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P R A E S I D I U M
A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis
13.4 (Fall 2013)
THE POLIS VS. PROGRESS
courtesy of artrenewal.org
Violence and the Civilized Society: Conformity and Dissidence in Different Societies
Author’s Foreword (2013)
The following essay arose out of a presentation to a ginger group the author belonged to at the time, which took place in Toronto, Ontario, Canada on December 16, 1988. The starting point of the discussion was the theme “Tories vs. Whigs”.
These were rather unhappy times for the author. Before the Internet, living as a conservative and traditionalist in a megapolitan metropolis like Toronto, one often almost felt (as Orwell had put it) that the only things that belonged to you were the few cubic centimeters inside your own skull.
Although in America today, conservatism and traditionalism are often identified with the Republican Party, and left-liberalism with the Democratic Party, this is not an accurate picture of the social landscape. There are conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans. It should also be mentioned that there have been various third parties and candidates, notably Ralph Nader, who combined elements of conservatism and liberalism. There are many aspects of the Republican Party that the author finds repellent – such as their tendency to embrace plutocracy – and considerable aspects of the Democratic Party that can be attractive – such as their tendencies to populism and opposition to big corporations.
The reading of the essay should be properly contextualized by taking note of the extreme alienation that the author felt from the Canada of the late-1980s, which tended to push him into a deeply questioning mode concerning “the received opinions” about liberal democracy and the exercise of violence in society.
The embrace of toryism seen at times below is clearly Canadian. Although the author is uncomfortable with this line of argument, some have argued that the reason that Canada tightly regulates speech today is its tory-touched origins, which preferred an orderly society to free-wheeling debate that could create acrimonious social divisions.
Indeed, one can notice in the essay a sometimes uneasy hybridization of Canadian and American conservatism, as well as of other influences, such as the Polish.
(Initial drafts of this essay date back to 1988.)
In looking at the theme of “Tories and Whigs” and its possible application to some current-day debates, one must not imagine that the Tory theorists of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries defended Toryism in the bald terms of the “the King has a right to do whatever he wants.” “The Divine Right of Kings” was interpreted in terms of its meanings and implications for society as a whole—i.e., as an embodiment of the Great Chain of Being which gave coherence and meaning to the human person’s very existence. The Monarch (or Sovereign) embodied the collective will of society, and it could not be imagined that there could exist in society something that could be superior to the Sovereign. (By definition, the Sovereign is sovereign.)
If one could “translate” this concept into more “modern” terms, these would run as follows: there is a “touchstone” or social consensus around which every traditional society is based, and all major transgressions against that “touchstone” or social consensus can be met with appropriate punishment and/or counter‑measures. This is to say that the Sovereign reserves the ultimate power to punish or execute his subjects when they seriously transgress—or, in other words, that the traditional society may vigorously defend itself against those who threaten its moral code (spiritual existence) or, obviously, its material existence. The point to be made is that if the Sovereign is not sovereign, there is no longer a grounding or centering or absolute principle within that society. Yet one could argue that without this “center” or absolute principle, life in society is no longer truly meaningful to the human person, because society itself is no longer truly meaningful: i.e., it is de‑absolutized.
Clearly, there are some exceptions to the principle of always upholding traditional societies. Most notably (in a Western context), the initial arrival and extension of Christianity into the world challenged existing traditions.
It is also clear that some traditional societies still existing beyond the scope of Western influence today embrace some highly questionable notions, and that their continued defense of those notions may stir controversy. Edmund Burke’s counsel of prudential statesmanship, and the idea of “reform in order to preserve”, may be suggested as a way out of the dilemma of bad traditions without undermining the concept of tradition as a whole.
But what happens in the type of situation currently far more prevalent, when a society eventually comes to be built emphatically around anti-traditionalist premises? This could be seen as occurring in contemporary liberal democracy dominated by left-liberalism, and also in Nazism and what could probably be most precisely called Leninism.
It is possible to argue that any society can have (or inevitably has) a prevailing ideology or world‑view. But is every society in fact justified in defending itself against those who seek somehow to change, or perhaps ultimately to overthrow, it?
Obviously, the idea that every society is justified in upholding its world-view cannot be accepted. For example, traditionalists such as true Tories in Canada are obviously a tiny minority in a predominantly left-liberal society: are they therefore to be “dealt with” and suppressed? There is also a twist in the fact that true Tories would (most likely) oppose a Far Left terrorist‑revolutionary attempt to topple a liberal democratic regime. Therefore, traditionalists would be advocating tolerance for themselves in a liberal democratic system, while calling for a “crackdown” on the Far Left – though presumably only if it advocated and carried out violence.
Therefore, one must ask the crucial question, what criteria can be used to distinguish properly between what could be considered healthy – if quite pointed – political debate (from whatever part of the political spectrum it may emanate) and something that constitutes an “immediate incitement to violence”?
This also raises a further issue: the fact that organized social violence is only one of a wide panoply of normative, utilitarian, and other coercive controls which any society uses to “keep people in line”. A distinction may also be drawn here between the use of coercive instrumentalities mainly for the maintenance of civil order (or the professed attempt to do so), as in some earlier forms of liberal democracy, and the employment of coercive (and also normative and utilitarian) instrumentalities for the sake of the promotion, strengthening, and reinforcement of a given “world‑outlook”. In more classical liberalism, the coercive instrumentalities are most often used for the sake of maintenance of civil order (and this is usually their sole “legitimate” justification in classical liberalism). Even today, in many liberal democratic societies, it is usually the normative and (to a certain extent) the utilitarian instrumentalities which are mostly used to “induct” people into various shades of liberalism (most especially through the mass-media, and the mass-education of the young). However, one can see increasingly in some liberal democratic societies that coercive instrumentalities indeed begin to be used against such behaviors as alleged “hate speech”. The recent IRS scandal in the United States is another example of coercive instrumentalities coming to be used against dissenters. And, more recently, the prospects of the emergence of a so-called “surveillance society” have been instantiated more concretely that at any earlier point in American history.
From a strictly sociological standpoint, every society – regardless of how professedly “democratic” it is – consists of ruling groups, dissident groups, and a broad mass of population that gets drawn into conflicts between “ruling” and “shadow” elites. These various factions are continually jostling to attract popular support for their usually conflicting sets of policies. However, assessments of which are the truly ruling groups, and which are the truly oppositional groups may differ widely – and especially in liberal democratic societies.
Internal threats to a society could be defined as being of five broad types:
(1) a challenge to the ruling ideology in the realm of ideas – usually non‑violent, at least at the beginning (if only because holders of those ideas are very weak vis‑à‑vis the society)
(2) a violent challenge to the ruling ideology – e.g., revolution or coup d’état – almost always led by a small “vanguard”
(3) violent challenges to civil order; e.g., crime, riots, terrorism, and organized crime (it might be argued that there is some blurring of lines between points 2 and 3)
(4) generalized social problems – e.g. drug abuse or delinquency – which can become threats to the civil order
(5) economic and environmental disasters; these are not in themselves threats to a given society, but may become threats if they generate problems for the maintenance of the prevailing norms (social order) or of “law and order” (civil order)
It may be argued that the problem of organized social violence in any society is, up to a point, a matter of tactics. There are, it might be added, several types of violence.
Firstly, there is organized violence between states, societies, or ruling groups of societies. (This can sometimes extend even to genocide, especially in the case of particularly noxious ideologies.)
Secondly, there is violence carried out by the state (or society or ruling group) to buttress or strengthen its positions or values in a given society (or which it believes strengthens it in a given society: sometimes this can extend to genocide in the case of the forementioned noxious ideologies).
Thirdly, there is violence carried out by “dissident groups” with the express purpose of weakening the position and values of the ruling group of a given society (or, at least, which they believe weakens the ruling group of a given society). Depending on the ideology of the “dissident group”, this can also sometimes involve mass-murder.
Fourthly, there is violence carried out by the state, society, or ruling group which aims solely at maintaining “civil order”. (It is possible to sometimes see a blurring of lines between this and the second type of violence).
Fifthly, there is so-called “civil violence”: e.g., murder or rape carried out by individuals mostly outside of groups. (Some persons could claim that there is a blurring of lines between this and the second and third types of violence.)
Sixthly, there is violence of the vigilante type, whose aims are usually “restorative” but which exists outside the law. Some might argue that the distinctions between some types of “civil violence” and vigilantism are difficult to ascertain.
Seventhly, we could add (following Donald Atwell Zoll’s idea) that there is ritualized, “healthy” violence (e.g., competitive team sports) which sublimates the “violent drives” (especially of human males) in a socially positive direction.
Eighthly, there is violence as part of a religious or social ritual: e.g., Aztec human sacrifices or the Hindu custom of suttee (probably very rarely practiced).
It may be supposed that conservatives today would want to define “violence” narrowly, precisely, and rigorously. One possible way of defining violence is one where overwhelming physical aggression is explicitly involved.
On the other hand, it could be argued that some speech, for example, is so transgressively noxious as to be a sort of “violence” against society. A particularly vicious example was the calumny about Lyndon Johnson and the body of John F. Kennedy on the flight of Air Force One. It may not be inappropriate to hope that the originators of such calumnies could have met swift and severe punishment.
It might also be noted that the attempt by some conservatives to assert that abortion constitutes impermissible violence cuts no ice with most liberals. The assertion by some conservatives that unrestricted abortion in the United States has resulted in over 54 million victims since 1973 is met with a disinterested shrug by most liberals.
The direction of this argument is tending towards what in liberal democratic society is a crucial distinction (often theoretically, if not practically, observed): i.e., that those who advocate violence in politics, and/or the violent overthrow of liberalism and/or democracy and/or liberal democracy, are illegitimate. Yet liberal democracy has been remarkably tolerant of some violent extremists of the Far Left, as well as of the radical imams today.
Here, as in many other cases, ideological considerations enter into the picture. In current-day Western societies, one could guess that an armed right‑wing insurgency (insofar as anything so unusual can even be conceived of) would be quickly suppressed with the strictest severity, with liberal cries of “hang ’em high and hang ’em all!” and “zero-tolerance!” Liberals would suddenly become enthusiasts for the death penalty, in such cases. At the very least, they would expect the agents of the government to proceed with zeal and alacrity, and shoot-to-kill as necessary. One can notice the glee with which some liberals describe what will eventually happen to gun-owners in America who refuse to give up their guns – i.e., they will be annihilated by the U.S. military’s attack helicopters!
Indeed, there can be perceived a real ambiguity in traditionalists’ or conservatives’ relations with “liberal democracy”. Much of this arises from the fact that liberals and left-liberals have continued to define “liberal democracy” increasingly expansively: i.e., not as a formal system allowing for popular choice among different belief-directions, that indeed significantly helps to mitigate violent conflicts between persons of highly differing beliefs—but as an entire way-of-life, world-view, or ideology, that must be upheld and imposed on the population as a whole. Conservative and traditionalist parties, political and cultural currents, or thinkers within this kind of “liberal democracy” have found themselves described as “illiberal” and “undemocratic”—and therefore, all but “illegitimate”. There has been a tendency to turn all the multifarious normative instrumentalities of left-liberalism (mass media, mass education, and consumerism) towards the extirpation of traditionalist or conservative ideas (particularly nationalism and traditional religion) under the rubric of attacking the fascist-tending “authoritarian personality”. In some Western societies, various forms of conservative dissent have been attacked as “hate-crimes”, subject to substantial fines and jail-terms. Traditionalists and conservatives are, of course, temperamentally unwilling to carry out violent struggle against “the liberal democracy” that seems to wish to banish their ideas ever further from “respectable, mainstream opinion”, but one can only imagine the rage of left-liberals if they were ever confronted with an armed right-wing uprising. What kind of inhuman monster could violently rebel against this most free, most democratic, most prosperous society of ours!
Since traditionalism and conservatism greatly respect the civil order, they will clearly reject armed struggle as long as “liberal democracy” allows for some vestiges of real democratic choice by the people. There remains the hope for the traditionalist and conservative that it will be possible to attract the support of a significant percentage of the population (or, less likely, of some significant portion of the elites) for at least some of one’s policies, if only because one believes that human nature is conservative-tending. Unfortunately, the left-liberal elites are continually stacking the deck or loading the dice against the possibility of the actualization of traditionalist and conservative policies. There are numerous ways today that left-liberals have obtained enormous advantages over conservatives in current-day liberal democracy. One of the most obvious is the introduction of mass, dissimilar immigration into the Western countries, which typically leads to the creation of a large, permanently unassimilable bloc, destined almost always to vote for left-liberal parties. Another obvious strategy is the excision of serious conservative, traditionalist, or nationalist thought from the academy and circles of “serious opinion”—thus reducing it to a leaderless and untutored reflex, with possibly ugly manifestations which can be quickly and easily pejoritized and de-legitimated. Such categories as “history”, “tradition”, “human nature”, “spirit”, and “soul” mean nothing to many left-liberals; the human person is simply seen as a tabula rasa, on which anything that the liberal controllers want to be written can be written.
It must be pointed out that the courts as well as quasi-judicial human rights and similar tribunals of most Western countries often serve as left-liberalism’s last line of defense against the will of the majority, as well as a powerful instrumentality for advancing those sets of values in law (and thereby social changes) that the majority may sometimes be highly reluctant to support. The operation of this top-down system of juridical legalism, based on highly expansive interpretations of ever more widely defined “human rights”, has been termed, by some conservative critics, as a “judicial usurpation” of democracy.
Also, the mechanistic and excessively proceduralist legalism of the system attenuates the proper operation of justice—of real punishment for real crimes. (By contrast, in Victorian England, for example, there was public outrage when a murder trial, in what seemed like a highly obvious case, took more than a week!)
An example of how comparatively little conservative parties or conservative factions of parties can achieve today in Western countries, even when actually in power, is afforded by Mike Harris’ Progressive Conservative government in the Province of Ontario (elected with substantial legislative majorities in 1995 and 1999). While trying to carry out what could be seen as mostly “tidying-up” administrative reforms, the Harris government was confronted by some of the most overwrought opposition ever hitherto encountered by a government in Canada. The trade-unions (especially the civil service and teachers’ unions), most of the mass-media, and feminist and minority interest groups whipped up an ongoing frenzy of opposition to Mike Harris from the day he was elected. Mike Harris was described as “anti-human”, as “the closest thing to fascism ever seen in Ontario”, as a “thug”, as “mad”, and so forth. It was suggested that Mike Harris submit to psychiatric counseling, as only a “crazy” person could carry out the policies he was carrying out without being aware of how enormously they were hurting people. So conservative parties or factions within parties certainly can exist, but they are mostly unable to carry out conservative policies, on those comparatively rare occasions when they win a legislative majority.
Many liberals really see conservatives as a continuous “dark threat” that must be beaten back again and again. The “dark forces” often come close to winning, but are always defeated at the last moment. This paradoxical conception of conservatism as very powerful, but almost certain to fail because of its “evil” nature, helps keep “the progressive forces” in a constant state of activism and vigilance against the Right. One is reminded of the important role of “Goldsteinism” (or the bogeyman) in upholding the regime in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.
To return again to the question of violence against the state or its ruling groups, some persons would argue that “one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist.” However, one might well question whether there are in fact any right‑wing terrorist groups in the West today, apart from some very miniscule fringes. (In terms of the idea of the manufacture of a “right-wing threat”, it has been pointed out, for example, that many of the massive incidents of swastika‑smearing in the former West Germany had been staged by the Soviet intelligence services and Far Left activists.)
Some liberals have done their utmost to portray the vicious terrorist attacks in Oklahoma City and in Norway as highly typical of a generalized right-wing. One also remembers how some liberals seized upon trying to link the Arizona shootings to the Tea Party.
There appear to be a large number of criteria by which a terrorist can be distinguished from a legitimate fighter for national self‑determination or other cultural goals. Especially during the Cold War era, liberals tended to see many groups employing grotesque terror as “freedom‑fighters”, while at the same time seeing many quite self-restrained oppositionists as “terrorists”.
Liberalism appears to be perennially characterized by its “sqeamishness” when dealing with threats to its “social order” and even “civil order”. It is only so squeamish, one could argue, when the threat is posed from the Far Left or by clearly criminal elements. But any possible crimes that can be attributed to an unfairly generalized “right-wing”, such as the bombing of abortion clinics or shootings of doctors who provide abortion services (which are clearly carried out by disturbed individuals), are met with the strictest of severity, and by the further attempt to extend permanent blame to the entire right-wing.
Interestingly enough, all the regimes which could be called Leninist have had the tendency to call their armed opponents “bandits”—i.e., to see them as criminals, pure and simple, implying that they are a threat not to the “social regime” but to the “civil order” itself. For example, RENAMO in Mozambique were called “bandits” by the Mozambique Marxists (and also by much of the Canadian press). Some Canadian reporters were talking about how RENAMO could not be genuine partisans because they massively murdered their own people. Accepting the Marxist government’s appraisal of the actions of RENAMO – which was probably far from the truth itself – the Canadian press appeared to have forgotten that virtually every left-wing revolutionary movement had been far more murderous towards the societies and nations in which it had existed, but had nevertheless been enthusiastically supported by most Western left-liberals. There was an article in the Toronto Star raging against a “terrorist leader” of RENAMO’s having been allowed refugee status in Canada – a good example of liberal “resolve” in the face of a generalized “right-wing”. This characterization of armed opponents as “bandits” was also a standard Nazi tactic, as exemplified by the sign, “Achtung! Banditten!” often seen by the railways of German-occupied Poland.
So what is the main point about violence to be? It is largely to say that organized state or social violence within a given society can to some extent be viewed as a “tactical problem” for every ruling group. It is part of the panoply of normative, utilitarian, and lesser coercive instrumentalities at the group’s disposal. The amount of violence to be carried out by the ruling group in traditionalist as well as liberal democratic societies could be optimally defined as that which most effectively maintains (or does the least damage to) the prevailing world‑view of that society. It should also be pointed out that when a hyper-aggressive ideology too vociferously embraces violence, it then very often sows the seeds for its own destruction – as most of the rest of the world is thrown into an alliance against it. The most obvious example of this was Nazi Germany.
When violence as defined in Point Eight above serves a “sacred” purpose, then we are in a rather odd situation—at least odd from the current perspective – where violence of this sort might actually strengthen the society. Looking at Point Seven, one really can’t point to current-day organized sport as entirely healthy, because it is arguably too tainted with the “bread and circuses” idea; one can say medieval jousting is a more positive embodiment of that point. But Points Seven and Eight are unusual – in terms of the putative maintenance of the outlook of a given society and/or ruling group – since they usually do not directly involve the suppression of dissidence.
The main point of the seventh definition of violence is that strong young males have a very high energy level, and a tendency to be rambunctious (obviously related to their high levels of testosterone). It is typically such things as participation in sports of various kinds, as well as military or police service, that constitute a healthy outlet for such males’ violent tendencies and help to steer them in more socially positive directions. While it should be noted that savage wars are too often part of the terrain of human history, this does not mean that military or police service, particularly in late modern Western liberal democratic regimes, does not tend to have a positive effect on strong, physically oriented males. However, one of the paradoxes of sport today is that far too many persons are slothful fans, rather than physically fit participants, of sport. And there is the ever-increasing consumerization and commodification of sport.
To return now to the main theme: one could, it may be surmised, draw a theoretical “optimal point” at which there would be enough violence exercised by the regime or ruling group to keep the society “cohesive”, but not so much that it would “dis-integrate” the society. The crucial point to be made is that, theoretically speaking, the measures which a “healthy society” can take to defend itself from challenges to its moral code are only those that strengthen or maintain, not weaken the society: i.e., that serve to maintain the health of the society. In other words, a “healthy society” can take those measures to maintain its “social health” which it determines do in fact maintain its health. However, one obviously has to define what is a so-called healthy society. And what about the possibly violent measures for bringing an unhealthy society back to its health?
Let us say that the health of the society should be the criterion by which the application of violence on behalf of or against that society should be measured: that, theoretically speaking, “the goal is always a healthy society.” Coincidentally, one of the characteristics of a healthy society, as defined by traditionalists, is its willingness to use violence (force) to defend itself. However, this is clearly only one, not the only, sign of health. Such mass-violence and mass-slaughter as that of Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union is, it should be noted well, utterly reprehensible from a traditionalist standpoint. On the other hand, a liberal democratic society, to a certain extent, has problems with defending itself through coercive measures – at least in regard to some types of opponents. However, it does all-too-readily defend itself against what it perceives as a generalized “right wing”.
So again it should be said that the health of society is the primary criterion by which one can judge the legitimacy of force. A healthy society is justified in defending itself against unhealthy tendencies; and a somewhat unhealthy society is justified in defending itself against even unhealthier tendencies. Some might object that what is meant by a “healthy society” here is, in fact, a sort of conservative society, though not necessarily any particular conservative society.
However, what is defined here as “healthy” could be simply nothing more radical or out-of-the-ordinary than a fairly operating, properly balanced, moderate liberal democracy, which does not so obviously short-circuit public debate, education, and popular culture in one preferred, predetermined direction.
Let us say that we have arrived at a definition of a healthy society – or rather of “social health”. So what can we say about those who cherish social health and wish to maintain and restore it? What is their attitude to the possible employment of organized social violence? Is their attitude not “tactical” or “realistic”? Realistically speaking, they understand that some actions that can be taken will possibly (but not necessarily) result, at some point, in some violence – but they clearly abjure indiscriminate violence. And they know that at some point, a state or society must apply coercive sanctions.
In fact, this position could be said to form a middle ground between two other positions: 1) the tendency of the liberal to become supine when faced with threats from such groups as the Far Left, as well as his frequent failure and unwillingness to uphold the maintenance of civil order against crime; and 2) the ideological ferocity of the typical Leninist (or fascist). The typical Leninist (or fascist) is a power‑mad ideologue, a Robespierre, a Stalin, a Hitler, who recognizes no limits on violence.
The conservative believes, because his philosophy is one which has a more realistic assessment of human nature and which recognizes limits, that he falls neither into the extremity of the liberal or Leninist/fascist positions. The conservative is said to be the best at applying prudential limits (phronesis – practical wisdom) to the exercise of violence.
But does history in any sense bear this idea out? Unfortunately, the historical evidence is rather weak. Contrary to the notion expressed in James Burnham’s otherwise pessimistic Suicide of the West, conservatives are not necessarily better than liberals at exercising power in most of its aspects. The progressive drive of the last three hundred or so years of Western history is evidence enough (among other things) of the failure of supposedly realistic, sound, etc., conservative politics. Conservatives appear to have been especially inept at applying the appropriate mix of coercive, utilitarian, and normative instrumentalities to maintain their world-view in place. In fact, it might be argued that it is conservatives who possess a “talent” for maladroit political maneuvering—as, for example, the dogmatic proclamation of the Syllabus of Errors by Pope Pius IX (the very poor approach of bringing excessive attention to the ideas of one’s ideological opponents); the censuring of Galileo that made him a martyr of modern science while in no way suppressing the resultant intellectual revolution; and the many cases of pig‑headed refusal to yield on some issues in order to win the over‑all battle (e.g., King James II of England, a supreme exemplar of this blowhard, politically clumsy conservative “style”). And then, of course, this lack of political tactics was matched, at times, by a “blunderbuss” approach: viz., condemning the advance of modernity’s trends holus-bolus, without bothering to discern which of these might be usefully turned against the general drift.
There is also the obvious moral fact that the Inquisition, the burning of witches, and the Thirty Years War (all done in the name of the most zealous religious spirit) were simply ghastly. And who can forget that Joan of Arc herself was burned by the Inquisition, which was acting on orders from the English? One gets the impression that an enormous twisting of the Christian message had occurred in order to allow such atrocities. One obvious indictment of these measures – apart from their viciousness and cruelty – is their manifest failure to achieve their professed goal of the maintenance of traditional society. They were just the sort of acts that seem to have forever inflamed an entire civilization (and especially its intellectual leaders) against traditional religion. It should also be remembered that the witch-burnings did not occur uniformly across Europe; they were concentrated mostly in Germany, while being very infrequent, for example, in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
Contrary to Burnham’s idea, it is liberals who may more often be seen as masters of politics, whereas conservatives are often rather inept. It must be said here, however, that liberalism itself, which professes tolerance, peace, and love, has always seemed to be able to call up the use of violence when it was needed most (e.g., to “digest” large groups of traditionalist resistance). In the twentieth century, Leninist regimes have proved to be a boon to liberalism. The Leninist regimes were somehow able to “digest” traditional societies (such as Russia, China, and those of East-Central Europe) that would clearly have long remained traditionally oriented by democratic choice. By the time “liberal freedoms” had come to East-Central Europe and Russia, traditionalist leaderships (notably the nationalist intelligentsias) had been virtually annihilated. It has also been mostly forgotten today that the comparatively brief but extremely savage period of Nazism in Europe also proved highly deadly to many of the East-Central European nationalist intelligentsias, notably the Polish.
While the typical “liberal freedoms” are certainly to be appreciated by those who enjoy them, some might cynically argue that liberals do not usually permit the operation of such freedoms at any point where their regimes are going through periods of truly serious challenge or such earlier defining struggles as the English Civil War, the French Revolution, or the American Civil War.
Some might indeed argue that “liberal freedoms” almost never occur coterminously with a period or a country where a significant challenge to liberalism from traditionalist or conservative opponents can be mounted.
America also embraced “illiberal” policies during the war with Nazi Germany, but in that case, the Nazis were so clearly evil that militant measures were eminently justifiable. However, it can be seen today that the anti-conservative, anti-traditionalist revolutionary surge that began in America mostly in the 1960s – which certainly sometimes expresses itself in “illiberal” rhetoric and methods – shows no sign of abating.
Nevertheless, it can now be seen that in late modernity, with the so-called managerial-therapeutic regime in place, the population can be effectively controlled through mass-media, mass-education, and consumerism. The result could be called “soft-totalitarianism”. In such a situation, there is actually little need to crack down ostentatiously on “liberal freedoms” to keep the system in place.
“Soft-totalitarianism” poses a virtually insoluble dilemma, as far as current-day traditionalist dissent goes. With so many avenues of communication to families and society blocked, traditionalists (of whom ever fewer seem to remain) are at a loss about what to do. Any kind of turning to violence by some more extreme persons can be instantaneously pejoritized and harnessed as a motor to further intensify the managerial-therapeutic regime. Since “soft-totalitarianism” (ostensibly at least) does not practice violence, it is difficult for resisters to generate the same kind of dynamic of sympathy for dissidence as operated in the former East Bloc. Indeed, any meaningful, conscious opposition to the prevalent system – or, sometimes, just some form of “political incorrectness” that some prominent person may stumble into – is frequently pejoritized by accusations of “racism”, “sexism”, etc., which rarely result in generating any sympathy for the accused. Indeed, the accused are frequently written off by most of the general public, and sometimes even by their own family-members and friends, as justifiably censured “hate-mongers”. And such accusations can indeed have very concrete, highly negative repercussions on the lives of those who are so accused.
One may generally conclude that there are no easy solutions to this complex of problems. It can be suggested that the current-day, left-liberal, managerial-therapeutic regime, which is the prevalent configuration of Western societies today, has to a large extent solved the problem of maintaining its ideological hegemony, apparently without recourse to violence. The efforts of the earlier, traditionalist regimes to maintain their world-views may now seem as especially vicious, cruel, and crude, and have also been shown as manifestly ineffective. The traditionalist or conservative would argue that left-liberalism’s renunciation of violence has been more apparent than real. Left-liberalism was always able to somehow utilize coercion on its behalf. Today, with the managerial-therapeutic regime firmly in place, most conditioning occurs through the mass-media, mass-education, and consumerist systems. This is all ostensibly “non-violent”. It is also largely possible because of the advent of fantastic new technologies in a period when left-liberalism was already largely ascendant, particularly among the opinion-forming elites/intellectual classes. However, this ongoing indoctrination may be seen as the exercise of what liberals called “prior constraint” in regard to censorship; i.e., certain ideas, notions, and outlooks, are simply not discussed or disseminated widely. In addition, there is a growing movement towards “political correctness” and the outright banning of that deemed to be “hate-speech”, as well as the punishment of those deemed to be “hate-mongers”. What constitutes “hate” is conveniently defined by the ruling group, and these definitions are growing ever-wider.
If conservative and traditionalist regimes have been guilty of “killing the body”, left-liberalism can be accused of “killing the soul”. One should also remember that left-liberalism has, in the twentieth century, to a large extent relied on the Leninist regimes to do the actual removal of “inconvenient” people. And these Leninist regimes killed proportionately far greater numbers of people than any conservative or traditionalist regimes. (It has been calculated that more people died in one day of Stalin’s regime, than had been executed over the entire 800-year existence of the Spanish Inquisition.) It should also be remembered to what extent traditionalists and conservatives have thoroughly and wholeheartedly repudiated Nazism, whereas apologists for the Leninist regimes have been and are still quite frequently seen among liberals. Considering how far traditionalists and conservatives appear to be from ever holding significant power in most Western societies, the question of the use of violence and force must for them be a largely academic one. However, the theoretical working out of these questions points to the conclusion that all societies ultimately employ coercive instrumentalities; that liberalism has advanced world-historically through the use of severe violence (e.g., in the English Civil Wars and suppression of the Jacobite rebellions, the French Revolution, and the American Civil War); and that conservatives who are aware of the problems created by late modernity may be more acute in understanding the issues around the employment of violence in the civilized society.
One of the better possible societies may consist of a symbiosis between traditionalism and liberal democracy, which has sometimes been called “ordered liberty”, or could be called an “organic democracy” – and which roughly corresponds to what Aristotle had considered the optimal, so-called “mixed regime” polity.
Mark Wegierski is a regular contributor to this quarterly, especially on subjects involving politics, technology, popular culture, and science fiction. He works as a freelance journalist based in Toronto.
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