leviathan insinuated itself as a necessary corrective to human weakness — not, in this case, moral weaknesses, but biological ones: the human susceptibility to infection and capacity for transmission. This, he writes with ruthless precision, resulted in ‘the consummation of a project that puts the flight from death, rather than attraction to the good’, at the centre of our political metaphysics. Human life was reduced to survival at all costs, including the cost of jettisoning the possibility of living while alive.
The nature of our recent culture — the ‘technical society’ as anticipated by Jacques Ellul, which blocks human beings from their own humanity, renders inevitable the Faustian choice of pelingenesis over freedom. As a result, we have arrived, says Crawford, in an age of ‘spiritlessness’, consumed in equal measure by rage and depression, both arising from forms of relativism that lead us to mistrust our own capacity to know what is right and what is good. The liberal prohibition on imposing our judgements and values on the world has reduced us to an entirely subjective method of apprehension, which we mistrust, and which now prompts us to reject liberalism itself in favour of an uneasy safetyism rather than a confident culture dominated by reason, passion and self-belief. The instilled fear of our own dark natures has turned us into our own gaolers.
Crawford’s logic here is as though an elaboration on the theme of R.R. Reno’s 2019 book, Return of the Strong Gods, which describes the period of ‘disenchantment’ in Western culture from the end of WWII, initiating a retreat into the woolly, therapeutic safetyism that followed — a contrived device to, you might say, render the West too small for its jackboots. (That part hasn’t worked out so well). In what has been designated ‘the authoritarian society’, humanity looked upwards: to the flag atop the flagpole, to the horizon, to the heavens. Nazism was a macabre pantomime of these constructs, the darkest of slapsticks arising from the collision of chaos, vanity, propaganda and human hearts unburdened of the fear of God by the fear of man’s deluded ambition to become God. Clowns became tyrants and then mass murderers. But its legacy meant inter alia that the strong gods — the great human passions of patriarchy, patriotism and piety — must be banished, forgotten. Unable to understand what had just happened, the cultural leaders of the West scapegoated the very qualities that, if purified and isolated, offered the only chance of salvation. Reno outlines how Western society rewrote its own programmes in the wake of World War II to prevent a return to authoritarian rule. Citing a cross-sample of such contributions — Karl Popper, Albert Camus, Friederich Hayek, Milton Friedman, and others — he demonstrates how their writings dismantled a culture rooted in strong loyalties — to God, fatherland, nobility, heroism, Being, justice, home — and supplanted them with weak, therapeutic ideals like ‘diversity’, ‘tolerance’, ‘equality’, and ‘openness’ — all constructs that inspire nothing but self-interest. According to this post-war consensus, stable convictions and strong passions had to be avoided. The West’s leadership class insisted that we be metaphysically homeless, even as it sheltered itself, and so, as though together, we took the Hobbesian path.
In something of the same spirit, Matthew Crawford writes: ‘Hobbes wanted an education that emphasises that human nature (especially that of the “noble”) is selfish and base. Why? Because any appeal to a higher good threatens to return us to the horrors of civil strife and must be debunked.’
Rather than aiming for the highest good, man should instead concentrate on avoiding death. ‘Lowering the sights of political life in this way helps tame the pride that leads to conflict.’ Men will submit to Leviathan only if they inhabit a moral universe from which God and other transcendent intimations have been banished. Man cannot be trusted to desire the good, and so his desires must be curbed and rendered suspect to himself. Foremost among these desires is what the Greeks called thumos — spiritedness — the part of the soul that craves recognition, and holds to great passions and values, like patriotism or heroism — a ’fire in the belly’. Ideally, Crawford observes, the process of divining ‘the good’ properly happens in dialectic with logos, the voices of the gods speaking from within — in Christianity the voice of Christ expressed in conscience — which in a well-ordered soul functions as the reasoning element and, in combination with thumos, leads to correct action. This process has fallen under extreme suspicion in the modern era, being condemned by the therapeutic culture as overly prone to subjectivism and prejudice. Modernity requires responses to be ‘rational’, value-free and, ideally, disengaged. Man’s spiritedness, therefore, must be conditioned by the pedagogic programming of the regime, and moderated by the obedience of the subject.
But, Crawford asks: ‘What happens when the regime is one in which this spirited, evaluative activity is short-circuited altogether, subordinating the (various) distinctions that make for (competing visions of) the good life to mere biological life, bare existence? That is, “health” as conceived by “public health”? This is aggression against our nature as evaluative beings. It would seem to be the consummation of a project that puts the flight from death, rather than attraction to the good, at the center of our political metaphysics.’
In such a culture, man’s thumos — spiritedness — becomes frustrated, disordered and involuted. Eventually, according to Crawford, it simply dies:
‘An older term used for melancholy in psychiatry is athumia — a failure of thumos. To be athumos is to be disheartened; lose heart; suffer a want of heart.’ That, he says, ‘seems to be where we are, collectively: rage and depression.’
He draws also a line back to what he calls the ‘ambient political crisis dating from 2016’ — the shock-waves from such as the Trump and Brexit phenomena — which put the (liberal) establishment on a war footing. Essentially, he is saying that the Covid Project seemed almost instantly to ignite something in Western liberalism that had long been there: a desire to compel humanity into a ‘better’ way of seeing and acting in the world.
In October 2020, as it happens, I wrote an article on a related line of thought for frontpagemag, exploring possible reasons why responses to a biological condition might have broken down so cleanly on ideological lines in the Covid episode:
One of the points I made had to do with the priming of the Covid artillery with ideological fusewire, provoking liberals to support government actions, and conservatives to reject them. Less clear is how this was achieved, though it appears that the ‘signalling system’ employed within the logic of the Covid exercise facilitated a leveraging of mutualised ideological antipathies to provoke a division that was not itself implicit in the pure facts of the ‘pandemic’. Thus, although Trump — US president at the time — was not especially sceptical of the virus narrative, it was successfully implied that he had been slow to respond, or was incompetent and/or sceptical in his handling of the crisis. Thus, Trump came to be seen, rather implausibly, as an icon for sentiment hostile to the truth or gravity of Covid:
Even though it makes just a limited amount of sense, it does at this stage appear that, in some odd and irrational way, Covid is actually a left-wing phenomenon. This undoubtedly has to do with authority, indeed with the authoritarian tic that seems to afflict many leftists. . . . Covid, as has been seen everywhere, is an intensely authoritarian phenomenon. The first measures introduced by governments practically everywhere were directed not at protecting public health but awarding powers to themselves to restrict and coerce their citizens and impose draconian penalties for breaches or dissent. This kind of thing suits leftists just fine and dandy. Not only do they enjoy seeing the boots of the regime on the faces of fellow citizens, but they themselves seem to enjoy, like masochists under the whip of the master, the lick of leather on their own hides.
The ‘liberal’ understanding of history was of a series of fixes designed to stitch things up on behalf of, first and foremost, the Christian, white male. The only conceivable remedy is to remake the world as the antithesis of this.
I noted too an element that has been uppermost in the work of Matthew Crawford: the centrality of a workplace divide between muscularity and what Mattias Desmet calls ‘bullshit jobs’, now ubiquitous in the era of Big Tech globalism:
At a basic human level, the kinds of people who gravitate to left or right tend to divide also, generally speaking, in terms of physique, occupation, and mentality. Leftists, shall we say, tend less towards muscularity, work generally in offices, salons or cubicles, and think the world owes them a living, an expectation the world generally speaking appears to honour and come up, as it were, trumps on. They also consider themselves better educated, but in reality this means that they spent more time than others being indoctrinated with the virus that now afflicts their brains. I find it interesting that working class/blue collar people seem to see through Covid in a flash, whereas the average college graduate goes around in what appears a terrified trance thinking he’s going to meet his death around every corner.
Covid has emerged . . . as an accelerant on all things the average Cultural Marxist holds dear: restrictions on practice of religion and public assembly, cycle lanes and other green stuff, compulsory face masks which make everyone as unattractive as the average blue-tinted Cultural Marxist, disincentives to voting in person, and so forth. It emphasises the ‘common good’, which somehow reveals itself (who knew?) as extending to the state the right to restrict citizens as though self-evidently some kind of criminals on the mere possibility that they might be ‘infected’ with a non lethal disease. It has no regard for charter, proclamation or constitution. It does not care for family, nation of God — is, in fact, the enemy of all three.
What is called ‘liberalism’ nowadays has long exhibited a tyrannical/moralistic element, a desire to compulsorily ‘educate’ people concerning flaws in their anthropological outlooks and understandings. Having taken total hold of the media, this liberalism became not so much a movement or a philosophy as a Jeremiad — a non-stop harangue directed at the nature of reality and the way it had been regarded in human culture for thousands of years. Failures to comply with liberal diktats were invariably presented in liberal proselytising as moral failures. It was a short hop from there to the notion of the human person as a walking biohazard, endangering his fellows due to fecklessness and ideologically-founded scepticism.
This form of liberalism — if such it ever was — had always seemed somewhat remote from the classical kind, which in the main favoured free markets and laissez-faire economics, limited government and civil liberties under the rule of law. Classical liberalism was about people doing as they pleased, as long as they did no harm to others — living and letting live. The modern ‘liberal’ mutant, by contrast, is a ragbag of nice-sounding sentiments that present up close as not especially wholesome, and on closer examination as destructive. Unlike the classical forms of liberalism also, this more recent form had always seemed to be of a slightly unstable disposition, exhibiting various forms of incoherence that its adherents were unable or unwilling to explain. An earlier incarnation was accompanied by a set of economic prescriptions, tellingly not akin to economic liberalism conventionally understood — a strange mix of market values combined with a soft leftism that favoured a kind of condescending noblesse oblige-style regime of patronage over the poor by the well-to-do. This element gave rise also to the ‘anti-racist’ element of this mutant liberalism: a profound condescension towards the ‘Third World’ masquerading as compassion and solidarity.
People calling themselves ‘liberals’ since the 1960s have never really believed in freedom broadly defined, but have had in mind mainly things to do with sex: contraception, abortion, homosexuality, et cetera, as well as drug-taking and other recreational obsessions — for all of which they sought to bully everyone else into sharing their singular enthusiasm. For half a century their sex-obsessed concept of ‘liberalism’ dominated the cultures of western societies, steamrolling over everything and everyone with the help of corporate money and devious propaganda, its incoherencies protected from scrutiny by corrupted media and the force-field of political correctness. This pseudo-liberalism sought to turn upside down the value-system of the civilisation that once was Christendom, attacking its most central civilisational mechanisms — love of God, nation and family — in favour of an empty and faithless materialism, and has long justified genocide in the form of abortion, facilitating a short leap to other forms of population limitation. It has self-evidently been intent upon engineering the cultural demolition of the West by dint of orchestrated mass migration, the destruction of the nuclear family and, as though by way of a ‘booster’ to all these programmes, the genocidal Covid coup of the past two years. As is now clear, ‘liberals’ certainly never had in mind the basic liberty to live your everyday life in ways that do not involve encroachment on others.
A phrase which found brief favour among sentient writers in the heyday of Irish press commentary of the 1990s was ‘liberal ayatollahs’, which I believe was coined by the great Irish literary analyst Declan Kiberd — or, if not, by his brother Damien, the most visionary Irish newspaper editor of the pre-millennium period. The term perfectly encapsulates the deep nature of latter-day ‘liberalism’, which has no capacity for compromise or negotiation, but survives by its own fanatical energy.
And yet, though undoubtedly incoherent, toxic, nasty and even violently hate-filled, most modern ‘liberals’ are not especially power-hungry. They crave only the means to impose their views and prescriptions — their Jeremiad — on others, and will avail of any means, no matter how contradictory, to achieve this. To see things in clear focus, therefore, we need to think not of a group or sector, but a kind of ceaseless tirade, not so much of liberal ‘ayatollahs’ as a ‘liberal ayatolliad’.
Liberalism seeks not absolute power but the power to dictate those matters of ideological concern to it that are likely to be resisted by people of a different outlook. Liberals are therefore happy to attach themselves to more powerful interests pursuing different objectives that do not clash with the primary elements of the liberal agenda. In recent time, liberals have sought common cause with the corporate sector, indifferent to the prospect that this alliance would self-evidently be in conflict with the economic dimensions of their ‘liberal agenda’. Nor did that agenda, aside its wettish economic aspects, offend the more prosaic objectives of the corporates. A tacit partnership was set in train, in which the economic elements of liberalism were put on the back burner. Thus, while liberals like to daub their opponents as ‘fascists’, the Covid coup in effect delivered them to a partnership that invited a condition objectively indistinguishable from that conveyed by the original meaning of the word ‘fascism’: an alliance with corporate power.
Drawing together the threads of his thesis, Matthew Crawford cites another Irish writer, C.S. Lewis, in his exposition, in The Abolition of Man, of what he called ‘the spirited man’. Is there, Crawford wonders, a way of counteracting the Hobbesian drift, and diverting man back on to a path defined by self-love and love of freedom?
C.S. Lewis may have more to offer us on this question, which Matthew Crawford forbears to delve deeply into – in deference, perhaps, to the ‘liberal’ readers of the platform he is writing in. Lewis’s chief preoccupation in the essay cited by Crawford — Men Without Chests — was that, in the name of progress and human supremacy, humanity was at risk of inviting the enslavement of the many by the few. In abolishing God, we do not elevate all humans into the imaginative spaces once occupied by God, but only those who have climbed to the higher floors of the human space. In that essay, Lewis rinses down divergent but universal understandings of the Eternal, Infinite and Absolute — Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoic, Christian, Oriental — to a single code, co-opted from the Chinese concept of ‘the Tao’, which he calls ‘the greatest thing’. The Tao is the thing out of which even gods are born. ‘It is the reality beyond all predicates,’ writes Lewis, ‘the abyss that was before the Creator Himself. It is Nature, it is the Way, the Road. It is the Way in which the universe goes on, the Way in which things everlasting emerge, stilly and tranquilly, into space and time.’ The Tao, he says, is ‘the doctrine of objective value, the belief that certain attitudes are really true and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are.’
Rejecting Hobbesianism, Lewis insists that we either submit our wills to a higher being, or we surrender both our wills and our hearts to the reduction implicit in the idea of man becoming his own master. Once man reduces himself to the material element, he sees himself as at one with all other matter, which rescues him from subservience to a Creator — sure — but immediately re-enslaves him to one or some among his fellows. In doing so, man-in-general succumbs to something he would be well advised to avoid: returning himself to Nature. Under the law of the Tao, human beings remained outside Nature. They and their edifices once existed, alongside the Supernatural and the Spirit World, in opposition to it. Our ‘modern’ ‘rationalism’ has denied us this facility, thereby returning us to Nature, where we are but one more animal. Man rightly belongs to the other dimension: of consciousness, freedom, values, self-awareness. Nature recognises no values, being red in tooth and claw. And, if man has returned himself to Nature, then, in continuing with his mission of conquering Nature, he seeks dominion over himself, which is really dominion of one man over another, or of the few who acquire the means of control over the many who are ipso facto deprived of such access.
Lewis says: ‘Either we are rational spirit obliged for ever to obey the absolute values of the Tao, or else we are mere nature to be kneaded and cut into new shapes for the pleasure of masters who must, by hypothesis, have no motive but their own “natural” impulses. Only the Tao provides a common human law of action which can overarch rules and rulers alike. A dogmatic belief in objective value is necessary to the very idea of a rule which is not tyranny or is an obedience which is not slavery.’
As we look upon nature, name its component elements, and work out the ‘mechanics’ of each one, we ‘conquer’ it and also destroy the taboos that kept us separate from it. By claiming dominion over it, we paradoxically bring ourselves back into its clammy embrace. Similarly, by developing mechanistic understandings of our own workings, we return ourselves to Nature, where we consider ourselves as some separated, objectified entities, no longer subjects but third-person quantities. In reducing our social existence to rules and moralisms and received wisdoms, we nudge ourselves towards this objectified state, where we stand with the rest of Nature to be examined, naked, by the Camp Commandant.
The debunking of the Tao, of tradition, and ‘traditional values’, comes at a high price, leading us to what Lewis — three-quarters of a century ago — called ‘the world of post-humanity’ which ‘some knowingly, some unknowingly, nearly all men in all nations are at present labouring to produce.’
Man, devoid of God, Who is replaced by mere men, self-chosen and elected, seeks to place the flags of his colonialism on the summits of the future, and corral posterity within templates of his design. Any implicit sense of having dominion over the future is by definition delusional, since by going forward in error man moves inexorably closer to the obliteration of his own species. As Lewis observes, each new power of man is also a power over men. Each advance leaves us weaker as well as stronger. This is the condition to which the liberal ayatolliad has delivered the world.
And this process of delusional colonialism reaches through history, seeking to claim all time, past and future, to the dominion of (some of) those who live now. This is the ‘liberal’ project, exposing the idea that humankind seeks to improve the human situation on behalf of society as a piety that seeks to hide a bad motive behind a good one. In reality mankind seeks dominion over the future, to set the stamp of the present on all of the projected humanity as yet unborn, while also cutting the lines of communication that run underneath our feet into the past. Just as we have become proportionately impoverished by the technologies and reductive understandings we have received from our immediate predecessors, so our descendants will be reduced in their potential by the instruments, edifices, paradigms and modes of understanding we bequeath them.
Lewis postulates that, when we consider something analytically — i.e. positivistically — and then adapt it to our own convenience, we reduce it to the level of Nature — ‘in the sense that we suspend our judgements of value about it, ignore its final cause (if any), and treat it in terms of quantity’ — precisely what humanity in general has done in relation to Covid, its orchestrators and the lockdowns they have wrought, all of which remain beyond generalised critique or censure.
Man, then, has marooned his present incarnation in a moment he has not himself, individually or collectively speaking, exactly chosen. Having snipped the wires to the past and strived to disable the freedom and autonomy of future generations, he is caught in a moment he can't get out of, and doesn't know where he might choose to go if he could. It becomes increasingly unclear what is the point of it all. What propels the vehicle of progress is actually not the desiring of men-in-general, nor the energy of humanity’s own ambition — recognisable as a stated objective in historical time — but a residual dynamism that has survived the wanton destruction of vital inherited quantities, now rapidly losing speed. Man moves forward under the momentum of that which he had sought to obliterate. The more he succeeds in his objectives, the closer he brings his own extinction. He speeds up history by striving to become its master, thereby pushing it out of his reach. Ultimately history controls him, because, in the totalitarian viewfinder, its denouement is already written. By striving for mastery over Nature, man becomes the victim of that which he imagines himself capable of vanquishing.
The totalitarian project, as Hannah Arendt made clear seven decades ago, comprises a form of symbiosis of the ‘leaders’ and the masses — without either element, it could not function. Thus, when man colludes in his own de-absolutisation, he hands himself over to the lynch mob, whose personnel he hopes to appease by concurring with their outlooks and attitudes, provided he is sharp enough to anticipate their caprices. Thus, by acquiescing in the abolition of God, many colluded in advance with what Lewis calls ‘the abolition of man’ — man as the ally of his own gravediggers, who turn out to be men very much like himself.
Ultimately, all these disastrous developments arise from a failure of imagination. No longer able to conceive of God’s existence — a failure laughably depicted as a gain of increasing ‘rationalism’ — man has condemned himself to the Hobbesian misanthropy directed at himself, which leaves the field open for every form of tyrant and tyranny to enslave him, including totalitarianism, in which he essentially enslaves himself, albeit to external agents — his undemocratically nominated representatives imposing upon him sanctions and restrictions that he accepts as his due on account of his own poor image of himself. Man, has ‘thought’ himself into the ante-chamber of his own extinction, because he forgot that imagination, a higher form of thought, is the only true key to accessing the gateways to the future.
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