In an ambitious essay at Intercollegiate Review, James Kalb attempts to dissect the driving political forces in Western culture today. He says that while we live in a world that touts diversity, the reality is extraordinary uniformity and a distinct distaste for anything outside the new norm. We have narrowed our political choices, our educational choices, our recreational and consumer choices. We say we want religious freedom, but only in a very narrow manner.
Our current public order claims to separate politics from religion, but that understates its ambition. It aspires to free public life—and eventually, since man is social, human life in general—not only from religion but also from nature and history. The intended result is an increase in freedom as man becomes his own creator. The effect, though, is that human life becomes what those in power say it is. Western political authorities now claim the right to remake the most basic arrangements. If you want to know the nature of man and the significance of life and death, you look to the political order and its authorized interpreters. That is the meaning of the redefinition of marriage to include same-sex unions and the transformation of abortion into a human right. Man has, in effect, become God, and politics is the authoritative expression of his mind, spirit, and will.
Thus religion becomes only a private matter, morality abstract and individualized and nothing has meaning unless we say it does.
Given such a view, the uniquely rational approach to social order is to treat it as a soulless, technically rational arrangement for maximizing equal satisfaction of equally valid preferences. That principle claims to maximize effective freedom, but it narrowly limits what is permissible lest we interfere with the equal freedom of others or the efficient operation of the system. Private hobbies and indulgences are acceptable, since they leave other people alone. So are career, consumption, and expressions of support for the liberal order. What is not acceptable is any ideal of how people should understand their lives together that is at odds with the liberal one. Such ideals affect other people, if only by affecting the environment in which they live, and that makes them oppressive. If you praise the traditional family, you are creating an environment that disfavors some people and their goals, so you are acting as an oppressor.
Kalb argues that America’s two-party system, while having marked differences, ends up being “not too far apart on policy.” Neither likes change, and both are composed of the same types of people, despite their differing viewpoints. Kalb goes on to examine the “rank and file” and how they fit into what he calls this “anti-world.” While they may have immediate influence (think of consumer spending), their disorganization limits their ability to affect real cultural and political change.
A serious disadvantage from which the people suffer is that their way of life has been disrupted by commercialism, industrial organization, the welfare state, and political correctness—that is, by the various efforts to do away with traditional distinctions, institutions, and modes of functioning. Family, religion, particular culture, and local autonomy resist external supervision and control. They go their own way on principles that have little to do with administrative or market needs or maximum equal-preference satisfaction. For that reason, such arrangements interfere with the construction of a rational system of freedom, justice, and prosperity. They have to go, except where they can be converted into consumer goods and lifestyle accessories or—in the case of religion—into self-help systems that accessorize liberalism.
Thus, they are left to suffer family disintegration, mushy religion and the whims of globalization. How do we break free of this “anti-world”, where natural law is ignored (or not even acknowledged), where the traditional and classical are dumped for whatever is the newest “insight”, and where freedom is suspect?
The way to escape an antiworld is by making the real world the standard. Making truth the standard alarms people today because we are affected by liberalism and view truth as intolerant. To the contrary, if truth comes first, principles such as freedom, equality, and human nature can be seen from an inclusive perspective that can give each due credit without one tyrannizing over the others. If something else comes first, we are treating something as a highest principle that cannot function as such, and that means irrationality and oppression.
Error cannot sustain itself. What allows the managerial liberal regime to function are habits of loyalty and sacrifice, and understandings of natural goods and purposes, which it continually undermines and cannot justify or explain. In order for politics to understand itself, and thus be rational, it must recognize its dependence on truths that transcend it and tell us something about the good life. The long-term outlook for conservatism, and specifically for a social conservatism based on a view of reason and reality that is broader than the liberal one, is therefore excellent. Naturam expellas furca, tamen usque recurret: you may drive nature out with a pitchfork, but she will keep coming back. The task of conservatives today is to promote that process, and the most effective way for them to do so is not to try to get along by conceding basic points but to insist on principle in every possible setting.
As I said, this is an ambitious piece, taking on political, cultural, religious and social realms. However, Kalb’s arguments are alarmingly accurate, complex yet cohesive – well worth the read.