What’s Wrong with the World

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What’s Wrong with the World is dedicated to the defense of what remains of Christendom, the civilization made by the men of the Cross of Christ. Athwart two hostile Powers we stand: the Jihad and Liberalism...read more

The Anarchist Tyrant and the Unprincipled Exception

Liberalism is inherently incoherent and anti-human. The more liberals attempt to be fully self-consistent, the more incoherent and anti-human their demands become: thus the anarchist tyrant as the liberal pseudo-telos.

But liberalism has an additional feature, the unprincipled exception (a concept explored in some depth at Lawrence Auster's blog View from the Right), which prevents it from immediately self-destructing.

Illiberal principles are not permitted to assert explicit authority in the liberal order. But because liberalism is incoherent and ultimately self-destructive, something has to keep things from falling apart: something has to assert a stabilizing authority in order to hold things together. This thing, this assertion of illiberal authority which is not permitted to be explicit but which nevertheless has effect, is the unprincipled exception. Unprincipled exceptions are often asserted as an appeal to common sense, an assertion that to take things to the rational next step clearly demanded by liberal principles is "silly", etc. But unprincipled exceptions are never permitted to explicitly challenge liberalism itself. They exist to dampen the advance of liberalism enough to keep it from self-destructing. As a form of parasite liberalism is incapable of existing on its own, and unprincipled exceptions, originally vestiges of the moral core of Christendom rendered mute but still in effect through appeals to common sense or some other euphemism tantamount to "shut up", have been what has kept liberalism - ultimately an authoritative assertion of the illegitimacy of authority, which is the same as asserting the free and equal superman - in power.

Now, liberalism is not a formal Platonic system which exists "out there" all at once as a fully fleshed-out self-consistent Form or whatever: it is a (ultimately incoherent) political ideology which exists in time, and which is adhered to at any given time, by more or less loyal liberals in a more or less consistent manner, in an historical context. In its relentless pursuit of political emancipation from history, tradition, nature, and nature's God, liberalism eats up and destroys traditional authorities, including eventually the very unprincipled exceptions which have sustained it at any particular point in time. But liberalism's vision of reality, of what is possible, is false. So where yesterday's unprincipled exceptions were vestiges of traditional authority (think prohibition or at least shunning of divorce), today's unprincipled exceptions are new ones invented by liberals themselves (think prohibition or at least shunning of pollution - a comparison I've drawn before to much wailing and gnashing of teeth). Because they are new, and invented by liberals, they carry less of the whiff of the untermensch - the traditional oppressor of the proto-superman - and are therefore more tolerated by liberals.

Comments (37)

Liberalism has many awe-ispiring accomplishments to its credit (this country for one), especially in the technological/material realms. Has a public philsophy it enjoys a monopoly due largely to its remarkable inner consistency and achievements. Pollution threatens human longevity (and immortality is a goal), as does polysaturated fats, so they will be banned. Unborn children place restraints on the personal strivngs of the parents, they are optional and subject to banishment. Liberalism couldn't dictate the terms of the debate, if it didn't constitute the very logic of our atomistic, functionally atheistic social arrangements. Because it has so successfully shaped the mental landscape of all its subjects, to overthrow it requires appealing more to the heart, than the intellect.

Unborn children place restraints on the personal strivngs of the parents, they are optional and subject to banishment
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Subject to "banishment"?

I believe you meant to say subject to EXECUTION due preference!

The Liberal does not execute, he conducts procedures designed to mercifully eliminate suffering from the human adventure.
He has been living the most clever parody of Christianity ever devised and feels quite ennobled by it.

"Illiberal principles are not permitted to assert explicit authority in the liberal order. "

Sometimes it is as if only liberal principles, and not liberal actors, are allowed explicit authority.

Liberal principles can in theory be applied by anyone because the principles and rules have fenced off controversial "substantive commitments." Therefore personal authority (and therefore personal virtue) is irrelevant.

As Stanley Hauerwas quipped, liberalism is the attempt to create a just state without having a just people.

The bureaucracy where no one is in charge but everything is controlled is in many respects a liberal system.

The appeal to, say, equality or efficiency, masks any personal action. Perhaps this is one reason hypocrisy is so despised a vice under a liberal order, since it is the intrusion of human action into a system that supposedly renders it superfluous.

Does Liberalism's incoherence derive from either its pragmatic or principled exclusion of humanity from consideration?

Well, I think both Conservatism and Liberalism, as ideologies, require "unprincipled exceptions" to keep from self-destructing. Each needs some kind of higher authority - such as tradition and revelation - to override its excesses. The difference is that Conservatism more easily makes room for non-ideological forms of authority. Therefore, I consider myself a Conservative who, from time to time, makes unprincipled "liberal" exceptions as justice or charity might require.

Does Liberalism's incoherence derive from either its pragmatic or principled exclusion of humanity from consideration?

"Humanity" does not mean to the liberal of today ("progressive") what it probably meant to Mill or Rousseau. The beams and supports provided by Christianity have almost entirely decayed (or been torn down). So I think the failure of the modern progressive to exclude humanity is more a failure to admit that, or perhaps even to ponder whether, there is any such entity as "humanity".

I think the structure of liberalism is fundamentally different than what is being proposed in these posts. Liberals are not anti-authoritarian, far from it - it just looks that way to traditionalists. Today's "anarchists" are not people with a credible philosophy of anarchism; they're just spoiled children. It's a mistake to them seriously.

In the previous related post Zippy spoke of liberalism as _just being_ "ultimately" anti-authority, but if we are to speak of what this vast phenomenon ultimately is, it must be recognized as ultimately a death cult for whites. You will have noticed that liberals don't really want or expect non-whites to cooperate with it. Earth worship and moral anarchy are just stops on the way to where they want to go, and they always accompany unbelief.

No, unbelief, and the resultant nominalism, empiricism, materialism, humanism, democratism, capitalism and deracination of liberalism are heading from the beginning towards a denouement in totalitarianism. It's only in a totalitarian state that the radical deracination of liberalism in its final "anarcho" form can be enforced. But this is not a contradiction with an earlier form of liberalism, if you understand that the liberte of which they speak is the radical leveling of equalite - the smashing of all traditional (and hence illiberal) cultural structures. It must end by its own logic in complete atomisation for every person: absolute disconnection from everthing real and valuable and total dependence on the state.

But obviously the final and irremedial defeat of a civilization involves not just cultural destruction and a total state; the people could always wake up one day and overturn it, and rebuild. No, it must also finally be overrun by alien others, its people displaced and replaced. This also works well with the program of cultural destruction and deracination for everyone.

It's a risk to try to say what something so vast and old as liberalism "just is," but since we're so near the end of it now, and can perhaps see clearer than those in the past, I would contend that liberalism was originally and still is ultimately a desire to be free from God and his natural order, and hence is a death-cult. It is not just a political ideology, but a comprehensive replacement religion for Christianity. It has a structure that is almost infinitely adaptable to circumstances, a hierarchy of principles, cardinal sins as well as virtues, doctrines and various devotions and disciplines. Because of the nature of those principles, it is also necessarily intrinsically totalitarian-authoritarian. The "anarcho-tyranny" that we experience is but a means to that end.

"But liberalism has an additional feature, the unprincipled exception, which prevents it from immediately self-destructing"

In an article in 'Touchstone' several years ago, David Mills made this point using the analogy of a fight between two dogs, one on a chain, one not. The conservative is in a sense "tied" to principle (I'd disagree with Jeff Culbreath's statement that both con's and lib's require unprincipled exceptions -- a true conservative's exceptions will always be principled) and thus has what in some ways appears to be a disadvantage.

Thing is, a pit-bull on a chain is still more than a match for a untied yorkie; eventually the imbalance will become evident. Liberalism's unprincipled exceptions only delay its inconsistencies from becoming dominant and causing it to implode. They can't prevent the implosion altogether.

As I lefty, I completely agree that tyranny lurks within the liberal framework, and roughly for these reasons.

Of course, I don't believe that conservative "principled exceptions" are any better. The whole basically Aristotelian fiction of an organic social unity can only have one of two uses - to defend the status quo, or to attack the status quo in the name of a previous status quo. Either way, the basic message is always "know your place, b----." That is no less tyrannical than the disavowed underside of liberalism.

Jeff Culbreath writes (edited slightly):

I think both Conservatism and Liberalism, as ideologies, ... [e]ach need some kind of higher authority - such as tradition and revelation - to override [their] excesses.

That is true, but it is the liberal who insists that such higher authority, if it is to play any political role at all, must, in order to be legitimate, be mediated through the actual choices of the free and equal new man. So it is inherently unprincipled for the liberal to appeal to such authority, whereas it is not unprincipled for anti-liberals to appeal to such authority. Indeed a basic distinction between the liberal and the anti-liberal is that the former does not admit the existence of any legitimate authority which is not mediated through the consent of the free and equal new man. Liberals may permit morality to play a role in politics, but only to the extent that the free and equal new man chooses for it to play a role: the legitimacy of its authority comes from and through the assertion of the will of the superman, not from anything which transcends his will.

In short, the liberal believes that the legitimacy of authority, the just power of government, derives from consent, and specifically not from things which transcend consent. If you don't believe that in the first place - and to be a liberal just is to believe that - then appealing to things which transcend consent is not unprincipled.

Either way, the basic message is always "know your place, b----." That is no less tyrannical than the disavowed underside of liberalism.


What's your objection to people knowing their place? Is it better if they do not?


The whole basically Aristotelian fiction of an organic social unity ..

What you call a a fiction (without any supporting argument) has the benefit of accurately describing the world we live in.


As I lefty, I completely agree that tyranny lurks within the liberal framework, and roughly for these reasons.

As a non-lefty I think zippy is mistaken. What we call "liberalism" in todays America has almost nothing to do with Nietzsche and a great deal to do with Saint-Simon. It's a quasi religious/sociological movement which views the mass majority of mankind as raw material to be fashioned as the scientific elite sees fit. A current of utter contempt for the herd runs just below its surface and frequently bursts above ground.

Dan McCulloch writes:

Liberals are not anti-authoritarian, far from it...
There is a particular danger which I think modern conservatives need to be careful to avoid. That danger is to not take liberalism's claims about itself seriously. I think this is especially dangerous for conservatives because conservatism in a modern polity tends to be, or at least to be mixed up with, previous incarnations of liberalism. The libertarian sees the modern liberal as just a pure tyrant: he cannot believe that the liberal means it when he says that he is anti-authoritarian. But that is because the main distinction between a libertarian and a modern liberal is just the things about which each happens to be authoritarian: the particular basket of unprincipled exceptions. They agree on the basic principles of liberalism: that the legitimacy of authority derives from the consent or will of the free and equal new man. So from the "inside" each looks at the other and sees a tyrant.

Liberalism would not be the dominant political outlook for billions of modern people if it were the caricature that many make of it. But it is that dominant outlook: it has vanquished every competing political world view completely, to the point where most modern political conflicts are intramural in nature and the public conversation simply presupposes liberalism as its universally agreed foundation. We won't be able to resist it effectively unless we fully understand it, as uncomfortable as gaining that understanding may be. History is littered with the bodies of conservatives who failed to fully grasp the nature of what they were up against.

The libertarian sees the modern liberal as just a pure tyrant: he cannot believe that the liberal means it when he says that he is anti-authoritarian.


Liberals are not anti-authoritarian. On the contrary, they have thrown themselves at the feet of some of the worst authoritarians in world history. That's when they have not been in power and acting authoritarian themselves.

Part of the problem with liberalism and its cousin libertarianism is that it sees the State as the protector of freedom. The Church, family, and community are seen as inhibitors to freedom. In the traditional liberal view, this manifests itself as seeing the perfect human as one with a full intellect and no dependency on any other person. Where I think Zippy and I are likely to disagree is that this philosophy is fully embeded in the modern conservative movement. Anarchism, as I understand it, doesn't oppose authority per se but opposes the specific authority of the State.

Where I think things are getting interesting is that the modern left in this country is more embracing conservative ideals. Be it local agriculture, urbanism (new or otherwise), community (as opposed to schools needing bussing) schools, anti-corporatism, arguments against free trade, etc., the place these ideas are being debated is on the left. At this point it is difficult to find conservatives that will say exurban areas are not sustainable in the long run.

I appreciate the thoghtful response, Zippy, but I'm still unconvinced that liberal's own self-understanding is useful to us. They won't or can't see the quasi-religious nature of the structure of their beliefs. Their world-view is so different that they don't use their terms in the same way. I don't think that they acknowledge, for example, that socialism must be enforced at the point of a gun. They see no authoritarianism where we see plenty.

There's usually a point that is reached in arguing with them when they realize that to enact their plans I am going to have to be exterminated. But the very next sentence from them might well be another declaration of anti-authority.

I don't think that other quasi-religious cults need to be understood from their own self-understanding either. I'm thinking of Islam for example. Whether they claim to be a religion of peace or war, love or hate doesn't matter: we can see the fruits of them, and extrapolate from their operant principles discovered in independent analysis. In each case we know what they are regardless of what they say.

Dan:

I'm still unconvinced that liberal's own self-understanding is useful to us.
Sun Tzu wrote:
It is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles; if you do not know your enemies but do know yourself, you will win one and lose one; if you do not know your enemies nor yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle. - The Art of War

In short, the liberal believes that the legitimacy of authority, the just power of government, derives from consent, and specifically not from things which transcend consent. If you don't believe that in the first place - and to be a liberal just is to believe that - then appealing to things which transcend consent is not unprincipled.

Zippy, when you put it that way, I can't argue with it.

The role of consent apparently plays different roles within Liberalism (individual consent, group consent, consent of the masses) and Liberalism does not have any coherent means of resolving conflicts between them. Consequently its exercise of power is hopelessly arbitrary.

Conservatism, of course, has a place for consent as well, but if Conservatism is defined as something that gives a pre-eminent place to authority which transcends consent, that goes a long way towards resolving the problem. (The Conservative problem is "which authority?", not "whether there be authority?" transcending consent).

The Conservative problem is "which authority?", not "whether there be authority?" transcending consent
Exactly, Jeff. Well said.

I suppose a Liberal would argue thus: "Ah! But in order for authority 'transcending consent' to have any practical influence, it would have to be recognized by most people as authoritative. Such recognition is effectively 'consent'. So, we're back to Liberalism!"

Jeff:

I suppose a Liberal would argue thus: "Ah! But in order for authority 'transcending consent' to have any practical influence, it would have to be recognized by most people as authoritative. Such recognition is effectively 'consent'. So, we're back to Liberalism!"
True, and indeed many have retorted in just this manner in discussions with me. In which case Saddam Hussein, Adolf Hitler, and Josef Stalin all ruled by consent and were all liberals. In fact all rulers for all time have all ruled by 'consent' in this sense. See how inclusive liberalism can be?

I think this potential equivocation in liberalism - as an incoherent political ideology, liberalism is chock full of potential equivocations - reveals a bug, not a feature.

What I find at least mildly interesting is that certain specific totalitarian ideas were pretty popular among "progressives" as far back as the 1930's. Think forced sterilization of the unfit, for example, which had quite a following among people who regarded themselves as enlightened and anti-conservative. But where does that fit into the idea that authority derives from consent?

I think this potential equivocation in liberalism - as an incoherent political ideology, liberalism is chock full of potential equivocations - reveals a bug, not a feature.

Indeed. But this is also where my own comprehension of liberal and conservative categories just breaks down. I want to say that the entire question, for everyone, liberal and conservative, is "to what authority shall we consent?".

In Mr. Kalb's book, he seems to be saying that making this authority and its derivative principles too explicit leads to tyranny. Tradition relies heavily on unspoken and unarticulated principles and prejudices which, though generally understood by everyone, gives the members of a society some wiggle-room in their implementation. But we've lost a great deal of this traditional sensibility in our time. Therefore I don't see a way out of our present circumstances without somehow articulating that a specific authority shall be the commonly recognized standard.

What I find at least mildly interesting is that certain specific totalitarian ideas were pretty popular among "progressives" as far back as the 1930's. Think forced sterilization of the unfit, for example, which had quite a following among people who regarded themselves as enlightened and anti-conservative. But where does that fit into the idea that authority derives from consent?

Lydia, I would say this is where liberal notions of consent are at war with each other. The consent of the individual is at war with the consent of the masses, or of a group representing the masses, or what have you. The Progressives of the early 20th century believed they articulated the will and consent of humanity. As I said, there is nothing in Liberalism which is capable of coherently arbitrating these conflicts, so it is all reduced to a contest of power and will.

the liberal believes that the legitimacy of authority, the just power of government, derives from consent, and specifically not from things which transcend consent

Well, that describes one of the several groups which fall under the generic lable "liberal". Specifically, the so-called "classical liberals".

But many of these people these days are in the Republican Party, and the majority of people we call liberals are indifferent to consent. I assume you'd concede that the politcal menagerie is populated with more species than simply liberals and conservatives.

Lydia:

But where does that fit into the idea that authority derives from consent?
Authority derives from the consent of the free and equal new man. The unfit, the unborn, etc are obviously not "fully human", that is, are not free and equal self-created supermen, so their will doesn't count. More generally, liberal political theory always at least implicitly entails the existence of an untermensch, the sub-human oppressor who is holding back the emancipation of the new man. Dan McCulloch alluded to this above when he said of liberals "There's usually a point that is reached in arguing with them when they realize that to enact their plans I am going to have to be exterminated." The necessity of the untermensch is one of the most repressed aspects of liberalism, which is part of why the Nazis represent the ultimate embodiment of evil to liberals. But it is always there if you look. There has never been a liberalism without an untermensch.

Jon Sandor:

Well, that describes one of the several groups which fall under the generic lable "liberal". Specifically, the so-called "classical liberals".
No, I think that is how all liberals see themselves: as tolerant believers in the freedom and equal rights of the new man, politically (though not necessarily in the private sphere, where by choice one may subject onesself to a religion, etc) emancipated from history, tradition, nature, and nature's God.

Jeff:
I'm not sure that making authority explicit leads to tyranny, but I am sure that insisting that authority which cannot be made fully explicit in every case is no authority at all leads to anarchy/tyranny. This is a larger problem than merely liberalism, and is a subset or particular instance of the positivism which is the occasional target of my ravings.

One additional thing. Jeff wrote:

But this is also where my own comprehension of liberal and conservative categories just breaks down.
I think part of the problem here is that liberalism has a well-defined and stable essence consistent through history (though different flavors of liberal do not like to concede this: often a liberal of type X will view liberals of type Y as his worst enemies, the penultimate Other, because anyone who is not a liberal at all is a fringe nut case not a viable political rival); though different liberalisms look quite different in one historical context or another, and all are ultimately incoherent. Liberalism is rather like flat-earthism: we can tell what it is once we know what to look for, even though it is wrong.

I'm not convinced that there is a stable essence I can coherently attach to the label "conservative". As I've mentioned a number of times, "conservative" more often than not seems to mean "yesterday's liberal".

I'm not sure that making authority explicit leads to tyranny, but I am sure that insisting that authority which cannot be made fully explicit in every case is no authority at all leads to anarchy/tyranny.

Yes, I agree, and that is one of Kalb's central points as well. That doesn't bode well for us since this kind of traditional authority barely exists anymore. Kalb is a little more sanguine about its present usefulness than I am. It can be recovered in little communities here and there - I am seeing this with my own eyes - but it seems to be completely lost in the culture at large.

History is littered with the bodies of conservatives who failed to fully grasp the nature of what they were up against.

For an obvious reason, most conservatives belong to the Liberal Tradition and are trapped within the belly of the beast. The University Bookman touches on the challenges;

The problem is clear enough. Through the market, the left has been able to offer the possibility of cultural novelty on demand; through the state, it has peddled the right to it. Through the politicization of public questions of sexual ethics, it continues to transform all declarations of possibility into rights claims. How, if not by fighting fire with ideological fire, is the right to respond? Tanenhaus admirably invites conservatives to explode ideology—with its central myth that religious convictions, cultural commitments, and political objectives can be purified into a programmatic and comprehensive creedal unity. But he cannot explain how post-movement conservatives can successfully oppose movement liberalism, which effectively instrumentalizes economic and political policies that advance our cultural pathologies in such a way as to celebrate them.
James Poulos http://www.kirkcenter.org/index.php/bookman/article/response-to-tanenhaus/

I think that is how all liberals see themselves: as tolerant believers in the freedom and equal rights of the new man

Would you mind sharing with me which liberal thinkers you've read in order to arrive at the that conclusion? Because at least since Rousseau these has been one strain of liberal thought which has no time for such concepts. The term "new man" should tip you off - he is something to be created. The entire branch of liberal theory we often call "leftism" is very much up front about seeing men as clay to be molded and not as free and equal and sovereign individuals. They even modeled themselves explicitly as a new religion, a competitor and replacement for Christianity.

My inclination is to think that we've seen a sort of melding in the course of the 20th century between libertarian talk and totalitarian action. Historically, Jon may be somewhat right that the totalitarian impulse did not used to bother to disguise itself much. Somewhere along the line this "individual freedom" idea became a useful gloss to put on the matter.

Lydia:

My inclination is to think that we've seen a sort of melding in the course of the 20th century between libertarian talk and totalitarian action.
From a property-libertarian perspective it probably looks that way; but non-property-libertarians would probably insist, I think with some merit, that property rights are themselves inherently authoritarian and discriminatory. (Where I would differ from many is over the notion that there is anything wrong with that).

The term "new man" should tip you off - he is something to be created. The entire branch of liberal theory we often call "leftism" is very much up front about seeing men as clay to be molded and not as free and equal and sovereign individuals. They even modeled themselves explicitly as a new religion, a competitor and replacement for Christianity.

Actually, the term "new man" and, moreover, the "new men" were originally terms utilized in reference to an entirely different and specific set of people altogether that long ago did indeed endeavour to replace Christianity at a pivotal point in church history.

In fact, it was with such incredible prescience that a certain former Lord Chancellor then (who effectively ended up getting his own head chopped off) predicted quite rightly that with the Rise of these "New Men" there would inevitably come the Fall of all of Christendom, which did eventually come to pass as a result and the history of all humanity would then ultimately record it.

Well, I guess zippy is not going to respond.

Nice blog you have here, Paul.

Well, I guess zippy is not going to respond.

Well, I'm sure Zippy has far greater things to do during the course of a typical day as opposed to fielding questions on a blog -- such as attending to his wife, children but, more importantly, a newly purchased private jet, yacht, perhaps even an island, etc. with the handsome sum he's managed to collect from the sale of all his previous entrepreneurial exploits and true life success stories.

I guess Zippy is not going to respond.
To a request for a bibliography putatively covering how I came to my understanding of liberalism? Why on earth would I respond to that question, a question designed to degenerate into an irrelevant argument over what various authors did and did not say and mean?

Either liberalism is as I characterize it to be, or not. Reality is the test, not some silly digression into a bibliography. I've read some of what a great many people have said - from Plato to Augustine to Aquinas to Kant to Hume to Mill to Locke to Nietzsche to Rawls to von Kuehnelt-Leddihn to Marx to Jefferson to Hitler to Boethius to Derrida to Rand to Gilson to Belloc to ... I could write names all day long, but I don't claim that my understanding of liberalism is "Bob's understanding of liberalism". I claim that my understanding of liberalism is true.

Either liberalism is as I characterize it to be, or not. Reality is the test, not some silly digression into a bibliography. I've read some of what a great many people have said - from Plato to Augustine to Aquinas to Kant to Hume to Mill to Locke to Nietzsche to Rawls to von Kuehnelt-Leddihn to Marx to Jefferson to Hitler to Boethius to Derrida to Rand to Gilson to Belloc to ... I could write names all day long, but I don't claim that my understanding of liberalism is "Bob's understanding of liberalism". I claim that my understanding of liberalism is true.

Now that is skillful delivery marked with insight and characteristic concision that only Zippy can.

I adore your website - nice work!

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