The meaning of official nihilism

What does it mean that our society has officially rejected the notion of a common moral reality in which all participate? (See, e.g., Planned Parenthood v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833 (1992): “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”) Officially, it means that we’re free, democratic and progressive — we give everyone the right to establish his own values, make consent the basis for authority, and strive through the market, the provident state, and anti-discrimination rules to enable each to get what he chooses, as much and as equally as possible.

In actual fact, of course, government can’t be as clean and friction-free as that. It doesn’t run itself, so someone must be in charge. Further, efficiency, neutrality and formal rationality, the only standards for good government that can hope to survive the abolition of common moral reality, are plainly technical questions that should be decided by disinterested experts rather than the majority. If there’s no common moral reality then majority rule can only be the will of the larger number to get whatever it happens to want. That can hardly be a legitimate principle of government except under special controlled circumstances.

It follows that there has to be a class of guardians to run the show. To perform their function the guardians must take whatever steps are necessary to maintain their authority. That means that men have to be brought to like a society in which efficiency, neutrality and rationality (as interpreted by experts) are all-controlling public ideals that trump everything. If they don’t like the society, they’ll reject it, and as a result the principle of consent as the basis of authority will be lost.

The problem with teaching men to like advanced liberal society, though, is that man is passionate and spiritual. He won’t accept the lesson unless what he is made into something other than what he is. The guardians feel up to transforming him, however. Since they recognize neither human nature nor higher law as a limitation, they look on human society as an object to be reconstructed, and feel justified in extending their power into every corner of human existence in order to remake it on more rational lines.

The free and democratic society thus turns out on inspection to be the totally managed society, with ambitions that extend to the reconstruction of human nature itself. It is, in fact, the totalitarian society. Totalitarianism is simply the belief that life in society should be a conscious human construction for purposes human beings choose. Once that is accepted, it is not “humanity” but government — some particular group of men — that decides by its own will what everything is and should be, and claims the rightful power to make the decision good. It thus claims for itself — and attempts to exercise — power that is more like God’s power than anything men have claimed for themselves in the past.

In America, of course, what is growing up is a soft totalitarianism. It is imposed by the logic of the accepted public philosophy, and by innate tendencies of modern rationalized forms of social organization, rather than by mass rallies, secret police and firing squads. Our methods grind slower but finer than the crude ones used in the last century. It is a totalitarianism of manipulation, carried forward by an amoral and utterly ruthless technological approach toward dealing with both public life and human nature in organizations. That means it is a totalitarianism that cannot be discussed or even identified, because public discussion and what is recognized as knowledge are in the hands of its proponents, and because the transcendent standards needed to distinguish between freedom and manipulation have been abolished.

So what can be done? To deal with a truly basic problem you must go to the source. Totalitarianism results from the disappearance of the notion of a common moral reality in which all participate. If there is no such thing, then notions of human dignity and freedom make no sense. Man becomes raw material for the schemes of the strong, deceitful and ruthless. Moral and political order, then, must begin at the center. The solution to our most basic political problems today lies outside of politics. It is not political, but religious.
Posted by Jim Kalb at March 27, 2003 01:35 PM | Send


From the opening paragraph of Irving Babbitt’s Democracy and Leadership: “When studied with any degree of thoroughness, the economic problem will be found to run into the political problem, the political problem in turn into the philosophical problem, and the philosophical problem itself to be almost indissolubly bound up at last with the religious problem.”

Posted by: Lawrence Auster on March 27, 2003 1:50 PM

OK, let’s repeal the laws against murder and theft. They infringe on the freedom of murderers and thieves to do their own things.

In fact, I recall that Milton Friedman’s son Benjamin wrote a book back in the ’80s (?) preaching pretty much that philosophy. It’s called capitalist libertarianism or somethng. He said, if I recall, that private groups would organize to protect their interests and would pay for the service, which wouldn’t be rendered to anyone who hadn’t paid for it. So everybody would have an incentive to chip in; no free-loaders. It made a sort of sense, like, kind of—
that is, if you consider people to be reasoning machines.

Posted by: frieda on March 27, 2003 3:20 PM

Mr. Kalb’s comment on democracy’s turning into totalitarianism reminds me of several feminist organizations in the late ’60s and early 70s. They differed from the majority of such groups mainly in their utter consistency, their grim willingness to carry the logic of radical feminism to its last corollary. The ideal was freedom for women, breaking the shackles that had kept them from living to the fullest, etc., etc. So these groups devised rules for living, and they set up communes as exemplars. The rules covered every 60 minutes of every 24 hours of each day: who would do this chore when and with whom, who would cook on which day and who would serve the food, who would make the beds, who would take out the trash, how slackers would be penalized, and so on. All this in the interest of freeing women from patriarchal slavery. As I recall, none of those groups or communes lasted very long.

Posted by: frieda on March 27, 2003 3:33 PM

“To avoid, therefore, the evils of inconstancy and versatility, ten thousand times worse than those of obstinacy and the blindest prejudice, we have consecrated the state, that no man should approach to look into its defects or corruptions but with due caution, that he should never dream of beginning its reformation by its subversion, that he should approach to the faults of the state as to the wounds of a father, with pious awe and trembling solicitude. By this wise prejudice we are taught to look with horror on those children of their country who are prompt rashly to hack that aged parent in pieces and put him into the kettle of magicians, in hopes that by their poisonous weeds and wild incantations they may regenerate the paternal constitution and renovate their father’s life.” — Edmund Burke

Posted by: Paul J. Cella on March 27, 2003 10:18 PM

Burke is making the same point as in the scene in Genesis when Ham finds his father Noah drunk asleep with his nakedness exposed, and instead of respectfully covering him in his momentary state of weakness, goes to his brothers and makes contemptuous remarks about him.

Posted by: Lawrence Auster on March 27, 2003 10:24 PM

It occurs to me that there is a common thread linking Mr. Kalb’s article about total freedom leading to total social control, and my article about the French finding common cause with Muslims in a shared opposition to America. The two subjects represent two different approaches to social unity. Specifically, they represent two varieties of the BAD and UNNATURAL bases of social unity that become necessary once the GOOD and NATURAL bases of social unity have been destroyed. On one hand, you have social control by experts, on the other hand, a leap into the nihilistic abyss of finding an ecstatic sense of “national unity” and “brotherhood” with West-hating Muslim immigrants.

These two alternatives also represent the two sides of liberalism as delineated by Irving Babbitt: the rationalistic (the philosophes), and the romantic (Rousseau). The first strips our humanity via a totally bureaucratized order of existence; the second leads to, among other places, Jonestown.

Posted by: Lawrence Auster on March 27, 2003 10:46 PM
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