V.S. Naipaul and the Universality of Individual Freedom

There are two confused and confusing but intertwined debates that I want to address, and to do so by referring to the seemingly unlikely trio of writers, Hegel, Conrad, and Naipaul.

What are those two debates? The first and slightly older international debate is about the relation between colonial powers and their now former colonies. The second largely domestic debate is about the relation of “white” people to people of “color.”

I would suggest at the very beginning that they are the same debate, and that the debate really centers on whether a particular set of cultural norms originating among Western Europeans and their major heirs (including North Americans, Australians, etc.) is superior to other non-Western norms.

Neither debate is about skin color or race. Prominent and successful members of Western European Cultures have a vast variety of skin colors and physical features, while many of the dysfunctional members of these same cultures are “white” (i.e., have Western European ancestors).

What Hegel, Conrad, and Naipaul provide is an ongoing account of why Western cultural norms have emerged as superior, and in what sense they are superior.

As a preliminary example, I note that in response to the recent covid pandemic the viable vaccinations were developed in the U.S. and the U.K, not in China, not in India, not in Russia. In addition, there was an immediate Western concern for redistribution to the rest of the world.

Individual Freedom

The preeminent norm of Western culture is individual freedom or autonomy. By “individual freedom” I mean that each and every individual chooses how he/she wants to live. Each of us is not assigned a role in advance, rather each of us decides, for example, what career we want to pursue, where we want to live, and to whom we wish if we so desire to be married. This is in the first instance a pursuit not a guaranteed outcome. Second since this is a privilege or set of privileges extended to all, no one individual can demand that others fulfill that one individual’s pursuit.

This has been best expressed by Oakeshott:

Almost all modern writing about moral conduct begins with the hypothesis of an individual human being choosing and pursuing his own directions of activity. What appeared to require explanation was not the existence of such individuals, but how they could come to have duties to others of their kind and what was the nature of those duties… This is unmistakable in Hobbes, the first moralist of the modern world to take candid account of the current experience of individuality. He understood a man as an organism governed by an impulse to avoid destruction and to maintain itself in its own characteristic and chosen pursuits. Each individual has a natural right to independent existence… And a similar view of things appeared, of course, in the writings of Spinoza… this autonomous individual remained as the starting point of ethical reflection. Every moralist in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries is concerned with the psychological structure of this assumed “individual”… And nowhere is this seen more clearly to be the case than in the writings of Kant. Every human being…is recognized by Kant to be a Person, an end in himself, absolute and autonomous… as a rational human being he will recognize in his conduct the universal conditions of autonomous personality; and the chief of these conditions is to use his humanity, as well in himself and others, as end and never as a means [only—italics added]… no man has a right or a duty to promote the moral perfection of another… we cannot promote their “good” without destroying their “freedom” which is the condition of moral goodness (“The Masses in Representative Democracy”).

In another context, I have argued that the political and economic success of Western Culture depends on economic, political, and legal institutions that are premised on the centrality of individual freedom (namely the technological project or the control of nature for human benefit [Bacon], free market economy [Adam Smith], limited government [Locke, Madison], the rule of law [Coke, Dicey, Hayek], and a culture of personal autonomy). It has a historically-grounded but contingent connection with the English language, reflecting the fact that the earliest working out of the full panoply occurred first in England and then spread in varying degrees from there. It is no accident that both Conrad and Naipaul consciously adopted Anglo culture and achieved creative excellence by writing in English.

Throughout most of history and everywhere in the world, human beings have identified themselves as members of a community. There were neither autonomous individuals nor anti-individuals. The most important event in modern European history is the rise of the autonomous individual first appearing in Renaissance Italy (13th-15th centuries). There are no autonomous individuals anywhere before the Italian Renaissance. Autonomous individuality is a feature of Western European civilization and later spread elsewhere. All creative activity [creative/destruction] is the product of autonomous individuals: “It modified political manners and institutions, it settled upon art, upon religion, upon industry and trade and upon every kind of human relationship.”

The mind-set of the Autonomous Individual, auto-nomous (self-rule is the translation) reflects the imposition of order on themselves; self-disciplining, not self-indulgence or requiring outside control and direction; risk-takers, self-defining; self-respect (something you give to yourself; not the self-esteem that comes from others), pursuing self-chosen courses of action rather than playing traditional roles.

Not everyone makes the transition – some are left behind (by circumstance and by temperament) namely anti-individuals.

The emergence of this disposition to be an individual is the pre-eminent event in modern European history….there were some people, by circumstance or by temperament, less ready than others to respond…the counterpart of the…entrepreneur of the sixteenth century was the displaced laborer….the familiar anonymity of communal life was replaced by a personal identity which was burdensome….it bred envy, jealousy and resentment….a new morality….not of “liberty” and “self-determination,” but of “equality” and “solidarity”….not…the “love of others” or “charity” or… “benevolence”… but… the love of “the community” [common good]….[the anti-individual or mass man] remains an unmistakably derivative character…helpless, parasitic and able to survive only in opposition to individuality….[only] The desire of the “masses” to enjoy the products of individuality has modified their destructive urge.

It was once fashionable to claim that Western economic success was a product of the colonial exploitation of natural resources. We now know that is not true, and the truth has been magnified by the inability of resource rich non-Western countries to be successful on their own. There are also some interesting half-way houses: e.g., China finally understood about technology and markets even though it still does not get the rest of the story.

The process of reacculturation—recognizing the need to leave the old communal framework behind—is a challenging and a painful one. There is the feeling (temporary) of being inferior or inadequate (like learning a new language from an accomplished speaker); of sometimes feeling patronized; of being prejudged (skin color, accent, posture, dress, etc.) as an outsider by those ignorant of your transformation. Success in making the transition is not a matter of intelligence. Frustrated, put off by the process, or the fear of failure creates a class of novices who ultimately fail, psychologically, to complete the journey. Some of these become celebrity critics of Western culture, famous for the books they write in a Western language detailing the “shortcomings” (challenges) of a culture of individualism. They soon ally themselves with homegrown critics, and it is ironic how many of the critics of Western Culture do not hesitate to accept being subsidized by universities in the culture they claim to despise—“to enjoy the products of individuality has modified their destructive urge.”

True to form, they never produce a positive account of a viable alternative—after all doing such runs the risk of critical retaliation—fear of failure again. We do not always live up to our stated norms, but that alone does not deny the existence of those norms (except in the minds of social scientists who do not understand what a norm is).

An example of the failure to understand the norms is the claim that autonomous individuality is not a universal truth that exists independent of any specific historical context. Metaphysical universality is indeed a norm/truth within the Western mind. However, membership in the community of autonomous individuals is a universal invitation, and it is in the recognition of such that Naipaul will add his contribution.

Alas, even in Western cultures there are people who neither understand nor cherish these norms. Accepting responsibility for one’s own life pursuit is neither obvious nor easy. Many people simply want others to be responsible for them. This is clearly something that many parents and teachers worry about with regard to their children or other young people. In response, there are numerous political, social, educational, aesthetic, and intellectual movements designed to cater to those who do not want individual freedom and responsibility

Of special importance, however, are the number of people not born into a Western Culture who migrate to the West in search of individual freedom. I am pleased to meet them all the time. To be sure, many of those engaged in these now massive migrations merely come in search of greater economic and legal benefits without any understanding of why those benefits only exist in some places – perhaps they think it’s an accident or the result of magic, or more likely they do not, initially, think at all. In any case, the migrations are all in the same direction: north and west.

Hegel

In the Philosophy of Right, Hegel initiated the idea of history as a development toward the consciousness of freedom. Hegel describes four stages in the formation of the self-consciousness of freedom: Oriental, Greek, Roman, and Germanic. In the “Oriental” stage, freedom is largely unrecognized and communities contains only the rudiments of freedom. The world-view of the Oriental realm arises in patriarchal communities where only one person, technically the king, is free. The classical Greek world is superior to the Oriental world because the Greeks have a greater sense of freedom (communities that are self-governing are free). However, they are not fully self-conscious of their freedom because the satisfaction of needs is carried out exclusively by a class of slaves. The Romans embody the third stage and display a greater sense of individuality, but ethical life is divided between the recognition of an aristocratic private domain in conflict with freedom in a democracy. In both classical Greece and Rome, only a portion of the community is free. With the advent of the ‘Germanic’ world, the idea that everyone can have this freedom emerges. This idea of universal freedom is facilitated through Christianity, which acts as a bridge linking the ancient world of limited freedom to the modern world where everyone can be free.

Two things are worth noticing about freedom in this earlier Hegelian work. First, the meaning of “freedom” is not some timeless abstraction but evolves over time. Cultural norms are not fixed and frozen entities. Second, “freedom” does not start out as a universal norm but involves a dialectical struggle.

For Hegel, freedom and self-consciousness are intricately linked.

The Christian doctrine that man is by nature evil is superior to the other according to which he is good. Interpreted philosophically, this doctrine should be understood as follows. As spirit, man is a free being [Wesen] who is in a position not to let himself be determined by natural drives. When he exists in an immediate and uncivilized [ungebildeten] condition, he is therefore in a situation in which he ought not to be, and from which he must liberate himself. This is the meaning of the doctrine of original sin, without which Christianity would not be the religion of freedom.

For Hegel, then, humans have original sin, and life serves as a realm in which humans struggle to release themselves from this condition of slavery to natural drives. Christianity is the religion of freedom insofar as it involves the redemption of mankind.

In the Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel explores the dialectical struggle of this relationship between the self-consciousness of freedom in the relation of masters to slaves. For Hegel, the self-consciousness of freedom exists only in being acknowledged. Recognition” is crucial to self-consciousness. Autonomous individuals have a need for recognition by other individuals. More specifically, individuals desire to be acknowledged by other self-conscious individuals. The master-slave (parent-child, teacher-pupil) relationship is problematic because it does not involve the mutual recognition of equals.

Hegel identifies the master as the independent consciousness whose essential nature is to be “for itself.” He identifies the slave as the dependent consciousness whose essential nature is simply to live or to be “for another.” The master achieves recognition but it is unsatisfactory because the slave is not another autonomous individual. Moreover, the master does not engage in the necessary labor that allows individuals to arrive at a sense of their own agency. The conventional perception of the master as free and the slave in bondage soon gets flipped on its head; the truth of the independent consciousness actually belongs to the servile consciousness of the slave. The slave, therefore, might have the better understanding of freedom. Through the process of withdrawing into itself, the consciousness of the slave will be transformed into a truly independent consciousness. The fear of the master is the beginning of the slave’s wisdom, but work completes this process of realization and enables the slave to become conscious of who he truly is. Thus, the master-slave relationship takes on a character that is directly opposite to the degrees of freedom traditionally associated with the master and slave.

For Hegel, then, the respect of inferiors is never sufficient. Individuals who want to achieve satisfactory recognition from others must obtain this acknowledgement from selves who are also self-conscious and free. Therefore, autonomous individuals should have an interest in other people achieving freedom and a sense of self-consciousness. Any autonomous individual will want to see his/her own freedom reflected in other people. In varying ways, Westerners will come to experience the discomfort of being masters.

“Promoting” personal autonomy in other individuals is not an easy process. It is a complicated undertaking in which difficulties can arise on the part of the “inferior” as well as on the part of the “superior” when either attempts to equalize the relationship. Colonialism in particular raises these issues of freedom and authority as well as providing a backdrop in which the Hegelian thesis may be tested on the grounds of its accuracy and its practicality.

Both Joseph Conrad and V.S. Naipaul present colonial narratives that serve as exemplifications of Hegel’s conception of freedom. Conrad identifies a problem with colonialism insofar as it reinforces the perception of Europeans as masters and others as slaves. Naipaul builds on Conrad’s argument but adds the recognition that while liberty as the removal of an “outside” constraint can be bestowed on others “inner” freedom cannot be given to others but is something they must work out for themselves.

Joseph Conrad

Conrad’s Heart of Darkness raises three important questions: In what ways does Conrad view Western civilization as more morally advanced? How does colonialism corrupt both western and non-western cultures? In what sense are Europeans enslaved by colonialism? In his works, Conrad displays an anti-colonial sentiment and suggests, like Hegel, that the admiration of an inferior is never satisfactory. He views colonialism as destructive insofar as it casts Europeans as masters and others as slaves. For Conrad, like Hegel, this master-slave relationship is ultimately and inherently undesirable.

Conrad, however, does not center this need for recognition on reflective freedom. His European characters are often engaged in imperialistic projects, and they do not seem particularly concerned with granting freedom to non-Europeans, or even with promoting autonomy in each other. Freedom is a definite concern for Conrad, but he does not insist that humans have a responsibility to help others achieve freedom. Conrad criticizes colonialism for its cruelty, demoralizing effects, and its inhumanity, but he does not go beyond this critical step, as does Naipaul, to propose a project of exporting freedom to others. For Conrad, the Western man is more morally advanced than savages because he has a conception of original sin and thus recognizes his own limitations; the savage exists in a prior state of consciousness/darkness.

Conrad, too, emphasizes the connection between individuals and history. Frederick R. Karl, his biographer, has described Conrad as “a Hegelian without the character of an Idea or an Ideal.” Conrad views mankind as caught in a web of moral and political turmoil in which humans are constantly struggling to overcome the powers of darkness. He does not see any final resolution of the human predicament.

Like Hegel, Conrad views the present world as divided into various stages of historical development. The narrator relates how the Thames has serviced “all the men of whom the nation is proud, from Sir Francis Drake to Sir John Franklin.” Marlow adds the story is actually an historical account of conquest. His “seaman’s yarn” begins with a reflection on England’s historical origins. “I was thinking of old times, when the Romans first came here, nineteen hundred years ago.” Marlow speculates on the experiences of a commander of a “trireme in the Mediterranean, ordered suddenly to the north” and how he might have encountered “the utter savagery” of uncivilized England. These reflections are a preface to the story of European imperialism. First England is conquered, and then it conquers other lands.

History for Marlow is a history of conquest, but issues of freedom arise because conquest involves a restructuring of previously established norms of social organization, political institutions, belief systems, and even natural environments. He takes particular interest in the mode of conquest of imperialism, and he expresses clear concerns about the moral implications of this practice. He carefully distinguishes between those who conquered England and the current English imperialists: “Mind, none of us would feel exactly like this [the Roman commander and his crew],” Marlow tells his fellow passengers. “What saves us is efficiency—the devotion to efficiency… these chaps were not much account, really. They were no colonists… They were conquerors, and for that you want only brute force—nothing to boast of, when you have it, since your strength is just an accident arising from the weakness of others… The conquest of the earth which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion… [it] is not a pretty thing when you look into it much. What redeems it is the idea” of its more efficient use. This is “not a sentimental pretense but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea—something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to….” The conquest of nature, what we have called the “Technological Project” becomes a replacement for religion.

The “conquest” is only redeemable as the idea that colonizers are “bearers of a spark from the sacred fire” of civilization. But this is an illusion. In Heart of Darkness, the European colonizers do not bring civility to the savages. In fact, just the reverse occurs. The wilderness makes barbarians of the Europeans. The great colonial project is turned upon its head; it operates on the false and fatal assumption that the wilderness and its savage inhabitants will be the only ones conquered. The conquest of both land and its human inhabitants is a cruel and ugly process. Marlow’s description of the African natives, is that “[t]hey were dying slowly… They were not enemies, they were not criminals, they were nothing earthly now—nothing but black shadows of disease and starvation.”

Kurtz, the chief of the Inner Station, comprises “[a]ll Europe.” “Each station should be like a beacon on the road towards better things, a center for trade of course, but also for humanizing, improving, instructing.” This dual purpose, Conrad suggests, is in itself a contradiction. Kurtz professes to bring civilization and virtue to the natives, but the ivory trade will mean their exploitation. Kurtz engages in the impossible task of humanizing the natives by taking away their humanity.

For Hegel, the crucifixion represents not only a reconciliation of opposites but also the descent of heaven to earth; the ideal meets the material world in the figure of Christ. There is, then, a notion of redemption in Hegel, and this notion of redemption is intimately connected with the idea of freedom. Christianity itself acts as an intercessor between the ancient and the modern worlds through Christ and promotes this liberation from original sin. In Conrad, attempts to achieve redemption never meet full success. You might treat the natives better but you cannot bring them true freedom. Thus, Conrad shares with Hegel the realization of humankind’s essential wickedness, but he does not share Hegel’s notion of redemption or Hegel’s optimism about the future.

Hegel recognized labor as one of the means by which individuals arrive at self-consciousness. In Heart of Darkness, Marlow makes the same observation: “I don’t like work—no man does—but I like what is in the work—the chance to find yourself. Your own reality—for yourself, not for others—what no other man can ever know.” Thus Conrad, like Hegel, suggests that labor gives individuals a sense of their own agency.

Europeans are more morally advanced than the colonial savages they rule insofar as they have a conception of original sin so understood. Even though the civilized world may not uphold the morals it espouses, and even though the Western world may not subscribe to all of the right ideals, it nevertheless has a recognition of those morals. The savage does not have this awareness. When Marlow journeys deeper and deeper into the jungle, he relates, “Going up that river was like travelling back to the earliest beginning of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings…. [Y]ou lost your way on that river as you would in a desert, and butted all day against the shoals, trying to find the channel, till you thought yourself bewitched and cut off for ever from everything you had known once—somewhere—in another existence perhaps.” In this sense, history, for Conrad as for Hegel, also traces a development of human self-consciousness. Conrad views the savages as living in another stage of history, one that is located “in the night of first ages.”

V.S. Naipal

Naipaul’s work is usefully compared and contrasted with that of his favorite English author, Conrad. Like Conrad, Naipaul comes to his place at the very center of English culture as an outsider. Born in Trinidad into a Hindu family, he was part of the Indian community that had migrated a century ago to work the West Indian cane fields as indentured laborers. From early on, he felt the as yet inarticulate sense of marginality that fills his books, the irrelevance of such places and their inhabitants to the mainstream where significant deeds are done. Like Conrad’s restless wanderings as a sea captain, Naipaul for thirty years has recrossed the globe as expressed in his travel essays. Naipaul is Conrad’s spiritual heir, writing of the outposts of empire, the half-made societies, as Naipaul calls them. They share a similarity of outlook: the darkness of human irrationality, aggression, fanaticism, and barbarism are always impending; and that civilization is an achievement that has to be worked at constantly. Naipaul also explores how the social order comes to bear on the lives of individuals, defining our possibilities, constraining and enabling our individuality, and affecting how each one of us lives and understands and values his single life.

Naipaul, like Conrad, believes in mankind’s corruptibility. Naipaul, however, departs from the Conradian view of the world as locked forever under darkness. In an essay entitled, Conrad’s Darkness, Naipaul writes, “Conrad’s value to me is that he is someone who sixty to seventy years ago meditated on my world, a world I recognize today. I feel this about no other writer of the century” (“Conrad’s Darkness,” in The Return of Eva Peron with The Killings in Trinidad.1980. p. 219).

The world has changed, however, between the days in which Conrad wrote and the period in which Naipaul lives. Both authors had direct experience with the colonial world and explore this world in their novels, but Naipaul, 75 years Conrad’s junior, also witnessed the decline of colonialism as it gave rise to the post-colonial world. Thus, Naipaul stands in a more historically advanced position from which he evaluates the world. His advantage of living in a later historical period than Conrad allows him to see consequences and outcomes that Conrad could not foresee. This historical advantage of perspective may account in part for Naipaul’s less pessimistic assessment of the human condition.

A House for Mr. Biswas

Set in an Indian community in Trinidad, A House for Mr. Biswas, arguably Naipaul’s greatest work, documents Mohan Biswas’s quest for dignity in a society that is unwilling to recognize his value as an individual. From the beginning, Mr. Biswas must combat prejudices and preconceived notions about his identity. The novel follows his quest for respect, independence, and a house to call his own as he challenges these prejudices and the culture which refuses to recognize him. Only the narrator accords Mr. Biswas the respect he deserves by referring to him with the title “Mr.” throughout the novel.

Mr. Biswas is born into a world that does not receive him kindly. He has been “[b]orn in the wrong way,” has six fingers, and enters the world at midnight, “the inauspicious hour.” The pundit declares that he will have an unlucky sneeze and warns that evil will result if Mr. Biswas goes near trees or water. His father is not pleased with the birth of his son or the pundit’s pronouncements, but he simply accepts his lot in life according to his philosophy: “Fate. There is nothing we can do about it.” It is against this prevailing attitude that Mr. Biswas must battle throughout the novel, for Mr. Biswas desires to make things happen for himself, to reject the prejudicial beliefs of his society and to cast off the superstitions surrounding his name.

Like the Hegelian individual, Mr. Biswas opposes fatalism and desires to achieve a free self-consciousness through work and through the recognition of others. The preconceived notions of his society, however, act as obstacles to Mr. Biswas’s realization of his individual worth. When his father drowns in a pond, Mr. Biswas (still a child) is blamed because he has gone near the water in violation of the pundit’s warning. The death of Mr. Biswas’s father sets off a series of events that eventually force his mother to sell their house. The narrator relates, “And so Mr. Biswas came to leave the only house to which he had some right. For the next thirty-five years he was to be a wanderer with no place he could call his own.” Furthermore, his family splits up to live with various relatives, and as a result, Mr. Biswas feels very alone in the world.

When Mr. Biswas marries, he becomes enslaved by the Tulsis, his wife’s relatives, for many years. Mr. Biswas is not literally a slave in the strictest sense of the term, but he repeatedly tells his wife that her family has “trapped” him. The Tulsis own a store and a large house called Hanuman House. When the narrator describes the house, he creates the impression of a large communal society. Children seem to run wildly and rampantly throughout the residence, adults seem to be engaged in constant quarrels, and a peculiar code of human behavior that emphasizes a perverted equality dominates the household.

Unable to bear the imposition upon his dignity and his independence, Mr. Biswas moves to a place known as “The Chase,” where he escapes from Hanuman House but not from the dominating presence of the Tulsis. The Chase proves ultimately unsatisfactory to Mr. Biswas; he begins to regard the venture as something “temporary and not quite real.” He reasons that “[r]eal life was to begin for them soon, and elsewhere. The Chase was a pause, a preparation.” As it turns out, the pause is a long one.

In the meanwhile, Mr. Biswas begins to lose sight of his dream as his individuality is smothered by the presence of the Tulsis and by other limiting influences on his freedom. He stops reading Samuel Smiles. The mention of ‘Smiles’ is important: Samuel Smiles was a Scottish author famous for books on self-help, and he promoted the idea that more progress would come from new attitudes than from new laws.

He does not give up hope, however, and he retains the sense that “some nobler purpose awaited him, even in this limiting society.” When Mr. Biswas leaves The Chase, he moves to a place called Green Vale, where he works as a sub-overseer in the sugarcane fields. Still, he has not escaped the shadow of the Tulsis; Green Vale is, after all, “part of the Tulsis land just outside of Arwacus.” It is “considered almost an extension of Hanuman House.” The Tulsis repeatedly work against Mr. Biswas’s attempts to assert himself as an individual. They seem particularly adverse to the idea of Mr. Biswas having a house of his own. Even when Mr. Biswas purchases a dollhouse for his daughter, the relatives at Hanuman House become resentful of this possession and treat Mr. Biswas’s wife so terribly that she eventually smashes the house to alleviate the situation. When the dollhouse is smashed along with Mr. Biswas’s dignity, the relatives are happy again. Here we see the nature and limits of traditional societies as it was ruthlessly and unsentimentally documented by Naipaul, including the emasculation of men in traditional patriarchal societies as opposed to free societies.

In what ways does Mr. Biswas battle throughout the novel to make things happen for himself, to reject the prejudicial beliefs of his society and to cast off the superstitions surrounding his name? When Mr. Biswas’s mother dies and the doctor acts rudely in writing her certificate of death, Mr. Biswas writes a letter of protest to the doctor. The letter is structured around the theme “no one could escape from what he was” and concludes that “no one could deny his humanity and keep his self-respect.” This letter is a personal declaration of independence.

Mr. Biswas finds a vehicle toward independence in education. He is an avid reader, and he stresses the importance of learning to his children, particularly to his son Anand. When the Tulsis come into financial difficulties and must sell their house, education acquires a new significance in the absence of the security of a closed community: “There was no longer a Hanuman House to protect them; everyone had to fight for himself in a new world, the world Owar and Shekhar had entered, where education was the only protection.” As the dominating presence of the Tulsis fades, Mr. Biswas begins to obtain a greater sense of dignity. His dignity is constantly insulted, but Mr. Biswas preserves his self-respect.

Eventually, Mr. Biswas acquires the means to purchase a house that is truly his own. The purchase of his house symbolizes the purchase of his freedom. He no longer remains constrained under the Tulsis’ shadow. The house on Sikkim Street has its disadvantages; the staircase is plain and unstable, the windows downstairs do not close, the doors upstairs lack uniformity, and other imperfections are discovered as well. However, the house acquires significance more for what it accomplishes than for what it lacks. Most importantly, it gives Mr. Biswas and his family an identity that reflects their independence. Thus the house, as a new arena of independence, provides a replacement for the old days of dependency. Mr. Biswas dies with a house of his own, in a world where he has earned his freedom and established his individuality.

Our Universal Civilization

Do people from non-Western (European) cultures come, in time, to adopt autonomy (and its nexus of beliefs) as a value? One way of answering this question is to examine the work of Nobel Prize winning author V. S. Naipaul. Naipaul answers in the affirmative. He does so in an important essay entitled, “Our Universal Civilization.”

In 1990, Naipaul delivered a speech at the Manhattan Institute in which he outlined his concept of “Our Universal Civilization.” Myron Magnet, the Senior Fellow of the Institute, introduced him as “Conrad’s spiritual heir.” As outsiders who came to England only after their childhood years, both Conrad and Naipaul “share a certain history that makes them almost obsessive analysts and questioners of social reality.” Naipaul in particular “explores the intersection of the social order and the individual life” and examines how the social order defines “our possibilities,” constrains and enables “our individuality,” and affects “how each one of us lives and understands and values his single life.” Thus, the nature of the relationship between society and the individual becomes a crucial one in the development of self-consciousness and the understanding of personal autonomy.

Hegel’s conception of freedom posits a continually advancing civilization in which humans progress toward a greater understanding of freedom; Naipaul insist that civilization is an advancement contingent upon human effort. Conrad and Naipaul, Magnet states, “share a similarity of outlook” in that they both view “the bush or the darkness of human irrationality, aggression, fanaticism, and barbarism” as “always impending.” For both authors, “civilization is an achievement that has to be worked at constantly.” For Conrad, the darkness forms a continual presence that perpetually overshadows society; the world for Conrad is a world of illusion in which humans ultimately cannot escape from the darkness. For Naipaul, however, human improvement is a reality; he sees society as advancing, and it is this optimistic view of civilization’s future that separates him from Conrad. If there is a sense in which Naipaul is writing in Conrad’s shadow, there is also a sense in which he escapes from it.

Naipaul’s speech serves to highlight the extent to which Naipaul, as Conrad’s inheritor, also diverges from him. At the conclusion of his lecture, Naipaul prophesies that the Western idea, which embodies the pursuit of happiness, individuality, and other liberal virtues, will cause “other more rigid systems in the end [to] blow away.” Naipaul, like Conrad, believes in mankind’s corruptibility. Unlike Conrad, however, Naipaul also believes in mankind’s perfectibility. Thus Naipaul departs from the Conradian worldview of the world as locked forever under darkness.

Naipaul also acknowledges his debt to Conrad; he does not reject him, but rather diverges from him. In an essay entitled, Conrad’s Darkness, Naipaul writes, “Conrad’s value to me is that he is someone who sixty to seventy years ago meditated on my world, a world I recognize today. I feel this about no other writer of the century.” The world has changed, however, between the days in which Conrad wrote and the period in which Naipaul lives. Both authors had direct experiences within the colonial world and explore this world in their novels, but Naipaul, 75 years Conrad’s junior, also witnessed the decline of colonialism as it gave rise to the post-colonial world. Thus, Naipaul stands in a more historically advanced position from which he evaluates the world. His advantage of living in a later historical period than Conrad allows him to see consequences and outcomes that Conrad could not foresee. This historical advantage of perspective may account in part for Naipaul’s less pessimistic assessment of the human condition and his more optimistic outlook regarding the future of society.

The universal civilization has been a long time in the making. It wasn’t always universal; it wasn’t always as attractive as it is today. The expansion of Europe gave it for at least three centuries a racial taint, which still causes pain. In Trinidad, I grew up in the last days of that kind of racialism. And that, perhaps, has given me a greater appreciation of the immense changes that have taken place since the end of the war, the extraordinary attempt of this civilization to accommodate the rest of the world, and all the currents of that world’s thought… A later realization—I suppose I have sensed it most of my life, but I have understood it philosophically only during the preparation of this talk—has been the beauty of the idea of the pursuit of happiness. Familiar words, easy to take for granted; easy to misconstrue. This idea of the pursuit of happiness is at the heart of the attractiveness of the civilization to so many outside it or on its periphery. I find it marvelous to contemplate to what an extent, after two centuries, and after the terrible history of the earlier part of this century, the idea has come to a kind of fruition. It is an elastic idea; it fits all men. It implies a certain kind of society, a certain kind of awakened spirit. I don’t imagine my father’s parents would have been able to understand the idea. So much is contained in it: the idea of the individual, responsibility, choice, the life of the intellect, the idea of vocation and perfectibility and achievement. It is an immense human idea. It cannot be reduced to a fixed system. It cannot generate fanaticism. But it is known to exist; and because of that, other more rigid systems in the end blow away.

For Naipaul, then, personal autonomy becomes an important issue. However, individuals also have the responsibility of working on their own freedom; they cannot gain a sense of self-consciousness solely through the means of another individual. Naipaul, like Hegel (and Oakeshott), criticizes the anti-individual who refuses to form an identity apart from the group. In a Free State in particular he addresses the issue of the post-colonial subject who does not know how to form an identity apart from his master or a larger society. In a Free State consists of two short stories (One out of Many and Tell Me Who to Kill) and a short novel (In a Free State) surrounded by a prologue and an epilogue from Naipaul’s travel journals.

In One out of Many, however, Naipaul suggests that some people may not be ready to accept their own freedom; the realization of self-consciousness is a rewarding but painful and difficult process. The first-person narrator in One out of Many encounters this very difficulty. Born and raised in Bombay, the narrator, Santosh, works for the government and can only conceive of his identity insofar as it relates to his employer; the narrator has no identity outside of the identity he associates with his master. Santosh relates, “I experienced the world through him… I was content to be a small part of his presence.” When his employer is transferred to Washington, the “capital of the world,” Santosh begs for permission to accompany him. His employer agrees. Initially, Santosh retains the characteristics of the Oakeshottian anti-individual who, finding himself “saddled with the unsought and inescapable ‘freedom’ of human agency,” is hesitant about being able to respond.

At first, Washington and the new American culture overwhelms Santosh. Gradually, however, he comes to gain a sense of his own individuality: “Now I found, that, without wishing it, I was ceasing to see myself as part of my employer’s presence, and beginning at the same time to see him as an outsider might see him, as perhaps the people who came to dinner in the apartment saw him.” As his sense of agency emerges, Santosh resolves to run away from his employer. After wandering the streets of Washington, Santosh takes on a new job at a restaurant owned by a man named Priya. In this new position, Santosh reflects upon his discovery of freedom: “I felt I was earning my freedom. Though I was in hiding, and though I worked every day until midnight, I felt I was much more in charge of myself than I had ever been.” Thus labor, in Naipaul as well as in Hegel, serves as a means by which individuals develop a sense of their own agency.

This freedom, however, also implies an increase in responsibilities. For Santosh, the freedom he discovers at Priya’s restaurant presents complications: “It was worse than being in the apartment, because now the responsibility was mine and mine alone. I had decided to be free, to act for myself.” Santosh begins to regret the consequences of his freedom, and one day he calls Priya, with whom he has developed a close and friendly relationship, “sahib.” Overwhelmed by the sense of his own freedom, Santosh retreats back into the position of servant by referring to his friend Priya in this way:

I had used the wrong word. Once I had used the word a hundred times a day. But then I had considered myself a small part of my employer’s presence, and the word was not servile; it was more like a name, like a reassuring sound, part of my employer’s dignity and therefore part of mine. But Priya’s dignity could never be mine; that was not our relationship. Priya I had always called Priya; it was his wish, the American way, man to man. With Priya the word was servile. And he responded to the word.… I never called him by his name again.… I was a free man; I had lost my freedom.

While Naipaul approves of the American way of treating and addressing others as equals, he also realizes that the transition into such a culture is not an easy process, especially for one who comes from a background of strict class systems where servility to superiors is taught as a virtue, or as a necessary means of communication.

At the end of the story, Santosh becomes an American citizen, but he does not want to live in the American way. For him, the transition from sleeping outside on the street with his friends in Bombay to living in America is too great to rightly be called pleasant. At the same time, however, America has given Santosh freedom; in America, he realizes that he is free; he becomes self-conscious of his freedom. He realizes that he made the decision to come to Washington and that he cannot return to the ways of Bombay. Santosh concludes his tale with an evaluation of his freedom:

I was once part of the flow, never thinking of myself as a presence. Then I looked in the mirror and decided to be free. All that my freedom has brought me is the knowledge that I have a face and a body, that I must feed this body and clothe this body for a certain number of years. Then it will all be over.

Thus, Santosh delivers a troubling diagnosis of freedom. He acknowledges the negative side of freedom, in which duties associated with freedom become a burden. Nevertheless, Santosh’s final and disappointing portrait of freedom does not imply Naipaul’s approval of slavery or servitude. Rather, Naipaul wishes to expose the side of freedom that often gets undervalued; he wishes to show that freedom carries with it responsibilities, and that certain people have trouble accepting those responsibilities. For Naipaul, an individual’s enjoyment of freedom depends upon what that individual makes of his freedom. In this respect, Naipaul’s argument parallels Hegel’s assertion in the Philosophy of Right: “On the one hand, it is true that every individual has an independent existence [ist jades Individuum für sich]; but on the other, the individual is also a member of the system of civil society, and just as every human being has a right to demand a livelihood from society, so also must society protect him from himself…. Since civil society is obliged to feed its members, it also has the right to urge them to provide for their own livelihood.”

He would also agree with Hegel’s assertion in the Philosophy of Right: “If the direct burden [of support] were to fall on the wealthier class, or if direct means were available in other public institutions (such as wealthy hospitals, foundations, or monasteries) to maintain the increasingly impoverished mass at its normal standard of living, the livelihood of the needy would be ensured without the mediation of work; this would be contrary to the principle of civil society and the feeling of self-sufficiency and honor among its individual members.”

The narrator of Tell Me Who to Kill resolves to ensure his younger brother’s education. However, the narrator makes a mistake in assuming responsibility for his brother; while his encouragement is commendatory, the narrator ultimately cannot control his brother’s actions or make his brother succeed in the Western world. When Dayo, the narrator’s younger brother, goes to college in London, he struggles to adjust to his new lifestyle but fails. The narrator, moves to London and obtains a job in order to assist Dayo financially, but neither the narrator’s financial assistance nor even his emotional presence can substitute for Dayo’s own agency.

The narrator cannot help an individual who is not willing to help himself. The narrator’s misconception results in his disillusionment with the world around him as he fails to understand Dayo’s loss of confidence and motivation. The short story ends with Dayo’s marriage, which the narrator describes as “more like a funeral than a wedding.” The narrator cannot make sense of his surroundings, of unexpected outcomes, or of his failed plan to give Dayo a European education. Angry at the world, he wonders “who to kill.”

In In a Free State, Naipaul explores the alternative to Western rule. Set in Africa shortly after the end of British imperialism, In a Free State explores the political consequences of independence. “In ‘The Loss of El Dorado,’ Naipaul is unsparing about the abuses of colonial rule. But he’s not oblivious to what followed: “corrupt and brutal despotisms in Africa and South America, stupid homegrown ideologies, as well as the self-indulgent Western fantasies that sustain them.” Writing about Egypt in his epilogue, Naipaul exclaims, “Peonies, China! So many empires had come here.” He is looking at postcards of Chinese flowers that have been handed out as gifts to waiters in a small Egyptian hut. The implication is that Africa is still a land of conquest, where the Chinese are now establishing an empire, albeit “more remote,” in Egypt through their commercial activity.

If history is a history of conquest, it is also a history of change, and the nature of this change has resulted in more opportunities for humans to discover their freedom. A Bend in the River suggests, more strongly than A House for Mr. Biswas or In a Free State, that the Western enterprise has altered the world forever, and that this change has created a new sphere in which humans can best realize the meaning of freedom. A Bend in the River presents a decidedly more optimistic view of the human condition than the two former novels. The novel centers around Salim, an Indian man who opens a shop at the bend of a river in a newly independent African state. The geographic location (that is to say, Africa) is the same as in In a Free State, and political turmoil also plays a role here, but in A Bend in the River Naipaul expresses greater hope for the inhabitants of Developing countries and the opportunities available to them.

Salim, the narrator and main character, begins with the statement “The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.” This statement in many ways sums up Naipaul’s philosophy on life. It emphasizes the role that individuals play in their own fate and advocates personal responsibility in the face of a world that will not automatically adjust to fit individuals’ needs or desires. The opening statement of A Bend in the River also precludes anyone from blaming the world for personal failures; it denounces men who are not proactive. It is a negatively expressed statement, but it has a positive converse. For Naipaul, individuals have to make their dreams happen. If men who make themselves nothing have no place in the world, then men who make something of themselves do have a place in the world.

In the opening chapters of the novel, Salim offers a history of his family. His family past consists of men who would likely fall into the category of “men who are nothing.” They are not ambitious men, but rather men who had accepted without question the customs and traditions of their land:

We simply lived; we did what was expected of us, what we had seen the previous generation do. We never asked why; we never recorded. We felt in our bones that we were a very old people; but we seemed to have no means of gauging the passing of time. Neither my father nor my grandfather could put dates to their stories. Not because they had forgotten or were confused; the past was simply the past.

Salim’s ancestors, then, lack a clear conception of their larger historical significance. They also do not possess a conception of time; Salim’s journey into his family history, like Marlow’s journey up the Congo River, is a journey into a realm where time ceases to have a functional meaning. This limited conception of time reflects the primitive state of mankind before the advent of modern civilization. It also suggests that history involves a development of the mind. In this way, Naipaul’s recording of the narrator’s family history reflects a Hegelian approach to world history.

Salim’s ancestors locate themselves in the present and think even less of the future than they do of the past. “In our family house when I was a child I never heard a discussion about our future or the future of the coast. The assumption seemed to be that things would continue, that marriages would continue to be arranged between approved parties, that trade and business would go on, that Africa would be for us as it had been.”

Unlike his relatives, however, Salim has a sense of his society’s relationship to the rest of the world. “But it came to me when I was quite young, still at school, that our way of life was antiquated and almost at an end…” British postage stamps with a picture of an Arab dhow – what a foreigner describes as “most striking about this place [in Africa]”—generate Salim’s sense of societal self-consciousness, and he develops “the habit of looking, detaching myself from a familiar scene and trying to consider it as from a distance.”

Salim’s process of both recognizing himself as a part of his environment and also of perceiving himself as separate from his environment matches Hegel’s conception of the self-conscious individual who perceives that he is “a member of the system of civil society” but also realizes that he has an “independent existence.”

From this perspective of an outsider who is simultaneously an insider, Salim develops the idea that “as a community we had fallen behind.” The quality of self-consciousness and the ability to “stand back and consider the nature” of one’s community becomes crucial in an individual’s as well as a culture’s adjustment to the changing world. Salim observes, that the Europeans “were better equipped to cope with changes than we were” because “they could assess themselves.” Thus, the Europeans have an advantage over inhabitants of countries/cultures who have not advanced as far in the development of self-consciousness.

Salim perceives that the world around him is changing, and that if he is to succeed in it, he must take action. This action involves breaking away from the limiting lifestyles of his heritage:

I had to break away from our family compound and our community. To stay with my community, to pretend that I had simply to travel along with them, was to be taken with them to destruction. I could be master of my fate only if I stood alone. One tide of history… had brought us here…. Now… another tide of history was going to wash us away.

Salim resolves to leave his Indian community on the coast of Africa and journey inland to set up a new life, where he will run a shop on the bend in the river. The bend in the river symbolically represents the change in times, the switch from one historical epoch to another.

The “tides of history” concept which Naipaul invokes also recalls Hegel, who ascribes certain moments of the world mind’s Idea to certain epochs in history. In the Philosophy of Right he states that each stage of world history is “the presence of a necessary moment in the Idea of the world mind,” and he ascribes this Idea to particular nations.

The nation to which is ascribed a moment of the Idea in the form of a natural principle is entrusted with giving complete effect to it in the advance of the self-developing self-consciousness of the world mind. This nation is dominant in world history during this one epoch, and it is only once that it can make its hour strike. In contrast with this its absolute right of being the vehicle of the present stage in the world mind’s development, the minds of the other nations are without rights, and they, along with those whose hour has struck already, count no longer in world history.

Insofar as a particular nation possesses the Idea of the world mind, it has the right to promulgate this idea and promote historical development.

Naipaul presents a similar argument, although he makes a few modifications to the original Hegelian view. In A Bend in the River, Europe – and, more broadly, the West—acts as the vehicle of the present stage in history. If A Bend in the River had to locate this vehicle in a particular nation, it would likely be England, which is representative of the Western idea in the novel. Nevertheless, Naipaul certainly advances the Hegelian argument that certain ideas gain power and even right in the flow of history. In his speech before the Manhattan Institute, Naipaul characterizes this Western idea more specifically as “the idea of the pursuit of happiness.” Naipaul calls this pursuit “an immense human idea;” contained within it is “the idea of the individual, responsibility, choice, the life of the intellect, the idea of vocation and perfectibility and achievement.” Naipaul claims that this idea “has come to a kind of fruition.” In his 1979 novel, Naipaul traces the development of this idea toward its fruition. Furthermore, as the novel progresses, Salim comes to recognize the beauty and the enabling power of this Western idea. As in Hegel, Western thought parallels the individual mind in the history of its development.

When Salim in A Bend in the River finds that his country can no longer accommodate his newfound freedom, Salim is compelled to flee Africa in order to escape the new, oppressive regime that his taken over his shop and threatens to obliterate his identity as well. The novel ends with Salim’s flight, and on one level this seems like a negative and depressing conclusion. This interpretation, however, misses a crucial point: Salim is leaving a land of oppression to enter a land of opportunity. Salim’s visit to London before his permanent departure has already given him insight into the kind of opportunities available outside of his small African community. After his enlightenment, Salim realizes that there can be “no going back” to his former way of life. “[T]here was nothing to go back to. We had become to what the world outside had made us; we had to live in the world as it existed.” His friend Indar has introduced Salim to European ways of thinking and has revealed to Salim the flaws in traditional, non-Western thought. Indar tells Salim,

We have no means of understanding a fraction of the thought and science and philosophy and law that have gone to make that outside world. We simply accept it. We have grown up paying tribute to it, and that is what most of us do. We feel of the great world that it is simply there, something for the lucky ones among us to explore, and then only at the edges. It never occurs to us that we might make some contribution to it ourselves. And that is why we miss everything.

By the end of the novel, Salim has come to the conclusion that he does have power over his own fate and that he will no longer let himself be restricted by the limiting paradigms of a preceding generation. His decision to leave Africa parallels Naipaul’s own decision to leave his native Trinidad for the larger world in which he could better express his freedom. Like Salim, Naipaul saw “the rituals and the myths” of his heritage “at a distance” and eventually decided to leave Trinidad because his homeland did not offer “that kind of society” in which “the writing life was possible.” He had to make a journey “from the margin to the center” in order to find a society that would accommodate his needs, and this journey necessitated leaving his old life.

When Salim flees Africa at the end of the novel, he is not facing defeat, or a life of lonely exile. He is leaving a land that has limited his freedom to join other people in other lands who will share his freedom with him.

In A Bend in the River, the narrator (an Indian who lives in postcolonial Africa) observes, “[I]t came to me while I was still quite young, still at school, that our way of life was antiquated and almost at an end.” He later comes to regard himself “as part of an immense flow of history” in which the old and primitive cultures give way to the power of the European idea. The Europeans, he relates, “gave us on the coast some idea of our history.” The introduction of Western ideas to non-Western cultures precipitates a change in the living conditions of those cultures that affects not only physical surroundings but also the attitudes and philosophies of a land’s inhabitants.

Naipaul’s works embody the Hegelian conception of freedom and the human condition; like Hegel, Naipaul advocates individual freedom coupled with individual responsibility. He also acknowledges the value of ideas, and specifically the Western idea. Naipaul’s works is itself an immense contribution to the evolution of Western thought.


Nicholas Capaldi is Professor Emeritus at Loyola University, New Orleans.


Petition: What went Wrong with Higher Education and How to Begin Fixing It

Going back to their origins in the Western European Middles Ages, the humanities were tasked with the articulation, preservation, critique and transmission of the fundamental values of western civilization.

Higher Education was understood as the initiation into that inheritance and as an adventure in self-understanding, an intellectual and moral inheritance of great splendor shared by both teachers and students.

When transmitted to students who possessed the intellectual capacity and maturity to absorb it they would serve as society’s elite leadership. This was the ideal of a liberal education.

Those values continued to underpin the rise of the sciences and markets in the modern world. The evolution of modern American universities came to encompass the humanities, scientific research, and preparation for their practical application. Beneficiaries of that education prospered in their individual careers and contributed to America’s prosperity, its world-wide dominance economically, politically, and culturally.

Like everything else, things started to go wrong in the 1960s. Seemingly challenged by the then USSR, the US government initiated the first federal loan program, the National Defense Student Loan, now the Perkins Loan, in 1958. In 1965, the federal government began guaranteeing student loans provided by banks and non-profit lenders.

The vast and sudden expansion in the 1960s of so-called higher education had serious consequences.

First, the humanities and social sciences, recently followed by the hard (i.e., real) sciences, were captured by the political left leading to the conclusion that the Western inheritance and the U.S. in particular were responsible for all the domestic and international evil in the world.

Second, the federal government was now subsidizing its own executioner! Buoyed by such misguided and self-destructive generosity, institutions of higher education…

  1. raised tuition way beyond what inflation required;
  2. hastily produced several generations of lower-quality-to-incompetent teachers who acquiesced in the now dominant left-leaning ideology;
  3. expanded admissions to include vast numbers of either ineligible (democracies have a difficult time dealing with the fact that there are inherent differences in ability) or under-prepared students;
  4. used the vast expansion to create a bloated bureaucracy (which turned out to be jobs for ideologues who served as “commissars”);
  5. lowered standards both to cover up the inadequate preparation of the students, disguise the laxness of the faculty, and maintain the high levels of funding;
  6. no longer committing themselves to defending western values, these institutions largely stopped teaching the basic texts of western literature and philosophy, making it impossible for students to understand these values;
  7. and engaged in undermining the legitimacy of the US as a nation state by accepting vast sums of money to engage in scientific research on behalf of Communist China!

The consequences are now obvious. First, there is a mismatch between the product and the market (this was already known by the 1980s). When 2% of graduates had a traditional college degree, they enjoyed many economic opportunities and personal prosperity (companies competed to hire someone who was both smart and demonstrated both responsibility and diligence). When 65% have a recent vintage degree that is enough to belie the argument that college graduates automatically earn more. Moreover, when their degrees are a total mismatch to the job market, they will have both no serious job and no way to repay the loans. Yes, we have a student loan crisis! But we have a crisis in higher education’s very raison d’etre.

We need to begin the process or retrieving our heritage, providing meaningful education for all students so that they can experience individual prosperity, and contribute to America’s prosperity and greatness.

Toward that end, we offer the following petition in the hopes that influential people will read it, sign it and that Congress will complete the process of amending its role in higher education!

Please access the petition by clicking here.


Featured image: “Allegory of wisdom,” attributed to Giovanni Domenico Cerrini, 17th century.

The Invisible College

Nick Capaldi and Nadia Nedzel have inaugurated a new organization, Invisible College.

The organization seeks to promote live conversations about important books and topics through Zoom and other media, as well as in person. In addition to its own scheduled “conversations,” it will help others organize their own.

In the following conversation, Nick Capaldi and Marsha Enright discuss the meaning, origins, methodology and purpose of the conversations.



Featured image: Treatises On Natural Science, Philosophy, And Mathematics, ca. 1300.

The Origins Of Totalitarian Democracy: A Discussion

On Feb. 26, 2022, a group of 14 independent scholars and non-academics from around the world convened the first meeting of the Invisible College to discuss an important book, J.L. Talmon’s The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy, (a 1951 study of the French Revolution that identifies the historical origins and political presuppositions of totalitarian “democracy”). What follows is one, and only one, participants’ take away from the discussion.

I was initially attracted to the book by other things I had read and had written myself. Talmon seemed to “echo” the diagnosis of Gnosticism given by Voegelin in The New Science of Politics (1952), the distinction made by Oakeshott between The Politics of Faith and the Politics of Skepticism (composed in the early 1950s); it reflected, as well, in the French context, the distinction made by Constant between ancient and modern liberty, and, of course, Tocqueville’s observations and warning in Democracy in America.

What I hoped to see vindicated were (1) my own claims on the importance that the misguided notion of a social technology rooted in an alleged social science had originated among pre-revolutionary French philosophes; (2) the well known thesis (Crane Brinton, Voegelin, Hayek, and Oakeshott) that the French Revolution was fundamentally different from the U.S. Revolution; and (3) that the concept of the “rule of law” had a significantly different meaning in the Anglo-American legal inheritance from the Continental legal inheritance. Finally, I wanted to see to what extent our forebodings about the dangers of progressivism especially in its “woke” form exemplified what Talmon would say about “Political Messianism.”

Presuppositions aside, rereading Talmon fifty years later, I discovered two new and related things. First, the transition from classical liberalism (liberals are/were people who want(ed) to limit the power of government over individuals) to modern liberalism (liberals are people who want to increase the power of government over individuals) and beyond (socialism and Marxism) is the product of the misunderstanding or misrepresentation of English liberalism by French philosophes (intellectuals) filtering it through their quite different intellectual tradition. Second, that transition carried to its logical conclusion is the totalitarian democracy we not only saw in Revolutionary France, but is reflected in present day “woke” democracy. It is always worth reminding ourselves and others that rereading a classic in light one’s other and additional readings is almost like reading a new text. The same can be said for sharing one’s personal reading with that of others.

My personal comments are in bold and comments relevant to contemporary America are indicated in italics.

Talmon makes his own epistemological presuppositions very clear. To begin with, he does not believe that it makes sense to talk about human beings independent of their historical, cultural, and socio-economic context. He contrasts this with what he calls rationalism, by which I take him to mean the Cartesian starting point of the Discourse on Method, that is thinking of oneself as the disembodied and context—less observer sitting in judgment of the world from the vantage point of the Archimedian skybox shared only by God (again analogous to Oakeshott’s description of the “rationalist” in the essay, “Rationalism in Politics.” To say that you are a product of your history is not to deny that you may be a product of your conscious rejection of part of your inheritance. Even then we would need to know the history to understand your rejection). As Talmon himself puts it: “Nature and history show civilization as the evolution of a multiplicity of historical and pragmatically formed clusters of social existence and social endeavour, and not as the achievement of abstract Man on a single level of existence” (p. 254).

Ontologically, Talmon insists that the two instincts most deeply embedded in human nature are the yearning for salvation and the love of freedom. The attempt to satisfy both at the same time is bound to result, if not in unmitigated tyranny and serfdom at least in monumental hypocrisy and self- deception which are the concomitants of totalitarian democracy (p. 253).

The Right [conservatism] declares man to be weak and corrupt. The Right teaches the necessity of force as a permanent way of maintaining order among creatures, and training them to act in a manner alien to their mediocre nature. Not everyone on the right advocates totalitarianism, but totalitarians of the Right operate solely with historic, racial and organic entities, concepts altogether alien to individualism and rationalism.

Totalitarianism of the Left, when resorting to force, does so in the conviction that force is used only in order to quicken the pace of man’s progress to perfection and social harmony: It is thus legitimate to use the term democracy in reference to totalitarianism of the Left. The term could not be applied to totalitarianism of the Right.

Modern communism is much more than distributive socialism. It advocates “an exclusive social pattern based on an equal and complete satisfaction of human needs as a program of immediate political action.”

That imagined repose is another name for the security offered by a prison, and the longing for it may in a sense be an expression of cowardice and laziness, or the inability to face the fact that life is a perpetual and never resolved crisis (p. 255).

Two other works exemplify what Talmon has in mind. First, Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer, also published in 1951, maintains that extremist cultural movements occur when large numbers of lost souls who think that their own individual lives are worthless join a movement demanding radical change. What motivates them is the desire to escape from the self, not a realization of the self. “A mass movement attracts and holds a following not because it can satisfy the desire for self-advancement, but because it can satisfy the passion for self-renunciation” (p. 21). The resentment of the weak does not spring from any specific injustice but from the sense of their inadequacy. The resulting self-loathing produces serious social disruption.

Second, Michael Oakeshott’s 1962 essay, “The Masses in Representative Democracy” identifies Anti-Individuals as those who yearn for a protective community which takes care of them and relieves them of the anxiety of making choices; “there were some people, by circumstance or by temperament, less ready than others to respond to this invitation [to become autonomous]”. There were no anti-individuals before the Renaissance, only members of a community. Once some people become autonomous individuals but others do not, those who do not make the transition become anti-individuals. Anti-individuals are a reaction against autonomous individuals. They are resentful of autonomous individuals, display “envy, jealousy, resentment.” They need a leader; and they want uniformity, equality and solidarity. They blame autonomous individuals for the anxiety, want to destroy the prestige of autonomous individuals and make everyone an anti-individual.

This is the curse of salvationist creeds: to be born out of the noblest impulses of man, and to degenerate into weapons of tyranny. An exclusive creed cannot admit opposition. It is bound to feel itself surrounded by innumerable enemies. Its believers can never settle down to a normal existence. From this sense of peril arise their continual demands for the protection of orthodoxy by recourse to terror. Those who are not enemies must be made to appear as fervent believers with the help of emotional manifestations and engineered unanimity at public meetings or at the polls [vote as a block].. Political Messianism is bound to replace empirical thinking and free criticism with reasoning by definition, based on a priori collective concepts which must be accepted whatever the evidence of the senses : however selfish or evil the men who happen to come to the top, they must be good and infallible, since they embody the pure doctrine and are the people’s government: in a people’s democracy the ordinary competitive, self-assertive and anti-social instincts cease as it were to exist (p. 253).

In this work, Talmon is primarily interested in the shaping of the religion and myth of Revolutionary political Messianism (p. 231).

The Two Types Of Democracy: Liberal And Totalitarian

The liberal approach assumes politics to be a matter of trial and error, and regards political systems as pragmatic contrivances of human ingenuity and spontaneity. It also recognizes a variety of levels of personal and collective endeavour, which are altogether outside the sphere of politics. [Anglo-American conception; think Hume’s History of England; liberal practices preceded liberal theorizing.]

The totalitarian democratic school, on the other hand, is based upon

  1. The assumption of a sole and exclusive truth: it postulates a preordained, harmonious and perfect scheme of things, to which men are irresistibly driven, and at which they are bound to arrive.
  2. It recognizes ultimately only one plane of existence, the political. It widens the sense of politics to embrace the whole of human existence.
  3. In so far as men are at variance with the absolute ideal they can be ignored, coerced or intimidated into conforming, without any real violation of the democratic principle…The practical question is, of course, whether constraint will disappear because all have learned to act in harmony or because all opponents have been eliminated.
  4. Everything is politicized [names on cereal boxes, professional sports teams, pandemics, etc.]
  5. The postulate of some ultimate, logical, exclusively valid social order is a matter of faith, and it is not much use trying to defeat it by argument.

Part I: The Eighteenth-Century Origins Of Political Messianism

  1. There was a fundamental principle in pre-eighteenth century chiliasm that made it impossible for it to play the part of modern totalitarianism: its religious essence. This explains why the Messianic movements invariably ended by breaking away from society, and forming sects [e.g. Benedict Option] based upon voluntary adherence and community of experience. They aimed at personal salvation and an egalitarian society based on the Law of Nature, and believed that obedience to God is the condition of human freedom.
  2. With the rejection of the Church, and of transcendental justice, the STATE remained the sole source and sanction of morality.
  3. The strongest influence on the fathers of totalitarian democracy was that of ANTIQUITY interpreted in their own way. Their myth of antiquity was Libertya (autonomy of the whole society not the individual) equated with virtue (ascetic discipline)
  4. The idea of man as an abstraction, independent of the historic groups to which he belongs, is likely to become a powerful vehicle of totalitarianism.
  5. Modern Messianism has always aimed at a revolution in society as a whole. The point of reference is man’s reason and will, and its aim happiness on earth arrived by a social transformation.

[Allow me to interject here some observations from the modern scientific revolution. There were two competing models: Newtonian and Cartesian. In Newtonian physics, the first law states that individual objects move in a straight line at a constant speed forever (infinitely) in empty space or the void – clear analogue to Hobbesian desire; Newton also believed that the universe required God’s periodic intervention. In Cartesian physics, there is no empty space but a plenum within which every body touches other bodies and a vortex within which such bodies move harmoniously. If the speed and position of all the bodies could be completely described, then all future permutations could be deduced through calculations based on the laws of motion. The social analogue to Cartesian physics is a natural harmony.]

The object of Talmon’s book is to examine the three stages through which the social ideals of the eighteenth century were transformed-on one side-into totalitarian democracy (According to Hoffer, “a movement is pioneered by [1] men of words, [2] materialized by fanatics, and [3] consolidated by men of action.” (p 147 of The True Believer):

1. The eighteenth-century postulate (Rousseau’s “General Will”); Rousseau’s starting point, as Kant noticed, was the individual free will – not a pre-existing collective entity. Herein lies the contradiction between individualism and ideological absolutism inherent in modern political-Messianism.

As a systematic philosopher, Descartes (this discussion of Descartes appeared in a previous edition of The Postil) introduces and makes the official starting point of modern epistemology the “I Think” perspective, something that had been implicit in classical and medieval thought. Classical thought had always prioritized thought over action or practice. It had always presumed that we needed an independent theory before we can act. Prior to Descartes, skeptics had repeatedly exposed the plurality of mundane competing theories. Drawing on the Augustinian inheritance of the school he attended at La Fleche, Descartes thought he could permanently dispose of skepticism by practicing the Socratic Method on himself and drill down until he found what could not be questioned/challenged without self-contradiction. This method did not rely on any appeal to our bodily experience of the world – which might after all be an illusion. Nor did it appeal to any social framework: tradition, customary practice, which were after all potentially illusory historical products.

Having established thereby to his own satisfaction that he existed as an “I Think,” Descartes proceeded to establish the existence of God. Whereas Aristotle had identified four causes, wherein three of which (formal, final and efficient) were identical, Descartes eliminated final (teleological) causation. Nevertheless, Descartes retained the identity of formal and efficient causation. This alleged identity permitted one to argue backwards from any effect (form) to its efficient cause sight unseen. Given Cartesian physics and traditional logic, this is an unassailable proof of God’s existence as creator or first efficient cause of the physical world and ultimate author of the Bible! Thus, had Descartes established the existence and validity of the Christian world- view (hereafter the “PLAN”) now understood as including the transformation of the physical world.

In order to make sense of the Technological Project, the transformation of the physical world in the service of humanity, it is important that some aspect of humanity be independent of the physical world. If humans were wholly part of the physical world, then any human project could be transformed as well, thereby leaving all projects without an autonomous status. Hence, it is necessary that the subject, or at least the mind of the subject, be free and independent of the body.

Modern science did not come to a halt with Cartesian physics and analytic geometry. Newtonian atomistic physics moving in the void of calculus took its place. Now there were only efficient causes. There were no final and no formal causes. There were no necessary connections among different kinds of causes. Hume merely spelled out the implications of Newtonian physics for delegitimizing the alleged proofs of God’s existence (see Capaldi on this).

Still, we had the increasingly clear vision of an orderly Newtonian physical world and the ancillary successes of the Technological Project.

Even with a marginalized or superfluous God, God’s PLAN for the physical world still seemed to be safe. It was so safe it did not seem to need miraculous intervention (Deism). Miracles were replaced by utopian visions of future techno-science. Unfortunately, those who continued to tie God’s Plan to a belief in God could not agree, and they further discredited themselves by engaging in (17th-century) religious wars.

We might learn to do without God, but we sorely needed something like His plan for the social world. In the eighteenth century, some of the French philosophes (Helvetius, d’Alembert, Condorcet, La Mettrie, etc.) proposed the Enlightenment Project: a social science to discover the analogous structure of the social world and an analogous social technology to implement its benefits; a wholly secular plan of ideal harmony without religious warranties. This was an even greater gift to the discipline of philosophy, the opportunity to discover, articulate and implement the secular social PLAN. ‘Modern’ Liberalism, socialism, and Marxism are expressions of the Enlightenment Project. Comte was the master-planner. Needless to say, none of these secular plans has worked, and you could make the case that they made the social world worse off.

However, if there is no God who guarantees the PLAN, why think there is any kind of PLAN? There might even be some kind of predictable order but why think the order is disposed toward human benefit? The physical scientists keep changing the description of the physical order and the alleged social scientists offer thinly veiled private agendas.

J.J. Rousseau comes to the rescue. There is no plan, nothing for reason to discover. All alleged plans are rationalizations of the status quo by its beneficiaries involving the exploitation of the victims. The most we can hope for is to recover our lost innocence, the world before the “Fall.”

In place of an autonomous reason, we find an autonomous will that does not know avarice, shame, or guilt. The autonomous self is pure free will. This primacy of will is not only independence from the body but it is independent of a suspect and instrumental reason. We can achieve a pure social harmony simply by willing the community into existence and outlining the conditions that will sustain it. Those conditions are the alleged condition of the ideal ancient world, a world of roughly equal small farmers in an agrarian community.

2. The Jacobin improvisation (Robespierre and St. Just)

3. The Babouvist crystallization; all leading up to the emergence of economic communism on the one hand, and to the synthesis of popular sovereignty and single-party dictatorship on the other. Property: the bourgeois struggle against feudal privilege was transformed into the proletarian demand for security. [Equality before the law and of opportunity become equality of result]

Many of us have been concerned about (a) the ‘deterioration’ of classical liberalism into modern liberalism (socialism, Marxism) and (b) the evolution of the latter into woke culture and worse. It is my claim that Talmon’s thesis in Totalitarian Democracy explains both as the result of the French Enlightenment (especially Cartesianism and Rousseau) misunderstanding of English liberalism in the 18th-century or its transposition into a French intellectual context. Given my own scholarship you can see why I would agree.

Curiously, it was the Francophile Englishman Bentham who took the French misrepresentation of historic English liberalism, something Bentham dismissed along with English jurisprudence, turned it into the abstraction of utilitarianism, and fed it back into the Anglo-American context. As Hayek pointed out, it was Bentham who introduced into Britain the desire to remake the whole of her law and institutions on rational principles.

Dicey, in Lectures on the Relation Between Law and Public Opinion in England During the Nineteenth Century, claimed that Bentham was responsible for turning liberalism from a protection against outside interference into government intervention (social technology). “The patent opposition between the individualistic liberalism of 1830 and the democratic socialism of 1905 conceals the heavy debt owed by English collectivists to the utilitarian reformer. From Benthamism the socialists of to-day have inherited a legislative dogma, a legislative instrument and a legislative tendency…. The dogma is the celebrated principle of utility.”

Almost all of subsequent political philosophy in the Anglo-American world (including libertarianism, classical liberalism, modern liberalism, socialism, and Marxism) has been a reflection of Bentham’s wrong turn, and, I would argue has been an enabler of the gradual deterioration of liberty.


Chapter 1: Natural Order

Natural Order lays out what I have called the Enlightenment Project by examining the works of Helvetius, Holbach, Condorcet and Morelly’s Code de la Nature. This was a clear deviation from Montesquieu’s policy of looking for previous historical French practice. Condorcet specifically criticized the U.S. for being evolutionary instead of revolutionary.

Chapter 2: The Social Pattern and Freedom

The “General Will” is a Cartesian concept—everyone can discover it with the right method. Hence, education has political implications that are totalitarian: you are not free to deny, ignorantly, or undermine the General Will. The Individual gives way to the legislator.

Chapter 3: Rousseau

[General will = what we would all want if we had all the information and interpreted it correctly; since it is something we “will” we can choose to make it universally harmonious and absorb the total cost no matter what the consequences or unintended consequences.]

The General Will allows Self-consciousness to become social consciousness [Comte, the founder of sociology, will assert subsequently that the advance of science leads to the substitution of a “We think” epistemology for an “I think” epistemology, and therefore to the discovery of social laws.]

The General Will morphs into the idea of a classless society. [Whereas, Hume and Smith posited sympathy as a way we could understand the “other,” for Rousseau sympathy permits a complete identification with the other or the subsumption of self-interest into social interest]. The political implication is that we do not need representatives of individual and factional interests but leaders who understand the people as a collective whole (do away with the Senate, with the electoral college, with the filibuster).

[Allow me to interject here. One of the perennial concerns within advocates of liberal thought has been the historical transition from classical liberalism (protect the individual from government control) to modern liberalism (all rights come from the government). This transition and the further transition from liberalism to socialism/Marxism is precisely what Talmon is addressing and explaining. The explanation of the transition is the failure to understand that classical liberalism is the product of historical practice and not theory. You cannot theorize practice or theorize the relation of theory to practice because there is no underlying structure or social laws.

This is exactly what led J.S. Mill, an early fan of Comte, to condemn Comtism as a form of totalitarianism. Moreover, the attempt to provide a ‘theory’ of liberalism inevitably leads to the postulation of clever abstractions from which anything can be derived or rationalized. Once anything goes, the door has been opened to utopianism, messianism, to fraud, to the self-serving pretense of expertise, the rationalization of the worst human excesses, etc.

Perhaps the most interesting example of all this is the most boring and overrated book on political thought produced in the last half of the 20th-century, Rawls’ A Theory of Justice. Rawls thought he was theorizing liberalism – of whose history he was ignorant—by imaging a thought experiment in which we ignore everything that is true of individuals and focus only on what is allegedly true of all of us—assuming it to be harmonious. Does this sound familiar? It’s Rousseau Deja vu. Rawls convinces himself that this leads to the priority of liberty only to find that his book has become the celebrated classic of socialism. See, for example, Piketty. Rawls expiated his guilt by writing a later book Political Liberalism but the damage had been done and nobody cared or listened.]

Chapter 4: Property
Rousseau and others believed in some quite limited form of private property and none foresaw the tremendous increase in wealth that would be created by the industrial revolution. At this time, Morelly was the only consistent communist foreseeing an egalitarian social harmony thru state-controlled asceticism. We should all learn to live on less [and perhaps make sacrifices for the environment].

[One of the things that has forestalled the growth of socialism has been the vast improvements in the standard of living since the last half of the 19th-century. Socialism gets a new lease on life with the advent of alleged threats to the climate by pollution.]

Part II: Jacobin Improvisation

Chapter 1—Revolution of 1789—Sieyes. Talmon reiterates his contention on the replacement of tradition by abstract reason (p. 69): “There is no respect in this attitude for the wisdom the ages, the accumulated, half-conscious experience and instinctive ways of a nation. It shows no awareness of the fact that truly rationalist criteria of truth and untruth do not apply to social phenomena and that what exists is never the result of error, accident or vicious contrivance alone, but is a pragmatic product of conditions, slow, unconscious adjustment, and only partly of deliberate planning” (p. 71). [A tradition or an inheritance is a fertile source of adaptation- Oakeshott].

Sieyes criticized the British Constitution as a gothic superstition. He reflected the contradiction between: an absolutist doctrinaire temperament, revolutionary coercion, egalitarian centralism, a homogeneous nation vs. Lockean private property.

Chapter 2—Robespierre exemplifies the psychology of the neurotic egotist who must impose his will or wallow in an ecstasy of self-pity. He was led to believe that the General Will needs objective truth embodied in the enlightened few to which the actual count of votes takes second place. [Rigged elections may better reflect the “General Will”?]

Chapter 3Road from democracy to tyranny by way of the totalitarian -democratic vanguard in a plebiscitary regime.

Anglo-American liberty: defend personal freedom from government; French: defend revolutionary government from factions; Create the conditions for a true expression of the popular will; Outlaw political parties => one party.

Redefinition: Liberty = a substantive set of values and not just the absence of restraint = equality in fraternity [liberty, equality, and fraternity]. Denunciation of those who disagree or criticize [canceled] and a ban on the slightest difference of opinion and sentiment.

[Since the “general will” is something we ‘will’ and is not a discovery or an alleged truth that can be refuted or disconfirmed, any fact that is incompatible with the ‘general will’ must be censored in the interest of social harmony—think Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four]

Chapter 4—Saint Just.

Chapter 5—The Social Problem.

Basic inconsistency on private property.

THE great dividing line between the two major schools of social and economic thought in the last two centuries has been the attitude to the basic problem: should the economic sphere be considered an open -ended human initiative, skill, resources, with the State intervening only occasionally to fix the most general and liberal rules of the game, to help those who have fallen by the wayside, to punish those guilty of foul play and to succour the victims thereof; OR should the totality of resources and human skill be ab initio treated as something that should be deliberately shaped and directed, in accordance with a definite principle; could men be educated in a socially integrated system as to begin.to· act on motives different from those prevailing in the competitive system?

Robespierre and Saint-Just felt themselves moved to integral planning in accordance with a definite principle—the idea that the needs of the poor were the focus and foundation stone of the social edifice [woke focus on African Americans, women, and gender issues.]

Babeuf and nineteenth-century successors of Jacobinism up to 1848, was in its defiant tone—new and upon a totally different plane from the right to [pursuit of] happiness of Locke and the fathers of the American Constitution, as well as from the right to social assistance. Equality—limit amount of property, abolish bequest; everyone works.

Part III: The Babouvist Crystallization

Chapter 1: Lessons of the Revolution

No social peace between the two classes was possible. Babeuf embodied:

  • Deep personal misery
  • Messianic longings
  • Passion for self-dramatization
  • Intoxicated with words
  • The declasse

Philipe Buonarroti—high priest of egalitarian communism in Europe.

Chapter 2: Babouvist Social Doctrine

  • The state and not the unfettered mind of the individual is the source of social as well as moral progress.
  • Paradox: individualist basis of the collectivist philosophy.
  • Logically: [Cartesian] starting point should be an a priori principle or some purpose outside and above man’s will [Rousseau].
  • History: the moment of the violation of original equality (acquisitive spirit) and restoration at some preordained future hour.
  • Refusal to see the desire to increase wealth as an impulse for a higher culture; wealth is never a reward for merit.
  • Existing society is a superstructure deliberately built by avarice to secure a reign of pillage.
  • Merchants are engaged in a permanent conspiracy against the consumer class.

Silent civil war: (Bourgeois and aristocratic Republic vs. popular and democratic Republic). Call for a general strike to paralyze society [riots?].
French Revolution is the beginning of an apocalyptic hour in mankind’s history [tear down statues]. It reduces the standard of living by persuasion [climate change]. Destroys personal ambition. No police or prisons or trials (p. 195). [Woke Agenda: cancel culture, indoctrination (masks?), participation trophies, no grades, affirmative action, no cash bail, etc.]

Chapter 3: The Plot.
The Left had no proper organization [it never does and hence falls prey to gangsters; Stalin assassinates Trotsky, etc. Talmon, Hoffer, and Oakeshott all distinguish between those who are recruited as the ‘downtrodden’ and those who are the leaders or spokespersons for the ‘downtrodden’. Hoffer describes them as having “the vanity of the selfless, even those who practice utmost humility, is boundless” (p. 15); Oakeshott maintains “the task of leadership … what his followers took to be a genuine concern for their salvation was in fact nothing more than the vanity of the almost selfless”.]

Chapter 4: Democracy and Dictatorship

  • Constitution “would be framed in such clear, detailed and precise definitions that no diverse interpretations, sophisms, ambiguities or caviling would be possible” (p. 201). [You cannot construct an artificial language without using an historical natural language; you cannot introduce a new set of practices without presupposing the old practices; reinforces Talmon’s point that the human/social world cannot be understood independent of its history; replacing the past requires either a knowledge of the past or a misunderstanding or misrepresentation of the past.]
  • Poor have no time or wealth to attend meetings or get information [or voter ids]
  • Democracy is a stage beyond republicanism [democracy is not a procedural norm but a substantive norm—hence all those people who precede the word with an adjective]
  • Babeuf evolves from a believer in reconciliation to a partisan of class struggle
  • Plebiscitary, direct democracies the precondition of dictatorship or dictatorship in disguise; full unanimity = imposition of a single will = part of the vanguard [imagine the US with all voting done without parties and directly through individual computers serviced and counted by Silicon Valley]
  • Vacillate between violent coup OR educate the masses
  • Eliminate opposition and engage in intensive education and propaganda [Facebook]
  • FORCE CANNOT BE ELIMINATED

Chapter 5: Structure of the Conspiracy
Masses were to be won over by distribution of spoils (p. 228) – [encouraged and allowed to sack stores in downtown shopping district]

Chapter 6: Ultimate Scheme

Unanimity, spiritual cohesion, and economic communism

  • Babavoist: virtue, democracy, and communist equality
  • Certificate of “civisme” (p. 234) to participate [Chinese evaluation of individual citizens]
  • Zbigniew Brzeziński, former national security advisor to President Carter, put it in his 1968 book, Between Two Ages, America’s Role in the Technotronic Era: “The technetronic era involves the gradual appearance of a more controlled society. Such a society would be dominated by an elite, unrestrained by traditional values. Soon it will be possible to assert almost continuous surveillance over every citizen and maintain up-to-date complete files containing even the most personal information about the citizen.”
  • Immense body of civil servants
  • Evils that flow from refinement in the arts
  • No claim for pre-eminence

Arts and science become social functions and instrument for evoking collective experiences [academy awards on TV].

Conclusions

“All the emphasis came to be placed on the destruction of inequalities, on bringing down the privileged to the level of common humanity [wealth tax; opposition to the flat tax; Obama’s statement that “you did not build that”], and on sweeping away all intermediate centers of power and allegiance, whether social classes, regional communities, professional groups or corporations. [eliminate parental input into public education; outlaw home schooling]. Nothing was left to stand between man and state” (p. 250).Two policies: repression of those who objected and re-education

This is an extreme individualism: [individuals behind Rawls “veil of ignorance”]—individuals without history. The Intellectual as rootless cosmopolitan. [Destroy the history and then re-educate within the new mythos; 1619 Project.]

Political Messianism spent itself in Western Europe soon after 1870 and then moved to its natural home in Russia (generations of repression and the pre-disposition of the Slavs to Messianism).

Volume II: 19th century Europe, Volume III: 20th-century Europe [Talmon did not foresee in the 1950s the resurgence in the Western World.]

Addendum: Tocqueville

Equality and freedom do not develop in a proportional relationship. Especially in a democratic society, “Among these nations equality preceded freedom; equality was therefore a fact of some standing when freedom was still a novelty; the one had already created customs, opinions, and laws belonging to it when the other, alone and for the first time, came into actual existence. Thus the latter was still only an affair of opinion and of taste while the former had already crept into the habits of the people, possessed itself of their manners, and given a particular turn to the smallest actions in their lives.”

Therefore, although people in democratic countries love freedom by nature, their passion for equality is even more difficult to stop. “they call for equality in freedom; and if they cannot obtain that, they still call for equality in slavery.” It is precisely because of his admiration of freedom that Tocqueville inherited Constant’s idea that the democratic system may be transformed into a tyranny of despotism, and described it as “Tyranny of the majority”. In his opinion, the dangers that democracy can produce are: on the one hand, there is the tendency of anarchism, which has been widely discussed; on the other hand, the tyranny of the majority, [or as Mill would say those who claim to speak on behalf of the majority]; that is, the stifling of individual freedom by absolute authority. Compared with the former, the latter is more severe.

Tocqueville believes that autocracy is what scares people the most in the democratic era. How to effectively guarantee freedom in a democratic society is the core issue of Tocqueville’s American democratic outlook. Combined with the actual investigation of American society, he proposed to implement a series of measures such as federalism, separation of powers, local autonomy, and freedom of the press in a democratic society to ensure freedom and prevent Tyranny of the majority.

In the Anglo-American world since he 18th-century it used to be the case that the press was a place where public opinion in all of its varieties could be voiced. French intellectuals have always believed that it was their responsibility to form or to construct public opinion.


Nicholas Capaldi is Professor Emeritus at Loyola University, New Orleans.


Featured image: “The execution of Robespierre and his supporters on 28 July 1794.” Artist unknown.

The Leftist Mind

Introduction

Significant and noticeable changes have occurred in the U.S. in our culture, institutions, and political practice since the 2020 election. These changes reflect features of what I identify as the leftist mindset.

In what follows, the “leftist” mind will refer to anyone who advocates an all-powerful government with the potential to manage all other societal institutions. That management is to be carried out allegedly by experts trained in the social sciences, not by any individual or class or special interest group or leaders of another institution like religious ones, etc.

My explanation will identify four reasons why the leftist view has become a permanent feature of the modern political landscape and why it remains popular despite its consistent record of economic failure and often mass genocide.

The first reason is psychological. It is natural for humans to wish for immortality and perennial happiness.

A second reason is historical: The Enlightenment Project (EP) originated a belief that social science, not religion or some other institution, can help us achieve perennial happiness, if not immortality.

The third reason is the theory and practice of the leftist mindset, specifically the semantic barbed-wire or defense mechanism that has been constructed to protect this mindset from external challenge. That is, I shall identify the logical structure of the arguments that need to be advanced for the Project (EP) to be taken seriously.

The fourth part will show the extent to which the practices of democracy helps to sustain the leftist mind.

The Human Predicament: The Desire To Live Happily Ever After

The leftist mind will always be with us. If there is universal truth about humanity it is the desire to flourish indefinitely or to live happily forever. Every society from the least sophisticated to the most sophisticated has its “witch doctors” who claim the ability to help us do just that. Even some of those who commit suicide reflect this truth since living under present conditions of finitude for these individuals is unbearable and they see suicide as leading to some sort of better afterlife or at least permanent relief from the pain they are currently enduring.

Many religions, Christianity in particular, have responded to this need by promising to help us achieve immortality, but its promissory note is for the “next” life. Even the agnostic wisdom literature designed to reconcile us to mortality would not be so robust if there were not a powerful basic impulse to live happily ever after. To the extent that people wish to live happily “ever after” there will always be a market for or an audience receptive to any promised policy or remedy for the human predicament.

At the other extreme, if you adopt a totally reductive materialistic account of humanity in which we are all only members of an animal species struggling to survive in a zero-sum world, then there are no objective moral constraints. In such a world, there will always be cynical fraudsters who will seek to exploit human gullibility. To quote an old folksong, “it is better to be a hammer than a nail.”

Recent advances in medical science have only reinforced the urgency of the human predicament. Life expectancy has increased dramatically. There is no scientific reason to date to believe that medical science will stop making advances and perhaps enable some version of “immortality.” It is precisely at this point that leftists enter the debate. The first item on their agenda is state/government control of healthcare.

Control Healthcare

If the desire to live happily forever is as fundamental as I think it is, then guaranteed healthcare is the top item on the leftist agenda. Given even the present state of advances in medical technology, there is already not enough money to provide everything to everybody (“Affordable Care Act” is unaffordable). This means that government must either ration care or be given a blank check and potentially unlimited power. The blank check requires political leaders to raise taxes (the government does not have any resources other than a printing press at the Treasury Department).

Increasing the national debt (average person does not really understand this, and the rest of us may have ungrateful children anyway) is the first step; raising taxes on the “rich” is the second step, and this in turn leads to increasing class warfare. Class warfare gets redefined as equity, inclusion, etc. and entails controlling education so everyone understands the new definitions. Such warfare might lead to serious armed resistance, so confiscating weapons is the next priority. The confiscation is justified on the grounds that guns not people – who are born naturally good (see below)– are responsible for mass homicides.

The Enlightenment Project – A Social Technology

Of course, living longer and living happily ever after are not the same. Nevertheless, advances in medical science are part of a trend that has emboldened the leftist mind. Modern physical science has given us a technology that allows us to control much of the physical world. The leftist (post-Enlightenment) thinking is that there must be a social science(s) that can give us a comparable social technology.

The “Enlightenment” is a term used broadly to refer to the intellectual and social ferment in Western Europe during the eighteenth century. Our intention is not to generalize about this entire period but to identify a specific, salient project that we shall call the Enlightenment Project. The Enlightenment Project is a program to define and explain the human predicament through science as well as to achieve mastery over it through the use of a social technology. Becker claims that the dream of a technological utopia is the common inheritance of liberals, socialists, and Marxists.

This project originated among the philosophes in France in the eighteenth century. The most influential included Diderot, d’Alembert, La Mettrie, Condillac, Helvetius, d’Holbach, Turgot, Condorcet, Cabanis, and Voltaire.

Isaiah Berlin characterizes the Project as follows: “The conviction that the world, or nature, was a single whole, subject to a single set of laws, in principle discoverable by the intelligence of man; that the laws which governed inanimate nature were in principle the same as those which governed plants, animals and sentient beings; that man was capable of improvement; that there existed certain objectively recognizable human goals which all men, rightly so described, sought after, namely, happiness, knowledge, justice, liberty… that these goals were common to all men as such…that human misery, vice and folly were mainly due to ignorance either of what these goals consisted in or of the means of attaining them-ignorance due in turn to insufficient knowledge of the laws of nature. . . Consequently, the discovery of general laws that governed human behaviour, their clear and logical integration into scientific systems-of psychology, sociology, economics, political science and the like. . . create a new, sane, rational, happy, just and self-perpetuating human society, which, having arrived at the peak of attainable perfection, would preserve itself against all hostile influences, save perhaps those of nature.” Voegelin identified the EP as one of the historical forms of Gnosticism.

Theory And Practice

The logical consequences of this Enlightenment belief system are:

  1. If there are such experts, then all former traditional centers of authority (family, religion) and all symbols of past authority (e.g. statues, holidays) need to be replaced.
  2. If there are such experts, then there will be a consensus on policy. Those who disagree reflect ignorance, cultural lag, or subversive elements in society. Subversives will sometimes pretend to be whistleblowers.
    • Ignorance and cultural lag can be overcome with patience, re-education programs, or psychological counselling (e.g., sensitivity training).
    • Subversion may require more stringent measures such as public shaming, firing people, reassignment, or institutional restraint (imprisonment).
  3. Educational institutions will be run by experts, not by parents.
  4. All public media (news, social media, etc.) will be censored to insure the public is properly informed. This is not a matter of information but of judgments about the relevance and interpretation of the information. Given how complicated the world is, only properly educated and full-time experts are in a position to make these judgments.
  5. Elections should be positive events and not divisive ones: Consensus building, public reaffirmations, confirmation of public support, etc. Having a single political party (with the most college graduates) will be a sign of such a successful endeavor.
  6. Political and legal institutions (in fact all institutions) will be run by bureaucratic experts who possess theoretical knowledge of the collective good. There is no longer any need for brokering interests in an adversarial atmosphere.

In addition to the call for experts and censorship, the Project impliedly led directly to a destruction of traditional Christian values. Christianity had wisely and traditionally maintained that human beings were complex beings endowed with free will and with destructive tendencies (original sin) as well as wholesome ones. One does not have to accept a particular theology or philosophy to believe this – one could just use one’s own experience or your own eyes.

Advocates of the EP identified this belief as a false one perpetrated upon the ignorant and designed to maintain control over them. In its place, the EP advocates were led to maintain that human beings are born (fundamentally) good, and either (a) obstacles to their natural goodness could be removed (classical liberalism) or (b) they could be provided with the resources (redistribution) to express their natural goodness (modern liberalism, socialism, Marxism).

It was no accident that freedom in the modern world came to be defined negatively, in its most popular version, as the absence of external constraints. In an analogous way, rationality could seemingly be promoted by removing obstacles such as the belief in religion, authority, custom, or tradition. No seemingly dysfunctional person would be left behind. This has the added benefit of reinforcing the progressive-scientific story by providing a naturalistic account of why it has taken so long to arrive at the super-rationalism of the Enlightenment.

Given the economic and social challenges of the modern world, it seemed to many of those impatient to alter the status quo that a wholesale rejection of authority, tradition, and the religious institutions that seemed to support the status quo was the quickest way to achieve reform; hence, the enthusiasm for a liberated (contextless, ahistorical, purely theoretical) reason. Since traditional institutions had justified themselves on the grounds that they embody a certain wisdom about human shortcomings, theories about the natural goodness of human nature seem doubly attractive to critics of the status quo.

Part of the problem with parents, grand-parents, and older people in general (lol) is that they not only failed to produce a utopia but they found excuses for their failure by citing books that no one reads anymore (Plato to Orwell), by pointing to human imperfection and by claiming that custom reflected the experience of failed utopian dreams. That is why “properly” educated young people will be the vanguard of progress.

The University Becomes The Home Of The Enlightenment Project

Universities emerged during the Middle Ages as both repositories of human wisdom and training institutions for the intellectual and moral elite, namely the clergy. They still claim this role, but the elite are now civil servants trained in the alleged social sciences.

How did all of this come about? Historically the American university emerged in the 19th century from a variety of sources: Religious affiliation, local communities, and private benefactors. The university consisted of factions with competing paradigms. The oldest paradigm is epitomized in Newman, and originated in the small liberal arts college with a religious affiliation: The traditional purpose of liberal education was to preserve, critique, and to transmit our cultural inheritance, to pursue knowledge and to foster a sense of liberty and responsibility. To subordinate itself to the outside world, the university would only compromise itself and become an instrument for commercial or political exploitation.

A second paradigm is the German research model with its emphasis on the disinterested pursuit of knowledge, the graduate school and the training of professionals. Knowledge should not be in the service of special interest groups because knowledge knows no political boundaries. The spectacular success of this model in physical science and technology encouraged government subvention.

The third paradigm is utilitarian: The university is seen as an institution for solving various and sundry social problems. It exists as a means to social ends defined externally to the university itself. The notion of the college graduate as a civil servant evolved into the notion of a special class which aims to run society.

Newman’s moral model of the university has been marginalized (Honors Program), the research model has been corrupted (e.g., hundreds of Western epidemiologists sign a statement denying that covid-19 came from a Wuhan laboratory – and they know this how?) and coopted through government financing, and the politicized utilitarian model has triumphed. The intellectual origin of this triumph lies in the Enlightenment Project.

In theory, governing boards exist to represent the interests of taxpayer citizens in public universities and the original intent of philanthropists in private universities. In practice, the boards of universities tend to “rubber-stamp” policy actions generated by university administrations and faculties. There is little effective external control on the internal authorities that run educational institutions. Government funding of private universities has now reached the point where there are virtually no universities that could be described as “private.” More important, the feudal guild system of academic disciplines operates in both systems so that the same people circulate from one to the other.

We have witnessed the collapse of the distinction between public and private education. The university is an industry in which those who consume its product do not purchase it; those who produce it do not sell it; and those who finance it do not control it. Is there any wonder that faculties offer the sort of product they themselves derive most pleasure in supplying – a product which need not meet the desires or the needs of those for whom it is produced?

Because of the vast expansion of universities in the 1960s, all standards have been eroded, and the ethos of what it means to be a responsible faculty member has been lost. These newer faculties now control the commanding heights of all other institutions because the faculties are the gatekeepers of all professions, including the clergy! Even culture has been professionalized. Academic freedom (and creativity) have been replaced by a new politicized orthodoxy.

There are two sources for the current state of degradation: The domination of higher education by a faction with a social and political agenda (EP); and second, the addiction to financing education through increased reliance and ultimate dependence upon local, state, and federal governments. These two sources work in tandem because the political agenda construes social life as a series of problems beyond the control of individuals and capable of solution only through a statist controlled social technology. It is easier, more remunerative, and more prestigious to get a government grant than to teach summer school; it is easier to get a government grant if the purpose of your research is to show that we need more government subvention and control.

Voting the bums out and changing administrations through elections is important. But, if we do not seriously reform the university – the problems will never go away. When in the minority, leftist faculty demand toleration/academic freedom on our principles, and when in the majority they deny it on theirs.

The Logic Of The Left

There are serious problems with the EP. First, the social sciences are not in fact sciences. They neither explain, nor predict, nor offer any serious social technology.

When the physical sciences explain, they do so by identifying a substructure (not immediately visible to the naked eye like atoms, molecules, microbes, black holes, etc.). That substructure is later accessed often through sophisticated equipment. The alleged social sciences claim there is a substructure but they never produce it (e.g. how does one confirm the presence of “institutional racism?” Numerical “disparities” are not explanations of themselves.). Instead of a cumulative growth as in the physical sciences, we get an endless series of fashionable terminologies (psycho-babble).

The alleged social sciences offer competing accounts with no way to determine which, if any, is correct. And it gets worse from there. Competing hidden structure theories offer second level hidden structure accounts of why rivals disagree. This undermined any possibility of civil discussion. For example, If I deny the existence of “institutional racism” that becomes evidence in the eyes of some that I am a “racist.” What the left now insists upon is that all people will be judged on the basis of their race – this is what racism used to mean, but now it means just the opposite. It is precisely this kind of self-contradictory and illegitimate intellectual maneuver that allows the alleged social technocrats to undermine all traditional sources of authority. There are good reasons to study the social world, and there may be some insightful historical narratives, but such narratives are not and should not be presented as science.

There is a peculiar menace associated with the hyper-rationalism of this alleged social science. It is not rational precisely because it does not recognize any realistic or meaningful limits. It dissolves the difference between a potentially efficacious restraint and the cynical employment of violence. It encourages violence, that is, force intended to hurt or to damage others. It becomes more focused on resentment of the rich than on love of the poor. By delegitimating protest, it undermines the very possibility of human communication. Perhaps it was not an accident that the title of B.F. Skinner’s book was Beyond Freedom and Dignity.

Aside from their intellectual bankruptcy, the alleged social sciences are incapable of providing a liberal education: to preserve, to critique, and to transmit our cultural inheritance, to pursue knowledge and to foster a sense of liberty and responsibility. The present faculty deny the legitimacy of our cultural inheritance. Moreover, our cultural inheritance is not simply a body of knowledge about which one can theorize. That inheritance (a series of practices with many voices not just one) is something that has to be instantiated and imparted. It is not, and should not be, found in only one institution. The study of the liberal arts and obtaining a degree does not make one either a decent human being or even wise.

An example of make-believe social science is the recent discussion of “race.” Terms like “white,” “black,” “yellow,” etc. have a long history that reflects historical accident, private agendas, different social, economic, and political circumstances. In the nineteenth century, some biologists tried to make “race” a meaningful physical science concept. They failed. The term “race” is a social construct, but that raises the question is it a useful construct and to whom. Nowadays, the author of White Fragility has tried to turn “white” into a meaningful social science concept. This too has failed and merely reflects a political agenda. I predict that it will someday be as embarrassing as racial biology.

Second, are human beings to be understood as mechanisms, organic (teleological) entities, or something else? If we are mechanisms (stimulus/response) then we can be reprogrammed. But on what basis would we decide to program people? Are not the choices/decisions of the programmers themselves the result of prior programming? This kind of proposed social technology requires the alleged social scientists to be the only ones (special kind of elite) who are truly free from outside control. The original purveyors of this kind of irresponsible intellectual position (Comte and Marx) tried to evade this criticism by claiming that historical progress led to this immaculate emancipation – unfortunately, this is just another level of question-begging social science ad infinitum [it just did not happen].

The denial of free will absolves all responsibility. In a world in which everyone is a victim, there is no one to blame. But blaming some target is essential to the leftist mindset. This is not a fact (what kind of experience or empirical evidence would constitute proof that we are totally the result of external influences?) but an assumption to justify a policy. For example, it is sometime said that “there is no teaching if there is no learning,” thereby putting the entire onus for failure on the teacher and none on the student or the parents of the student, etc. This can then lead either to a wholesale replacement of the faculty or to intimidating the faculty. Most of what passes for policy is not a solution to a problem but a policy in search of a problem, that is, either a “solution” to a problem that does not exist or it leaves the real problem untouched or unrecognized.

If we were organic entities, then we would have built in goals. All of these goals would have to be part of a consistent whole with a master goal? How would you prove that? Does this really square with our daily experience of having to resolve conflict by making hard but not happy choices? For example, the left has always had trouble dealing with sexual taboos. It is neither semantically nor realistically possible to “choose” everything. Do we want to grant that there are experts who “know” what we “really” want as opposed to what we think or say we want?

Ironically, the left does not solve problems by actually producing a social technology. Instead, it uses other means. For example, it uses the new physical technology (wire-taps, social media, control of news outlets, rigging of elections, etc.) both to silence dissent and to create the impression that there is a real social consensus.

The new technocrats also solve problems by redefinition. If there is a numerical disparity (e.g. larger percentage of one group in prison than their percentage of the population), we change the numbers by emptying the prisons. Problem solved! We can eliminate incarceration by “reducing” crime (or statistics thereof), by reducing the list of forbidden activities or not prosecuting people (think of drug dealers as “unlicensed” pharmacists). If there is an unequal distribution of income, then redistribute it through taxation, by the government of course. If student achievement shows disparity or if previous leftist policies lead to an overall decline in performance, then eliminate grading or assessment (or alternatively just assess the graders). Eliminating standards merely reinforces stereotypes and feeds the anxiety of an inferiority complex.

Since we now can define crime out of existence there is no need for a police force. Hence, we can defund the police department. This is not the reduction in the number of public employees (real police confront evil on a daily basis), but the prelude to hiring a different group of people (who deny the existence of evil) to address social issues. It’s all about the personnel or getting one’s own people in there.

Perhaps it is now time to redefine “social” technology. Social technology is the creation of a bureaucratic structure, both formal and informal, to reprogram public attitudes. The formal structure will include such things as revitalized public-employee unions, a new kind of police presence (we need to get rid of “force”), only hiring public service bureaucrats who believe in the program, etc.

The informal structure will embody many of Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals. The execution of Alinsky’s rules requires the use of “shock troops.” This has, for a variety of historical reasons, become the assigned role primarily of vulnerable African-Americans. One of the saddest aspects of this entire charade is the way in which African–Americans continue to be treated in a patronizing and condescending way.

  1. “Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon. There is no defense. It is almost impossible to counterattack ridicule. Also it infuriates the opposition, who then react to your advantage.” Translation: You are not allowed to challenge anything an African-American says about race (Black Privilege of playing the race card) because you are incapable of understanding “their” world; never engage in polite rule-governed debate; use late-night comedy TV shows for character assassination, fake news, cancel culture, cyber bullying, accosting officials in public places such as restaurants, restrooms, etc.
  2. “The threat is usually more terrifying than the thing itself.” Translation: Carefully planned and executed public demonstrations, small scale riots, looting, burnings preferably confined to low-income African-American neighborhoods or down-town high profile shopping areas rather than “white” middle-class residential neighborhoods.
  3. “Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.” Translation: Demonize Donald Trump; the “white” male; the top 2% of income earners, etc.
    • This is actually the Achilles heel of the leftist mindset. To begin with, a negative narrative is never as effective as a positive one. A negative narrative is also inconsistent with the assumption that people are born good and corrupted by their environment because that implies no one is to blame. On the other hand, given the absence of any positive achievement (redistribution never leads to the transmission of wealth from the rich to the poor; instead it leads to the destruction of wealth and to the transfer of power from the individual to the state [de Jouvenel]), the blame game is all they have.
    • More to the point, the blamers reflect the fact that there are chronic non-achievers: “The emergence of this disposition to be an individual is the pre-eminent event in modern European history… there were some people, by circumstance or by temperament, less ready than others to respond… the counterpart of the… entrepreneur of the sixteenth century was the displaced laborer… the familiar anonymity of communal life was replaced by a personal identity which was burdensome… it bred envy, jealousy and resentment… a new morality… not of ‘liberty’ and ‘self-determination,’ but of ‘equality’ and ‘solidarity’… not… the ‘love of others’ or ‘charity’ or…’benevolence’…but… the love of ‘the community’ [common good]… [the anti-individual or mass man] remains an unmistakably derivative character… helpless, parasitic and able to survive only in opposition to individuality… [only] The desire of the ‘masses’ to enjoy the products of individuality has modified their destructive urge” [Oakeshott]. Obama’s claim that “you did not build that” was the clearest expression of the attempt to undermine the prestige of real achievers.
  4. “A good tactic is one your people [leftist activists] enjoy.” Translation: Enlist students to execute the rules since for them it is fun and games, an exciting form of bonding, meeting potential people to date, and a chance to do something to change the world without serious study (you might even be excused from a boring class or demanding exam).
  5. “Make the enemy live up to its own book of rules.” Translation: Use demonstrations to provoke police overreaction and then claim that the establishment is engaged in repression; make the public believe that you are playing by the rules when you really intend to subvert the system; claim that you want to be part of the system when what you really want is to change the system altogether.

Political Democracy And The Leftist Mindset

“Democracy” simply means majority rule. It is a form of government in which any majority (e.g. the bottom 51%) has the potential to mistreat or rip-off the other 49%. You can be exploited by one, the few, or the many. Almost every major writer from the ancients to the early 19th-century condemned democracy. That is why the U.S. founders created a “Republic” designed to minimize conflict, not pretend to eliminate it altogether. The standard tactic of all leftist demagogues has always been to insist on more democratization. Democratization is not just about extending the franchise (one of my feminist students repeatedly refused to answer me when I asked who was allowed to vote and thereby to pass the 19th Amendment- most likely because acknowledging that white males passed the 19th Amendment did not fit her narrative).

As de Tocqueville, Mill and others pointed out, democratization is an attack on meritocracy and the elevation of mediocrity. The major theoretical question for the U.S. is whether a Republic and a meritocratic culture are compatible with a democratic society (social mobility/not a permanent class structure). The left, as I have defined it, wants greater government control of every institution. To achieve this in a democratic society you need to persuade the majority that meritocracy is a fraud and a form of oppression. That is why the left focuses on community organizers to fabricate a “majority” composed of the resentful, willing to endorse an all-powerful government. Among these are “race hustlers” who are often no better than Jews who served the Nazi atrocities.

To date, advocates of a meritocratic culture (self-interest rightly understood) have prevailed because of (1) the unprecedented achievements of the U.S. economy (e.g. covid-19 vaccines – why is it that the U.S. economy under Trump produced three, the UK one, and the rest of the world nothing worth mentioning?); (2) the achievements of the meritocrats have grown the pie for everyone; and (3) the continuous failures of government controlled economies.

For the left to prevail, it will be necessary to cobble together a majority composed of all those who think or have been persuaded to think that the U.S. meritocracy is a wholesale fraud (African-Americans, radical feminists, recent migrants from failed nation-states who want to move to the US but have no understanding of why the US is different). There are two versions of this:

  • Replace one meritocracy with a “better” one (perhaps redefine achievement).
  • Give up on meritocracy all together. In this version, the “spoils” are divided up by spokespersons for the various voter constituencies.

The politicians who exemplify or endorse the outlook of the left are not to be confused with intellectuals, academics, social scientists, journalists or anyone who really believes in or articulates the leftist mindset (at best, the latter may serve as bureaucrats).

These particular politicians have a different skill set and mentality. They exhibit no outstanding intellectual accomplishments. They crave success, recognition, power, riches, etc. but lack either the talents or personality to achieve those things in real world occupations. They have no record of prior successful achievement even in political life (except for winning an election; how could they when the leftist agenda is unachievable?). They are ambitious people but without substance (a too common American trait). They are salespeople who sell dreams, in short, con-artists. The most that they can accomplish is to enrich themselves and to provide jobs for the true-believers by increasing the size of government bureaucracies. They are entrepreneurs of a sort for whom success is a matter of winning elections and maintaining themselves in power or at least gaining a sinecure in leftist institutions (universities, think tanks, nonprofits, etc.).

If seeking and holding public office were a temporary responsibility (e.g. term limits, etc.) one could rely upon integrity, and if you lose on any issue you can go back to your real life. If you are a professional or career politician, then that is your real life, and you have no alternative except to win at all costs. Failed or even disgraced leftist politicians automatically get a “pass” because their “heart was in the right place,” because they too were victims of something or other, but most of all because the leftist mindset is unable/unwilling to surrender or question the dream of utopia or its own role/responsibility for promoting the failure.

Time To Fight Back

Let me put this into historical perspective. It is no accident that so much of phony social science has focused on “race.” Western Europeans (Brits in particular), who generally had “lighter” skin color than inhabitants of sub-Sahara Africa, Asia, South America, etc., were the first to formulate and adopt the logic of modernity: The Technological Project (Descartes’ suggestion that we make humanity the masters and possessors of nature – instead of conforming to nature we control it for human betterment – this includes both modern weapons and modern medicine), market economies (Adam Smith), limited government (Locke), the rule of law, and a culture of autonomous individuality. This enabled Western Europeans to “colonize” the rest of the world. In time, the rest of the (“developing”) world gradually and painfully adopted or is in the process of adopting all or part of the Technological Project.

That same logic, especially the concept of individual autonomy (J.S. Mill), led to the discrediting of “colonization.” As noble-prize winner Naipaul has put it:

“The universal civilization has been a long time in the making. It wasn’t always universal; it wasn’t always as attractive as it is today… the extraordinary attempt of this civilization to accommodate the rest of the world, and all the currents of that world’s thought…This idea of the pursuit of happiness is at the heart of the attractiveness of the civilization to so many outside it or on its periphery… It is an elastic idea; it fits all men. It implies a certain kind of society, a certain kind of awakened spirit. I don’t imagine my father’s parents would have been able to understand the idea. So much is contained in it: the idea of the individual, responsibility, choice, the life of the intellect, the idea of vocation and perfectibility and achievement… It cannot generate fanaticism. But it is known to exist; and because of that, other more rigid systems in the end blow away.”

Regardless of skin color, ethnicity, etc. people from all backgrounds, both inside and outside the U.S., have succeeded in adopting and thriving within that universal civilization. There is a mountain of statistics and narratives to support this contention, but it is egregiously ignored by purveyors of misinformation, phony social science, and fabricators of false and misleading historical narratives about slavery. Was it not the British who ended the 19th-century Atlantic slave trade?

At the same time, there are large numbers of people who either reject this civilization or are dysfunctional within it. The presumption on the part of the leftist mindset is that the dysfunction is solely the result of some kind of external conspiracy (e.g. “orientalism”) that can only be overcome by an all-powerful government is (a) question-begging, (b) self-serving, and (c) ignores the extent to which public policies advocated by the leftist mindset (e.g., welfare; see Charles Murray’s work) are themselves responsible for the problem. If things are so bad, why do so many foreign scholars of color who excoriate the West compete for academic positions in New York and London?

It seems to me to be a legitimate question to ask the following: (a) might we have to live in a world in which many people are either incapable or unwilling to become autonomous? (b) if so, should we aim for something less demanding? (c) what would it look like? (d) Is the guaranteed annual income a recognition of this problem or the creation of a permanent under-class? Shall we be defined by our “winners” or by our “losers?” I do not pretend to have final and definitive answers to those questions.

The foregoing is a conversation we must have among ourselves (if you are reading this far). There cannot be an honest conversation with the leftist mindset since its pursuit of a phony social science has led it to the land of invincible ignorance.

A Multiplicity Of Narratives

What I have just offered is not social science (there are no hidden structures) but an historical narrative. If there is a “better” narrative, then let us politely discuss both it and what you might mean by “better.” I suggest that each of us will have to ask ourselves what narrative rings true and which narrative each of us will choose to live by. In the end it will be a matter of choice and not the discovery of some hidden structure.

The leftist mindset has one more arrow in its quiver. Leftists announce with great fanfare (Lyotard) that there is not, and there can not be, one authoritative narrative. They are correct. Let me go one step further and not only endorse this claim but add to it. It is precisely because of this capacity of the human imagination that we can formulate different accounts. This is a good thing, a useful thing that accounts for the incredible creative potential of the human race.

The really important question is: What sort of social structure is most compatible with the recognition that there will probably always be a multiplicity of narratives? Curiously, the recognition of this condition is not a new or unique event. We have already been through this during the religious wars of the 17th-century and the subsequent discussion of what to do when there is a multiplicity of religious (and agnostic) narratives. Locke gave us an answer then, and it is one that still works for most of us. We tolerate any narrative that does not deny the legitimacy of other narratives and that does not impose its narrative upon others.

A free and open society in which each of us pursues our own dream without imposing on others is the only one compatible with a multiplicity of narratives. If there is no authoritative collective narrative, then there is no collective good. Without a collective good, the leftist mindset has no basis on which to promote an all-powerful government. Such a government would amount to a form of fanatical oppression. This may satisfy constituencies who seek power over others, but it will not solve any problem. The leftist mindset is intellectually bankrupt and leads only to despair.

People of substance understand that utopias are intellectual frauds, that life is a continuous and difficult balancing act, that benefits come with costs, that success is often a matter of luck, and that public service is or should be a temporary responsibility. Keeping this in mind can lead us back to hope. It can remind us that there is something worth fighting and even dying for, namely freedom.


Nicholas Capaldi is professor emeritus at Loyola University, New Orleans and is the author of two books on David Hume, The Enlightenment Project in Analytic Conversation, biography of John Stuart MillLiberty and Equality in Political Economy: From Locke versus Rosseau to the Present, and, most recently, The Anglo-American Conception of the Rule of Law.


The featured image shows, “Prisoners’ Round” by Vincent van Gogh; painted in 1890.

Beyond Opposition

  1. Rather than taking down the new behemoth (the vast education-media-entertainment-Big Pharma complex that controls all aspects of our lives because it has the best tools right now to build/enforce compliance), we just ignore it! We begin by establishing an independent context: social, economic, etc. not a separate political unit. We operate “within” the system but are not “of” the system. We return to Augustine’s notion of the two societies. We can fabricate symbols to show our membership (e.g., I like the flag at half-mast).
  2. Establish an independent currency (like bitcoin) impervious to governmental control. This currency can be exchanged for dollars but it retains its value and does not degenerate into toilet-paper.
  3. Establish a parallel non-politicized economy: our own social media, our own SEC, our own banks, etc. In short, we can duplicate a whole world that does business among its members who subscribe to the same principles – we do not censor or cancel! Imagine the appeal to entrepreneurs. We do not refuse to do business with THEM, but they do not define our business ethics.
  4. Establish a parallel education system – we already have one in home schooling and religious schools. We can create a whole new university system: use (buy) abandoned malls. There are plenty of retired faculty available (like myself who will literally work for free), semi-retired, about to retire, tired of participating in a charade, perhaps unemployed or employed otherwise. We need to break down the artificial barriers between practitioners and theoreticians, and we must surrender the conceit of expertise. The establishment will not recognize our degrees BUT that is irrelevant. Employers among our 100 million will. Our graduates will need to pass an exit exam showing they know the major opposing arguments of contentious public policy disputes. They will have met higher standards.
  5. Establish a parallel medical system (self-insured and nationally portable).
  6. Establish independent sports teams (whole new leagues and franchises), an alternative entertainment industry, etc. – all of it depoliticized.
  7. Establish an independent legal system that is based on mediation.
  8. Most especially, we shall need a huge legal fund to defend these proposals from the inevitable establishment lawsuits.
  9. The reader is invited to extend this list.
    IN EVERY CASE WE OFFER A BETTER PRODUCT AT A LOWER PRICE.
    Of course, I recognize that (1) all of these proposals need further elaboration; and (2) that all of these proposals are subject to corruption and hijacking. But we must start somewhere.

F. The New Politics

It is important not to continue to play the old game. Hence, there is no point in trying to reform the Republican Party. We need a new political party, one that invites former Republicans, as well as perceptive Independents and Democrats to join.

What will be its features?

  1. Political Reform Clubs everywhere – open to all –we might begin by meeting in private homes or on ZOOM and progressing from there.
  2. Within a national network of such clubs, new articulate and responsible leadership (candidates) will emerge on a continuous basis.
  3. We shall run candidates for EVERY office, Dog-catcher, school boards, district attorneys, judges, sheriffs, poll watchers, etc.—the aim is to take control of local communities and work from the bottom up.
  4. TERM LIMITS: we seek Public Service not careerists. Real achievement comes in the real world of careers, jobs, homes, schools, arts, etc. We reject the myth that politics is somehow some arcane practice. Buckley was correct when he suggested that we should prefer to be governed by the first 300 people in the “Boston Telephone Directory” than the faculty of Harvard.
  5. Litmus Test: you understand we were robbed. This is not a retreat, and it is not a surrender or form of escapism. Rather we are digging in our heels, and we are prepared to accept the burden, the responsibility, and the occasional joy of living in the Two Cities.
  6. Many are skeptical about the likely success of a third party. My reply is as follows: a. The Republican party was itself once a new party, replacing the “Whigs” perceived as no longer up to the task of dealing with the issue of slavery.
    b. Other third party movements failed because in the background was a shared set of assumptions—think Ross Perot as a better Republican rather than a new wave. There are no longer any shared assumptions.
    c. “Republicans” have rightly earned a bad name, and the party comes with baggage. Without the baggage, non-Republicans might be more receptive.
    d. Most important of all, we need fresh perspectives, new blood, an open invitation to change the political culture, buy-in from people who have abandoned active participation. We do not need a quick fix and then back to monkey-business as usual. “We must make the building of a free society once more an intellectual adventure, a deed of courage. . . Unless we can make the philosophic foundations of a free society once more a living intellectual issue, and its implementation a task [that] challenges the ingenuity and imagination of our liveliest minds, the prospects of freedom are indeed dark. F. A. Hayek, The Intellectuals and Socialism.

Nicholas Capaldi is professor emeritus at Loyola University, New Orleans and is the author of two books on David Hume, The Enlightenment Project in Analytic Conversation, biography of John Stuart MillLiberty and Equality in Political Economy: From Locke versus Rosseau to the Present, and, most recently, The Anglo-American Conception of the Rule of Law. This is an extract from “What is to be Done?


The featured image shows, “Powrót w rodzinne strony” [Return to the Homeland], by Jacek Malczewski; painted ca. 1911.

Nicholas Capaldi: Liberalism And The West

In this wide-ranging interview, Nicholas Capaldi, shares his ideas on liberalism and its many “fruits.” This is a riveting discussion of the current state of the world – and more importantly what can be done about it. Leading the discussion is Harrison Koehli.



The featured image shows, “Feestvierende boeren (Celebrating farmers),” by Adriaen Brouwer; painted ca. ca.1605-1638.

The Rise And Fall Of Cartesianism

The one time I met Friedrich Hayek was at a lecture he gave at Stanford University in1980. Hayek, as I remember, kept complaining about the dangers of Cartesianism. Until recently, I never understood why.

After all, Rene Descartes was one of the greatest and most influential thinkers of all time. In addition to founding analytic geometry, creating a physics that rivaled Newton for over a century, he was arguably the first modern philosopher. Specifically, he challenged the organic teleological view of Aristotle’s physics and thereby undermined the Aristotelian universe of medieval Christendom. Instead, he proposed a new synthesis consisting of a mechanical world created by an Augustinian Christian God who expressed Himself in Platonic terms. In addition, his was the first expression of the Technological Project, the aim of which was to make ourselves the “Masters and possessors of nature,” the transformation of the world to suit human needs.

Ancient science reflected an agricultural economy, aiming to explain and to predict the events of the physical world of nature. Wisdom consisted in (a) understanding an external structure and (b) conforming ourselves to that structure. Science (e.g., astronomy) in this frame of reference is observational. Modern science, reflecting as it does an industrial and technological economy, aims as well to explain and to predict, but it also aims to control the outcome of events. Wisdom consists in (a) formulating/imagining mathematical models of what is going on and (b) getting the external world to conform to our internal models. Science is experimental. Descartes understood that this sort of intellectual endeavor flourished best in an environment of open thought and commerce such as found in 17th-century Netherlands.

As a systematic philosopher, Descartes introduces and makes the official starting point of modern epistemology the “I Think” perspective, something that had been implicit in classical and medieval thought. Classical thought had always prioritized thought over action or practice. It had always presumed that we needed an independent theory before we can act. Prior to Descartes, skeptics had repeatedly exposed the plurality of mundane competing theories. Drawing on the Augustinian inheritance of the school he attended at La Fleche, Descartes thought he could permanently dispose of skepticism by practicing the Socratic Method on himself and drill down until he found what could not be questioned/challenged without self-contradiction. This method did not rely on any appeal to our bodily experience of the world – which might after all be an illusion. Nor did it appeal to any social framework: tradition, customary practice, which were after all historical products.

In a manner of speaking, it was Ockham’s radical autonomous self (understood as “I think”) but not “We Think”, “I Do” or “We Do” because all of the latter were not impervious to challenge. On a subsequent occasion I shall argue that the “We Do” perspective is the basis of Anglo-American thinking (when not corrupted by Continental models such as positivism and phenomenology), and “We Do” explains such things as Hume’s focus on common life and his transition to history as well as the later thought of Wittgenstein, Hayek, and Oakeshott.

Having established thereby to his own satisfaction that he existed as an “I Think”, Descartes proceeded to establish the existence of God. Whereas Aristotle had identified four causes, wherein three of which (formal, final and efficient) were identical, Descartes eliminated final (teleological) causation. Nevertheless, Descartes retained the identity of formal and efficient causation. This alleged identity permitted one to argue backwards from any effect (form) to its efficient cause sight unseen. Given Cartesian physics and traditional logic, this is an unassailable proof of God’s existence as creator or first efficient cause of the physical world and ultimate author of the Bible! Thus, had Descartes established the existence and validity of the Christian world- view (hereafter the “PLAN”) now understood as including the transformation of the physical world.

In order to make sense of the Technological Project, the transformation of the physical world in the service of humanity, it is important that some aspect of humanity be independent of the physical world. If humans were wholly part of the physical world, then any human project could be transformed as well, thereby leaving all projects without an autonomous status. Hence, it is necessary that the subject, or at least the mind of the subject, be free and independent of the body.

Where does all of this leave us? Rather than establishing and reinforcing the moral authority of the Catholic Church, Descartes seemingly or unwittingly supported the Protestant contention that humans could have direct access to God and His PLAN without the institutional authority of the Church. In addition, Descartes bequeathed to the discipline of philosophy the endless supply of dissertations hoping to overcome the dualisms of reason and world, subject and object, freedom and necessity.

Modern science did not come to a halt with Cartesian physics and analytic geometry. Newtonian atomistic physics moving in the void of calculus took its place. Now there were only efficient causes. There were no final and no formal causes. There were no necessary connections among different kinds of causes. Hume merely spelled out the implications of Newtonian physics for delegitimizing the alleged proofs of God’s existence (see Capaldi on this).

Still, we had the increasingly clear vision of an orderly Newtonian physical world and the ancillary successes of the Technological Project.

Even with a marginalized or superfluous God, God’s PLAN for the physical world still seemed to be safe. It was so safe it did not seem to need miraculous intervention (Deism). Miracles were replaced by utopian visions of future techno-science. Unfortunately, those who continued to tie God’s Plan to a belief in God could not agree, and they further discredited themselves by engaging in (17th-century) religious wars.

We might learn to do without God, but we sorely needed something like His plan for the social world. In the eighteenth century, some of the French philosophes (Helvetius, d’Alembert, Condorcet, La Mettrie, etc.) proposed the Enlightenment Project: a social science to discover the analogous structure of the social world and an analogous social technology to implement its benefits; a wholly secular plan of ideal harmony without religious warranties. This was an even greater gift to the discipline of philosophy, the opportunity to discover, articulate and implement the secular social PLAN. Liberalism, socialism, and Marxism are expressions of the Enlightenment Project. Comte was the master-planner. Needless to say, none of these secular plans has worked, and you could make the case that they made the social world worse off.

However, if there is no God who guarantees the PLAN? Why think there is any kind of PLAN? There might even be some kind of predictable order but why think the order is disposed toward human benefit? The physical scientists keep changing the description of the physical order and the alleged social scientists offer thinly veiled private agendas.

J.J. Rousseau comes to the rescue. There is no plan, nothing for reason to discover. All alleged plans are rationalizations of the status quo by its beneficiaries involving the exploitation of the victims. The most we can hope for is to recover our lost innocence, the world before the ‘Fall’.

In place of an autonomous reason, we find an autonomous will that does not know avarice, shame, or guilt. The autonomous self is pure free will. This primacy of will is not only independence from the body but it is independent of a suspect and instrumental reason. We can achieve a pure social harmony simply by willing the community into existence and outlining the conditions that will sustain it.

There is a great risk in taking this path. We still have the solitary ‘I” sitting in judgment on the world without the benefit of, indeed specifically disdaining, what is to be learned from history. The more brilliant you are the less likely you are to have peers and, therefore, the easier it is, in your solitary critical mind, to rise above the masses and your peers. Brilliant thinkers, however, have made disastrous choices in exercising their pure will. Heidegger will choose Nazism; Sartre will choose Stalinism. This mentality has been diagnosed and critiqued by the now largely ignored Camus in his discussion of “metaphysical rebellion” in The Rebel.

Where do we now stand? The only thing that seems to have been learned is the danger of the oppression of intellectuals. To be taken seriously in this intellectual milieu one needs to become radically or outrageously free. All ‘plans’ (traditions, cultural inheritances, even spontaneous order) are historical artifacts and forms of oppression; there is a sort of disingenuous posturing in opposing the status quo because one has become the status quo – someone has to institutionalize anti-planning.

All subsequent French, and even much German, philosophy (structuralism, post-structuralism, deconstruction, postmodernism, etc.) are philosophies of anti-domination (of which Rawls is a watered-down version), limitless freedom, the absence of sexual taboos, a series of movements that ultimately reduce ethics and politics to the limited ideas that drive them. As Cristaudo has so succinctly pointed out, herein lies a significant degree of failure to understand how the world came to be the way it is and why it is the way it is.


Nicholas Capaldi is Professor Emeritus at Loyola University, New Orleans.


The featured image shows, “Interior of the Cunerakerk, Rhenen,” by Bartholomeus van Bassen, painted in 1638.

What Is To Be Done?

A. No Closure

America is facing a serious national crisis, and it is not helpful to pretend otherwise.

In the wake of the contentious 2020 Presidential election, we should not expect that there will be any kind of national unity or that we should or can go about our business as if nothing fundamental has really changed. America is a deeply divided nation, and the sooner we recognize that and deal with it the better off we shall be.

There can be no closure. What I find most appalling is being told not to use one’s own eyes, ears, reasoning ability etc. but to ignore all contradictions, and basic methodical consistency etc. As a matter of “fact” I find it astonishing that anyone can still say there is no evidence of election fraud. But this “truth” has to be put alongside all the other “truths” that the mainstream media has dictated over the last 4 years and even prior to the 2016 election. “One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks. But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages. That one party can just impose the politically difficult but critically important policies needed to move a society forward in the 21st century” (Tom Friedman, “Our One-Party Democracy”).

The election was fraudulent, and no matter how much the Democrats and their allies spin it, the evidence continues to accumulate. The only way to satisfy the doubters would be to have a full and serious audit of the election results. The “winners,” namely the Democrats and Joe Biden would never agree to this. This is a tragedy since such a gesture would have gone a long way to achieving unity and healing wounds—either confirming the Biden “win” or elevating Biden to the status of cultural hero—perhaps deserving having his face put on Mount Rushmore. When winning becomes the “only” thing we have a culture in crisis.

B. The Futility Of Politics As Usual

There is a larger misperception about what happened. The 2020 election was not a case of Biden “defeating” Trump, or Democrats “defeating” Republicans. The expressions “Democrat” and “Republican” may appear on the ballot, but the names of the real “winners” were written in invisible ink. As I survey it, I am reminded that it’s not who votes or how many voted but who does the counting and how the votes are counted. Right now this process is controlled by an “establishment” (identified long ago by C. W. Mills, Thomas Dye, and most recently by Angelo Codevilla) that encompasses both major political parties—a bipartisan political elite. Under the false guise of social activism, a consortium of 21st century globalist robber-barons seeks to monopolize both domestic and international economies. The seemingly innocuous concept of Corporate Social Responsibility has morphed from a mildly leftist concern for equality into the idea that Social Media giants (a Technocracy—akin to Wittfogel’s identification of “oriental despotism”) and their allies have the duty to control the political process.

The Republican part of the establishment (RINOS – e.g., Peggy Noonan in the WSJ, Karl Rove, etc.), with a few notable exceptions, will continued to be run by lackeys who are corrupt careerists lacking in courage or integrity.

The Democratic Party has its own version consisting of a consortium of billionaires (who live in gated communities and whose children are assured entrance into the Ivies) aided and abetted by the spokespersons (who are also allowed to live in the gated communities) of the grievance universe (e.g., the civil rights industry). The latter will mobilize the aggrieved (the poor, the angry, and hyper-critical intellectuals about whom Benda and Schumpeter warned us long ago, the dysfunctional, etc. who live in the ghettos) to vote and to serve as shock troops whose job it is to intimidate (riot on cue) all those individuals and groups who oppose the establishment. Part of the national tragedy is that the “aggrieved” do not UNDERSTAND that THEY ARE BEING MANIPULATED.

An example of this commonality of interests among the bipartisan elite is the support for open borders by all members (both sides) of the establishment.

It strikes many as counter-intuitive that Billionaire globalists are allied with the aggrieved who advocate democratic socialism. Part of the reason for this is that many are not familiar with “globalism.” The main tenet of globalism is that nation-states (e.g., the U.S., or “Make America Great Again”) are passé. Global commerce requires and leads to the breaking down of borders and institutions associated with them. “Super-states” (the World Bank, IMF, the EU, China) or would-be super-states (U.S. Big-Tech, the UN or even the Vatican) vie to fill the vacuum.

What Big-Tech globalists and the aggrieved have in common is the destruction of the U.S. as a nation-state. That means removing Donald Trump and making sure he cannot run again, undermining the Constitution by packing the Court, destroying every vestige of traditional American identity (e.g. tear-down statues). Who are the people left out, the people who are to be marginalized or intimidated? They are the working class, small business, and anyone who takes traditional America seriously—in short, the middle class.

This model, in which the few at the top control and induce the bottom to undermine the responsible middle is an old one. It can be found in the bread and circuses of the Roman Empire overcoming the Roman Republic, immortalized in Mark Anthony’s reading of Julius Caesar’s will (which he somehow managed to have on hand). This state of affairs was later noted by Machiavelli. It is stated full blown by Henri de Saint.-Simon who envisaged a society guided by a hierarchical merit-based organization of managers and scientists (e.g., Wall Street, Big Tech, deep state, etc.).

It is a utopian scheme (the opiate of the aggrieved) that renders crony capitalism and crony socialism indistinguishable. In both cases, government is the servant/junior partner of Big Business. The only thing that changes is which particular vested economic interest groups get the government contracts and largesse and what politicians get in on the action. This is precisely why serious Marxists have always despised socialism. The object of winning is not to ameliorate difficulties but merely to gain riches and the power to protect and extend the riches. Donald Trump was the lone outsider who threatened to overturn all the apple-carts.

As a consequence of the above, political reform alone is irrelevant and ineffective. The political world is a carousel where the riders and the tunes may change, but progress is an illusion. The dereliction of duty on the part of the Supreme Court (a Court that arrogates to itself the definition of “life,” but cannot investigate a national election in which its own orders were ignored) was the last straw.

C. Prognosis

The following seems most likely to me. I pray I am wrong.

  1. Fascism triumphant. China’s combination of party/ market/ state is the new future.
  2. The future of the US is fabricated race wars and disintegration.
  3. China now replaces the US as the world’s hegemon—it, and radical Islamists, are in the best position to take advantage of Western disintegration.
  4. Western Europe becomes Muslim—and Erdogan is proven right. Central Europe will move Eastward.
  5. China and its allies and vassals versus Islamism is the geopolitics of the future. (farewell to the liberties that we in the West once treasured and took for granted.) Islamism at least will be localized by China, but that will not help Western Europeans preserve their freedom—they will be Muslim and subject to China’s persecution.
  6. The only good thing is that the world will not turn out the way the progressives think—Portland is the present future of the progressive world in embryo i.e. solar energy, vegan burgers, children choosing their sex organs, toppled statues and burning and looting; to be followed by seizure of white property—whites who are leaders of this anti-white movement eventually lose their property and lives too.
  7. Rise of white fascism (the academics/ journalists etc. successfully create, by way of reaction, what they misperceive as present reality)—all out race war in the US is an opportunity for new geopolitical powers.
  8. US becomes an extension of Latin America which will be a Chinese vassal.
  9. Another scenario is the break-up of US and the race war scenario limited to progressive urban centers, but the problem of depleted US power remains.
    The consequences of the big steal are terrifying. But the interests behind it are vast. If this sounds crazy—just ask: what would Queen Victoria have said in 1880 if told that by 1945 Britain would be a 2nd or 3rd rate power?

D. Centrality Of Culture

The different views of America held by the handlers and supporters of Biden and the supporters of President Trump are incommensurable. Nothing is going to change without a fresh reflection on our culture.

What is the inherited culture of the U.S.? As expressed in Locke and summarized by Huntington, it is the English language, the English conceptions of the rule of law, the responsibility of rulers, and the rights of individuals. Its religious commitment reflects the dissenting Protestant values of individualism and the work ethic. The “Creator” who endowed us with our rights clearly understood that “He” was speaking to Lockean “Protestants.”

Three things stand out: religious liberty, economic liberty, and individual liberty. As expressed recently by Oakeshott, the U.S. is a civil association, that is, there is no overall collective-common-good; there is only the good as understood by individuals who resolve their conflicts within the procedural norm of a non-collective common good of the rule of law.

The foregoing is an historical entity and achievement. It is not based on a set of abstractions or “theory;” it does not recognize an official state religion – the dissenting Protestants, given their experience, made sure of that by insisting upon the separation of “church” and “state.” This is not an endorsement of relativism but an affirmation of substantive moral pluralism held together by a common commitment to the procedural norm of toleration. If you choose to be different you do not have to justify yourself or prove that what you are doing is “good.”

In short, you are innocent until proven guilty. If it is alleged that what you are doing harms another, then the onus is on others to (a) show the harm and (b) establish that the remedy is not worse. None of us is required to endorse or to approve of what you do. You are entitled to “toleration” not “approval.” Moreover, others are free to criticize what you do and try to persuade you to do otherwise—but others are not free to coerce you (J.S. Mill). This is a non-utopian view espoused by those who understood that they lived in the world “after the Fall.”

Despite all the criticism leveled against this conception that a society can function with a commitment to procedural norms, this cultural entity has produced to date the most powerful, most productive, and freest culture the world has ever seen, and it has done so for 400 years.

Where are the fault lines in this culture? There are two: democracy and the neglect of public life.

From antiquity to the present, every profound thinker understood the dangers of majority rule. That is precisely why the Founders created a “Republic” that protected the rights of individuals through a Constitution. In order to “keep” the Republic, we have relied on educational institutions to convey this culture, many being run by religious foundations. What has undermined this reliance is a combination of teachers’ unions and a professional class of educators. I shall have more to say about this later, but at present the educational system from top to bottom is now run by second rate ideological left-leaning women and minorities who delude themselves into thinking they have some sort of expertise when all they have is a permission slip from the “establishment.”

Modern freedom (Constant) allows us to pursue our private dreams and agendas, to focus on minding our own business. It also discourages us from minding the public business. We have allowed public life to be articulated and controlled by “professional” politicians and celebrity journalists.

The greatest threat to the U.S comes from the latter reigning experts, the new theorists of utopia. Utopian views, understood as creating a heaven on earth, are perennial (e.g., the Tower of Babel). Eric Voegelin saw modernity as a reflection of “gnosticism,” the perennial Christian heresy of believing that paradise can be achieved on earth. To use Voegelin’s expression, it is the “immanentization of the eschaton.” Historically, it is found not only in the medieval period, but in the later movements of humanism, the Enlightenment, progressivism, liberalism, positivism, and Marxism. It seeks to reverse Augustine’s de-divinization of the state by creating a civil theology, in which the transcendent is repeatedly lost sight of in history. Voegelin maintained that gnosticism is internally incoherent both because it represses the truth of the soul and its ineffectiveness in practice leads to an omnipotent state in which gnostics cannibalize themselves. He instanced Puritanism as a case study. At the same time, he saw America and Britain as a bulwark against gnosticism precisely because they had maintained the Mediterranean inheritance (Greek philosophy, Judaism, and Christianity). It is the explicit combination of philosophy and religion, not philosophy alone, that may be our salvation.

Contemporary utopianism is rooted in the Enlightenment Project. The EP rightly saw the great success of modern science in creating a technology for making the physical world our servant and not our master. However, the EP, as expressed primarily in the writings of the 18th-century French philosophes, went a step further in believing that there could be a social science, based on the “scientific method,” that would lead to a social technology for solving all of our social problems. The dream of such a social technology in which public policy is logically deduced from social theory is the common property of liberals, socialists, and Marxists.

As many have argued (Hume, Kant, Wittgenstein, Hayek, Oakeshott, Gray, Capaldi, etc.), the very idea of a social science is incoherent. Unfortunately, false hope has a larger market than sober reflection.

The present home of this false utopia is the contemporary university. It originated within the so-called social science departments but has subsequently seduced the humanities, the arts, business schools, professional schools, and even the physical sciences. Higher education has given way to non-stop indoctrination. Critical research, free speech and academic freedom are its latest victims. In this new Orwellian universe, “critical theory” now denominates what cannot be questioned/criticized. The contemporary university, enthroned by government subvention and politicized accreditation agencies, is now the commanding heights of our entire culture. It trains and licenses “political scientists,” lawyers, many clergy, journalists, K-12 teachers, in short, just about everybody. Elections no longer identify the current responsible leadership. Rather, elections now ratify what the experts have already decided and identify those whose education has been deficient and who therefore need to confess their sins and attend a reeducation camp as penance.

Does 2020 mark the death of American culture? Is there some way to claw back?

E. What Is To Be Done?

80 million people voted for President Trump. Given additional family members who are not of voting age or did not vote, we are probably talking about more than 100 million people. How significant is that number? By comparison, the entire population of the UK is 66 million; and the entire population of France is 67 million. What can 100 million people do?

  1. Rather than taking down the new behemoth (the vast education-media-entertainment-Big Pharma complex that controls all aspects of our lives because it has the best tools right now to build/enforce compliance), we just ignore it! We begin by establishing an independent context: social, economic, etc. not a separate political unit. We operate “within” the system but are not “of” the system. We return to Augustine’s notion of the two societies. We can fabricate symbols to show our membership (e.g., I like the flag at half-mast).
  2. Establish an independent currency (like bitcoin) impervious to governmental control. This currency can be exchanged for dollars but it retains its value and does not degenerate into toilet-paper.
  3. Establish a parallel non-politicized economy: our own social media, our own SEC, our own banks, etc. In short, we can duplicate a whole world that does business among its members who subscribe to the same principles – we do not censor or cancel! Imagine the appeal to entrepreneurs. We do not refuse to do business with THEM, but they do not define our business ethics.
  4. Establish a parallel education system – we already have one in home schooling and religious schools. We can create a whole new university system: use (buy) abandoned malls. There are plenty of retired faculty available (like myself who will literally work for free), semi-retired, about to retire, tired of participating in a charade, perhaps unemployed or employed otherwise. We need to break down the artificial barriers between practitioners and theoreticians, and we must surrender the conceit of expertise. The establishment will not recognize our degrees BUT that is irrelevant. Employers among our 100 million will. Our graduates will need to pass an exit exam showing they know the major opposing arguments of contentious public policy disputes. They will have met higher standards.
  5. Establish a parallel medical system (self-insured and nationally portable).
  6. Establish independent sports teams (whole new leagues and franchises), an alternative entertainment industry, etc. – all of it depoliticized.
  7. Establish an independent legal system that is based on mediation.
  8. Most especially, we shall need a huge legal fund to defend these proposals from the inevitable establishment lawsuits.
  9. The reader is invited to extend this list.
    IN EVERY CASE WE OFFER A BETTER PRODUCT AT A LOWER PRICE.
    Of course, I recognize that (1) all of these proposals need further elaboration; and (2) that all of these proposals are subject to corruption and hijacking. But we must start somewhere.

F. The New Politics

It is important not to continue to play the old game. Hence, there is no point in trying to reform the Republican Party. We need a new political party, one that invites former Republicans, as well as perceptive Independents and Democrats to join.

What will be its features?

  1. Political Reform Clubs everywhere – open to all –we might begin by meeting in private homes or on ZOOM and progressing from there.
  2. Within a national network of such clubs, new articulate and responsible leadership (candidates) will emerge on a continuous basis.
  3. We shall run candidates for EVERY office, Dog-catcher, school boards, district attorneys, judges, sheriffs, poll watchers, etc.—the aim is to take control of local communities and work from the bottom up.
  4. TERM LIMITS: we seek Public Service not careerists. Real achievement comes in the real world of careers, jobs, homes, schools, arts, etc. We reject the myth that politics is somehow some arcane practice. Buckley was correct when he suggested that we should prefer to be governed by the first 300 people in the “Boston Telephone Directory” than the faculty of Harvard.
  5. Litmus Test: you understand we were robbed. This is not a retreat, and it is not a surrender or form of escapism. Rather we are digging in our heels, and we are prepared to accept the burden, the responsibility, and the occasional joy of living in the Two Cities.
  6. Many are skeptical about the likely success of a third party. My reply is as follows:

    a. The Republican party was itself once a new party, replacing the “Whigs” perceived as no longer up to the task of dealing with the issue of slavery.
    b. Other third party movements failed because in the background was a shared set of assumptions—think Ross Perot as a better Republican rather than a new wave. There are no longer any shared assumptions.
    c. “Republicans” have rightly earned a bad name, and the party comes with baggage. Without the baggage, non-Republicans might be more receptive.
    d. Most important of all, we need fresh perspectives, new blood, an open invitation to change the political culture, buy-in from people who have abandoned active participation. We do not need a quick fix and then back to monkey-business as usual. “We must make the building of a free society once more an intellectual adventure, a deed of courage. . . Unless we can make the philosophic foundations of a free society once more a living intellectual issue, and its implementation a task [that] challenges the ingenuity and imagination of our liveliest minds, the prospects of freedom are indeed dark. F. A. Hayek, The Intellectuals and Socialism.


Nicholas Capaldi is professor emeritus at Loyola University, New Orleans and is the author of two books on David Hume, The Enlightenment Project in Analytic Conversation, biography of John Stuart Mill, Liberty and Equality in Political Economy: From Locke versus Rosseau to the Present, and, most recently, The Anglo-American Conception of the Rule of Law.


The featured image shows, “Hospice à St. Remy,” by Vincent van Gogh, painted in 1889.

A Post-Election Encomium For Trump

For many years, both political parties shared the same American Dream but differed on which policies best served that purpose. Since WWII, the Republican Party increasingly became the party of the self-absorbed successful (Country Club Republicans) basking in the glory of a global empire with an unlimited supply of underpaid illegal servants and workers. The only problem was that this empire, unlike previous ones that had collected tribute, now hemorrhaged treasure both literally and figuratively. At the same time, the Democratic Party increasingly became the party of ideological technocrats and a mindless grievance industry constantly multiplying victimized groups. Lost in all this were blue-collar citizens of all colors who found their American dreams turning into a nightmare. Enter Donald J. Trump.

President Trump can be best and easily understood as someone who retrieved a traditional conception of America. That conception embraced “the English language; Christianity; religious commitment; English concepts of the rule of law, the responsibility of rulers, and the rights of individuals; and dissenting Protestant values of individualism, the work ethic, and the belief that humans have the ability and the duty to try to create a heaven on earth, a ‘city on a hill’.” (Huntington, Who Are We?).

This is what “Make America Great Again” means. It is open to everyone regardless of race, national origin, etc. That is why one always sees signs at Trump rallies saying: “Blacks for Trump,” “Latinos for Trump,” “Women for Trump,” and so forth. It is the celebration of the underdog, a mobile and classless society, and the embodiment of the “Rocky” films. Immigration contributes to this message, but only works when the new citizens understand and embrace the culture to which they are moving, when they understand what makes the new community better than the dysfunctional one they worked so hard to leave.

The traditional conception of America is what makes it great; it’s not magic. A leader needs to provide a positive narrative. Trump’s 2016 narrative (“Make America Great Again”) and his 2020 narrative (“Keep America Great”) are not only positive but also inclusive and intended to bring people together. In severe contrast, “1619,” “Black Lives Matter,” and ‘identity politics’ are negative and divisive.

Many “Republican voters knew that our K-12 schools and immigration laws badly need reforming [especially inner city schools where reform is blocked by the Teachers’ Unions], and liked Trump’s plans for them. They wanted Trump to cut the administrative state and all its wasteful, job-destroying regulations as well as the crony capitalism that hampers small business. Most jobs and creativity emerge from small businesses – not the big corporations with lawyers and lobbyists who have enough money to sway regulations in their direction.

Mostly, they knew that we had become a class society where rich parents raised rich kids and poor parents raised poor kids, and that this was a betrayal of the American Dream, a betrayal of the traditional immigrant’s expectation that whoever you are and wherever you come from, your children will have it better than you did.

They knew that that promise had been broken, that Trump had pledged to fix it, and that is why they elected him president.” (F.H. Buckley). Traditional Republican leadership [Bush, Romney, Koch] had drifted to control by big international corporate Globalists who found it easy to disguise their greed and indifference behind a thin veil of libertarianism. Trump dismantled the New Class and “created a Republican Workers Party” by finding the sweet spot that was socially conservative and economically middle of the road.

Another element in this traditional conception of America is what I call autonomy (often mislabeled by interventionists as ‘isolationism’ or described by its advocates as ‘exceptionalism’). From the time of George Washington’s farewell address warning us about entangling alliances, many Americans saw America as a separate place to better instantiate Anglo-Protestant culture and uniquely positioned to pursue the American Dream.

In institutional terms, Americans embraced what I have elsewhere described as the “Lockean Narrative,” namely: The Technological Project (control of nature for human benefit), best carried out in a market economy, serviced by a limited government, kept under control by the rule of law, and sustained by an Anglo-Protestant culture of personal autonomy). That narrative and its institutions were progressively undermined by Woodrow Wilson’s promotion of U.S. involvement in the First World War [you remember ‘the war to end all wars’], FDR’s New Deal response to the Great Depression [which he managed to make even ‘greater’], the U.S.’s filling of the post- World War II power vacuum to counter the growth of the USSR, Johnson’s ‘Great Society’ [affirmative action, activist judges], the expansion of higher education [without the ‘higher’] which promoted the idea of an elite who somehow ‘knew’ better than the rest of us. T

he clearest expression of this elite was the rise of neo-conservatism [who ultimately paved the way for universities to fall into the hands of undereducated Frankfort Marxists]. Neo-con intellectuals presumed that the Lockean Narrative could be exported [U.N, World Bank] from the top down. This led to the creation of a military caste who never saw a foreign intervention they did not like and the extremely costly and ultimate failure of the Iraq War.

Trump saw a way to retrieve national autonomy. First, enforce immigration laws (“Build the Wall”) and close down failed programs and endless wars. Second, make America independent both militarily (no entangling alliances or substitute alliances on our terms) and economically (Fracking). Fracking had the added advantage of bringing the Middle East under control without the presence of U.S. troops, and indirectly let to his being nominated three times for the Nobel Peace Prize as Arabic nations finally recognized Israel’s right to exist. Trump’s solution meant that neither the National Review crowd nor Bill Kristol nor George Will were relevant to this revitalized movement that recognized and celebrated traditional American values.

What was Trump able to accomplish in his first term?

  1. Initiated an economic tsunami by lowering taxes leading to record levels in the stock market and positively impacting the retirements of millions of citizens.
  2. Lowered unemployment among the Black and Latino population more than any other president, and he did so without patronizing and condescending virtue signaling.
  3. First President to reverse successfully our relationship with China bringing businesses and manufacturing jobs back to the US.
  4. The defense of fossil fuels and the promotion of fracking made America economically, militarily, and diplomatically independent of the rest of the world – while lowering dangerous emissions to record levels without signing the ineffective and hypocritical Paris Accord.
  5. Rebuilt a military crippled by Obama.
  6. He is the first president not to engage the U.S. in a foreign war since Eisenhower.
  7. Forced NATO members to pay their dues. If the EU hand to defend itself it would require the dismantling of its bloated welfare states – advocates of the Europeanization of the U.S. are clueless about the extent to which this requires the US. to be the host for a parasitical Europe. Europeans are not our ‘friends’ but our allies and competitors. The present generation of Europeans have no living or meaningful memory of the Second World War, and the massive American military cemeteries there are as meaningful to them as the Battle of Waterloo or a crumbling Roman Arch – except that they are not as lucrative a tourist attraction.
  8. Neutralized the North Korean capacity to develop the nuclear capability of threatening Japan and the U.S. West Coast.
  9. Brokered Middle East Peace that some 71 years of political intervention and endless war had failed to produce.
  10. Appointed three ‘originalist’ Supreme Court Justices and 300 non-activist Federal Judges
  11. Fast-tracked the development of multiple COVID-19 vaccines and treatments in contrast to previous administrations which failed to develop vaccines for SARS, Bird Flu, Ebola, and a host of other diseases. COVID — a serious foreign invasion in many senses of the term — will only disappear in the presence of a viable vaccine. Operation ‘Warp Speed’ is intended to do that, and there is every reason to believe that a safe and effective vaccine will be generally available (except in New York) in the next few months.
    In times of crisis, a leader must be positive, exude confidence and inspire people to be optimistic – think Roosevelt’s fireside chats even as the great depression deepened. Trump has done his very best to fill that role. In time, people will come to admit his entrepreneurial genius that marshalled the pharmaceutical world to this achievement; it will be akin to the belated recognition of Reagan’s role in bringing down communism. What should not be overlooked is the need in the meantime to make courageous cost-benefit analyses of alternative temporary policies as in recognizing that lockdowns are ultimately counter-productive.
  12. MOST IMPORTANT of all, Trump exposed the depth and breadth of corruption in all the major institutions of American society, including the CIA, FBI, NSA, both major political parties, the media, higher education, big tech, etc., etc., etc.

Who could possibly argue with these achievements? First, all of the major institutions mentioned in (12) above, of course.

In addition to those major institutions who regard Trump as their enemy, he has earned the enmity of a host of others for his celebration of and support for traditional American values. They include:

  • All of the enemies of the traditional conception of America and the American dream: Marxists, socialists, identity politics advocates, doctrinaire libertarians -classical liberals – and modern liberals; and advocates of the therapeutic state.
  • (With the exception of the U.K. and the Eastern Europeans), all of the other member states of NATO, most especially German hegemons.
  • Globalists (the Davos crowd).
  • China. the Chinese are not grateful because they were admitted into the club. Rather, they mask their lust for domination under the guise of a “century of humiliation.”
  • George Soros.
  • Neo-cons.
  • Wall Street crony capitalists.
  • Mexico, Canada, and other parasitic states.
  • Radical Islamists.

The pseudo-intellectual snobs in our society despise Trump. He is a standing refutation of all that they believe. He does what they cannot do and achieves it in a manner incomprehensible to them.

A very serious set of problems arises when universities become regarded as commanding heights housing intellectual elites and experts on all subjects.

First, all other institutions (e.g. family, churches, etc.) are stripped of any authority because all professionals including researchers even in the hard sciences, doctors, lawyers, teachers at all levels, therapists, clergy and journalists are now credentialed exclusively by the university.

Second, accreditation is centrally controlled, and it is under government control (the Department of Education).

Third, as I have argued elsewhere, the university is itself the victim of a misguided and self-serving intellectual fashion. The success of modern physical science and technology suggested the notion to eighteenth-century French philosophes (confirming my suspicion that all bad ideas come from France) of there being both a social science and a social technology. Thus was born the idea of a social utopia, the abiding faith of libertarians, classical liberals, modern liberals, socialists and Marxists.

Unfortunately, there is no such thing as a social science that can explain, predict, and control the social world or overcome the human predicament. The Ivory Tower is now the Tower of Babel. Worse yet, you cannot claim expertise if academics disagree, hence the necessity for the imposition of censorship, uniformity, and the loss of academic freedom.

This practice of censorship extends to journalists (who seek to create or engineer a social consensus) and social media (who somehow know the secret definition of ‘hate speech’ and have never read J.S. Mill’s essay On Liberty and its discussion of why censorship is bad – Mill must be wrong because he is, after all, a dead white male).

The younger journalists have all the depth and breadth of understanding that comes with an undergraduate degree in communications. Social media people don’t even need a degree because they understand coding. The latter being superior in one respect believe they are superior in all respects.

Besides starting with a fallacious utopian mentality, the intellectual elite suffer from another misunderstanding. If there were a social science/technology then all discussion would begin with the ‘correct’ theory and then seek to impose it on practice. If the resulting practice is not a success (widespread social dysfunction) then instead of jettisoning the theory or even the idea of expertise, the ‘experts’ refine the theory or add an epicycle (like defending Ptolemaic astronomy instead of moving to Copernicus). An example is the invention of the ridiculous concept of “systemic racism.” The mindset at issue is the fallacious assumption that theory should precede practice. This mindset presumes that theoretical understanding can explain everything including practical understanding or the relation between practice and theory. On the contrary, practical knowledge cannot be encapsulated by theoretical knowledge.

It is not that whoever can does and whoever cannot teaches. It is rather that whoever embraces the aforementioned intellectual errors ought not to be teaching! Please note that in identifying these intellectual errors I am not claiming a greater or superior expertise. Most of the time I know my limits. I am merely pointing out the dangers inherent in many of my colleagues’ B.S. Worse yet is the presumption that only people who speak or write like academics and are adept at giving lectures are the really smart people. It’s not what you do or have done that’s important for them. Style obliterates substance (e.g., Obama).

Trump’s style of communication is authentic (hence the importance of calling out other people on occasion) and makes the average American feel included in the conversation. It may be fashionable to belittle Trump rallies, but those rallies are the clearest manifestation of a leader who connects with those whom he leads. Instead of a lecture designed for Sunday talk shows, Trump offers a sermon on American Greatness. He does so for those who seek to be part of a choir. It echoes what goes on in another moral community, namely houses of worship. No doubt, it offends the sensibility of those who aspire to be our social technologists. A successful sermon does not end with polite applause; it ends with “Amen!”

History will show that Trump’s most lasting contribution is remaining steadfast in the face of a treasonous coup by the leaders of the Democratic Party, a seditious inherited bureaucracy, an intelligence community that spies on its own citizens and tries to rig the outcome of elections, a sham impeachment, the most corrupt election (2020) in American history, a media that denies the distinction between fact and editorializing and believes that its job is to manufacture public opinion, an educational system that has abandoned the search for truth and excellence in favor of indoctrination, a military establishment that has succumbed to political correctness, a powerful business community that thinks its corporate social obligation is control of thinking, a Wall Street which does not know how to tell the difference between social democrats and democratic socialists, religious leaders who have chosen social work over serving God, a legal culture that cannot tell the difference between legislating and adjudicating, celebrities who think that excellence in one respect is excellence in everything.

In short, a totally politicized society whose depth and breadth of corruption is staggering. None of these issues will be fully resolved even when Trump finally steps down, hopefully after four more years!

Nicholas Capaldi, a Legendre-Soule Distinguished professor at Loyola University, New Orleans, USA, is the author of two books on David Hume, The Enlightenment Project in Analytic Conversation, biography of John Stuart Mill, Liberty and Equality in Political Economy: From Locke versus Rosseau to the Present, and, most recently, The Anglo-American Conception of the Rule of Law.

The image shows, “American Progress,” by John Gast, painted in 1872.