200 years ago, I would be considered a liberal. Now, I am considered anything but. Since the position that I hold today (limited government, maximum individual liberty) existed then, but is no longer called ‘liberal,’ it follows that what has changed is not the position, but the name, and the things the name describes. How this happened has been the subject of the last two posts, and covered, roughly speaking 1800 – 1945. In this post, we’ll span c. 1900 to the present.
We might well sum up what happened to liberalism by recognizing the fundamental paradigm shift which occurred between 1880 and 1920, or so, in which ‘liberalism’ went from being orientated towards ‘negative’ liberty (what the government can’t do to you!) towards ‘positive’ liberty (what the government OUGHT to do FOR you). I discussed this briefly in part 2. If this is all new to you, or you don’t believe me, here is an expert on such things.
Why did this happen? The ‘Enlightenment,’ Darwinism, utilitarianism, and Marxism brought it forth. The founders of America were deathly afraid of what the government could do, whereas the elements above, especially the last three, by sheer force of their ideological implications, compelled people to view the government as an outgrowth of human evolution, wherein in our species–like bees–had turned to community and cooperation as its way to meet its evolutionary ‘duties’ of surviving to reproduction, while, of course, eliminating the weaker human specimens before they could reproduce.
The initial response to the implications of Darwinism scared the living daylights of good liberals. For, it seemed that being true to SCIENCE! meant proactively eliminating the weak from the human population. The stakes were high: failure to stop the biologically inferior from breeding would lead to the ‘degeneration’ of the human species. So, they were in a real bind. On the one hand, their SCIENCE! and their ethics (the most good for the most people) meant that people needed to re-organize its form of governments to meet the problem head on.
They were all well aware of what they were talking about: outright killing them.
The surest, the simplest, the kindest, and most humane means for preventing reproduction among those whom we deem unworthy of this high privilege [reproduction], is a gentle, painless death. and this should be administered not as a punishment, but as an expression of enlightened pity for the victims–too defective by nature to find true happiness in life–and as a duty toward the community and toward our own offspring.
There are hundreds of such statements I’ve come across. I’ve managed to get some up on my eugenics site, which also has this goodie, by none other than George Bernard Shaw:
A part of eugenic politics would finally land us in an extensive use of the lethal chamber. A great many people would have to be put out of existence simply because it wastes other people’s time to look after them.
For all of these smart, intellectual, sophisticated elites, this appeared to be simple logical deduction. It was SCIENCE! (And I know what you’re thinking… this is a Nazi sentiment. Not just, my friend. All the ones I’ve compiled on that page are Americans or Brits. Big names, even.)
One of the hallmarks of a ‘good liberal’ is that he tends to be better than his philosophy, and this was as true then as it is now. While many of the world’s finest were getting comfortable with ‘final solutions,’ others were flailing about for another SCIENTIFIC! way out of their descent into moral darkness. (I call this, “Darwin’s Flinch.”)
I cannot overstate the weight of this dilemma at the time. To this point, the leading lights had settled on extermination as the only real logical implication of their philosophies. Francis Galton (Darwin’s half-cousin), the one who coined the word ‘eugenics’ tried to soften it, but never really got away from it. Herbert Spencer, the man who coined the phrase ‘survival of the fittest,’ was literally taught in countless western universities, was ensuring the perpetuation of the Darwinian crux of the matter. In Germany, August Weismann wrote in one of his essays on heredity in 1889:
In the first place, in regulating duration of life, the advantage to the species, and not to the individual, is alone of any importance. This must be obvious to any one who has once thoroughly thought out the process of natural selection. It is of no importance to the species whether the individual lives longer or shorter, but it is of importance that the individual should be enabled to do its work towards the maintenance of the species. This work of reproduction, or the formation of a sufficient number of new individuals to compensate the species for those which die. As soon as the individual has performed its share in this work of compensation, it ceases to be of any value to the species, it has fulfilled its duty and may die.
This passage occurs in a treatment of the ‘duration of life’ of any number of living organisms; humans just being one other organism on the planet, and the way it was organized to reproduce was just one possible way out of countless others. This, importantly, was one of the key conclusions of Marx and Engels, when framing their ‘scientific theory.’ But it was not by any means limited to them.
In other words, across the world, institutions which had been taken for granted as the rock bottom foundation of human society–namely, the ‘family’–became seen as relatively arbitrary results of human evolutionary development. The biosphere teemed with many other ways to organize itself. Again, like the bees. Now that we humans know the rules, we have the ability–nay, we have the obligation and duty–to apply SCIENCE! to human society. Ie, it is entirely appropriate for experts to re-order society and re-structure it, as the existing structures have no intrinsic value. They were useful up to that moment, but now that we understand the secrets, we can take human evolution into our own hands.
The import on this weighed heavily on people, but they couldn’t reconcile their beliefs with their sentiments. (Which is why so many others, ‘liberals’ included, decried ‘sentimentalism‘ as a barrier to progress.)
Finally, c. 1900, this all began gelling together into a coherent response. We might say the turning point was Peter Kropotkin’s 1902 Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, which provided the firm, SCIENTIFIC basis, for deploying Darwinian principles in human society, without necessarily calling for the outright slaughter of vast portions of human society.
Not that this view ceased to exist, mind you. The history of the 20th century makes that abundantly clear!
Nonetheless, the establishment of ‘cooperation’ as a SCIENTIFIC principle, consistent with Darwinism, etc, greased the wheels for the rapid emergence of…
5. Progressivism (and Statism).
The reader should now easily understand how it is that ‘liberalism’ inverted so that its orientation of ‘negative liberties’ was turned on its head to now be orientated towards ‘positive liberties.’
The people who embraced SCIENCE! no longer felt constrained to infer from Darwinism that human evolution meant the extermination of the weak. No, in point of fact, humans were free to re-order and re-structure society itself, on SCIENTIFIC grounds, in the spirit of cooperation. (I have linked to this above twice, if you have not read it yet, remember the bees! Read Galton’s essay, then scroll down to the bees!)
Only the smartest, most intelligent people could be entrusted with such re-ordering. And only a very powerful entity–ie, the State–could enforce such re-ordering on the stupid masses breeding brainlessly in the urban jungle. If only the Experts, empowered by Science, had a free hand with society, they could progressively make society perfect! Read: Big government, and maximizing ‘community’ liberty.
On this new paradigm, which gave people a way to ground their sentiment on SCIENCE! (or so they thought), it was the community, ie, the ‘species,’ and ‘positive liberty,’ that was the primary ‘agent’ involved in human evolution. The ‘individual’ could go to hell. What mattered was the ‘group.’
The first Darwinian liberals saw government as an obstacle standing in the way of the fittest who would survive, if they were not bogged down by all of the weakest. This disregard of certain individuals still meant a high regard for other individuals. The resulting attitude is bemoaned by liberals today as ‘social Darwinism.’ But the next Darwinian liberals were still very much ‘social Darwinists,’ and the new temptation was to disregard all individuals and give the ‘species’ primacy.
By 1910, in America this attitude was in full flower. As already discussed in previous posts, America had two back to back presidents who boldly embraced this worldview, one, ostensibly a Republican (Theodore Roosevelt) and the other, unquestionably a liberal Democrat of the highest caliber (Woodrow Wilson). Given what I’ve said, we may wish to revisit Wilson’s way of thinking about such matters again, as perhaps you’ll understand it in new light:
...government is not a machine, but a living thing. It falls, not under the theory of the universe, but under the theory of organic life. It is accountable to Darwin, not to Newton. It is modified by its environment, necessitated by its tasks, shaped to its functions by the sheer pressure of life. No living thing can have its organs offset against each other, as checks, and live. On the contrary, its life is dependent upon their quick co-operation, their ready response to the commands of instinct or intelligence, their amicable community of purpose. Government is not a body of blind forces; it is a body of men, with highly differentiated functions, no doubt, in our modern day, of specialization, with a common task and purpose. Their co-operation is indispensable, their warfare fatal. There can be no successful government without the intimate, instinctive co-ordination of the organs of life and action. This is not theory, but fact, and displays its force as fact, whatever theories may be thrown across its track. Living political constitutions must be Darwinian in structure and in practice. Society is a living organism and must obey the laws of life, not of mechanics; it must develop.
All that progressives ask or desire is permission—in an era when “development,” “evolution,” is the scientific word—to interpret the Constitution according to the Darwinian principle; all they ask is recognition of the fact that a nation is a living thing and not a machine.
At this moment in history, everything became political.
There was no part of human experience which could not appropriately be subjected to Progress, and that meant that a ‘body of men’ with ‘a common task and purpose’ at the helm of the Government–a ‘living thing’–believed that the tiniest, teeniest, weensiest aspects of human society were properly within their domain.
This would be sorted out ‘politically,’ of course. In other words, on the new Liberalism, while it was true that the Government had the job of perfecting society and ensuring ‘positive liberty,’ it didn’t follow that the Leaders didn’t have to follow ‘democratic’ principles. Nonetheless, any and every government intrusion was justified, providing the ‘body of men’ with all their ‘specialization’ and ‘intelligence’ could ground it on SCIENCE! and be held in check by the votes of the majority (which, thankfully, could be manipulated by the Experts! This is what Democracy Looks Like!)
(It may surprise the reader (or it may not) that Prohibition, which is seen today only as the result of a puritan, moralizing Christian movement, was also heavily imbued with eugenic rationales and Statist overtones.)
And so it would have continued to unfold, if not for the Bolsheviks and the Nazis.
After 1945, there was a dark cloud over progressivism, insofar as it had ever seen itself as an application of SCIENCE to society. All the traits which could be tied directly or even faintly to the Nazis (of which there were still many, despite the Kropotkin Turn), made them all queasy. They lost their confidence.
But–and this is very important–the disgust that Nazism evoked did not have a parallel with Marxism.
This is where ‘liberalism’ begins to go very, very, very bad.
The Nazis killed perhaps 10 million or so, inside and outside of their concentration camps. Meanwhile, Lenin and Stalin had already killed just as many, and they and their ilk were on their way to murdering ten times that, wherever they increased their reach. Perhaps it was because people were able to walk through the concentration camps and document what they found there with images and so on, while the dead in the gulags remain behind a heavy black veil, but the ‘left’ has never felt the same horror about Marxism as we all feel towards Nazism.
As a result, after a short lull, Marxism is considered completely respectable. Oh, yes, indeed. Not just respectable! No, sir. They want to take a crack at it again!
This appears to be a difference between modern conservatives and modern liberals. Modern conservatives do not forget the millions killed by Nazis or Marxists; modern liberals only think about the millions murdered by Nazis. Liberals only see the abuses of the Nazis, and never the abuses of the Communists, for the simple reason that they still have a hankering for Communism.
We could pretend for a moment that if one did remember the millions of people murdered by Marxists in the 20th century, and sought out to ‘try again,’ mindful of the extreme dangers, perhaps we could pull it off without ending in tragedy. I know, that kind of sounds like, “Well, let’s make another go at creating a Master Race, mindful of the ‘mistakes’ the Nazis made,” but let’s pretend its a different animal.
That only works if you know about the millions of people murdered by Marxists, so as to factor them in.
I think moderns have a vague notion that the Nazis weren’t the only ones who slaughtered people by the bushel, and, vaguely, that the Communists were leading culprits. The fact calling someone a Nazi is almost the worst thing you can do, while calling someone a Marxist gets the response, “So?” suggests that people don’t really know what the Marxists, when they had their best shot, did.
The result of this is… pay attention, now… that modern Progressives have almost the exact same attitude and beliefs as their 1910 peers, without any understanding that the last time ‘progressives’ completely had their way, untold millions died.
Did you know that Pol Pot (who murdered some 2 million) considered himself a ‘progressive’? And why not? He got all of his inspiration from his time hobnobbing with progressives while he was in France, in the 1960s.
I’d bet you money that your average modern progressive does not know that.
And Pol Pot was not by any means the only one who considered his Marxist perspective to be basically cut from the same cloth as Progressivism.
This utter ignorance is what makes modern Progressives so dangerous. It isn’t just their smug self-assurance that they are smarter than everyone else, and more compassionate than the rest of us. Its the fact that they don’t remember the last time self-assured Progressives had the run of the town.
As I said in the previous posts, it wasn’t just ideologies that shaped the modern ‘left.’ Events were a big factor. The Civil War, the Emancipation of the slaves, World War I, and World War II, all rocked the ideological landscape.
After World War II, one of the general conclusions drawn by liberals was that the big problems of the previous four decades were the result of ‘nationalism.’ For example, it was German nationalism that was the Nazis’ high crime, not the Nazis’ German socialism. The Nazis themselves called themselves “National Socialists.” Just FYI. But again, since people want to give socialism another go, socialism gets a pass, and nationalism gets the full brunt of the scorn, even to the present day.
The ‘New World Order’ would seek to obscure the distinctions between the nations, and attempt to form a World Government which could hold the ‘reactionary’ nationalistic elements within the various countries in check. This is one of those things more openly stated in the 1960s and 1970s, but trust me, people still believe it today.
This is a topic that deserves its own 10 part series, but I’m only going to touch on it here, because it is part of the story of how liberalism ended up where it is, today.
What I want to draw attention to here is the increased advocacy of Statism that came out of this. Of course, we tend to think of such things at the country level. However, that would be mistaken. When Statists can pull it off, they will merge governance whenever they can. Since the problem, as they see it, is the possibility for national governments to go off the rails, what is needed is a BIGGER government over all of them.
We see this most acutely with the European Union. And, naturally, the Brits who voted for Brexit are… you guessed it, decried as nationalists. On the Liberal worldview, all the potential harm is at the level of the nation; there is no potential harm to be concerned about regarding the Comintern, er, the folks in Brussels.
Liberals would happily merge the United States into a ‘European Union,’ or a global order more generally, if only they could snuff out those racist nationalists! They have been trying, and failing, ever since 1945. They can think of no good reasons to keep the ‘national’ scheme, and have no fear whatsoever of erected higher and higher layers of governance.
But this creates a conundrum for them, because even as they believe that, they still see themselves as the heroic defenders of the Little Guy.
The Little Guy is easily trampled by the Fat Cats. Without the help of liberals, the Little Guy would be powerless to help himself. (Hence, their disgust with Citizen United. But I may return to this.) Their overall solution to this is to create even bigger layers of government, which theoretically will root out corruption. When each new layer is corrupted, their tendency is to create a bigger layer. And because they believe that everything is properly subject to the government, and therefore, everything is political, the net result is that at the very same moment they defend the defenseless Little Guy from the robber barons, they create a suffocating network of rules and regulations that permeates into every little nook and cranny of human activity. And because the ‘layers’ are further away from the reach of the Little Guy, the result is that if any of our heroes overstep, there isn’t much that the Little Guy can do about it.
My impression is that modern liberals are aware of this. It just hasn’t occurred to them that the solution to the suffocating effects of Big Government is… less government. That idea goes against every bone of their body. Moreover, at the very same time (and hence, the conundrum), the ever-enlarging State, which encroaches on increasingly intimate areas of human experience (school lunches, the design of gasoline cans, the design of light bulbs, how many children you ought to have, etc., etc.,), removes more and more vestiges of the old liberalism, which had to do with maximizing individual liberty.
In this giant contradiction, something has got to give.
And here is what happened: by ‘individual liberty’, the modern liberal basically means is, SEX.
As much as you want, with whomever you want, with no consequences whatsoever.
The State can micro-manage your business, impose its curriculum on every school in the nation, decide what kinds of foods will be served in those schools, condemn you for collecting rain water, take charge of your health care, etc, etc, etc, etc, etc, etc, etc, etc (and etc., etc, etc, etc, etc), but no! None of this has anything to do with liberty! (The liberals of 1820, on the other hand, would have already mounted another American revolution). And why isn’t it a vast and increasing infringement on liberty?
I just told, you, man! They’re going to let you have SEX.
So long as you don’t muddy it up by having children, which now impacts society at large, and thus warrants State involvement, sure as the sun rises, you do, indeed, have liberty! 100%, unfettered, no guilt, no stigma, sex. Just like they do it on Discovery Channel!
Well, almost. Because to implement this much more narrow concept of ‘liberty’, it is necessary to help head off the consequences that used to be associated with unfettered, no guilt, no stigma, sexual activity. Hence the modern liberals passionate, almost religious, devotion towards abortion on demand, sex education classes, and contraception.
If you step back and think about it, you can see that almost the entirety of modern Liberalism boils down to just those two things: solving all perceived ‘regressive’ elements in society through increasingly intrusive State action, while maximizing (safe) sexual activity.
You see, you are supposed to be fine with the fact that you work for 5 months of the year just to pay your taxes, because the government is going to give you 1 month of it back in ‘services.’ You are supposed to be fine with the mountains of paperwork you have to plow through in order to start and maintain a business. These things have nothing to do with liberty! And did we mention: YOU GET TO HAVE SEX!
This whole thing began in the fallout of World War 2, where it seemed that the Super-State was the only route for world peace, and yet they needed to carve out some space for individual liberty. After some serious bumps in the roads, Big Government and YOU GET TO HAVE SEX, was the basic answer.
I guess I need Part 4 to spell it out further. I still haven’t talked about intersectionality or the Managed State.
Ok, then. A fourth part, it is.