The priesthood of the priggish
Does contemporary Western civilisation face any threat more pressing than that which emanates from within our own societies?
Jonah Goldberg: His new book argues liberal, democratic, and capitalist civilisation is being eaten from the inside out (Gage Skidmore CC BY-SA 2.0)
Does contemporary Western civilisation face any threat more pressing than that which emanates from within our own societies? The phenomenon that the conservative historian Maurice Cowling labelled “the higher liberalism” poses a greater danger to the health and survival of the West than any challenge from without, be it an assertive China, a failing Russia, or violent Islamic extremism. The dominant mode of thought among the political, media, and academic establishments, the higher liberalism threatens to strip us of our self-confidence and moral resources. It is inimical to freedom of thought and action. And manifested in modern identity politics, it also threatens to drive us all insane.
The appellation of Jonah Goldberg’s new book is certainly eye-catching. Yet it is a wholly appropriate one, as well. The book borrows its title from James Burnham’s Suicide of the West: An Essay on the Meaning and Destiny of Liberalism of 1964. Nor do the comparisons end on the front cover. Both Burnham and Goldberg’s works constitute urgent interventions in intellectual, political, and moral crises that threaten to swallow the West. Goldberg is a senior editor at National Review, the venerable magazine of conservatism founded by William F. Buckley, and holds a post at the American Enterprise Institute. He is also a prolific political commentator, writing for many American newspapers and making regular appearances on television. He is known for his 2008 polemic Liberal Fascism, which was an instant classic and exposed the brazen hypocrisy of the contemporary progressive Left to a wide popular audience.
Goldberg’s latest book is no less important, or persuasive. His subject is the way in which liberal, democratic, and capitalist civilisation is being eaten from the inside out. He argues that this is the convergence of multiple problems. One is the fact that we are hardwired to live in small tribes. Larger societies are, in evolutionary terms, a recent innovation, and one that human beings struggle with. The only way we can adapt is by finding some form of fulfilment in an inherently impersonal community. One method of achieving this is to forge a national, and looser civilisational, identity that carries wide appeal and earns the loyalty of those who live within its boundaries. Since the 18th century, this has worked well. Yet the merits of our society are now increasingly taken for granted by elites, bureaucrats, intellectuals, and artists. We are all accustomed to hearing that Western life is illiberal, oppressive, and exploitative. Simultaneously, the bourgeois values which helped the West to prosper — meritocracy, industriousness, creativity — are under attack from these same dominant voices. There are other problems, too. Capitalism itself, through its relentless dynamism and creative destruction, undermines traditions and ways of life. The secularisation of the West has weakened another of the most important social glues. The indirect result of all this is that the institutions of civil society, the things that make life worth living, from families and professional associations to schools and community groups, have fallen into a state of disrepair.
The upshot, Goldberg argues, is that millions of people feel dissatisfied and look elsewhere for meaning. He discerns that human nature — tribal, narrow, conditioned to think in terms of small groups — is reasserting itself. Just as in primitive tribes, there is a tendency to look to “big men” who will have the answers to our problems. Goldberg asserts that the hopes invested in both Barack Obama and Donald Trump by their supporters reflect this emotional impulse. At the same time, identity politics is on the march, eroding our ability as citizens to converse with others. The priests of the higher liberalism increasingly insist that group identity is all, and inescapable; thus, factors such as ethnicity, background, or sex are held to define a person’s character and interests, as well as determine what he is permitted to say and think. People who transgress this crude essentialist way of thinking — which is also prejudicial and patronising — are publicly shamed with an enthusiasm which Mao Tsetung would appreciate. Particularly disturbing is the propensity of spoilt and entitled young people to organise witch trials so they can scream hysterically about how virtuous they are.
Yet in being so blatant in delegitimising, often criminalising, mainstream views, the higher liberalism has overreached. The public do not like being told what they can think or say by cosmopolitan elites who seem to have little respect for the cultures of the society in which they live. Electorates have increasingly reacted with fury — hence the rise of “populism”. Goldberg is no fan of Trump, but he understands why progressives have provoked such a powerful cultural backlash.
This is, then, an almighty mess. Can it be fixed? Goldberg is unsure. For one thing, Western civilisation is not the inevitable culmination of human history but, instead, a “miracle” that runs counter to the baser impulses of our nature. “Humanity has been taking off like a rocket since the 1700s, but we have not achieved a stable orbit in the heavens. And even if we did, no orbit is stable over the long run. Eventually gravity claims what is hers.” The West has to be carefully maintained by each generation of custodians so that it can be handed intact to the next.
If we are to salvage the situation, Goldberg argues that we need to rediscover confidence about the West — and our gratitude for its blessings. This should not be difficult. By any rational measurement, liberal democracy is the greatest political regime that humanity has ever devised. We are the freest, most tolerant and healthiest human beings ever to live. Capitalism has done infinitely more to elevate humanity, defeat poverty, and create life chances than any rival economic system. The priests of the higher liberalism wish to weigh us down with self-loathing and unwarranted pessimism. Yet they are making war against reality, and sooner or later, facts will surely tell. Those in need of inspiration to resist should read this important book.