We like to flatter ourselves that we live in extraordinary times. Every four years, for example, we are told that this presidential election is “the most important of our life.” Those of us who make a living paying attention to public things, as well as politicians who participate in them, have an incentive to see our age as more pivotal than it really is. After all, where is the market for the “things today are quite ordinary” book? When has a political or intellectual sensation been caused by arguing that nothing really important is happening?
So it is with some trepidation and self-knowledge that I say we may actually be living in a truly critical time. We seem to be living in a period of unusually significant change and an unusually vital questioning of basic assumptions. Note the raft of books, some of them quite popular (as books go these days), questioning the very fundamentals of our regime. Works by Patrick Deneen, D.C. Schindler, Anthony Esolen, Yoram Hazony, and Carlo Lancellotti’s introduction of Augusto Del Noce to the English speaking world all offer stinging critiques of the liberal assumptions of the American regime, particularly that of Lockean liberalism.
Another entry into this field is by John Milbank and Adrian Pabst, asking us to look to a “post-liberal future.” Now Pabst, Reader in Politics at the University of Kent, has produced a solo work, The Demons of Liberal Democracy, that offers a brief but thorough and highly readable diagnosis of our times and offers various curatives to our ills. Pabst’s title should call to mind the recent work by Polish thinker Ryszard Legutko, The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Society. While Pabst seems more hopeful for Western democracy than is Legutko, his critiques are certainly biting, provoking the reader to reconsider certain fundamental assumptions of Western-style democracy.
Pabst’s essential critique of the West is that economic and political power cooperate to create a “litigious culture that privileges the powerful and wealthy while undermining equal access to justice.” Elites old and new “use the procedures of representative democracy in order to increase their power, wealth and social status.” Combine this centralization of economic and political power with liberalism’s concern with procedural goods to the neglect of substantive goods, and you have a recipe for deep discontent.
Pabst begins his discussion with an analysis of economic conditions, which he describes as a collusion between big business and big government alongside a commodification of the human. “Subsidies from central government for corporations taking on debt, through light-touch regulation,” writes Pabst, “have led to an economy that is captured by small yet powerful sectional interests that extract vast economic rents and exercise a cartel control of cronies.” In addition, commodification of the human “means stripping human beings and nature of any intrinsic worth and viewing them as exchangeable rather than irreplaceable.” Of this “the commercialisation of education and the sexualisation of children’s clothing and entertainment are but two extreme examples.”
Centralization of economic power allows corporations to extract major concessions from government (note the slavish attempts of cities to woo Amazon in its recent hunt for a new headquarters), while large market share allows for monopoly and monopsony, the ability to dominate the market at all levels. An example of monopsony is Amazon’s capacity to demand certain concessions from book publishers as a condition of selling the publishers’ books. Amazon’s market share allows it to set conditions on everyone in the vertical market, from producer, to laborer, to consumer.
One of the refreshing aspects of Pabst’s book is his willingness to suggest solutions to the problems he diagnoses. While those solutions are sometimes unsatisfying, or outright concerning as we will see, one appreciates the boldness of his program. Regarding economic centralization, Pabst uses the past example of the railroad industry to suggest a business like Amazon be labeled as a “common carrier” of goods, thus forced to work with all sellers on an equal basis. Regarding social media giants, to militate against the monopolistic tendencies of entities such as Facebook, Pabst suggests that users have the right to export their entire profile to a new platform, reducing startup costs for new platforms and reducing the economic power the social media giants gain from the massive amounts of data they have collected on their users. Finally, he advocates for vocational and technical schools funded as a partnership between business and government and for business executives to be compensated for longer-term success rather than quarterly profits. “The overarching aim of these proposals,” posits Pabst, “is to tackle the concentration of wealth that is ingrained in the logic of liberal capitalism and the centralization of power that underpins it. Instead of a corrupt oligarchy that entrenches the rule of the oligarchic class, the proposed alternative is about a more a virtuous economic democracy that serves the many and the few.”
Leaving the subject of economics, the rest of the book deals with various consequences of liberalism’s lack of appreciation for humanity’s social nature and the baleful consequences of a religious-like devotion to autonomy. Echoing Alasdair MacIntyre’s division of contemporary life into emotivism on the one hand and managerialism on the other, Pabst believes that the West is both post-modern and technocratic. “Liberalism…separates fact from value and privileges supposedly enlightened elites over the common sense of the people. That is why liberal democracy is caught between the pseudo-scientific truth of technocrats and the emotive ‘post truth’ of insurgents.” Pabst laments, “Contemporary liberalism’s equating of liberty with the freedom to choose is manipulative because no positive forms of freedom aimed at shared ends are permissible within a liberal settlement that defines the horizon for economic or political decisions.” With no view of the substantive good, we are left with nothing but the will to power. We are left with an open field in which demagoguery runs free, not exactly solid grounds on which to found a just, decent society.
With its obsession with autonomy, liberalism fails to account for the “intermediary institutions” that give individuals and communities purpose. In this sense, Pabst applies his critique of centralization of economic power to that of centralization of governmental power. With little connection between governing elites and the common people, governing becomes about acquisition of power and status by that elite. Pabst believes, “Political authority is more effective and democratic if it is decentralised in line with the principle of subsidiarity.” In addition to the rather typical calls for stronger local governments, Pabst advocates giving citizens paid time off from work to engage in civic activity.
Pabst, in line with some of the contemporary critics of modern democracy, especially Del Noce, and in harmony with thinkers from Plato to Tocqueville, sees an iron fist of tyranny lurking behind at least some strains of democracy. In particular, Pabst is concerned with the rise of technology in concert with transhumanist theory. The notion that we can build a better human being, what Pabst cleverly calls a “Promethean” politics, threatens the notion of inherent human dignity and equality. The dreams of building a master race no longer must be accomplished through the old eugenic solution of eliminating the undesirable–albeit still a popular option–but through the improvement of the elite few. “Genetic manipulation, the fusion of humans with machines, and artificial intelligence raise the prospect of different categories of human beings and the emergence of a post-human species.” Transhumanism may be attractive, Pabst suggests, by promising an escape from life’s difficulties, from pain, age, and death. “What makes us human and happy is now understood once again in utilitarian terms as maximising pleasure and avoiding pain, and liberals who claim we have a right to happiness abhor the thought of human frailty because it gets in the way of feeling good about yourself.” Liberalism, it seems, is no philosophy for heroes. This is why Pabst argues “Liberal man is materially the richest and at the same time spiritually the most dispossessed.”
Pabst’s book is a pithy, nuanced, and provocative take on the travails of Western liberalism. That is not to say it is without its shortcomings. One hesitates to criticize an author who presents daring policy proposals, but some of Pabst’s policy suggestions lie between the unrealistic and the unsettling. For example, his calls for greater regulation to challenge the centralization of economic power need discussion as to how this does not simply mean the greater centralization of political power. As Pabst’s own argument proposes, too often attempts to regulate big business end up raising the cost of entry into a particular industry, further solidifying the position of the largest players. The Dodd-Frank banking regulation bill passed after the economic collapse of 2008-2009 is a case in point. Intended to put boundaries on bank activity, thus exposing customers and the public to less risk, the outcome was a byzantine set of regulations that small and medium sized banks struggled to navigate while the biggest banks, with their bevy of accountants, lawyers, and lobbyists, used this befuddling regulatory environment to actually increase their share of our nation’s bank deposits. Pabst’s diagnosis of the rent-seeking behavior of business should lead him to note the fact that the largest corporations often welcome regulation as it tends to solidify, not threaten, their existence.
Regarding media, Pabst calls for punishment of outlets that engage in “willful lying and deception” and fines for those who “produce and distribute bogus stories.” He suggests we create grades for media outlets based on “established credibility.” It takes very little creativity to imagine a scenario in which such power is abused. Who decides what is “willful lying”? Which stories are valid and which are “bogus”? Who precisely will set the standards for “established credibility”? Does Pabst believe that such decisions will be made devoid of self-interest? He should recognize, and recent news events may be demonstrating, that standard libel law gives at least some protection against the worst abuses of media.
Also, a challenge to all dedicated to localism is what precisely is the incentive for those who currently benefit from political centralization to give up power to local communities? I am among the hearty few who lament the passage of the 17th Amendment, enshrining popular election for U.S. Senators rather than state legislative selection, as it eliminated the representation of state governments in our national government. This removed one of the bulwarks of federalism and local control. My passionate belief in the error of this amendment is matched by my belief that we are never getting rid of it. I confess that my own imagination fails to come up with any practical scenario in which power significantly devolves to states or local governments. We are left with, I fear, a choice between a deep, order-shattering crisis and wishful thinking.
Finally, Pabst’s failure to define his terms colors the whole work. He never lays out a clear definition of what he means by liberalism and its possible alternatives. Pabst’s use of the phrase “illiberal democratic liberalism” cries out for a new term. “Contemporary liberal democracy is increasingly illiberal and undemocratic,” says Pabst. If it is illiberal and undemocratic, it is not liberal democracy but something else. What is that something else?
Here I think Pabst, in his eagerness to separate himself from liberalism’s nationalist and populist critics, fails to appreciate that such critics as the Brexit advocates or Donald Trump share many of his appraisals of the modern condition. The populism he dislikes–Trumpism, Brexit, and the more obviously racialist versions–is like an autoimmune disease that overreacts to a contagion. That doesn’t mean there is no contagion, but that the body is reacting the wrong way, as is our body politic in the form of crude populism. Pabst is not systematic enough in separating the partial truth of these populist and nationalist movements from their obvious errors and excesses. One can recognize the legitimate grievances of many Trump voters while simultaneously noting that Donald Trump, to say the least, is a flawed vehicle for addressing those grievances.
Pabst’s book reveals the tragedy that is at the heart of liberal politics, and perhaps at the heart of politics in general. “Societies are freer and fairer, especially for women and minorities,” says Pabst, “However, liberal gains also entail losses, in particular the progressive erosion of the social bonds and civic ties on which vibrant democracies depend for trust and cooperation.” Liberalism has “provided greater opportunities for many and afforded some protection against the worst violations of the freedom of some by the freedom of others…. Economic liberalism has also undermined the civic and social bonds of association on which functioning markets and democratic debate depend.” Thus Pabst concludes, “The liberation from old bonds makes us richer but more divided, freer but lonelier.”
Liberalism’s positing that we can desire without limit, that we can control and manipulate nature to our own ends, that by pursuing our own selfish interests somehow the public good will magically emerge, tempts us toward the belief that no hard choices need ever be made. To the point central to Pabst’s fine work, we wish to avoid the disquieting notion that perhaps strong communities and maximization of material well-being are at odds with each other. In order to have strong communities we perhaps must make peace with the notion that we will be materially poorer, with all the dire consequences that come from poverty. Conversely, we can have all sorts of economic dynamism and efficiency, but this may come at the cost of reducing human dignity and undermining institutions necessary for a fulfilling life such as family and community, leaving people more lonely and anxious. We also need to make a distinction between aggregate increase in wealth, usually measured in GDP, and the actual well-being of citizens. How that GDP growth is distributed may be as important as the growth itself.
Additionally, strong communities with a thick culture need a strong sense of identity, including what we do that makes us an “us” but also what we don’t do. That means stigmatizing certain behaviors. That will cause pain for certain members of our communities who, because of circumstances and choices, fail to be in full communion with their fellows. One might consider how the age-old defense of the family and female modesty went hand-in-hand with stigmatizing unwed motherhood, perhaps to the aggregate benefit of society but to the detriment of many unfortunate women. To the contrary, our radical commitment to autonomy has greatly enhanced individual choice, diversified our communities, and has led to much greater acceptance to all sorts of minorities. But as Mark Regnerus has pointed out, greater sexual autonomy, to cite one kind of autonomy, has been a great boon for sexual minorities while making it more difficult for the majority to find stable, mutually beneficial relationships that lead to maturity, marriage, and family.
It seems, as per Mick Jaggar, we can’t always get what we want. Political life, and life in general, requires us to deal with limits. Obedience comes hard to us, thus the attraction of Milton’s Satan who would rather rule in Hell than serve in Heaven. So in fact the demon may not be in liberal democracy, but in the heart of every person.