SODOM & GOMORRAH: In this section, I discuss how liberalism failed to contend with such a powerful yet demonic ideology.
The modern reader will likely find such an account to be something out of a fairy tale. It perhaps seems strange that everyday individuals would suddenly find themselves in the grip of a millenarian mania. In our age, we look down on people who behave as though they wear pelts and horns. We are tempted to call such people delusional, but we forget that our sober minds were unable to prevent the rise of such a group. We have moved beyond the era of superstition, as we are told by the media and academics. The Nazi movement received widespread support in the polls and with everyday people. (Heilbronner 1988)
Perhaps, as some might suggest, only idiots buy into the movement. The leaders, echoing Rauschning, might really be more clear-headed than someone who sincerely believes themselves to be called to rid the world of the demons masking as humans who attend the synagogue down the street. Hannah Arendt certainly demonstrated that Adolf Eichmann was not very intelligent, remarking once that “his inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think.” (Arendt 1963, 49) Eichmann, far from being the evil genius who organized the Holocaust, was an idiot who parroted party slogans and catch-phrases that reflected a failure to think through his actions.
Such a view overlooks obviously intelligent people such as Martin Heidegger and Carl Schmitt, both of whom were university professors who joined the party. We may write such instances off as being the result of opportunism or fears of repercussion, but a couple of these professors refused to undergo denazifaction (the program instituted by the Allied forces in order to prove that individuals did not have allegiance to Nazi ideals). We are forced to face the fact that people actually believed it, and in light of that we need to investigate how liberalism failed to resist mythical politics. There are two primary ways that liberalism failed: first, its insistence on absolute free speech allowed for the growth of mythical politics; and second, its abstinence from value judgments failed to address the moral questions that myth concerned itself with.
Government by Discussion
Liberalism’s insistence on absolute free speech undermined its ability to resist mythical politics. In order to understand this, we need to look at the role that free speech holds in the liberal framework. As stated above, liberalism establishes a framework of individual rights meaning that it guarantees a plurality of liberties to members of the system. We are singling free speech out for special consideration because free speech is particularly important to the assumptions of liberalism and because the ability for mythical movements and causes to rally support is severely aided by the freedom to disseminate views. When enough people believe the myth, a fear of social ostracization prevents others from speaking out. (Tocqueville 1830) The majority cows the others into silence and acceptance, made all the more likely and dangerous because most mythical movements (such as the Nazis) do not hold any allegiance to ideas about freedom of expression.
Free speech is central to liberalism. One may even say that liberalism is government by discussion. We mean by “discussion” the same definition Schmitt proposed, which is, “an exchange of opinion that is governed by the purpose of persuading one’s opponent through argument of the truth or justice of something, or allowing oneself to be persuaded of something as true and just.” (Schmitt 1926, 5) In the writings of the classical liberals, such as Mill and Locke, discussion holds a very important role in determining truth. Further, in the writings of modern liberals such as Mises and Hayek, free discussion is instrumental in attaining knowledge. There is, in all of these writers, an unwavering faith in the ability of discussion to reach truth and justice. This has been liberalism’s peculiar claim to legitimacy; it promises to be the best approximation of truth since it allows all opinions to be heard.
For Mill, freedom of discussion is centrally connected to the very essence of human liberty. He writes, “This, then, is the appropriate region of human liberty. It comprises, first, the inward domain of consciousness; demanding liberty of conscience, in the most comprehensive sense; liberty of thought and feeling; absolute freedom of opinion and sentiment on all subjects, practical or speculative, scientific, moral, or theological.” (Mill 1859, 15) Free speech, for Mill, is the expression of opinion. This opinion can only be formed in that “inward domain of consciousness” that resides in autonomous individuals. The individual must be granted full range to explore any domain of thought, for “Strange it is, that men should admit the validity of the arguments for free discussion, but object to their being ‘pushed to an extreme’; not seeing that unless the reasons are good for an extreme case, they are not good for any case.” (Mill 1859, 26)
It is inexcusable to silence any opinion since, “We can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavouring to stifle is a false opinion; and if we were sure, stifling it would be an evil still.” (Mill 1859, 21) It is not just inadvisable or misguided to silence an opinion, even if it were false, but it is “an evil still” which signifies a moral judgment about free discussion. Mill expresses a faith that this discussion will yield positive results. He states, “[People are] capable of rectifying [their] mistakes, by discussion and experience. Not by experience alone. There must be discussion, to show how experience is to be interpreted. Wrong opinions and practices gradually yield to fact and argument.” (Mill 1859, 24) Mill presents us with a belief in an objective truth that is revealed only by the clash of opinion. More openness will yield more truth, and the special value of liberalism lies in its tolerance of all opinion. Myth, however, calls us to act solely on experience and intuition. Discussion tends to debase mystery and can reflect a lack of faith in its power.
John Locke hints at a similar proposition. The only way to avoid the violence of the state of nature is to engage in reasoned discussion. Locke states that those who “renounced the way of peace, which [reason] teaches, and made use of the Force of War” have effectively “revolted” against their own species and become like “Beasts.” (Locke 1690, 383) Liberalism, via its emphasis on discussion, is the only system that promises relief from such a brutal lifestyle.
It is very interesting to note how the Lockean dichotomy between supporters of peace (who are by definition supporters of the liberal social contract) and the “supporters of force” has been carried into modern times by a writer like Mises. Mises writes that “everlasting peace can be achieved only by putting the liberal program into effect generally and holding to it constantly.” (Mises 1927, 81) He later elaborates on this by saying, “it is foolish to rely on arms, since one can deploy armed men only if they are prepared to obey” and that “liberalism had drawn no other conclusion than that, in the long run, truth and righteousness must triumph because their victory in the realm of ideas cannot be doubted.” (Mises 1927, 140) The victory of liberalism, we are assured, is “certain.”
Friedrich Hayek follows the line established by Mill. Hayek tells us that “freedom of research and belief and the freedom of speech and discussion [...] are significant only in the last stage of the process in which new truths are discovered.” (Hayek 1960, 33) Hayek states that the freedom to do what one wants is instrumental to creating situations to discuss, but in the end we are left with a similar faith in the beneficial results of the entire endeavor of research.
For liberalism, free discussion is its claim to legitimacy. From this rises the emphasis on legislative organs and transparency in government. (Schmitt 1926, 36) We are told, “Freedom of speech, freedom of press, freedom of assembly, freedom of discussion, are not only useful and expedient, therefore, but really life-and-death questions for liberalism.” (Schmitt 1926, 36) Liberalism cannot bear to infringe on these issues since its entire claim to legitimacy and truth stem from free discussion. Even when Weimar Germany was facing radicalism from both the left and the right, there was a reluctance to silence particular parties – even when those parties were direct and open about their intentions to dismantle liberalism. (Schwab) Liberal thinkers will be forced to address the paradox between individual free discussion and the risk that mythical politics poses to the framework that guarantees it.
What’s Right for You is Not Necessarily Right for Me
The second reason why liberalism cannot survive a conflict with mythical politics is liberalism’s abstinence from value judgments created a failure to address moral issues. A framework of individual rights that allows individuals to hold whatever opinions they please necessitates a non-interventionist attitude toward those opinions.
With Mill we have already seen his attitude toward opinion; we simply cannot know who is right in an intellectual dispute, so we should allow all sides to be heard. Mill argues that nobody is in a position to say for certain what is right and what is false. Mises, about 100 years later, argues the same. He states, “Liberalism is derived from the pure sciences of economics and sociology, which make no value judgments within their own spheres and say nothing about what ought to be or about what is good and what is bad, but, on the contrary, only ascertain what is and how it comes to be.” (Mises 1927, 61) Liberalism, claims Mises, “has nothing else in view than the advancement of [people's] outward, material welfare and does not concern itself directly with their inner, spiritual and metaphysical needs.” (Mises 1927, xix) Aristotle tells us that political communities form in the pursuit of a good. (Aristotle, 1127) This good is more than just a business arrangement or an economic organization, but is a moral and spiritual ideal. He argues extensively that politics is only politics when some kind of moral good is pursued. Moral relativism is prevalent in value-free political systems.
People want answers to questions about what is right and wrong. Ceremonies and rituals give people’s lives meaning, which is why John Locke’s flippancy over such matters when he says (in relation to Baptism and Holy Communion) “The sprinkling of Water, and the use of Bread and Wine, are both in their own nature and in the ordinary occasions of Life, altogether indifferent.” (Locke 1689, 40) Locke trivializes Baptism by saying “that the washing of an Infant with water is in itself an indifferent thing” (Locke 1689, 40) in order to apparently preserve the sanctity of these practices. More likely, however, Locke is concerned about keeping the peace. As we find echoed in his own work, he wants to prevent dissenters from openly fighting other religious believers. (Locke 1689, 10) The supreme end for him, as he makes clear to the reader, is the prevention of violent conflict. Yet if history is any indication, people are not concerned about dying. If anything, they are more willing to march to certain death if it is for an ideal or mystery. (Berlin 1994, xxix) Mythical politics dares to answer moral questions; it steps into that realm of value judgments and in doing so, it provides an ordering principle that can provide meaning to people’s lives.
The individualism promoted by liberalism leads to social atomization. (Guénon 1946, 88; Arendt 1958, 5) When not reflected in the individual, groups become atomized and separated as they compete under a framework of identity politics. (Neiman 2009, 83) This means that individuals view themselves as individuals living separate and isolated existences away from a broader social group. A framework of individual rights combined with an official doctrine stating that the use of these rights is not subject to any moral judgment means that individuals no longer have anything in common with each other. As Aristotle demonstrated so long ago, this state of isolation makes us vulnerable to tyranny. (Aristotle, 1257-1259) Tyranny, which is to say a government ruled by the self-interest of the rulers and not according to a common good, is successful only when it sows distrust between citizens, sparks arguments and competitions, and promotes an atmosphere of discord. It is no wonder, then, that liberalism quickly gives way before a mythical politic; people simply find themselves powerless to resist.