I asked in a poll my Twitter followers what my first English-only blog should be about. It resulted in a tie between Burke & the Enlightenment and a critique of liberalism. This blog is about the latter.
Note: if I refer to "liberalism", then I mean this is in the European sense as the ideology which advocates moderate social and economic freedom, not the American sense as all progressives or the Democrat party.
Critics point to the doctrine of postmodernism and it's nefarious influence on college students. One blogger, Nathan Duffy, wondered where postmodernism came from. He made a bold statement:
"While these critics are certainly right about the campus SJW menace and the poison of postmodernism which fuels it, they are blind—as most are—to the fact that postmodernism is not anti-modernism but hyper-modernism. It's modernity completed and fulfilled. Modernity is a force of destruction and dissolution and its project is continued by its postmodern little brother."He provoked critique from James Lindsay, who recently wrote with philosophy professor Peter Boghossian a hoax paper to discredit postmodern "sciences". It is fair to say that Lindsay believes that the return of modernist thinking is the correct antidote to postmodernism.
In my response to Lindsay, I made the remark that I think Duffy made some valid points and thus shouldn't easily be brushed aside as a bad philosopher. In this blog I wish to elaborate further to this.
Progress is a central theme of modernism. This progress is based upon reason and scientific inquiry for the betterment of humankind. Liberals and socialists alike advocated for social reform to do away institutions which existence could not be rationally motivated. Since the Age of Modernism (let's say 1815 until 1945), humankind has flourished. Advances in medicine, agriculture and economy have lifted people out of poverty, improved their quality of life and caused a population boom.
However, the Age of Modernism is also tainted by violence and destruction. The Industrial Revolution rapidly destroyed the environment. The Holocaust and the Holodomor killed several million people. It is easy to say that the horrors of Stalinism and Nazism can be rationalized as not representative of modernism. This however would be grossly inaccurate.
The idea of Progress is not innocent as modernists claim it to be. Progressives are by default utopianists, they have an image of a better world and strive to fulfill this in the real world. Some progressives are reformists, advocating gradual social reforms but some are revolutionaries and will not hesitate to use violence. They justify this violence because they not only have the moral but also the factual high ground: as rationalists they proclaim they have science on their side.
The Nazi's who orchestrated the Holocaust believed they were doing the right thing because the science of Social Darwinism and eugenics provided the factual basis for the eradication of in their eyes inferior human races. The Stalinists who caused the famine did this based upon Lysenkoism, a form of Lamarckism. Critics who opposed the communists where deemed psychologically ill or subversive bourgeoisie and were put into mental institutions or Gulag camps.
But there is more. Progressivism tends to self-destruction, as Duffy noted. Helen Pluckrose gives the most accurate description why:
"The desire to “smash” the status quo, challenge widely held values and institutions and champion the marginalized is absolutely liberal in ethos. Opposing it is resolutely conservative. This is the historical reality, but we are at a unique point in history where the status quo is fairly consistently liberal, with a liberalism that upholds the values of freedom, equal rights and opportunities for everyone regardless of gender, race and sexuality. The result is confusion in which life-long liberals wishing to conserve this kind of liberal status quo find themselves considered conservative and those wishing to avoid conservatism at all costs find themselves defending irrationalism and illiberalism."The inability of progressives to sit-down and relax is why it tends to destroy itself. The labels "progressive" and "conservative" are relative, conservatives tend to compare the present to the past while progressives tend to compare the present with a hypothetical perfect future. For progressives, current institutions are always unbearably unjust and need to be destroyed so a new, better world can be rebuild from its ashes. So even the liberal Western societies will still be oppressive, institutional racist, bigoted, patriarchal and privileged for the few. Postmodernism is thus hyper-modernistic.
The individual is the second major theme of modernism. The individual is the centre of the world. This is not unreasonable. History has shown that the individual has been hampered in their personal development by too strict conformist traditionalists. Homosexuals, transgenders, women, black people and so many more couldn't be who they are.
Individualism tends to look at the world from a subjective perspective i.e. an individual is a subject who observes the world with its own consciousness. This is alright as long it is counterbalanced by objectivity. Modernists are however skeptics: how do we know what objective is? As every piece of knowledge is produced by a subject, how do we know that knowledge is objective?
This line of skeptical reasoning is what defines postmodernism. Postmodernists are influenced by the critical theory of the Frankfurt school. What they see in society are social constructs, which they subject to criticism and deconstruction. They concluded that meta-narratives legitimize these social constructs. To add a Marxist flavour, these meta-narratives are based on power relationships and oppression. Postmodernists concluded there is no such thing as the objective reality!
As such, postmodernists are hyper-individualistic: what's left are individuals with subjective experiences. That's why you hear on campuses how SJW's constantly feel violated, regardless if they were objectively violated or not. The subjective experience is all that matters, because postmodernists don't accept anything objective (as oppressive). They don't believe in free speech or dialogue, as that could discredit individual beliefs (who are you to determine what is right and wrong?).
As Duffy noted, for liberals this was all fine as long the Christian-conservative meta-narrative was assaulted. But as Western society became more liberal, the postmodernists turned their attention to liberal dogma's. The irony is, liberalism created the conditions in which postmodernists could flourish.
Since the sixties, liberals and socialists alike made authority figures (parents, teachers, law enforcement, the church) look suspicious. It is not that they didn't deserve scrutiny, but in their anti-authoritarian rigour, what the public remembered is that all forms of authority should be discarded as oppressive and paternalistic. Today, the last authority figures - scientists - are challenged by postmodernists and liberals can't do anything about it.
Liberty is the third major theme of modernism and the name-giver of its most successful ideology: liberalism. Liberalism is defined by cultural or social liberalism - the liberation from cultural norms - and economic liberalism - the liberation of the market.
Although it is undeniable that liberalism has brought prosperity, it's difficult to say that even more liberalism will do the same. The historical suppression has blinded liberals into thinking their ideology is evidence-based. You could easily argue that a liberalism-prosperity graph would have a bell curve: a medium amount of liberalism provides the most prosperity, too few or too much liberalism tends to reduce human prosperity.
This is heresy for the liberal: the freer the individual, the better. But is it? Liberal philosopher of science Karl Popper distinguished scientific from dogmatic theories by falsification tests. A dogma is resistant to falsification. Liberalism, especially economic liberalism, is very dogmatic. When there is market failure, liberals always argue that it is because the market is not liberal enough. They never would suggest that the assumptions of economic liberalism are wrong.
Liberals have issues with the concept of constraints. They do not accept that humans are inherently constrained, biologically and socially, and that this is not an inherent bad thing. Without these constraints, individuals tend to get astray. They like guidance, a compass to direct them. The community has always been a source of moral guidance under the form of social norms. Liberalism reject these norms. What the individual has, is only its own mind, a fallible, easily corruptible and blinded mind. The individual has the illusion it is autonomous, while in reality they become the slave of their own desires and of others.
In their pursuit to liberty, liberals helped postmodernists two ways: fostering the moral relativist agenda and fueling identity politics. By taking away all social judgments (as paternalistic), the only type of morals are purely self-referential. This automatically replaced the liberal moral universalism with moral relativism. By focusing on liberating minorities, they draw attention to the needs and wants of these minorities, eventually replacing individual rights by group rights.
It is time for liberals to acknowledge their contribution to the SJW campus madness. Ideas like progress and the liberal individual, they paved the way for postmodernism. Progress, with its inherent anti-traditional ethos, is determined to destroy the liberal democracy once established. Individualism, with its inherent tendency to anti-authoritarianism, leads to subjectivity. Liberalism itself, with its anti-constraints, leads to moral relativism and identity politics.
Postmodernism is what happens when the viral meme of liberalism unfolds itself to its ultimate conclusion and hijacks the entire political organism. I'm like Duffy skeptical to the idea that we need more liberalism to fight off postmodernism. Liberalism is indeed a force of destruction and chaos, what we need is cultivation and order. The only "ideology" that gives that, is conservatism.