Liberalism’s totalitarian logic
by Ken Myers
On Volume 130 of the Journal, I interviewed Fr. Antonio López about an essay in a book he co-edited. The anthology was called Retrieving Origins and the Claim of Multiculturalism. Fr. López wrote the introductory essay in the book, which describes how liberal societies redefine religion and God to fit within the liberal understanding of freedom.
“[B]oth the American and European versions of liberal society perceive human beings as individuals who are defined primordially by their own freedom, and both conceive of freedom not as the capacity to embrace the truth but as the unrestricted exercise of choice — this, of course, takes a concrete historical form in America that is foreign in Europe. This liberal anthropology believes that everything comes after a human choice and is determined by it: work, leisure, family relations, gender, even our own bodies. The perception of freedom as the capacity to determine itself through choice represents therefore the architectonic criterion of liberal culture. This criterion makes it very easy, on the one hand, to perceive other cultures as the fruit of human choices and, on the other hand, to remain unaware of the overarching liberal framework that interiorly shapes every human expression in its own image. Since culture is the ordering of social life in light of a potentially all-encompassing worldview or criterion, the way a liberal society organizes itself is both the outcome and the promoter of this culture whose ordering criterion is free choice. This is one of the main reasons why in liberal societies the task of the state is to create a neutral space in which different groups have access to numerous possibilities for self-realization. The state, whose scope and extension is limited by society itself, is responsible for securing the peaceful and prosperous coexistence of its members, who organize themselves freely according to their own traditions, upbringings, and sensitivities. Within Western democracies, especially in North America, any human being can find a space to live, associate, deepen and foster his or her own culture, and embrace freely his or her preferred religious identity. At the same time, this political framework prides itself on pursuing, preserving, and promoting individual freedom (mainly of conscience and of religion), equal dignity, and self-evident rights. Liberal society therefore governs itself through a juridical state, and its specific legal, judicial, economic, and institutional parameters tend to be seen as self-given, that is, democratically determined by the collective will of individuals whose equal dignity is defended and gradually redefined by the state.
“Liberal anthropology and its cultural expression reach into the theological, for, being finite, the human being cannot account for his human and social existence without explicit or implicit reference to the absolute. What man thinks of himself and of society reflects what he thinks of the absolute, God. If the human person is understood on the basis of undetermined freedom of choice, it is because God is considered to be an apersonal and monadic being. The God of liberalism determines itself freely and sees relation with the other as strictly secondary to itself. This God dwells alone in the sheer exercise of its absolute freedom. Obviously, much needs to be said to adequately ground this claim, and the reader will find many rich insights in the following essays to help him ponder the extent of this claim. It suffices to indicate here that liberalism is both theologically and anthropologically anarchic. Liberalism holds that both God and the human being have no beginning, no principle (an-archic) except their own (absolute or finite) freedom. Paradoxically, anarchy — understood as the capacity to fulfill oneself out of one’s own resources — becomes the governing and ordering principle of liberal society that hides itself behind innumerable expressions of human creativity and choice.
“It is possible to perceive without much trouble three different and related implications of the liberal perception of freedom. First, every concrete exercise of determination — whether the expression of an individual or of a whole culture — remains private, that is, enclosed within the self. Human actions and opinions can never reach the status of the universal and hence remain within the parameters of liberalism itself. Opinions and actions image the liberal framework by presenting themselves as apparently original and confined to their immediate range of influence. Second, since every difference (gender, cultural, religious, political, etc.) is the expression of the same abstract freedom, each difference is ultimately seen as indifferent, that is to say, as not essentially different from the others and hence as irrelevant. Thus, despite all its activity, liberal society leads to an insurmountable stasis in which no choice is really effective. Concretely speaking, this means that a liberal society will be able to host within itself different cultures and religions only if they remain private, that is, irrelevant, and hence harmless, to the all-encompassing anarchic horizon. Within a liberal society one can be, for example, Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim, Protestant, or Catholic — provided one’s religiosity is freely chosen. Pushing further the message that Lessing conveyed so forcefully in his play Nathan the Wise, we can say not only that there are no moral, existential differences between the major religions, but that these religions are ontologically identical. Liberal societies contend that religions are different expressions of the same private, formal, and abstract exercise of freedom. Third, since there can be only one ultimate principle, the coexistence of different totalizing worldviews is a priori ruled out. Liberalism, apparently allowing the coexistence of different cultures, traditions, and religions within itself, de facto prevents and seeks to eliminate the existence of any culture, tradition, or religion that does not fold itself to liberalism’s self-understanding. In this sense, the novelty of liberalism does not rest in its simply allowing cultures to exist freely within itself, its fostering their individuality, or its absorbing them into a dominant form as did the European totalitarianisms of the twentieth century. Rather, liberalism’s novelty resides in recreating in its own image every human expression (social, political, economic, cultural, religious) that falls within its horizon, while at the same time supporting the illusion that such contentless human expression still preserves its own integrity. Hence, rather than describing the unity that liberal culture generates as integralistic, relativistic, or multicultural, it would be more adequate to account for it in terms of a self-concealing totalitarian worldview.”
— from Retrieving Origins and the Claim of Multiculturalism, edited by Antonio López and Javier Prades (Eerdmans, 2014)