One of the best and worst things about getting old is the fact that, in gazing upon a world you’ve seen so wrecked and ruined, your mind’s eye can still attach itself to a present object and recall the way it used to be. I can see in wrinkled and bloated classmates the blushing smiles of youth, and in vacant locales friends who are now dead before me. I can remember wooded plains now swelling with ugly houses, and I can remember my childhood churches now turned into “art centers” when they used to offer the Mass.
Most amazingly, I can remember a time—a mere fifteen years ago at most—when the sanctity of churches, memorials, and vistas was not violated as a matter of course by the inane snapping of pics on one’s phone. I remember a time when one used to be able to hike a ways into the woods and actually be able to “get away from it all”—solitudes uninterrupted by phonecalls, hazy sunsets not burst by that white rectangular glare of some fool thinking she could capture it for herself and her online hangers-on. Only fifteen years—and yet in that time, so much of the world has transformed from a place that is good in and of itself, and deserves to be experienced as such, into a mere scrap for one’s Instagram collage.
Nothing makes me feel more a slave to the era than this fact. This revolution came about through no referendum or decree—only a growing insidious dependence on that little Oriental slave-made hunk of junk. This is the most important characteristic of man under the liberal regime: both his material and spiritual existence are dependent on his access to technology. All mere politics is secondary to this fact. One might complain about the makeup of Congress, or the man in the Oval Office, but no one will be given a say over the technical apparatuses which gradually subdue us all.
It’s also an effect of being old that I’m not able to get exciting about the recent rise of “integralism” as a force to counter liberalism. Integralists, that group of thinkers who seek to reform the state based on Catholic principles, have gained a slight amount of traction owing to the avowed anti-liberalism of two well-credentialed professors, Adrian Vermeule and Patrick Deneen. These two assert that our present miseries owe not to some corruption of liberalism, but to the rotten and incoherent nature of liberalism itself. This has naturally made them the betes noires of hack conservative outlets like National Review, and raised the possibility of someday removing the blinders of liberal thought.
Being an old guy, I also remember movements which once promised to shake up the liberal order and ended as nothing. Those “Occupy Wall Street” teach-ins, the environmental rallies, the phantom anti-war movement which mysteriously disappeared when it was a black man in the Oval Office doing the bombing—they all come to nothing, and suggest that the liberal superstructure is so strong that resistance to it must be in vain.
There is certainly reason for suspicion. For all the bluster, Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed fails to live up to its promise. It merely falls back to that conservative hobbyhorse of “Tocquevillian” democracy reinvigorating the civic spirit. Deneen clearly sees the symptoms of the liberal sickness, which is in itself a fine thing, but seems rather distant from finding the root cause of the rot. Vermeule is more pungent critic of liberalism and more clearly an integralist than Deneen. Many of Vermeule’s hopes lie in fealty to the person of Fr. George Bergolio. This all is despite the fact that the Holy Father is probably the most prominent liberal in the world. Because of this, he cannot provide a coherent selling point for anyone who is not already won over by the Faith, and certainly does not offer a cogent praxis for upending the liberal status quo.
But more importantly, both Deneen and Vermeule fail to sufficiently treat liberalism not merely as a political philosophy, but for what it is: The most insidious antichrist that has ever existed. Both Deneen and Vermeule are comfortable lambasting the very cornerstones of liberal thought—Luther’s protests, the “Glorious” revolution of William and Mary, the Declaration of Independence—but they are not always comfortable confronting the full form and reach of the monstrous liberal edifice raised over the course of centuries. Liberalism achieves this most brutally and effectively through the process of technological change. And without acknowledging how pernicious and far-reaching liberalism’s reach really is, there is little hope for upending it.
Critics of liberalism almost always fall into the trap of claiming that it is about liberty. In a sense this is true; liberal movements have always offered “liberations” from things like religious obligations, moral autonomy, and private property. But these are always gussied-up, ex post facto justifications pasted over the liberalism’s true motive force, which is, and always has been, exploitation of the many at the hands of those who obtain control over the technical apparatus of the superstructure.
Without recognizing liberalism as the subjugating force it is, it cannot be understood. As I wrote in “Empire of Hatred” at the old Thermidor site:
Liberalism is the process of enshrining what is unnatural in the body politic and ultimately the minds and souls of men. Liberalism is not about freedom, it is about license. For liberalism is never concerned with the liberty to do something we ought to do, but to gain the ability to do something we know we should not do, and as an ideology, it ultimately exists only as a justification for vice. It is, in fact, vice turned into a science; it is applied injustice gussied up as justice; it is what is inherently irrational contorted into the boundaries of social rationality, and from there, incoherently posited as a universal principle…
A liberal change is not merely political, but one which envisions redefining the rules of nature. Thus, the newfound principle is used to remake the social body, not merely by material coercion but under the claim that the social body is uniting itself to a higher law. The final stage is the remaking of man himself within the bounds of the new liberal principle, culminating in what Burke called the “complete revolution,” that revolution which extends to “the constitution of the mind of man.” It is these last stages which complete a liberal revolution, and which make the liberal revolution more pernicious and dangerous than any other.
The purpose of liberal change has always been to advance man’s power against the claims once made by Nature and by God. The necessary effect of this has always been to give the men who deviate from the natural order and God’s will power over those who do not. Because liberalism exists merely to exploit, it has no set ethos, and therefore has no contradictions which otherwise destroys real ideologies. This is why men as disparate and contradictory as Jefferson, Lincoln, and Barack Obama can fit within our definition of liberal. The precise beliefs espoused by liberals in one age must always be secondary to the overriding metabelief that there is value in transforming man for the sake of that transformation—of reforming man for the sake of spiting Adam, and promoting the Zeitgeist to spite the Paraclete—all for the of laying power in the hands of a smaller and smaller caste of men.
Since the Industrial Revolution, this transformation has been promoted primarily through technological advance. This advance places power in the hands of the owners and makers of this technology, and fundamentally transforms the nature of the men who use this technology. For this reason, to be opposed to liberalism in a serious way, one must oppose limitless technical advance, and adopt not only a government which is amenable to Christianity, but a type of man who is amenable to Christianity as well.
Let me explain:
Modern man is more powerful and less free than he has ever been. Where man once had his own fields (or knew someone who had his own fields), he is now able to rely on industrial farmers who produce with far greater efficiency. Liberalism has “freed” him from the burden of having to work the fields. Where his cities were once confined within the radius of foot-travel, rail and car have spread his cities’ limits to absurd proportions. Where man’s passions were once dependent on his wife’s fertility cycles, he is now “free” to give her the Pill and have her (or anyone else) whenever he wants.
Insofar that technical advances make man’s life easier, and extend his innate capabilities, the average joe is not likely to reject them without recourse to some higher ideal. No one engages in subsistence farming without possessing the distinct desire not to engage with the industrial food supply. Those who reject contraceptive advances largely do so out of religious reasons. The only non-elderly people I know who don’t have smartphones (myself included) are those who have made the concerted effort to avoid having a smartphone. The power to have all entertainment, literature, and everyone’s personal information at one’s fingertips is not easily rejected, after all.
Crucially, all technology creates a debt between man and the party that controls that technology, whether it be the government, corporations, or the autist next door. Man in the “state of nature” is dependent only on God for his wellbeing. But the man who buys his food from the supermarket is dependent on the supermarket, the farmer, the seed supplier, the fertilizer company, the farmer’s government subsidizers… Men in the suburbs find themselves dependent on automobiles and the legion of workers hired to manufacture and keep them running. Folks who base their entire social lives around Facebook and Twitter are surprised to find their opinions and accounts throttled by leftist regulators. The more advanced a society is technically, the more man is dependent on the providers and maintainers of that technology.
This might be only a political matter if technology did not tend to so greatly affect man’s soul. As Marshall McLuhan taught us, technical advances (i.e. media) are not merely tools we use, they are extensions of our being. Glasses are an extension of the eyes, the car is an extension of the feet, the iPhone is an extension of the central nervous system and the social hall, contraception is an extension of the reproductive organs. Give a man any of these media and you change his potentiality as a man; take them away, and you take away an attribute of himself. The girl with an Instagram account has an ability to conjure up instant attention, instant adulation, instant affirmation. Take away that account and you take away part of her, both in the way she conceives of herself and of the world.
What differentiates the chaos of the modern world from any time in human history is the necessity of conforming ourselves to the chaos of technical change. The ever-rushing current of technological advance means that man is subject to upheavals on par with the French Revolution every decade or two. Liberalism avers that these great upheavals are normal. And modern man has largely imbibed and accepted this belief.
There is no reason we have to accept every technological change that comes along. Yet, of course, we do. Mankind is now very close to the point where robots replace all menial labor; a little further off is the creation of AI which might make man’s intelligence and very soul superfluous. Decent people view this advent with dread. Any actual attempt to stop it would mean grinding to a halt the technical advance which has been part and parcel with the advance of liberalism since the Industrial Revolution. This is impossible, for as Hegel taught us, the “spirit of the age” requires technical advance for its completion.
This is what I mean in saying liberalism has no set ethos, only at best a kind of metabelief in the necessity of change. Totalitarians of the 20th Centuries strove to remake a novus homo along ideological lines. Triumphant liberalism looks down at its challengers, dead in the dustbin of history, and laughs at those serious ideologies which, to their fatal detriment, got the order all wrong. Liberalism flourishes because it changes man through technical advance first, and lets the political justifications catch up from there. Liberalism is “non-ideological” in the sense that its creeds arise as responses to technical advance and the resulting exploitation. Liberalism conquers through a process of “creative destruction,” such as Schumpeter saw was inherent to capitalism, and which is paralleled in all other facets of social relations. This is the chaos our economic and political structure is built upon.
This is where Deneen and Vermeule are not sufficiently radical in their critiques. When we argue about liberalism, we are not arguing about politics per se. In the present context, we are arguing about the acquiescence to technical changes which ultimately go to the very definition of man. Owing to this technical advance, we have the stunning technical means to remake man, everyone, including the anti-liberals who want to slow or halt this technical advance, have to have some vision in mind of the man they want to make before they can make their preferred political and/or technological reforms.
For example: An integralist state will not allow its citizens to use contraception. This is a given. The Church’s Magisterium forbids it, and if this were not enough, the effect of widespread contraceptive use has been an unmitigated disaster for the West. Let’s carefully think about how this might play out if we attempt to implement Catholic social policy on a population that is not only non-Catholic, but is actively hostile to Catholicism (as our culture undoubtedly is). Let’s say we implement a contraception ban. How will this go down? For one, a vast majority of Americans will be opposed to it (including a majority of Catholics), some of them violently opposed. Why shouldn’t they be? The state is now saying that the technical means to contracept should be removed, and man’s lust should be subservient to the will of God. Why? Why should any citizen be subservient to Nature and the will of God unless he is first convinced that the will of God is something he should give a hoot about?
How should the integralist feel about technologies which the Church has by and large acquiesced to? How should the integralist feel, say, about smartphones? The smartphone has been a disaster for the faithful in a multitude of ways, most profoundly in the way it has impeded upon his inner solitude and greatly divorced him from the silence necessary for personal and supernatural reflection. Will the integralist allow man the smartphone, that extension of his central nervous system, that nagging demon offering him limitless information and sociality? The question is not merely one of exigency or convenience, but one that goes directly to the heart of the quality of man’s social relations, and thus to the heart of man himself. The average citizen is not likely to agree to giving up such a convenience and potentiality without previously being convinced of a higher good which trumps these considerations.
When we appreciate this, we see why incremental change is futile with respect to the dismantling of the state. You can have your Catholic social policy without an appreciation of Natural Law and the will of God, of course, but state violence is going to be heavily involved. Any Christian reform put in place—derived as it is from the natural law!—written in the heart of every man!—will be, on its face, little different from a law put in place by party boss or hack pollster. Without a prior acceptance of the philosophical claims made by the integralists, i.e. the acceptance of orthodox Catholicism, such reforms will be perceived as unjust and will do harm to the very purpose of Christian statecraft, which is to unite the hearts of men to the will of God. The effect of these laws would not be to reconcile man to that law which is written on his heart, but to fill his heart with anger and resentment at the state and perhaps God Himself. If the integralist project is simply a way to put a Christian veneer on what is fundamentally a kind of enforced arbitrary rule no different from liberalism, it is wicked and worse than useless.
Obviously there are an infinite number of questions we can ask about what truly Catholic statecraft would look like. But I emphasize again: This question is not limited to wonky questions about checks and balances, about democracy versus monarchy versus aristocracy. Liberalism and anti-liberalism are not two different political creeds, but two distinct visions of human life; that the former is supported by the balustrades of five centuries makes it an unequal competitor. To convince a man that the liberal state is inferior to the Christian state, one will have to convince him that liberal man is inferior to classical man. A prior inner transformation is necessary for any integralist reform to take root and be adhered to.
One often runs across integralists advocating for the return of virtue to statecraft, and the reshuffling of political authority. But these are merely concepts. The liberal regime works concretely, has operated by spreading its tentacles to every institution beneath the sun, and has bolstered itself by offering man an inflated position in the eyes of God and the hierarchy of being. This necessarily makes true anti-liberal movement an endeavor against man’s power and comfort, of moving man away from his current state and back towards the state of nature, or at least a technical state that did not so blatantly pervert his relation to God as the one we face at present. The liberal state is the product of countless unique innovations. Asking man to give up any of these will be a cross to bear. How will you get him to carry it?
Deep evangelization must precede political change if Catholics are serious about implementing a Christian social policy in the public sphere. In the present, integralism has been useful insofar that it has made Catholics confront the moral fact that their faith cannot be separated from their politics. If integralists are really serious about their endeavors, they must recognize that at the moment, there is no reasonable hope for Catholic social change. Integralists have principles, and may win arguments on these principles. Liberalism has control of reality. Any movement not committed to opposing the status quo in concrete terms is really not serious about upending the liberal gestalt. There can be conferences, teach-ins, and the rest, but it will not intellectually prepare anyone for the war that must be waged against liberalism. The war against liberalism is fought by men taking up their crosses.
This has to be done through evangelization, not political change. Without recognizing the absolute structural incompatibility of liberal and Christian systems, the integralists run the risk of merely shoehorning a bastardized form of Catholicism into the pre-existing liberal structure. Liberal states have resolved to let men be whatever our technical overlords make us. If humane anti-liberalism means anything, it means standing up to this unmitigated advance of technology, and corralling technological advance such that it conforms to man’s morals and desires. This is a role Western man relinquished centuries ago under the aegis of Luther and the pungency of Galileo, and the one Western man must adopt again if we are ever to escape our current nightmare.
I don’t remember the exact time when I realized that iPhones were not just a passing nightmare, but would remain a constant fixture in every social situation, every landscape, every heart and soul until my death. There is no sign that men have a desire to abjure or even slow the technical advances which will soon make all his labor superfluous and crush what is left of his autonomy. For this reason, any attempt to reform of the liberal system is useless. The demonic belief that technical advance is natural and desirable must be confronted before all else. You can only slow the motive power liberalism when men are content to be relatively weak, relatively powerless. He must reject the comfort and power of technical advance. In the modern era, man has almost never done this.
Anyone who thinks the integralists have any hope for success, in secular terms, does not understand the nature of liberal change, or depth of the liberal rot. If we have any hope for change, it must come from the supernatural realm. What hope is there for this, given the extent to which the Vatican—that bastion of Christ’s Church on earth—has so wholeheartedly embraced liberalism?
I’m not old enough to remember any time when the Catholic Church was in a state other than precipitous decline and disgrace—I would’ve had to be born before the Second Vatican Council to have been blessed by a glimpse of this. Maybe the saddest fact about the integralists is that while they have many provocative ideas about improving the state, they have almost nothing interesting to say as to how to tear the Church away from the liberal forces which have so wounded her since Vatican II. It is in the Church where the true natures of God and man reside, and to which we must turn if we are to begin rebuilding our smashed civilization and conquered souls.
In the meantime, there can be no anti-liberal reconquista until the troops know they have a home fortress that will not open its gates to the enemy. For fifty years, the men in the Vatican have tied the Church’s earthly fortunes to the zeitgeist and reaped nothing but misery and squalor in return. If the men within God’s fortress cannot understand the beauty of conforming themselves to God’s will, there is little hope for anyone without it. At a bare minimum, the Vatican needs to be made Catholic again before the state can follow.