The word liberalism is used in many different senses, at least one of which has been condemned by the Church (Pius IX, Quanta Cura, 1864). At its philosophical core, liberalism seeks emancipation from the supernatural, moral and Divine order, with a rejection of all authority that does not originate in the self. It is precisely this form of liberalism that lies at the heart of the contemporary culture wars, both within the United States and between various countries in the European Union.
A member Poland’s presidential cabinet, Ryszard Legutko, has given us a trenchant and fascinating analysis of this sort of liberalism at work in the world. Legutko’s analysis, taken from a speech he made in 2006, has been adapted as an article in the Winter 2008 issue of Modern Age. It is so good that I wish to summarize it here:
To begin, Legutko suggests the following formula for identifying a liberal:
A liberal is someone who takes a rather thin view of man, society, morality, religion, history, and philosophy, believing this to be the safest approach to organizing human cooperation. He does not deny that thicker, non-procedural principles and norms are possible, but believes these to be particular preferences which possess validity only within particular groups and communities. For this reason he refuses to attribute to such principles and norms any universal value and he protests whenever someone attempts to impose his profound beliefs, however true they may seem to him, on the entire social body. Liberals might have divergent opinions on economic freedoms and the role of government, but they are united in their conviction that thinness of anthropological, moral, and metaphysical assumptions is the prerequisite for freedom and peace.
Legutko then goes on to present five arguments against the assumptions at the heart of liberalism, five important points which reveal the bankruptcy of liberalism:
First, liberalism has an extremely modest position in the entire history of human experience: “To put it simply: liberalism as a theory is not interesting.” Legutko notes that it is extremely difficult to think of any outstanding thinker or writer who can be characterized solely as a liberal. Great minds have always attempted to achieve wisdom by taking strong positions on ultimate questions, but “the liberal ignores those questions because he considers them either irrelevant or…dangerous.”
Second, “liberals always place themselves in a higher position than their interlocutors, and from that position they have an irresistible urge to dominate.” While claiming to want a society in which people are free to make their own decisions, “they always usurp for themselves…the role of the architectonic organizer of society; thus they always want to dominate by performing the roles of the guardians of the whole of the social system and the judges of the procedural rules within the system.”
Third, liberals confuse two distinct claims about freedom: the claim that freedom of action should not be impeded by arbitrary will, and the claim that what free people want is a liberal order. “By identifying these two beliefs [as one and the same] liberals assume that whoever wants freedom must necessarily want liberalism, and whoever wants liberalism must necessarily want freedom. Armed with this assumption liberals assess the progress of freedom by the yardstick of acceptance of their own system.”
Fourth, while preaching the superiority of pluralism, liberals actually propagate an intensely dualistic vision of the world, dividing all persons into two camps: pluralists and monists. Pluralists are liberals. Monists are “ayatollahs, Adolf Hitlers, Christian fundamentalists, Catholic integrists, Islamists, conservatives and many more.” The result is not only ideologically convenient; it also degrades thought and leads to “sweeping judgments, positive or negative, about everything in the past, present, and future.”
Fifth, fearful of potential enslavement lurking everywhere, liberals embrace all “modern ideological mystifications, which are often created in bad faith and from evidently erroneous assumptions.” Ideologies such as Communism are a good example but liberals are routinely co-opted by all who adopt their “rhetoric of liberation”. In a liberal order, every group learns “to make a convincing case that it is a victim of a particularly sinister form of discrimination.” Liberals can only encourage more of this, leading to ever greater social chaos.
Legutko concludes that, practically speaking, liberalism breeds “ideological commissars who have acquired remarkable abilities to silence their critics. For whoever disagrees with them is a potential candidate to become a new Adolf Hitler.” Indeed, if you emancipate man from God, he inevitably becomes his own worst enemy. What’s wrong with liberalism? Riszard Legutko has it exactly right.