By Eugène E.
Nowadays it is something of a truism to talk about the crisis of liberalism. Liberalism has become so discredited in the eyes of many that the term itself elicits, at best, feelings of ennui, and at worst, a vague sense of something malodorous. In some quarters, it has acquired a downright pejorative meaning. Given the kind of nonsense that has been allowed to sprout in the name of liberalism, this is understandable. But is it fair?
Liberalism was hijacked by a group of ideologues who have been successfully employing it to advance their quasi-anarchical, politically correct, and certainly anti-Western agenda, distorting the concept of liberalism beyond recognition. So complete was the ideologues’ takeover that contemporary liberalism in the West has about as much in common with the original doctrine of liberalism as the hippie movement has with the teachings of Christ. Blaming liberalism for the present state of affairs is akin to blaming love poetry for a bout of venereal disease. It is consequently inappropriate to talk about a crisis of liberalism – much better to call it the crisis of a perverse mutation of liberalism.
I refer to this mutation, this bastard child of liberalism, as “ultraliberalism” to distinguish it from its parent, but that may not be sufficient to rehabilitate liberalism as such: the term “ultraliberalism” is highly derivative and suggests that liberalism lends itself to distortions. This naturally raises the question of whether an ideological current that is vulnerable to distortions can be fully exonerated from abuses perpetrated in its name. A sensible question. Ideology, as much else in life, is ultimately what you make of it as well as what you do with it; and there are no guarantees against extremism, ideological malfeasance, and abject stupidity. Yet now that classical liberalism has been compromised, the term “liberalism”, having been shorn of its political innocence, can no longer be used. A new political identity has to be forged for those who want to challenge ultraliberalism without being sucked into the vortex of political anachronism, ideological narrow-mindedness, or, worse still, outright barbarism.
To that end – despite my personal disdain for political labels of all kinds, which are simply ideological straitjackets – I find it opportune to introduce the concept of reactive liberalism, a term I freely use to describe my personal system of beliefs and the use of which I encourage for those of the same – or similar – persuasion.
Before I get into the concept of reactive liberalism, it is necessary to define liberalism as such, given that the meaning imputed to it now has so little to do with its original version. What is liberalism in the classical sense of the term? Definitions might vary, depending on whom you ask. However, there should be general agreement that classical liberalism centers on the following tenets:
1. Freedom of thought and expression
2. The separation of church and state
3. The inviolability of private property
4. Equality before the law
The first tenet is easy to understand and something most in the West have learned to take for granted – the ability to think and express oneself as one wishes.
The second tenet is also easy to grasp, though perhaps somewhat less easy to interpret – it is the desire to live in a state that is not organized along theocratic lines. It should be noted that secularism does not preclude the use of a religious doctrine to underpin the legal code and serve as a point of reference and inspiration. Society needs a moral compass.
The third tenet underscores the sanctity of private property and guarantees the right of individuals to own it. However strongly Marxists might object to it, this tenet makes it clear that ownership of private property is an indispensable component of a free society.
Respect of the fourth tenet is necessary for any society that seeks to establish a rule of law. Every citizen should, if circumstances demand it, be able to have recourse to a justice system that is impartial and equitable.
Those are the major tenets that, put together, serve as the foundation of liberal thought. They form the essence of true liberalism. A classical liberal might consider inserting a full stop there. However, I hasten to add a fifth tenet:
5. Maximum security and safety for both the public and for each individual citizen
This tenet will be a tough one to swallow for many a liberal, who have learned to take to heart that vastly quoted line about the folly of sacrificing liberty for security – supposedly those who do it end up with neither. This need not be so: there is no reason to view security and liberty as a dichotomy. Classical liberalism is all about individualism – that is, giving each individual in society the opportunity to take advantage of one’s full potential. It should be evident that it is difficult to attain maximum self-realization in a society in which one’s safety is in question. Consequently, the primary duty of a government is to assure the security of its citizens; a government that does not attain this objective is a government that has forfeited its right to exist. The importance of this tenet cannot be overstated, since the degree to which all the other tenets are observed is dependent on a strict application of the fifth one.
However, even without the fifth tenet, liberalism, as it was originally conceived, does not entail strutting about with rainbow flags, blessing marriages between members of the same sex, dismantling borders to allow unlimited immigration, and assailing the rights and prerogatives of European civilization in the name of an abstract dogma. Western history has evolved in a way that has made it possible for ultraliberals to crash the gates of the liberal sanctuary and replace the original values with their own pet causes. Anybody who disagrees faces vicious denunciations, vitriolic accusations, and rank ostracism.
The result is that something of a no-man’s land has emerged – the chasm between ultraliberalism and reactionaryism. It is a vacuum that must be filled. Supposedly, it should be filled by (classical) liberals. Yet such liberals find themselves in a difficult situation. When liberalism first developed, its goal was to shape a society that would be more enlightened, just, and virtuous. Incidentally, that coincided with the idea of progress. Liberalism and progress, therefore, became, if not twins, then certainly blood brothers. Now that we’ve discovered that progress is not always enlightened, just, and virtuous, and that it can be used to justify every inanity under the sun, a divorce between liberalism and progress is necessary. A true liberal cannot – and should not – be progressive today, however paradoxical it may sound; instead, a true liberal needs to oppose progressive causes that are absurd and fight against them if such causes harm society. As most progressive causes today are either absurd or noxious, a true liberal finds himself in a position where he needs to react – react to the onslaught of ultraliberalism.
At the same time, a true liberal cannot embrace political reaction if it represents ultraconservative politics, particularly if it’s the kind of ultraconservative politics that espouses blind – or open-eyed – hatred of those who either choose to oppose it or who are “enemies by default”. In other words, he should be able to call into question mass immigration and same-sex marriage without being called a fascist. For that reason, we cannot speak of a true liberal as a reactionary liberal, even though he reacts. Such a liberal might be more aptly called a reactive liberal.
Reactive liberalism is indifferent to the traditional political spectrum and to where it might be placed by political scientists on that spectrum. It aspires to preserve the spirit of classical liberalism, customize its attributes to ensure that they meet the exigencies of the present day, oppose ultraliberalism and any similar doctrines that make a mockery of liberalism, and avoid flirtations with the extreme right and other revenants from yesteryear.
It ought not be too difficult to understand what a reactive liberal is. Yet it is not so easy to be one. Why?
For one, there’s the intolerance of the tolerant. Ultraliberals have “purified” political discourse, making it difficult to ask questions that might be hard or uncomfortable, but that are nevertheless no less legitimate for it. They’ve made it difficult to question things – something that is the sine qua non of any liberal system. It is obligatory to support same-sex marriage; if you speak out against it, you’re a homophobe. It is obligatory to support mass immigration from societies that pose a clear risk to national security; if you question it, you’re a xenophobe. It is obligatory to proclaim that there are no differences between men and women; and if you venture to inquire whether this might not necessarily be so, you must be a misogynist. Shaming is a popular tactic of ultraliberals. If you consider yourself to be a reactive liberal, you must be prepared to face accusations of all sorts of ideological ungodliness from bien-pensants who will seek to deprive you of the right to speak out by shunting you to the political margins. The political margins are a place where you find your views discredited, your reputation tarnished, and your persona swallowed up by a cloud of unchastity. Such attacks, however aggressive, must be resisted and fought.
Ideological shackles also present a problem. Political identity can be dangerous as it often forces its adherents to be doctrinaire and inflexible, to toe the party line. A reactive liberal must strive to be as intellectually honest as possible. While core values must be respected and upheld at all times, issues that do not go against core values need to be examined on a case-by-case basis. This is an arduous task for someone who lives in a society that seeks to simplify, pigeonhole, and tag, a society that operates strictly in terms of facile diagnoses.
Finally, a major source of difficulty for reactive liberals is balance. Being a reactive liberal requires the ability to successfully navigate between the Scylla of ultraliberalism and Charybdis of reactionaryism. A reactive liberal has to resist ultraliberalism at all costs and yet avoid disappearing in the morass of extreme conservatism. This is bound to be taxing. Paradoxes and contradictions will abound. Take the example of Muslims in Europe. Tolerance of others, whatever their religion, is part and parcel of classical liberalism. Yet what if tolerance might lead to the destruction of the very system that makes this sort of tolerance possible? Reactive liberals need to be capable of making firm decisions that might (and probably will) offend the sensibilities of some; yet those decisions cannot affront human dignity or make concessions to barbarism.
In the face of the civilizational threat that the Muslim minority in Europe poses to European civilization, for example, a government of reactive liberal inclinations might decide to stop all immigration from Muslim countries immediately. It might decree that migrants without proper status be deported and that boats with refugees on board be provided with victuals and medical assistance, and then sent back to their ports of origin; the government might further attempt to prevail upon the EU to loosen its purse strings and provide the necessary wherewithal to countries such as Greece and Italy to help facilitate this process. Racial profiling, where it makes sense from a security standpoint, could become the order of the day. A program of rigorous assimilation of all non-Europeans in the country might be undertaken, with all notions of multiculturalism and multicivilizationalism duly stamped out; those who refuse to adapt will be asked to leave. At the same time, the government might take all conceivable measures to address low fertility rates among its native population.
A classical liberal will likely condemn such measures, arguing that such measures are, ipso facto, intolerant, and that intolerance should never be used – even if the goal is the preservation of tolerance. To that, a reactive liberal might offer the following analogy. Imagine that a man owns a house. One day a stranger comes along and asks the man who owns the house for shelter. The house owner takes pity on the homeless individual and offers him a room. It then turns out the stranger is acquainted with other strangers, who are also in need of shelter. The number of strangers in the house grows. Soon the strangers begin to rearrange things in the house so as to better accommodate their needs. Gradually, the house owner begins to feel like an outsider in his own home. His wife is at the end of her tether. His son feels intimidated. His daughter complains of unwanted advances. The tenants who were so imprudently welcomed are presenting a growing list of demands. The house owner realizes his family is in danger of being turfed out.
What should the head of the household do in this situation? If he were a classical liberal, he might do nothing. But he is a reactive liberal, he will move to rein in his presumptuous guests, quickly restoring order. Classical liberals will accuse him of intolerance. Intolerance? Perhaps. But if it is indeed intolerance, common sense advises us that it is madness to recoil from it – either for the man who owns the house or a government that has been entrusted with a nation. Tolerance should not fly in the face of logic or the public good. Violence and bloodshed should be abhorred – always. On the other hand, if we want to preserve our way of life, it will not do to embrace any kind of tolerance that leads to the destruction of our way of life for the sake of tolerance as such. A reactive liberal, if he is sufficiently intelligent, will know how to find the right equilibrium. At any rate, he will attempt to do so; and there’s no reason to prevent him from trying.
We live in difficult times that are driven by change. Additionally, change is happening at breakneck speed. Some might say that an era defined by Twitter, cryptocurrencies, and artificial intelligence is an era that has made ideology irrelevant. Not so. Machines have no need for ideology, but humans need a code of values and beliefs if they are to stay human – and if the machines that they create are to serve the interests of humanity. Ideology is not irrelevant. Now more than ever, perhaps, Western civilization needs an ideology that will steer it through these trying times and help it keep its place among other civilizations, securing its survival and regaining its ability to flourish. Reactive liberalism could be that ideology. If applied judiciously, reactive liberalism can repair the damage caused by ultraliberalism while, at the same time, helping society avoid the pitfalls of reactionaryism. What’s more, it can invigorate European civilization and give it the stimulus it so badly needs.
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