I first encountered Kenneth Minogue as a sophomore at Columbia, when his name appeared on a reading list for a course in modern political philosophy. The professor, it goes without saying, was a radical who had his own reasons for disliking liberalism, but I do not recall his criticisms, if any, of Minogue and his book. At any rate, he failed to sour the intellectually delectable experience of my encounter with the author of The Liberal Mind. One sentence in particular has never left me. Speaking of the efforts of traditional societies to avoid the liberal infection, Minogue says, “[O]nce liberalism gains a hold, a sort of traditional innocence is lost.” Similarly, once exposed to the acute and original mind of Kenneth Minogue, I felt my own political innocence gone for good.
The Servile Mind, whose title deliberately invokes Hilaire Belloc’s The Servile State, builds especially upon a previous work by Professor Minogue—Alien Powers: The Pure Theory of Ideology, published a quarter-century ago. In claiming that democracy erodes the moral life, Minogue does not mean democracy understood as political process or arrangement. “[T]here is no such thing,” he argues, “as ‘democracy’ absolutely considered, because the meaning of the term changes significantly with each passing generation.” Today, democracy is a moral-social-political idea—“a transforming ideal of social life”—according to which the desired results are everything, the process little or nothing. Western polities no longer assume, as they did in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, associations of independent self-motivated individuals but rather societies comprising vulnerable people who require protection by the state, while democracy has become a term justifying the belief that “The moral life must too be democratized.” Hence comes what Minogue (rather clumsily) calls “the politico-moral”: an ideal that, in the last generation or so, has moralized politics and politicized the moral life, and now (he believes) provides the current direction of our moral world. Modern democracies are carefully presented by their designers and builders as symbols of social inclusion, clubs with memberships of scores or hundreds of millions of people, not a single one of whom can be allowed to suffer “discrimination” without reprisal and correction by the state. It is in this context that Minogue wonders whether the moral life and, ultimately, freedom itself are compatible with the moralizing state that forms the basis and framework for the new-model democracy that amounts, throughout the West, to the latest of many successive democratic revolutions. For Kenneth Minogue, the future of the individual as the tradition of the West understands him is thus the central issue of our age.
Minogue divides mankind largely between that “traditionalist” portion that believes in a single right way of living (most of the world, today as throughout history) and that tiny minority (the West) that believes in ambivalence and duality. Monistic societies discourage, to put it mildly, all independent thought, doubt, and debate. Their inhabitants are taught from infancy to question nothing that they have been taught, to the point where they are incapable of forming unacceptable thoughts. (At least, such is the ideal.) The politico-moral would impose the same discipline on the Western demos by a process Minogue brilliantly likens to the Fall played in reverse, by which we work our moral and intellectual way backward to the Garden, where our original innocence is restored to us and socially impure thoughts are banished forever beyond the range of our capabilities. Once society has been thus purified, modern states may easily be transformed by the politico-moral into “enterprise” societies whose citizens share the same aims and values, all of these centered on a single transcendent end: ministry to the vulnerable through the satisfaction of perceived needs. The realization of such a civilization (if civilization is really the mot juste) would indeed amount to a total transformation of traditional Western societies hitherto characterized by innumerable self-interested ludic activities impartially regulated by the state, an arrangement Minogue considers to be the source of Western vitality.
The religion of equality—equality, that is, of status and condition—effects the proletarianization of the demos by turning us all into slaves. Servility may take many forms: “Servility is not so much the absence of reason as the lack of thoughtfulness, and this may be found no less among intellectuals than among the intellectually limited.” (Servility of this type may guarantee that freedom of opinion will be recognized by future historians as a stage, not the apex or end, of Western civilization.) It is also the acceptance of the idea of government as the source of benefits (Belloc’s central insight and argument), rather than the source of order; the surrender of institutional independence, as one institution (universities, banks, etc.) after the other enters into “partnership” with government; and the dominance of impulse over forethought and calculation among individuals—including, of course, politicians. “The essence,” Minogue concludes, “of the servile mind is the readiness to accept external direction in exchange for being relieved of the burden of a set of virtues such as thrift, self-control, prudence, and indeed civility itself.” Respectability has been replaced by benevolence as a virtue, in result of which “Our essential weakness is moral confusion. Servile attitudes have undermined our individualistic vitality because they have learned to mimic other virtues such as rationality and compromise.” Mimicry, indeed, plays a large role in the politico-moral vision of society, whose morality is fundamentally imitative of those “role models” provided by government and public figures concerned with “sending the right message.” In this way, the moral life, which Minogue understands as being in its historic form “almost entirely a Western idea,” would be replaced by an unreflective system of social ethics in which thoughtful and sincere people of independent conscience would have no place. Minogue’s vision of this brave new world, built upon a new understanding of democracy, is amply justified by his scathing observation that, “while our present moral sentiments tend to follow the principle of ‘anything goes,’ institutional life has never been more rigidly controlled.” What better proof that the Western world is rapidly devolving into a proletarian Oceana? By comparison, Minogue notes, a free society is one in which individuals obey the law, while comporting themselves in a seemly and orderly way.
The politico-moral urges the liberation of all those vulnerables in the demos—which, by some estimates, amounts to about 90 percent, or even all, of it. Yet
The search for liberation is a rejection of the responsibilities of freedom in favor of a release into the irresponsibility of rights. And a right is irresponsible because it is a legally entrenched liberty that does not contain within itself the limitations instinctive in a free society.
A right, understood in this way, becomes simply one more commodity among all those other commodities available to mass consumerist societies. Nevertheless, the illusion that rights are substantial benefits, rather than formal rules to be observed, is integral, Minogue argues, to the idea of democracy. And among those “rights” identified by the politico-moral is the “right” of people deemed vulnerable to be free from offense of any sort, including verbal hurts and other social slurs, whether implicit or direct. To that end, we have a codification of the correct rules of behavior, which, Minogue suggests, “caters to a less sophisticated population and lacks the inner sense needed to guide manners and morals, and . . . turns the moral agent into a casuist.” Codification, in this instance, is not a systematization of actual laws; nevertheless, the codifiers are our masters and they must be obeyed. It is a part of the politico-moral program to take the unacceptable human material it finds at hand and transform it by an alchemical process that will strip away the dross to create a model citizen suitable to a society that is wholly new and perfect, made possible by the destruction of a “real or notional ancien régime.” To this endeavor, what we call political correctness is essential.
The politico-moral’s project is clearly a perfectionist enterprise. And the “monism of perfection,” once achieved, would anneal Western civilization with those many cultures, past and present, that have identified the one right way of life and refused to tolerate any other. Only, in our case, the right way has become the way of absolute equality, rather than, as in traditional societies, hierarchy. Obviously, politico-moralism has religious overtones. One of these is its salvific aspect deriving from the ineradicable Christian content and coloration of the Western tradition, which, Minogue asserts, those who would replace that tradition with something else deny at their peril. Yet the politico-moral does not, he thinks, qualify as a religion itself. Rather, it foreshadows the attempt to divinize society by making it the source of all that we rely upon, including our ideas, our power, and our sense of self-identity and human belonging. But just here, politico-moralism faces a contradiction that is also its greatest problem: By its own evaluation of the demos of which it so deeply disapproves, “the current generation of human beings is largely unsuitable material for the basic moral project of our time, which is . . . making a better world.” Fallen humanity, in other words, offers no prospect for angels in human form to lead it back to the Garden in a state sufficiently reformed as to satisfy those angels posted with flaming swords at the gates. Politico-moralism indeed induces the worship of power and authority as the means to perfecting both society and humanity itself. But are the politico-moral’s power and authority great enough to angelize the entire human race? Even by its own accounting, obviously not.
Kenneth Minogue believes that politico-moralism poses a crisis in the history of the West amounting to the threat of civil war. One might argue that, in early and undeveloped form, it has been responsible for past civil strife—the English Civil War in the mid-17th century has often been described as the first ideological war in history, and the American Civil War two centuries later had significant politico-moral components. Today, what we call, alternately, the Culture War or political gridlock in the United States is commonly designated by the conflict between the Democratic and Republican parties, or the confrontation between the “left” and the “right.” Minogue suggests another set of oppositional terms he considers more apt: radical versus conservative, representing, respectively, the politics of sentimentalism as against the politics of realism. No matter what terms one adopts, the reality is plain enough: impending civil war that will not be limited to the United States, or to the rest of North America and to Europe, but extended eventually to much or most of the rest of the world, just as communism, in the short century (as John Lukacs understands history) between the Bolshevik Revolution and the collapse of the Soviet Union, spread itself across the world.
The Liberal Mind, Alien Powers, and The Servile Mind compose a chronological critique that has kept full abreast of the rapid progress of political illusion and unreality in the West during the author’s lifetime. In the second of these books, Minogue defines ideology as “the conviction that current societies are cleverly concealed forms of dehumanizing oppression,” an understanding of which, limited to an elite few, entrusts them with history’s formerly secret key. Liberalism itself is not really an ideology (“Liberals did not believe they had unraveled the secrets of modern society”); it is false philosophy. Neither is politico-moralism; it is, rather, a fantasy built upon previous ideologies—the ideology of multiculturalism in particular—which makes it in some ways more dangerous than ideology. Political fantasy, indeed, is by now so far advanced as to have exceeded the ages-old notion of politics and begun to destroy political institutions, and even the political life itself. Just as, over the past century, Western law has degenerated into bad philosophy, so Western politics has collapsed into delusional public posturing yoked with increasingly overreaching, and therefore ever more confused and incompetent, bureaucratic management and control. When the moral and the social life are subsumed by the political—when all of life becomes political—the political life itself becomes detached from political activity, which, in consequence, simply ceases and is subsequently replaced by the unchallengeable rule of judges, lawyers, and bureaucrats, abetted by the media and backed up, finally, by the police. The result is hardly the triumph of liberalism, and certainly not of “democracy”—not even democracy understood as “a transforming ideal of social life,” “universal happiness,” or “social inclusion.” It is, instead, the death of civilization as the West—or indeed any other society, with the possible exception of ancient China—has experienced it. What its replacement might be is, of course, impossible to say.
[The Servile Mind: How Democracy Erodes the Moral Life, by Kenneth Minogue (Encounter Books: New York) 374 pp., $25.95]