Is Democracy a Transcendent Good?
DICTATORSHIP OF THE LOWEST COMMON DENOMINATOR
How has a movement dedicated to the promotion of moral order in the public square, known broadly as “mainstream conservatism,” come to advocate ideas and policies that traditionally characterized its opponents’ worldview and objectives? There is an obvious consensus between both ends of the mainstream political spectrum concerning “democracy” and “freedom,” but conservatives rarely question or analyze the underlying assumptions and meaning of these terms. Used as rhetorical devices to elicit moral outrage or concern, appeals to these concepts as “values” have become emblematic of an abstract discourse that was once idiosyncratic of leftist theory but is now common to conservative rhetoric as well. This has resulted in a transformation of conservatism’s worldview and, in some respects, even inverted its domestic policy agenda.
Conservatives reflexively welcome any news that the power of a communist or totalitarian state is challenged. Their sympathetic treatment of pro-democracy protesters in the former British colony of Hong Kong is, therefore, unsurprising. While the recent turmoil resulted from threats to Hong Kong’s legal and administrative autonomy, many conservative commentators seem to have forgotten that reunification with mainland China in 1997 occurred in an air of ethnic solidarity. Two journalists who covered the handover ceremony for Tharunka, the student paper of the University of New South Wales, noted the reluctance of the locals to communicate in English during the festivities. Raj Kunman and Sungwon Steven Lee reported on the “unexpected and somewhat alienating experience” in which a “slight feeling of animosity permeated the streets.” They wrote that “the most irritating moment was when a taxi driver protesting an inability to speak English thrust a microphone into our faces so that we could speak to a translator, and, at the completion of our trip, asked for the fare in English.”
Those who proudly asserted their local identity and celebrated the lowering of the Union Jack 24 years ago are now displaying it in the streets as an act of defiance against Beijing’s authoritarianism. This irony has been brought to an end only through emergency measures designed to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. Today, anti-communist enthusiasm among the right-leaning commentariat seems to have supplanted its memory of how the protesting dissidents arrived at their predicament. And it is here that we witness the transvaluation of conservatism in the face of social upheaval.
Though ethnic solidarity is a concrete, particular experience that the conservative mind should easily comprehend, the Hong Kong protestors took to the streets under the banner of “democracy,” an abstract concept denoting a system of governance and civic representation. To the democratic progressive, for whom political legitimacy is derived from the individual or popular will alone, this system provides its own moral justification; supporting democracy because it is democratic is, therefore, unremarkable, if absurd in its circular reasoning. In contrast, telos is at the heart of the conservative’s political orientation; freedom for what purpose and democracy to what ends should be questions that naturally arise. Sadly, what passes for conservatism today has almost entirely lost this purposive vector when orienting itself in the face of social and political controversy.
My aim here is not to undermine the moral basis of the Hong Kong protesters’ particular demands, or to defend ethnic chauvinism or Chinese communism; rather, it is to acknowledge that Western conservatives far too easily fall into lockstep with leftist modes of thinking by internalizing progressive abstracts as ends in themselves, thus becoming unwitting promoters of liberalism. This corruption in conservative thought leads to the politics of fleeting emotionalism, and it retards any sober assessments based on historical reflection — an approach that can hardly be described as realistic or rational.
In his book The Counter-Revolution (1969), Thomas Molnar writes that a “technique, a method, when historical phenomena are involved, is never only a technique, a method: it is a procedural method growing out of a central inspiration, an organic part of it.” In other words, it is imbued with ideological content, and that content is defined as much by the forces that gave rise to it as it is by the Zeitgeist itself. Molnar was criticizing the counter-revolutionary use of revolutionary strategies, but his lesson can be applied to modern conservative reverence of progressive social constructs, namely, that the acceptance of mass liberal democracy as a political axiom imports with it its underlying liberal ideology.
By assuming progressive axioms, the modern conservative loses the ability to answer why certain policy positions are held up as central to his worldview without borrowing from his ostensible opponent’s frames of reference. Traditional conservatism was always tethered to notions of transcendent authority, or a natural law, understood in the sense that legitimacy was derived from something other than popular will. It was also anchored in traditions that were cultivated over centuries of a peoples’ concrete historical experience. Can this be said of majoritarian movements or individualist causes, which are routinely championed by conservative commentators today?
Principled opposition to illegitimate authoritarianism is all well and good, but it should not be forgotten that the ultimate objective of good governance is public service in the interest of human dignity. It is, therefore, a mark of intellectual laziness that opposition to autocratic forms of government has devolved into a doctrinaire support of “democracy” for its own sake, without a thought for democracy’s content or consequence. In this sense, it is no paradox that individual freedom mediated through statist bureaucracy has led to civilizational decay. It is absurd, however, that a political disposition seeking to preserve the Good and True has mindlessly aided and abetted that very decay as a result of its inability to approach social controversies from its own first principles.
Consider that in the two decades after Hong Kong’s reunification, same-sex “marriage” remains a fiction in communist China, while it was legalized in “democratic” Taiwan in 2019. Democratic praxis often leads to outcomes that contradict conservatism’s mission to preserve a particular order as defined under natural-law principles. Similarly, three decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the erosion of the nation state in Western Europe continues apace, while the formerly Sovietized East resists what Polish public intellectual Krzysztof Karoń refers to as “anti-culture.” In Historia Antykultury (2018), Karoń describes this particularly virile and aggressive force as driving a modern recrudescence toward barbarism — intellectual, aesthetic, and behavioral — but which now emanates from the West under the banner of “liberation.”
Moreover, the conservative can denounce the Chinese system of “social credit,” but what has been his response to the growth of surveillance capitalism in the West? What has been his role in the development of comparable mechanisms of public shaming in the “free” world? These are decentralized in comparison to China — and thus arguably more pervasive — yet no less damaging to a public contrarian’s reputation and livelihood, and therefore equally toxic to conservatives’ much-vaunted, and now largely nonexistent, “marketplace of ideas.” The cultural and economic enforcement of political correctness is a consistent offense against human dignity, yet it has occurred either by direct democratic means or through mechanisms exploited in an environment of extreme public apathy. “Cultural radicals have done well in mass democracies because they continue to target the liberal order that the democrats deposed,” writes Paul Gottfried in After Liberalism (1999), a study of the demise of the traditional liberal order under the pressure of the therapeutic managerial state. No substantive critique of this accelerating spiral toward oblivion is possible if the soi-disant conservative operates within his opponent’s mindset.
An alternative mindset should not be difficult to rediscover. In the provocatively titled Liberty or Equality (1952), Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn illustrates how the political theology of the mob naturally leads to tyranny. That this political theology has always been antithetical to reactionary thought was highlighted in the work of Thomas Carlyle, Wyndham Lewis, Russell Kirk, and others, and it is slowly being revived by contemporary critics of liberalism. Three books published in 2018 merit special mention in this regard. In Libido Dominandi: Sexual Liberation and Political Control E. Michael Jones describes how “the tyrant can also be construed in a very literal sense as the man who rules over the people who are corrupted by their passions, through the agency of those very passions.” In Why Liberalism Failed Patrick Deneen explains that the transvaluation of liberalism has led to social atomization, which, in turn, necessitates an increased centralization of executive power. In Nemesis: The Jouvenelian vs. the Liberal Model of Human Orders Chris Bond analyzes the theory of power relations as a process that is used cynically to dissolve organic social structures, either to overthrow or entrench existing power centers, where a recurrent appeal to the masses is one popular technique applied in the modern era.
All the above indicate that a simplistic appeal to “liberal democracy” is no panacea to social controversy. Karoń routinely focuses on the disciplinary function of culture as essential for the promotion and maintenance of social interaction — here, “freedom” and “democracy” feature as incidental or consequential fruit of something more vital to civilization. Lest the reader become alarmed at the potentially illiberal trajectory of these inquiries, recognizing doctrinaire democracy’s limits does not lead to untempered critiques of modernity. Kirk writes in Eliot and His Age (1971) that “a democracy of appetites soon has a dictator crammed down its throat.” But he also notes that T.S. Eliot objected to British anti-democrat philosopher Anthony Ludovici’s “isolation” of politics from economics and religion. In other words, politics itself cannot be abstracted from the local or the transcendent as locally understood; nor should it be separated from the ethical framework that organized religion provides to temper the excesses of man’s fallen nature.
The utopian worldview was once a major distinguishing feature of the Left. The conservative rejected it in favor of the particular and was therefore often misconceived as a fatalist. By shedding his particularism, he assumed his ideological opponent’s attitude, sacrificing conservatism’s ontology for pure process. This explains the conservative commentariat’s amnesia concerning the social atmosphere in which Hong Kong’s reunification originally occurred and its enthusiasm for the island’s current political crisis; it also illustrates a chronic mindlessness in domestic policy. Consider Miranda Devine, who is often described as a Catholic conservative journalist in the Antipodes but now writes from New York. Devine was quick to concede the legislative redefinition of “family” in Australia as a result of a mere voluntary postal ballot. “The people have spoken,” she wrote in 2018. “I accept the same-sex marriage result with good grace.” This reliance on process as moral validator is only possible if conceived as a transcendental good in itself. Such a notion is completely alien to the conservative mind from Burke to Kirk; it is also violently at odds with the Aristotelian view that freedom (as a modern metonym for democracy) is a function of man’s moral state.
In The Revolt of the Masses (1930) José Ortega y Gasset describes how the “mass-man” is the personification of mediocrity. This was not a denunciation of democracy per se but an indication of the tendency toward mass leveling and its consequences. As Luke Torrisi put it at the University of Technology Sydney Conservative Club in 2015, “Modern democracy works against having an enduring moral order because one of the fads, particularly in modern liberal democracy, is to pander to the lowest common denominator, and to look below, rather than above, for your source.” In this sense, Molnar writes that the “chief objective of the counter-revolutionary” (and for contemporary purposes, the sincere traditionalist) is the “elimination” of a system that “wipes out [society’s] values and beliefs, its history and decency.” At the very least, this should incline the modern conservative to reconsider his fetishization of the democratic process.
Yet 52 years after Molnar wrote these words, we witness the bipartisan pedestalization of a mere administrative process that is either indifferent to man’s moral state or openly hostile to traditional notions of decency. It seems that conservative intellectuals — such as they are — need to be reminded that systems exist in a cultural context. No conservative should accept nonsense with “good grace,” even if it is assented to by a majority of mass-men. That it happens so frequently illustrates that conservatism has not only abdicated its responsibility to preserve culture, leaving it wholly to the social engineering of the ideological Left, but that it has allowed itself to be carried by the tides of cultural fads hostile to its own fundamental objective: the preservation of The Good.
If systems import ideology, it is no stretch of the imagination to suppose that the kind of liberal democracy the protesters in Hong Kong demand will inevitably pave the way for the expansion of Karoń’s anti-culture mutatis mutandis into Asia, one that derives its justification from appeals to revolutionary-derived abstracts: “democracy” without content, and “freedom” without context.
Thus, through their worship of majoritarian whim, conservative advocates for “values” like democracy and freedom have become the primary defenders of ochlocracy: the dictatorship of the lowest common denominator. This is why conservatism has been woefully incapable of producing leaders in the modern age. Any public authority that sees the fashions of the herd as sacrosanct can do nothing but follow that herd, not lead it.
Not so for progressives, who have for decades advocated causes that were not only culturally taboo but, in many instances, illegal as well — neither of those obstacles stood in their way — and the fruit of their labor is obvious. Any appeals they made to “democracy” were subject to their ability to shape its outcome by exploiting the vulnerabilities of the majority’s collective sentimentalism, and thus manipulating the gradual development of popular culture. It is their world in which we now live, and which modern conservatives conserve, evidently without having learned a single lesson.
The only practical solution is for conservatives to break away from the mental framework permitted them by their progressive opponents. The alternative is the status quo, in which modern conservatism continues its retrograde orbit toward the leftist singularity. The obvious first step is to question the shibboleths of modernity by returning to their roots: focusing on substance over process; the why instead of the how; the welfare of the demos, not just the manner in which it exercises its kratia. Put simply, conservatives must realize that placing human dignity at the center of their political programs may increasingly involve rejecting the vox populi, and they must embrace this realization with the same intellectual courage and vigor as those whose traditions they purport to have inherited.
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