Jacob Phillips’ “Obedience is Freedom”: A Review
“Obedience is Freedom.” Before 2020 it’s a slogan I could have seen myself applauding, for its polemical edginess, if nothing else. But in 2022, in the midst of the ongoing authoritarian power grab of Covid-19 which for my part I’ve spent punished and seething in Melbourne, Australia, I can’t help but feel more cautious – as with all things flirting with post-liberalism. In two years, classical liberal ideas of ‘freedom’ have changed from an ironically derided idol into an endangered archaism and rarefied luxury. So what is freedom as obedience? Who now would call for this?
The short answer is Jacob Phillips, a London-based academic and former writer for Jacobite, the now-defunct online publication which tried to create an improbable postmodern conservativism somewhere between Accelerationism, Catholicism and Neoreaction.
In the introduction, Phillips – en tant que bon universitaire – presents his core argument: “the rediscovery of obedience… promises a more enduring and genuine freedom than that offered by today’s self-fulfillment paradigm.” To develop this thesis, Phillips declares his intention to employ what he ominously calls a “synesthetic methodology.” But non-academic readers need not be discouraged. What we get are ten over ten chapters of personal political essays of a high literary quality which merge anecdotes from the author’s life with lucid and subtle sociological and cultural observations.
Philips’ devotes his individual chapters to what he identifies as crucial subthemes of obedience, namely virtues of loyalty, deference, honour, obligation, respect, responsibility, discipline, duty and authority. The central place of these virtues in a ‘classical’ or ‘high bourgeois’ canon is worth recognizing, in particular because today’s Western bourgeoisie, as a class in terminal decline, no longer seems to place any importance on virtue at all. Today’s elite and their scions are instead cultural and ethical omnivores, who revel in appropriating the signifiers of the underclass: athleisure, opioids, trap music, etc: a phenomenon some have called ‘bourgeois cultural slumming’. But the danger of ironic appropriation is the risk of the host becoming possessed by the signifier. Lagerfeld famously said that “people wearing sweatpants have lost control over their lives” only to himself succumb to the cultural-economic thrall of athleisure a short time later and include it in his collections. No point in opposing dominant historical forces when there’s money to be made. Yet still, they continue their own dialectic.
Phillips himself for some time has embodied a point of antithesis to ‘athleisure liberalism’ projecting an aura of quiet and contemplative force in his public appearance and writing. This same reserve allows him to approach touchy subjects including legitimate social hierarchies, the superimposition of American cultural topoi on his native England, and the erosion of language from a shared poetical heritage to transcultural airport jargon. All of this is done very artfully. He describes his main inspirations as “great thinkers (who) have long since argued that an avoidance of restraint serves only to intensify the degree to which we are restrained and that genuine and enduring freedom is to be found through obediently entering into the ways personal choice is ever limited by the networks of responsibility in which we live.” In my view, the author lives up to this legacy.
Obedience is Freedom also belongs to the critiques of the Reichian lineage of libidinal liberation in the second half of the 20th century, sometimes called ‘Freudo-Marxism’. To claim that Phillips wrote another ‘culture wars’ book, however, would be selling his work short. In the first place, the author helped lead the revival of culturally conservative authors like Lasch, Sloterdijk, Dilthey, Knausgaard, and therefore is distinguished from the midwit opportunists who only jumped on the contrarian gravy once it has made psychologically and politically safe and entered the early majority stage in the innovation diffusion cycle.
Second, I would hesitate to recommend Phillips’s book as a merely political contribution to contemporary discourse or a case of “preaching to the converted”. Obedience is Freedom is admirable above all for its style. In Phillips, the personal is the political, but not in the sense of the banalized identity politics from which this slogan emerged. In his demonstration that individual trajectories are complex and unique, he reopens a line to a morality capable of reaching beyond esoteric niche audiences to much wider majorities.
Phillips’ analysis is lucid and concise, unpretentious and erudite, weaving in an enormous wealth of political and philosophical influences (from Bodin to Gadamer and Houellebecq), without ever becoming disembodied and abstract. We know that Phillips is speaking from the concrete, for example, when he relays how he became a caretaker for his mother and he describes his youth in record stores and illegal raves.
This personal quality is rare on the Right, where it is easy to succumb fully to the scorched earth aftermath of the disillusionment necessary to penetrate the fog of contemporary propaganda. Characters easily become fragmented and mutilated as a result of the immensity of social alienation which sets them apart from a majority of their peers and instead spending their time with harsh takes in anomymous, bodiless social media group chats. Slowly they develop an identity in drastic and dissociated contrast to the world which, when undirected, risks eclipsing them socially, politically and spiritually.
In contrast, Phillips shows a humanist warmth for the world and the Other. In his descriptions of motherhood, of forgotten British popular social movements, or “traveller” camping grounds people and places come alive and are celebrated in rich literary detail. In this sense Obedience is Freedom also serves as a London psychogeography and will appeal in particular to Anglophiles for its localism.
Phillips is also a Catholic and his writing foregrounds the traditional Catholic sensibility of universalism and empathyin distinction to their abused contemporary uses in which universalism is the shapeless and boundless anything goes of sterile platitudes, and empathy is a blunt tool of emotional blackmail and sophistry. Philips’ versions are more ambitious and more modest: namely that by lucidly considering the perspective of the Other understandings can be reached which reinforce the social whole without obliterating individual identity.
The balancing act between solid identity and rational empathy as points of tension in the work become continually manifest in the narrator. As readers we witness character this hard won fruit of an inner dialogue and career-torching personal quality which is paid for dearly by choosing difficult and counterintuitive paths and weathering adversity. It is also something which cannot really be dissimulated.
It is this quality which the book lives on, without which it could not have been written or would seem like an overly artificial moralist posture. We can take Phillips seriously because he has what Louis Ferdinand Céline once described as an essential quality of the writer. He puts his skin on the table as a moralist and an aesthete in defense of values which otherwise might appear preposterous and remote. We understand that in Phillips they constitute a lifeboat against the brutality of contemporary alienation. It is in the same sense, that the harmless and hollow status quo of the past becomes subversive.
My favourite chapter is the reflection on “Duty” focusing on the Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgård and book series My Struggle. The chapter perfectly embodies the kinesthetic pace of the book when it reflects on the meaningfulness of pre-Copernican cosmology and thereby positively alienates the reader from the contemporary. By suggesting a radical presence and devotion to the banal tasks at hand, transcendence becomes possible: “For a person for whom living in the presence of God is second nature after years of trying to do decently in every little thing, a moment calling for radical self-sacrifice will be undertaken as ‘second nature’,” writes Phillips.
The obedience I questioned in the beginning has nothing to do with the servility of the last two years. Obedience as explored through Phillips is not the one to the state but a turning away from the contemporary conception of freedom of self-realisation. In the brutal economic realities of today’s deindustrialised West, where every cultural fad appears secretly aligned with the purposes of a controlled economic and civilisational collapse, the desire for individual self-realisation is precisely likely to turn us into the most empty of subjects. Against this temptation, Obedience is Freedom offers a distance from which we can emerge spiritually fortified.