Untimely Observations

Alternate Modernities


Political modernity is based on rejection of the premodern belief that man participates in some sort of higher nature. As such, it can take several forms. Liberalism is the form that has won, but not the only one that has existed.

If we get rid of the transcendent, we might view man as fundamentally biological or historical, or as self-created in some way. Moderns have therefore tried to base social order on biology, history, or the triumph of the will.


Modern natural science favors physical explanations, so the most obvious and direct response to modernity is the attempt to base social order on the physical aspects of man's being. The usual physicalist view is that natural selection--in Darwin's terms, "the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life"--explains human nature and behavior. For that reason, physicalists have often viewed racial struggle as fundamental. The physical flourishing of the Aryan race becomes the highest good, at least for Aryans, and similarly for other groups.

A basic problem with the view is that what men find worthwhile in life cannot be reduced to the survival and multiplication of an extended kinship group. For that reason, the latter cannot serve as the guiding principle of social order. That is why people who put nation and race first have ended up emphasizing arbitrary will more than biology, and relying on theatrics, irrationalism, and violence to overcome the intellectual weakness of their position.


Secular conservatives, who are moderate modernists, have tried to mitigate the effect of their basic antitranscendental commitments by basing social order on habit and history. They hold the modern view of man, but accept that we do not have an effective technology of social life. For that reason they accept experience as their guide, and with it the necessity of the inherited, informal, and prerational aspects of social order.

The approach has failed. Secular conservatives are proponents of traditional ways and attachments, so they favor particularity and the practices, conditions, and institutions that allow it to maintain itself and function. In present-day America, those include federalism, local autonomy, traditional marriage, restrictions on immigration, limitations on the welfare state, and respect for the right of families and religious and community institutions to run their own affairs.

Conservatives have continually given ground on all those issues. Their weakness has been especially apparent in connection with issues related to "inclusiveness." Apart from illegal immigration and affirmative action, which are sore points for voters, conservative politicians have been willing to swear devotion to an antidiscrimination regime that is at odds with attachment to any tradition except that of liberal progress. Even opposition to affirmative action and illegal immigration has been sporadic and lukewarm, more a matter of opportunistic gestures than a genuine effort to change law and policy.

The failure was preordained. Belief in history doesn't tell you anything helpful when trends are against you. As moderns, secular conservatives accept satisfaction of preferences as the rational guide to action, but as conservatives they need people to act on other principles. Why should people do so when it becomes inconvenient? Continuity and respect for traditional ways may be a good thing in general, but there are exceptions, and why should my case not be an exception?

Political reality is shaped by how the world is understood. Secular conservatives do not seriously dispute fundamental current understandings, and those understandings make any serious opposition to liberalism seem irrational and wrong, the sort of thing that leads to Nazism and whatnot. They've already surrendered in principle, so why expect their resistance to amount to much?

The Triumph of the Will

Abolishing transcendence abolishes the distinction between preference satisfaction and the good, so that satisfaction of preferences becomes the rational purpose of all action. From that perspective, the most rational political response to modernity is the attempt to derive moral and social order from maximum preference satisfaction.

Preferences conflict, however, and they are equally preferences, so whose should prevail? The obvious answer is to prefer one's own, but "looking out for number one" is not, at least without severe limitation, a principle of social order. Since man is social, it does not even work in private life.

Fascism and bolshevism

It is not easy to make arbitrary will a principle of public order. Antiliberal moderns dramatize the paradox and then resolve it by emphasizing the conflicts and then appealing to collective power as their solution: the will of the people, party, or state, embodied in that of the supreme leader, overcomes all others and establishes order. The motive for participation in the effort, and thus the basis for loyalty to the regime, becomes the joy of smashing the opposition, together with comradeship in the struggle to make the willed order prevail.

A problem with the solution is that antiliberal moderns are moderns. As such, it is natural for them to view collectivities as arbitrary constructions. What is special about the proletariat or the German people? Who do they include and why? Why are Stalin and Hitler their perfect representatives? And why should my will and their will be the same? Such questions are unanswerable, so fascists and communists embraced irrationalism and relied quite directly on lies and violence as the basis for their rule.

The result was catastrophe. Antiliberal modernists took as their principle of social order worship of the power of the order itself. In the absence of substantive goods that principle could express itself only through self-assertion against opposition, the more extreme the better. In the end infinite victory in infinite war became the ruling ideal of social life.

A society that places itself on such a basis is not going to last. It will crash and burn like the Nazis, or sink into posturing, hypocrisy, and corruption that eventually becomes terminal, like the Soviets after Stalin.


Liberalism defers and defuses the problem posed by the sovereign will with its claim to maximize the satisfaction of all preferences equally. The will is to be tamed by the equal sovereignty of other wills and the demands of a technically rational system. Arbitrary power and social conflict vanish.

The peacefulness of its ideal has enabled liberalism to outlast communism, fascism, and Nazism. Nonetheless, those other forms of modernity responded to a real problem. By abolishing the idea of participation in higher goods and unities, the modern outlook separates individual goals from social needs. To re-integrate them some ideological myth is needed.

Fascists and communists proceed in a straightforward way by making the People or the State the only reality that matters, so the individual becomes insignificant. If that move is accepted--and those who reject it soon drop out of the conversation--the conflict between individual and collectivity disappears as an issue.

The liberal myth is more subtle. Instead of absorbing the individual into the collectivity, it absorbs the collectivity into the individual. It presents the liberal state as government by and for the people, here to serve them and acting only to promote their freedom and equality. What that state imposes reduces without remainder to individual desire and content-free public rationality. Obedience to its authority is not subservience but only intelligent promotion of what we already want.

Such is the official story. In fact, of course, liberal government is like other government. It is run not by the many but by the few. Those who rule try to make their life easier by accommodating popular concerns, but their guiding principle is less the will of the people than staying in power and running things in accordance with their own interests and understandings.

In fact, the liberal myth is no more true than the collectivist one. No government can favor equal freedom among men and their preferences, since some must lose in the event of conflict. Also, we often choose things other than satisfaction of desire: God, country, and family; adventure, struggle, and comradeship; the good, beautiful, and true. To the extent we prefer such things to getting our own way simply as such, hedonism makes no sense. It "gives us what we want," but we reject the goal as unworthy.

To avoid such problems liberal government has to tell us what to want. We can have what we want, but what we are allowed to want--safe and moderate devotion to career, consumption, and various private indulgences--must suit the regime. That is supposed to be the perfection of freedom, but who believes it? The desires we are allowed to pursue leave out everything we care about most. And the authorities from which we are freed--family, prejudice, religion, particular people and culture--are what enable us to live and act independently of the formal institutions that constitute the liberal regime.

The freedom liberalism grants is the freedom to be dependent on liberalism and do, think, and feel what it wants us to do, think, and feel. Who wants that? And why trust a system in which we all place ourselves under guardianship, supposedly for our own good, to turn out well?

The Moral of the Story

It's clear from what's happened that the attempt to build social order simply on this-worldly empirical man doesn't work. That's true for a variety of reasons. One is that it's part of the general modern effort to understand the world in a way that eliminates mystery and facilitates control, and if you deal with people that way you're going to see them as less than they are and tyrannize over them.

The conclusion is that to get out of the political, social, and intellectual hole we've fallen into we have to go back to first things. For starters, we're going to have to bring back something like the Christian soul, or at least a human essence that by nature is oriented toward the good. Otherwise we're not going to be able to deal with man as he is or the problems politics actually presents.

That is not an impossible dream. Revolutions begin in thought, and the scheme of thought that makes people most functional and enables them to deal most intelligently with the world has a good shot at winning eventually. Advanced liberalism means mindlessness and incompetence on the part of rulers and ruled. It seems to me someone can do better.