Despite an entire world of libertarian activists and theorists operating energetically for more than half a century, the idea of a sustainable libertarian movement never shone brightly until the end of George W. Bush’s presidency, which was marked by a severe financial catastrophe and popular frustration with America’s perpetual wars. For the rising generation faced with this developing crisis, post-war liberalism had begun to lose its appeal. The rhetoric undergirding America’s establishment politics was devastatingly hollow.
No more could the political elite pat themselves on the back for constructing, under the watchword of “liberal democracy,” an American antithesis to the bureaucratic totalitarianism of the Communist Bloc. This was a decade that seemed a world away from the height of the Cold War and the epoch’s defining world struggle between international capitalism and international communism.
Without an embodiment of evil in the world to which Western leaders could direct our attention, young Americans turned inward and began to see imperfections at home. Just how “free” was the Western world, committed as it was to complex international military and financial arrangements, to upholding history’s largest welfare state, and to fostering a metapolitical bureaucratic system that grew more corrupt and domineering every year?
There was a magnificent chasm between the rhetoric of the post-Reagan conservative brand and American political realities at the end of the millennium. America’s two-party system now seemed an Overton Window far along the path to national suicide as we remained blind to the internal enemy that delighted in betraying us.
Disillusionment with the American empire wasn’t enough, however; the disillusioned were in search of a positive alternative. Libertarianism was seen as a typical path forward, especially for those who appreciated the 2008 presidential campaign of the principled and unabashedly honest Congressman Ron Paul, whose libertarian rhetoric presented itself as the heir of classical liberalism, appealing to the prevalent phraseology and popular framing of the American tradition. Most libertarians were unaware of any other alternative to neoconservatism and progressivism, and had not encountered the arguments for the traditional, or paleoconservative, American system offered by thinkers such as Mel Bradford and Russell Kirk—who were by that time out of fashion and obscure to the younger generation.
Libertarianism offered a universal standard against which one could critically judge all American parties and politicians. It offered a glorious opportunity to morally indict a political class that had long ago betrayed the foundations of Western political society. To young libertarians, it was obvious that the strictures of American constitutionalism had been pulverized a century prior. Libertarian ideas about the eternal and natural rights of man offered a place to make a last stand against the managerial federal machine.
This was libertarianism’s battle cry: the universal declaration that states always and everywhere were the enemy of man and his freedom; that their very existence was evidence a crime against freedom had taken place; and that, in the words of the great theorist of libertarianism, Murray Rothbard, the state was a band of robbers writ large. From this staging ground, libertarians charged that the state was not just economically inefficient, but ethically illegitimate. No matter how noble the intent of state actors, libertarians indicted all of their activities—from taxation to behavioral restriction to business intervention—as necessarily breaching the property rights of someone, somewhere.
Libertarian political theory rests on a methodology that first considers man and his natural rights alone, in the abstract. Only following this investigation could the real world be accurately judged. This “man in the state of nature” construct, employed by political theorists as far back as John Locke, became a foundational pillar in the quest to discover and articulate the nature of man’s rights, which are afforded to him by simple virtue of his being man.
Libertarianism, therefore, was seen as an eternal ideal that had been thwarted throughout history by predatory organizations which deny to man his right to live free from violence against his body and property. Such a theme animated the thinking of those like Rothbard, who saw in history this “eternal struggle between power and market.”
In a world in which the modern democratic managerial state has laid waste to civilization in uncountable ways, the libertarian understanding of the relationship between man and state offered great relief. From culture, to family, to peace, to money—everywhere modern man looks he sees the corrupting fingerprint of the contemporary totalitarian state.
Yet, for many of those who have appreciated the libertarian critique of the evil of the modern state, there is another aspect of our historical existence that demands attention more insistently than the logical, rationalistic critique of the state in its essence. This aspect is the preeminence of real-world civil society and its underlying culture. After all, the disarray that disturbs 21st century society is not merely a lack of the ability to do what one wants, but more deeply a sense of loss regarding the character and essence of civil society, its structures, and its institutions.
The present essay, its title an echo of Richard Weaver’s 1958 Modern Age essay “Up From Liberalism,” finds its roots in a similar experience of disillusionment that Weaver faced in his transition from youthful socialism toward a traditionalist agrarianism. Having been once convinced that the socialist doctrine spread throughout the Western world in the early 20th century was a set of demonstrably rational propositions, he began to discover that a perfect political or economic doctrine was of secondary importance to the quality of the people that built and inhabited one’s actual community.
For Weaver, the ability to question socialist doctrine was not about discovering a logical problem internal to it, but about being honest about the type of people with whom one should ally in the quest for a good life. He wrote:
It began to dawn upon me uneasily that perhaps the right way to judge a movement was by the persons who made it up rather than by its rationalistic perfection and by the promises it held out. Perhaps, after all, the proof of social schemes was meant to be a posteriori rather than a priori. It would be a poor trade to give up a non-rational world in which you liked everybody, for a rational one in which you liked nobody.
Similarly for libertarian refugees, aside from the commonly admitted personnel problem of the libertarian world, the absolutist obligation of the a priori nature of libertarian theory began to lose its psychological hold. The libertarian theorist Hans-Hermann Hoppe himself has offered an overview of history’s sociological development that could easily be synchronized with the thrust of Edmund Burke’s passionate case against revolutionary upheavals.
Hoppe’s view of medieval Europe’s townships and private social orders explicitly endorsed that apparently outmoded sociopolitical framework. It was a world in which people were bound by the particular arrangements in which they found themselves. All feudal orders, kingdoms, and nations originated and grew naturally from this past. Clear, obvious, and tidy lines of recorded justifiable hierarchies, consent, property, and contract agreements were not always a part of how human societies actually developed.
It is only a quick step from Hoppe’s model to Edmund Burke’s anti-revolutionary observation that every society in history is constituted in this way. The state of nature, a fictive construct, produces no actual man. As Burke wrote:
Dark and inscrutable are the ways by which we come into the world. The instincts which gave rise to this mysterious process of nature are not of our making.… Men come in that manner into a community with the social state of their parents, endowed with all the benefits, loaded with all the duties of their situation.
It is here that the realization strikes: Rights and duties are socially situated and acquire significance from within the particular customs, needs, character, and traditions of specific settings.
Finding solace from the bickering noise of “movement libertarianism” allows one to question not only the absolute application of the alluring logic of technical libertarianism, but also the dangers of being politically entrapped by its precision and its abstract dogmas.
In other words, it may not be advantageous to strive for the widespread adoption of libertarian ideals when there is a palpable enemy leveraging real political power against our way of life. Perhaps the nature of political problems is a choice between imperfections, and it is the responsibility of the politically active to perceive threats and to recognize the existence and nature of real political enemies.
Moreover, following such recognition, it is the duty of man not merely to confront power with political theory or elegant nods to freedom, but to admit that the nature of power requires that it be met specifically with power. Specific threats must be dealt with via specific and contextually necessary solutions. One draws this lesson from the likes of James Burnham, who wrote in The Machiavellians: Defenders of Freedom (1943):
The Machiavellians are the only ones who have told us the full truth about power.… There are no exceptions. No theory, no promises, no morality, no amount of goodwill, no religion will restrain power. Neither priests nor soldiers, neither labor leaders or businessman, neither bureaucrats nor feudal lords will differ from each other in the basic use which they will seek to make of power.
Only power restrains power. That restraining power is expressed in the existence and activity of oppositions. When all opposition is destroyed, there is no longer any limit to what power may do.
One must recognize, then, that it is precisely the liberal rhetoric of 20th century Western political life that has opened a pathway for left-wing subversion. After all, liberalism is offered as the alternative to authoritarianism and therefore is hesitant to use authority in response to an opponent who couches his propaganda in liberal rhetoric. How can a liberal oppose George Soros’ Open Society Foundation, which is a known funder of radical leftism?
Anyone who attempts to organize political will against similar leftist activists cannot avoid the smear label of “right-wing reactionary.” The disarmed modern liberal has been all too willing to give up defending the Western heritage in order to avoid such an accusation.
Yet, only power can confront power! Any strategy that seeks the preservation of freedom but ignores the law of political power does not deal in political reality and thus dooms itself. The nature of politics requires opposition building and the creation of powerful groups that have the will to challenge other powerful groups. As John C. Calhoun recognized, the more these powers contest each other in political struggle, the greater the health of political freedom. Liberty is a derivative of the balance of powers within a nexus of authority; it is not the mere achievement of changing hearts and minds or winning the battle of ideas.
Blinded by the ideal and committed absolutely to the theorized vision of ideal political arrangements, both liberalism and libertarianism, in ways distinct and similar, ignore the eternal essence of power as taught to us by Burnham. In his Suicide of the West, Burnham argued that it was not liberalism’s advocates that were directly undermining Western life, but rather that liberalism in its essence opened the gates for subversion, independent of liberal intention. For the better part of its historical existence, the liberal mind has been unwilling to betray its own paradigm to confront enemies on the left.
Such a realization does not necessitate a Burnhamite, right-wing view of the world. Indeed, it was the communist Antonio Gramsci who also discerned that liberalism had ingrained within it the means of its own capture. Recognizing that the modern Western order consisted not of independent public and private sectors, but of a combined superstructure of society and government, the liberal order could be captured and undermined via a “war of position.”
In Gramsci’s critique, the dominating class achieves hegemony first of all in the culture and in the fashioning of social attitudes. This hegemony needed to be met with a counter-hegemony determined to capture the press, the education system, and the arts. In America today one might expand this list to include the churches, the film and music industry, the technological culture and apparatus, and more.
According to Gramsci’s doctrine, the political consciousness of the masses languished everywhere in dormancy, and thus needed to be awakened. All of life was to become political, because all of life was an aspect of the superstructure of the Western liberal-democratic order. Today we can observe the political fruits of Gramsci’s campaign, a half-century of culture war which was undetectable by the Western political frameworks of liberalism and libertarianism, both of which saw politics as exclusively a function of the state apparatus.
Because the liberal order presupposes a fair-game opportunity to take control of the mechanisms of power, it has no internal tools of defense against the Gramscian leftists. Libertarianism, too, can advocate only the dispersal of power and a shrinking of the state—without actual mechanisms to achieve such a noble goal. The very concepts liberals and libertarians fall back on, free speech and privatization, have been captured by the left in order to achieve full domination, as Gramsci brilliantly advised.
All of this is transparent in the desperate rhetorical pleading of the anti-left “conservatives” now swarming the Republican Party. They are not working to crush the left as an actual enemy, but to win a perceived battle of ideas; they cannot regard leftists as enemies, but only as those who can be won over to the liberal fold through argumentation.
This group of anti-leftists does not aspire to the recovery and preservation of Western traditions and specific peoples so much as they are fighting for a return to liberalism. They say they are for free speech against the left’s “cancel culture,” for the maintenance of the open society against those who want to close it off to conservatives, and for the safeguarding of the cherished concept of the “propositional nation,” disregarding those who emphasize the preservation of the necessary cultural and ethnic roots of the American order.
This “conservative” anti-left refuses to see that America is at war with the radical left. It cannot come to terms with a New Left that despises the bourgeois concepts of neutrality and open conversation. The enemies of our Western heritage understand that the momentum is on their side and are hungry to win and to dominate. A hundred more Ben Shapiros or Dave Rubins could not convince leftists to halt their lifelong struggle when they feel they are nearing the finish line.
Thus, translating the 19th-century French ultramontanist Louis Veuillot, Burnham conveys the dialectic of a leftward-shifting West that is exploiting liberalism by turning it against its own weakness:
When I am the weaker, I ask you for my freedom, because that is your principle; but when I am the stronger, I take away your freedom, because that is my principle.
To be clear, libertarianism is not in itself a mortal enemy. Several libertarians have offered outstanding critiques of modern democratic statism, particularly in the post-Progressive era American context.
But, there is an extent in which a libertarian philosophy neuters one’s willingness to identify the specific social or cultural elements that need to be politically defended for the maintenance of our way of life. There is an extent to which it hinders one’s readiness to recognize social and political enemies. And there is an extent to which it refuses to recognize political problems and solutions as always particular to time and place. To these extents, the abstract perfections of libertarianism must be a lesser priority.
This is so because the left is only interested in peace, conversation, and the political process inasmuch as it can wield them as weapons. The solution to what ails us is not a mere restatement of liberal ideals through a libertarian framework, but a rediscovery of the ancient political duty to become the enemy of one’s enemy. Until the political right reasserts itself in power and political will, the Western heritage will continue to decline.
(Image by John Koch/Charlemagne Institute)
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