Social change and radicalism

Current departures such as “gay marriage” are often defended as examples of the natural development of institutions with the times. To oppose them is said to be an arbitrary attempt to freeze social development at a particular point. Such claims don’t hold up. While it’s true that changing conceptions, interests, and ideals have repeatedly led to changes in institutions of all kinds, modern attempts at social and cultural reconstruction are quite different from past developments.

Some of the differences:

  1. The extent of the changes intended. An attempt categorically to abolish sex roles as a legitimate principle of social organization is incomparably more radical than (for example) attempts by the Catholic Church to get rid of polygamy or divorce. It is more radical even than the Bolshevik attempt to get rid of private property — sex is more basic than money. The same could be said about multiculturalism, which in substance is the demand, backed by force of law, that all particular cultural standards be deprived of public authority, and so of necessity replaced comprehensively by rational universal standards devised by bureaucrats and experts and enforced by the state bureaucracy.
  2. The nature of the standards imposed. The goals of modern social reformers are freedom, equality and efficiency. What’s notable about those things is their absolute abstraction and disembodiment. What they tell us is that there are no objective substantive goods, only human desires, so what is desired must be taken to be what is good. Further, since all desires are equally desires their objects must be viewed as equally valid goods. The point of politics and morality then becomes the maximum equal furtherance of human desires.

    Such a standard is radically at odds with any concrete image or tradition of the good life. Since desire is unlimited, such a standard creates an open-ended demand for total continuing social and moral reorganization, with market and bureacracy as the only conceivable principles of order. Nothing similar had ever been imagined before the modern period.

  3. The means at the disposal of reformers. The modern bureaucratic state and its allies and agents (e.g., corporate employers) have much more ability than previous governing institutions to force people to act in ways at odds with their own habits, attitudes and perceptions. The modern system of public education and modern mass communications also vastly increase the influence of reforming elites over social life.
Liberals betray the weakness of their position through the vehemence of their assertions. What frees them from the obligation of debate is the claim that their opponents are out-of-the-mainstream extremists whose views need not be considered. Liberal control of the media and the bureaucracies of expertise have caused many to accept that claim in spite of its lack of substance. It should be obvious that is the liberals, who insist on eradicating the traditional and even biologically-based institutions by which men have always lived in favor of purely formal arrangements, who are the extremists. In its public confrontation with liberalism the Right should insist on that point.
Posted by Jim Kalb at February 24, 2003 02:31 PM | Send

Excellent post.

A point that might be added: “Desire” isn’t present at a pre-defined, absolute level in human beings, apart from simple urges of a sexual and purely biological nature (eating, sleeping and so forth). Most of today’s economy is based on the constant fabrication of new desires, not to say the fabrication of MALCONTENT (a satisfied, balanced person obviously harbours less desire, and is thus an economic problem, as well as unfit for “saving” by any given World Improver). This does not only go for the “need” for consumer goods, which is the most obvious example (as frequently pointed out by everything from hippies to communists or fascists, but true non the less), but for the ideals and social structures associated with “equality” and “freedom” as well.

What liberalism and socialism (interprented in their broadest sense; I do not share the view expressed by some here that there can be a “conservative” liberalism; this ideology has been subversive since before it was even formulated) fail to realize is that the level of “satisfaction” is as much dependent on people’s expectations as on the realization of these expectations. A society that doesn’t rely entirely on material standards (i.e. any society existing before the modern west, and certain present societies as well, even though they are growing thin) can be poorer, less “equal” and less “free”, and still produce a far more satisfied population, as the focus is shifted to different (preferably transcendant) principles.

Communism attempts to provoke the material desires of the lower strata of society to a level where the present system cannot satisfy them anymore, thus creating upheaval. Of course they claim that they do not create the malcontent, but that it is there already (a strange assumption, given the fact that they do not accept the concept of “human nature” in any sense). The liberal economic and social system, as realized in the revolutions of 1789 and 1848, came to be in exactly the same way. Once in existance it has proven itself to be more long-lived than the communist one, since it shatters “the people” into an atomized mass with no self conciousness, hence leaving the individuals to themselves in pursuit of the material happines promised (or at least described as a possibility) by the system. Marx claimed that the bourgeoisie “created it’s own gravedigger” when it seized power and “proletarized” the workers. History SEEMS to have proved him wrong; but the principle in itself is still valid. When one lower class defeats a higher one to usurp power in the name of material development, why shouldn’t another?

The matter is, to sum up, a matter of the LEVEL of degeneration. Even the Soviet Union at times displayed a higher degree of connection to transcendence than the present west, even though those cases were mostly temporary deviations from a broader degeneration.

Posted by: Martin on March 3, 2003 12:23 PM

The social construction of desire and other features of human life is a point liberals and the Left have trouble dealing with in a coherent way. On the one hand they deny human nature and so treat everything as socially constructed, while on the other hand they need a standard beyond society to judge society and find it wanting.

Posted by: Jim Kalb on March 3, 2003 1:55 PM
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