Saturday, 30 September 2017

John Stuart Mill and the decline of the West

I bought a leather bound copy of Mill's On Liberty for 50p when I was 16 and haven't read it. I assumed I knew what it said and that J.S. Mill was an arch libertarian, a Thathcherite avant la lettre. I should have read it and shall do so now, followed by Maurice Cowling's arch-conservative demolition. How I wish I'd gone to Peterhouse and Cowling had taught me.

Only today I was wondering yet again whether my personal philosophy of finding an authentic life by relating to people openly, regardless of their nationality or class (or sex for that matter) and keeping a distance from conventional or fashionable ideas, was really my own or was one I had taken from elsewhere. I see now that it is J.S. Mill, mediated through 
John Fowles, whose novels and philosophy greatly appealed to me when I was 18. It is an admirable but somewhat adolescent philosophy.

One forms or finds ones ideas and lives them. I remember a Muslim friend of mine describing Fowles as godless - now it all makes sense. Mill's philosophy is a substitute for religion, like so many things since Mill. 

I realised all this by reading a wonderful essay published this month in Foreign Affairs by Eric Kaufmann, which I urge you to read. In case you are too lazy to click, I quote from it.
In a famous essay from 1969, the Anglo-Jewish liberal philosopher Isaiah Berlin distinguished between “two concepts of liberty.” The first concept, negative liberty, implies freedom from external coercion. “By being free in this sense, I mean not being interfered with by others,” Berlin wrote. The second concept, positive liberty, is more prescriptive. It asserts that freedom lies in self-direction and self-mastery.

These two concepts of liberty correspond to two types of liberalism: negative and positive. Negative liberalism, championed by Berlin, is value-neutral, maintaining that all forms of human endeavor are equally worthy and that people should be free to pursue them so long as they don’t interfere with others’ rights. Positive liberalism, on the other hand, asserts there are nobler and baser human values. For advocates of positive liberalism, such as John Stuart Mill, individual autonomy and freedom from tradition are themselves noble values, and people should use their liberty to pursue them. The implication here is that what is new and different is in some sense morally superior to what is familiar and comforting.
Mr. Kaufmann explains the ideas of John Dewey and Randolph Bourne, two influential (WASP) American liberal thinkers from the early twentieth century who wanted America to become cosmopolitan.
Both of these strands—Dewey’s melting pot and Bourne’s multiculturalism—shaped the form that positive-liberal cosmopolitanism would take in the West. The social upheavals of the 1960s added a new moral imperative, antiracism, to this mix. Although early twentieth-century U.S. Progressives had opposed racism, their cosmopolitan millenarianism concerned European immigration, which they saw as unrelated to the domestic struggle for black rights. It was not until the 1960s, after the civil rights movement and the start of large-scale non-European immigration, that pro-immigration and antiracist positions fused in both North America and Europe. Positive liberals used the new idiom of antiracism to reframe their prior appreciation of diversity, adding the emotional heat of an emerging social taboo to older appeals to generosity. Activists now spurned Dewey’s melting-pot cosmopolitanism, which envisioned all groups dissolving, in favor of Bourne’s multiculturalist position that the majority throw off its traditions while minorities maintain theirs. 

As the white majority share of Western nations declined after the 1960s, a white backlash might have been expected. Yet just as immigration diversified their countries, more and more Westerners were exposed to cosmopolitan perspectives via newly expanded university systems and television media. These two developments offset one another to produce a polarized response: white communitarians viewed rising diversity negatively while cosmopolitan multiculturalists elevated it to the status of a moral imperative. Today’s culture war is a product of this split.
This is a large explanation for the current anti-discrimination ideology (which can be called a heresy, in the sense of a truth taken out of proportion), which has become a secular religion. It attempts to fill the vacuum left by faith and the sacred, which in Mill's day ceased to have a hold on intellectuals. This is the explanation for a phenomenon of the greatest historical importance, which before today baffled me.

This, in turn, has somehow (I still don't fully understand it) created the feeling among 1968-ers and their children that mass immigration is a good thing per se. These ideas are rapidly transforming the formerly white world. 

The other factor, incalculably influential, is revulsion from Nazism and the gas chambers. Western history since 1945 and especially since 1960 is a meditation on Auschwitz.

In my case, everything with me is paradoxical. I am a reactionary anarchist and a Catholic with a Protestant mind (especially when I think about Pope Francis). I'm a conservative, but I am also a liberal and combine uneasily both the sorts of liberalism identified by Isaiah Berlin. I believe in a very small state, a lot of negative freedom, am attracted to rigid, traditional societies like late nineteenth century England, De Valera's Eire, even sometimes to Salazar's Portugal, I rejected positive liberalism as a guide to politics, yet consider myself, and set importance on being, a free spirit, which means positive liberty. I am a cosmopolitan, an Englishman living in a street in the old town in Bucharest surrounded by gypsies.

I reconcile these things by being conservative for others, but open minded for myself. Salazar's Portugal might sound appealing in principle but I might not have fitted in. I like the colourful, multi-ethnic parts of London, though I mourn the London of 1950, class conscious, shabby and as English as a pint of bitter. I like the things positive liberals like, but they have unintended consequences. An increasingly un-European, increasingly non-Christian Western Europe is one.

I suppose I want to be a free minded person, but I want most people to be conservative, to provide the ballast that keeps the ship afloat. This is a pleasant, but adolescent, way of thinking. 

When it comes to politics, in the crisis in which we are living, it is very clear that only (real, old-fashioned) conservatism can help us. The open-hearted and open-minded positive liberals in all parties have been completely, inexcusably wrong. The grown-ups were right (some would say but repulsive) but there don't seem to be any around any more, at least not in positions of authority. You find them driving taxis and keeping shops. Positive liberals are admirable people but positive liberalism is taking the West to destruction. 

How do we row back rapidly?


  1. Thank you, Paul. Sobering and most informative. I was unaware of Cowling's book, but will certainly look it up.
    I had been wanting to get Gertrude Himmelfarb's book on Mill which, I suspect, deals with the same subject material.
    A good read - thank you.

  2. As for J.S. Mill - he wrote (in "On Liberty") that people should not be allowed to "parade" their disapproval (perhaps he meant turn their backs when he and Mrs Taylor walked by) so much for his support for freedom of speech and expression of opinion. Also in "On Liberty" Mill writes that the freedom to produce and to buy and sell is based on a "different principle" from freedom of speech and writing (a classic intellectual snob - he clearly regarded his freedom as a writer as more important than the freedom of a baker or a hardware store, it-is-not - there is no distinction between civil liberties and economic freedom, try having freedom of writing if all publishers belong to the state). And then he gets himself into a mess claiming that regulations on selling things are not the same regulations on buying things. I think the late Maurice Cowling was correct - Jeremy Bentham and the Mills (James certainly - but to a extent his son John Stuart also) were not really pro liberty, they just wanted to replace the rule of the landowners and the influence of the clergy with THEMSELVES - with the rule of the "liberal" "intellectuals".

    1. I must read Mill and Cowling - it sounds like you are right.

  3. Well written. Listen to Haidt and Jordan Peterson. There is no equivalent calibre of debate in England

  4. Europe produced modernity—and for a long time, Europe was the master and possessor of modernity, putting it to the almost exclusive service of its own power. But this transformative project was inherently destined for humanity as a whole. Today, Bacon and Descartes rule in Shanghai and Bangalore at least as much as in London and Paris. Europe finds itself militarily, politically, and spiritually disarmed in a world that it has armed with the means of modern civilization. Soon it will be wholly incapable of defending itself. It has already been incapable of speaking up for itself for a long time, since it confuses itself with a humanity on the path to pacification and unification.

    Pierre Manent


  5. My Father hated Salazar in his youth and ended up sighing for him later in life.. Toni

  6. Conservatism is bankrupt and cannot help us. The No. 1 basic problem with all post-WWII conservatism is that it denies race as a biological fact. That makes them different from conservatives before WWII all of whom accepted the fact of biological race and that race determined culture and identity in a significant way. A person who thinks race is just skin pigment is strictly not a conservative, no matter what he calls himself. Without acknowledging race, racial preservation is impossible thus cultural preservation is impossible because genes largely affect individual behaviour and culture is an emergent property of individual behaviours interacting on a group level.

    If you remove the biological facts and realities of racial differences from the discourse, then the Social Justice agenda of people like Black Lives matter actually makes a lot of sense for people trying to create a fairer, more decent society. If there are no biological differences in humans then how do you account for black underachievement and high crime rates?. Without invoking racial differences the only answer is that there remain structural flaws in the society that keep black people poor and which are correctable. "Conservatives" have no answer to it. Only the Alt Right does because, like pre war conservatives they have no problem accepting the fact of race and are against denying it.

    1. Disraeli said 'race is all' and he was a conservative through and through. But I do not see racism as the solution. Christian conservatism will do just fine if anyone implements it.

    2. Der Konservatismus ist bankrott und kann uns nicht helfen. Das Grundproblem Nr. 1 mit allen Nachkriegs-Konservatismus ist, dass es die Rasse als biologische Tatsache verweigert. Das unterscheidet sie von den Konservativen vor dem Zweiten Weltkrieg, die alle die Tatsache der biologischen Rasse akzeptierten und diese Rasse bestimmte Kultur und Identität in signifikanter Weise bestimmt. Eine Person, die Rasse denkt, ist nur Hautpigment ist streng kein Konservativer, egal was er sich selbst nennt. Ohne Anerkennung des Rennens ist die Rassenerhaltung unmöglich, so dass die kulturelle Erhaltung unmöglich ist, weil die Gene weitgehend das individuelle Verhalten und die Kultur beeinflussen, ist eine aufkommende Eigenschaft einzelner Verhaltensweisen, die auf Gruppenebene interagieren.

      Wenn Sie die biologischen Fakten und Realitäten der rassischen Unterschiede aus dem Diskurs entfernen, dann ist die soziale Gerechtigkeit Agenda von Menschen wie Black Lives Materie macht wirklich viel Sinn für Menschen, die versuchen, eine gerechtere, anständigere Gesellschaft zu schaffen. Wenn es keine biologischen Unterschiede in den Menschen gibt, dann wie machen Sie für schwarze Underachievement und hohe Kriminalitätsraten ?. Ohne rassische Unterschiede aufzurufen, ist die einzige Antwort, dass es strukturelle Mängel in der Gesellschaft gibt, die schwarze Menschen arm halten und die korrigierbar sind. "Konservative" haben keine Antwort darauf. Nur das Alt-Recht tut, weil sie, wie Vorkriegs-Konservative, kein Problem haben, die Tatsache der Rasse zu akzeptieren und gegen sie zu leugnen.
      Google Translate:
      "Sieg Heil!"

    3. When he is stripped of the Christian tunic and the classical toga, there is nothing left of the European but a pale-skinned barbarian.

      Nicolás Gómez Dávila

      Escolios a un Texto Implícito: Selección, p. 413

  7. In fact, I now discover that Fowles was a left-wing socialist, influenced by the cultural Marxism of Gramsci.

  8. I agree with the direction of your thoughts but would fine tune the current picture. JS Mill is a rather secondary earlier prophet compared to Marx. What we're dealing with now is mostly neo-marxism with substitutes.

    Marxism is a simple story with three collective characters: the heroes (the Marxist intellectuals) that save the downtrodden (originally the workers of the world) from the class enemy (originally the capitalists).

    To paraphrase Pascal Bruckner and others, after loosing the proletarians of the world (apart from "breaking quite a few eggs" everyone saw that communism cannot deliver simple stuff), the Marxists first switched to people in developing countries as the downtrodden to be saved (the enemy was almost the same western imperialists / capitalists).

    When they lost those too they pivoted again to groups defined based on race / gender / sexuality. This is where we are now.

    The problem is they needed a new enemy in this last pivot. It cannot be the same old 1%ers. Without thinking too much they decided that white men are the new witches / class enemy and proceeded to establish the case that all white men are racist, sexist, homophobic rapists unless proven the opposite by their zealotry for the right cause or re-education.

    The calculation also included that white women will be peeled off the morally inferior white men and throw some logs on the fire (ie vote the right way).

    These calculations misfired in three major ways: one turning white men into pinatas mobilized them very well for voting, two many white women failed to believe that their fathers, brothers, husbands, and sons are racist, sexist, homophobic rapists, and three many educated people saw through the falsehood of all this and were disgusted.

  9. Do read Mill! Whether he advances your own understanding much, I’m less sure (I agree with Anonymous of 1st October), but he would help you understand the otherwise simplistic idealism that attracts the libertarian part of the Tory party. I agree Isaiah Berlin is the crux point, but I come at it differently. Positive liberalism I see as the direct descendant of Cranmer (“Thy service is perfect freedom”), in a direct line from Aquinas and Aristotle: freedom is freedom to be what is in a thing best to be, to be what in our nature we were made for. It is a noble creed, but assumes an understanding of what is best and/or some natural law. Negative liberalism is as you say just freedom from constraint; the reason it leads to multiculturalism lies at the core of your discomfort and was neatly picked by up Anonymous: if you want to be allowed your own freedom from constraint, so must others be, with the logical limit (per JSM) being only when your or their actions cause harm. Your cri de coeur I read as an identity issue, valid but not just a logical outflow from the philosophy, it is a matter of where you feel comfortable, as typical for identity issues. You want your freedom and you want a society in which the dominant mode is as you like it; so far, so natural, but as society changes (nothing new in society changing), the mode changes with it and for anyone who liked things as they were, they can see it slipping away but claiming it is now what it is to be “English” or whatever. Go back in time and you can see the same, for example the loss of supposedly unquestioned authority in many forms, paterfamilias, priest etc. being obvious examples. For the paterfamilias and the priest (or teacher?) who can remember the old days, the change must be painful indeed.

  10. More radically I would suggest that those who are least comfortable with the changes are often those with some position to lose and t’was ever thus, including at poorer levels, the peasants who lost their common land, the factory workers, miners and dockers who lost their jobs and communities, the faithful who prayed for their departed families at the Reformation. In our lifetimes we have seen the loss of an assumed leadership for Christianity, the upper class, manners, men to some extent, British to some extent, the educated to some extent, whites to a lesser extent (and instructively within that category the definition of white has expanded to include Jews and those south of the Alps). Money, looks, confidence, drive remain; it’s a vulgar mix. We are long past the point of “A man who is born an Englishman has won first prize in the lottery of life” (apologies for minor misquotation) and, pace Boris, it’s not coming back. If you agree with even half that perspective, multiculturalism is the least of your issues; it doesn’t stop you being what you want to be, even though it removes any assumption that what you want to be is best. In my view the real problem is that self-centredness has in effect come to be praised, or at least its consequences have, and it is the damage that causes that is our greatest suffering. I see that in my day to day work and the apparent moral priority of money and of doing whatever you want never mind the consequences to others, I see it in the pain people carelessly cause to each other in the lives around me, I see it in the callousness with which they regard the problems of the disadvantaged or those who just lose out by luck, I see it in the attitude they have to their own luck or advantage, I see it in their arguments for regulatory freedoms or tax treatments that allow them to make profits or take cash that as a result the State can’t spend, I see it in the way they denigrate those who don’t have success and don’t comprehend those who think differently.

    As for your thought that people regard mass immigration as good per se, I have never heard that. I do hear many views that those who come from disadvantaged groups (whether nationality, colour, race, religion, gender, disability, poverty or illness and whatever others we spot later) need to be supported, which is at heart a Christian view, as you know. I also sometimes, but there is some resistance, hear views that they need the extra support they get; some of it is just an extension of caring, but overall this is largely a political view one way or the other and is in fact a mix of issues. Letting people who have views that differ from yours proclaim or flaunt them, so long as they do no harm, is what JSM preached. We logically must accept that in allowing that to happen, our own views or group may lose its dominance. I think I dislike the accumulated changes about as much as you do, but with a different emphasis and accordingly I site the issue somewhere different; to me multiculturalism is not the cause, it is another consequence of the changes, some of it and some of them good not bad.