15 Apr

Totalitarianism in a new mode

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 04/15/21

John Milbank on how liberalism has a marked tendency to become illiberal

“[R]ecent events demonstrate that liberal democracy can itself devolve into a mode of tyranny. One can suggest that this is for a concatenation of reasons. An intrinsic indifference to truth, as opposed to majority opinion, means in practice that the manipulation of opinion will usually carry the day. Then governments tend to discover that the manipulation of fear is more effective than the manipulation of promise, and this is in keeping with the central premises of liberalism which, as Pierre Manent says [in An Intellectual History of Liberalism], are based in Manichaean fashion upon the ontological primacy of evil and violence: at the beginning is a threatened individual, piece of property, or racial terrain. This is not the same as an Augustinian acknowledgment of original sin, perversity, and frailty — a hopeful doctrine, since it affirms that all-pervasive evil for which we cannot really account (by saying, for example, with Rousseau that it is the fault of private property or social association as such) is yet all the same a contingent intrusion upon reality, which can one day be fully overcome through the lure of the truly desirable which is transcendent goodness (and that itself, in the mode of grace, now aids us). Liberalism instead begins with a disguised naturalization of original sin as original egotism: our own egotism which we seek to nurture, and still more the egotism of the other against which we need protection.

“Thus increasingly, a specifically liberal politics (and not, as so many journalists fondly think, its perversion) revolves around a supposedly guarding against alien elements: the terrorist, the refugee, the person of another race, the foreigner, the criminal. Populism seems more and more to be an inevitable drift of unqualified liberal democracy. A purported defence of the latter is itself deployed in order to justify the suspending of democratic decision-making and civil liberties. 

“For the reasons just seen, this is not just an extrinsic and reactionary threat to liberal values: to the contrary, it is liberalism itself that tends to cancel those values of liberality (fair trial, right to a defense, assumed innocence, habeas corpus, a measure of free speech and free inquiry, good treatment of the convicted) which it has taken over, but which as a matter of historical record it did not invent, since they derive rather from Roman and Germanic law transformed by the infusion of the Christian notion of charity — which, in certain dimensions means a generous giving of the benefit of the doubt, as well as succor, even to the accused or wicked. For if the ultimate thing to be respected is simply individual security and freedom of choice (which is not to say that these should not be accorded penultimate respect) then almost any suspensions of normal legality can tend to be legitimated in the name of these values. In the end, liberalism takes this sinister turn when all that it endorses is the free market along with the nation-state as a competitive unit. Government will then tend to become entirely a policing and military function as J. G. Fichte (favorably!) anticipated. For with the decay of all tacit constraints embedded in family, locality, and mediating institutions between the individual and the state, it is inevitable that the operation of economic and civil rules which no individual has any longer any interest in enforcing (since she is socially defined only as a lone chooser and self-seeker) will be ruthlessly and ever-more exhaustively imposed by a state that will become totalitarian in a new mode. Moreover, the obsessive pursuit of security against terror and crime will only ensure that terror and crime become more sophisticated and subtly effective. We have entered a vicious global spiral.”

— From John Milbank, “Liberality versus Liberalism,” in The Future of Love: Essays in Political Theology (Cascade Books, 2009). Milbank discussed his subsequent book, The Politics of Virtue, on Volume 138 of the Journal.