Many of those opposed to the accelerating corrosion of Western civilization see it as a battle between ‘liberalism’ and ‘illiberalism’. Illiberalism seems to be rearing its monstrous head again in a demonic whack-a-mole game, from the ominous ‘democracies’ in places like Turkey and Hungary, to the stifling environment of cultural revolution in Western universities. Freedom of speech, freedom of association, the seemingly fundamental right to walk down the street — in this time of the great plague — have been summarily suspended, and don’t seem to be making a full return soon.
But we hear that liberalism, correctly applied, is here to solve these problems, and we have just the right people to implement the solution. The centrists, the moderates, the people who are privy to the knowledge of the true goldilocks zone of both market and social freedoms are here to guide us. They will use both their keen intuitions and the latest tools of political science to nudge, regulate, and liberate. If only we could get back to true liberalism, they could do their jobs.
Liberalism, like ‘democracy’, has a certain ring to it. It is a mythical value with the gleam of an unalloyed good. It’s the virtuous opposite of illiberalism — a darkness synonymous with constraint and oppression. Suppose we take liberalism at its word. In that case, it stands to reason that the long arc of history is a journey from a sterile illiberal past toward a luminous liberal future. We’re on rails to the promised land, and we just need to liberate a bit harder to get there. But the record of liberalism, in both its market and social variants, is spotty. If we persist in misdiagnosing the problem, our solutions will remain ineffective and may even be destructive.
Liberalism is the water we swim in. It’s permeated the nature of the West so profoundly that it’s become almost undetectable. Liberalism is the idea and the ideal that power both conservative and liberal parties, albeit at different speeds and with varying areas of interest.
The philosophical groundwork for our liberation was prepared a long time ago. In John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, we discover that the individual’s independence from the artificial constraints of custom is necessary for progress. Mill asserted that freedom lies in elevating choice and leaving aside burdensome custom, that the only way to be truly free is to unshackle yourself from the bonds of social mores, into ever freer choice. As he writes:
“The human faculties of perception, judgment, discriminative feeling, mental activity, and even moral preference, are exercised only in making a choice. He who does anything because it is the custom makes no choice.”
Only in this way, unconstrained by the crusty baggage of social custom and opinion, can the virtuous — the smart and industrious and Mill’s “persons of genius” — rise to the top and assume their role as de facto overlords. The fact that this is what happened in reality, is a testament to Mill’s keen talent as both a philosopher and a prophet. Today, we live in an age where Mill’s righteous meritocracy has taken over the world, drained the brains of the global periphery, and has created a class of overworked and under-reproducing urban royalty. With this trick, we’ll have whittled down this self-selected caste of high intelligence ‘knowledge workers’ in a few generations of barren striving to ‘make partner’. You couldn’t design a better way to annihilate human capital, but yet, freedom finds a way.
Conservatives are nominally congealed in the amber of 1950s social norms – though not really, as they’re typically trailing only a few years behind on the latest facilitation of social freedom favored by the opposition. The freedoms conservatives like even more than those they have to regularly concede are market freedoms. And who can blame them? The market works, and it has been nothing short of miraculous. But it has also led to the despoiling of the planet, the destruction of local communities, and boom and bust cycles of ever-increasing intensity. The technology it birthed is the stuff of both amazement and nightmare, as a good fraction of culture is now a dedicated release valve for our most dystopian fears: Black Mirror, Westworld, The Matrix… One thing is made clear: there is no way back, and the Singularity is almost certainly malignant.
On the Liberal end of liberalism, freedom is just as salient. It’s simply directed at a more intimate area, the body. The Liberal wants to free the individual from the more immediate constraints of life, to move him into an unshackled, transhumanist state. The body itself needs liberation. Its unrealistic proportions and symmetries and ratios become an offense to liberty. Customary constraints on managing its hairs, its dimensions, its surfaces, its color schemes, and even its odors become arbitrary, stifling.
Inhibition becomes another grave societal constraint. Criminality is now a complex socioeconomic problem, passing judgment on it and its ever more permanent denizens — the real crime. To not indulge in any desire that floats into consciousness, be it food, sex, drugs, or mindless consumption, makes you a sucker. You’re judging yourself with the mind of the oppressor.
Women melt into inert puddles of deconstructed identity, only to be recomposed later by capital, in derriere hugging pantsuits, or in the camouflaging moo-moos of the permanently unhappy, harmonizing in a choral whine about representation in Fortune 500 companies.
Sex — then Gender — spiral out into fractals of ever more nuanced and thin-skinned identities. From the shattered cage of heteronormativity emerge a dazzling kaleidoscope of sexual options and identity-worthy kinks, so plentiful that they start to evade classification. Speaking of which, the act of classification itself becomes ‘problematic’, as do many more things that try to tie the individual down to the prosaic. The Liberal conception of freedom is to be let loose, on yourself, on others, on damned society itself.
Where do these developments leave the enlightened centrist, the meter out of liberalism, the stalwart straddler of ‘the extremes’?
He is always on the front lines of ever-shifting moderation but somehow knows that his current position on things like injecting pre-teens with sex hormones, the age of consent, and heck, let’s throw incest in there — is the right one. He reasons from first principles like: “It’s none of my damned business,” and the insights naturally follow.
On an issue like abortion, he presides over Schroedinger’s baby, a creature simultaneously alive and dead, and like the modern-day Solomon he is, cuts more and more to the left with every passing year. Because the point of incision lies with his ever-shifting centrism, every 10-or-so years, the centrist emerges reborn with new, more liberal, and thus good, energies, and reevaluates his previous heresies.
On guidance on how one should run this ten year Phoenix cycle, one can look to the patron saint of the supposed center-left: Barack Obama. He himself recoils at his heresies on things like same-sex marriage now, but he has repented and found himself where he left himself — in the center.
Therefore, to become the mighty individual, liberty means we have to make ourselves free to inhabit the ‘state of nature’. This process involves molting — getting rid of the heavy shackles of the flesh suit, ridding ourselves of our culture’s constraints, our obligations to kin, our community, and our place of origin. It involves freeing ourselves from the paternalistic obligations of moderation, chastity, and other passé virtues that reek of mothballs and the cardinal sin of judgment.
The liberated individual man or woman is a creature free from the constraints of nature, unchained, scrubbed clean, and ready to enjoy freedom in all its forms, to consume — to eat, drink and screw itself into ever truer liberation through ever freer choice.