When Trevor Merrill lent me his copy of Ryszard Legutko’s The Demon in Democracy (Encounter, 2016 ), my reaction to the first chapters was that Legutko simply didn’t understand what “liberal democracy” was. In contrast to the communist system, most of which disappeared shortly after 1989, liberal democracy in one form or another remains the political system of the world’s most advanced economies and most of those approaching that level. And as I continue to repeat, I have seen no reason to reject Francis Fukuyama’s idea that this form of polity, although calling it the “end of history” is dogmatic and wrongheaded, is indeed the definitive framework of political organization, since however societies may evolve, a (relatively) free market overseen by a (relatively) free system of political representation must for both moral and economic reasons be part of the equation.
But after getting through his early abstractions, it soon became clear to me that Legutko was writing from a European, and chiefly from a Polish perspective, and that his concept of “liberal democracy” was very much like what Adam Katz and I had been calling victimocracy. Legutko’s descriptions of the mind-chilling identity politics that he identifies with liberal democracy are based on his experiences in Poland and with the European Union, whose vision of its inhabitants as “global” individuals endowed with rights and potentially victimary ascriptive identities has largely served the Obama administration as its model, and where legal restrictions on “incorrect” speech are in fact comparable to the regulations on many American campuses. Ditto for such things as hostility to Israel, indifference to the persecution of Christians in Muslim countries, and the other features of the victimary society that we had been coming to take for granted.
There is nothing really very shocking about these parallels. In contrast to the left-wing version of communist-“capitalist” convergence described in Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man (1964), a work highly influential in the 1968 era and beyond—still alive and well is Marcuse’s idea of “repressive tolerance,” which allows virtuous hecklers to chase “repressive” speakers from the stage—the picture Legutko draws of Western society is unfortunately quite credible. Marcuse was still retailing the Frankfort School idea of “late capitalism,” where the ruling class maintained its position by distracting the masses from their authentic revolutionary consciousness with the bread and circuses of “mass entertainment.” His critique was nominally addressed less to the West, whose capitalist society was decadent by definition, than to the Soviet Union, which he saw counter-prophetically as becoming complacent and consumerist on the American model.
For those were the days of Khrushchev’s “We will bury you!”—to which the heroine of Clueless might have responded “As if!” Whence my fundamental agreement with Fukuyama; whatever you think of materialistic consumer society, it’s a lot better than the dialectical-materialist alternative. But Legutko, writing after the demise of Western communism, takes its unsatisfactoriness for granted; his point is that, economics aside, the “Western” ideology that replaced it in Poland is ironically very similar to it in its dogmatic, self-righteous pseudo-egalitarianism and its rejection of traditional, particularly religious values. This is of especial significance for Poland, whose population’s religiosity as Roman Catholics fortified by their historic resistance to Russian Orthodoxy is comparable to that of the US rather than the other countries of Europe. No doubt whatever Europe’s current problems, Western economies are incomparably more productive than those of the old Warsaw Pact. But we can well understand how someone who has lived through the communist era and its aftermath might be deeply disappointed to encounter, just at the moment when he has supposedly left a failed utopia for “the realm of freedom,” the same kind of pseudo-utopian jargon enforced with much the same fanaticism.
The surprising appropriateness of this comparison makes one realize the importance of the evolution of the Western Left after the fall of communism. Already by Marcuse’s time, the communist example had become one of disillusion, and if it wasn’t yet obvious in 1964, it certainly was ten years later that the Soviet Union wouldn’t catch up with the US, that despite Sputnik, socialism would not provide a comparable, let alone a superior level of prosperity to that of “capitalism.” On top of this, unlike that of the USSR, Eastern European communism had never been an inspiration to anyone. Tyranny there, as in Milan Kundera’s novels, was semi-comic rather than tragic, although there were plenty of small tragedies among those who fell afoul of the regime.
Trevor and I had often spoken of the ominous similarities between today’s university atmosphere and that of Kundera’s Czechoslovakia. But not until reading Legutko’s essay had I thought to compare the spiritual impoverishment of the old communist bloc with that of today’s “liberal-democratic” West as a whole. My impression is in fact that the Warsaw Pact intellectuals were more cynical and consequently freer in their souls if not their bodies than today’s Western intelligentsia, who rarely give evidence of not truly believing every word of the dogma they preach.
The victimary line is, after all, unfalsifiable. Unlike the citizens of communist Poland, we are not asked to affirm that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. On the contrary, the ideological power of the post-communist Western Left lies precisely in its detachment from any utopian vision. Thus it can denounce ascriptive inequalities without needing to offer any blueprint for a better social order. Victimary thinking has no endpoint in view; it merely makes short-term “demands” that once granted can always be increased. Legutko’s focus is therefore not on these demands but on the stultifying ideology behind them.
This said, there is something essential that Legutko has missed, that Trump’s election and Brexit make obvious, and that allows me to maintain my Fukuyaman faith in liberal democracy. Although the Marxist dogmatism Legutko describes was an essential, permanent feature of communism as practiced in the Soviet bloc, as well as in places like Cuba and North Korea, victimocracy is neither a defining nor a permanent feature of liberal democracy. It is regrettable that in 2012 one could even begin to make a case for victimocracy as the default mode of Western democracy, but the operation of the familiar left-right “pendulum,” so beautifully illustrated by yesterday’s inauguration ceremony, suggests that the left side’s runaway pseudo-egalitarianism is still balanced by a respect for the traditional categories of firstness on the right.
Nonetheless, Legutko’s thesis should lead us to reflect on what is required to maintain the equilibrium that enforces the necessity of genuine negotiation between left and right. After all, Clinton didn’t lose by all that much, and would have won had the vote been a simple referendum. Would the “pendulum” have survived another four or eight years of victimocracy?
Let me begin by pointing out that a less controversial Republican would probably have scored a more decisive victory over Clinton, whose candidacy was handicapped in various ways. The best approach to understanding the choice of Trump in both the primary and the general election was that the voting public was willing to take a chance on the one viable candidate who was openly opposed to the victimocracy, rather than choosing another Republican like McCain or Romney who could be expected to mitigate its effects without confronting it directly. Whence what I called the felix culpa of Trump’s excessive feistiness: it signaled that he wouldn’t let anything prevent him from striking back at victimocratic forces and those allied with them, even at the limit in cases where his remarks could be construed as “racist” or disparaging to those with disabilities, etc. What Trump in fact legitimized was not “racism” but a less stringent level of civility that, despite occasional lapses, is actually closer to real mutual regard than that dictated by the constraints of PC—the kind of civility that is banned by the University of California guidelines that forbid calling the USA a “land of opportunity” or suggesting that an Asian might be good in math. Instead we learn to be constantly on the defensive against the possibility not so much of really offending someone as of leaving ourselves vulnerable to victimary stigmatization and administrative sanction.
This is all, one might say, the tip of the iceberg. The Obama administration’s blatant disregard via “phone and pen” of the usual checks and balances has weakened the democratic process. The Senate filibuster, for example, may be on its last legs, as partisanship appears to have reached the point where common respect for traditional rules is no longer possible. Yet the fact that the Republicans now dominate state governments as well as both houses of Congress as they have not since before the Depression is strong evidence in the pendulum’s favor. Obama as the first black president was a very special case, and the decline of his party’s fortunes that began in 2010 clearly reflects an adverse reaction to the extremism of his policies, with which the media were too much in sympathy to analyze them objectively.
The key to GA’s anthropological understanding is paradox, which makes impossible in human affairs the linear pursuit of a goal to its end, beginning with the deferral of appropriation in the originary event that leads to the peaceful division of the sparagmos. The advantage of liberal democracy over all the other systems except for which it is the worst is that, like the market, it incorporates paradox into its political decision-making process. Left and right are always in disequilibrium, and the left in particular would not be itself if it accepted the two sides’ simple symmetry, but to the extent that the democratic system works, both sides are forced to negotiate, “bracketing” their core values of traditional firstness on one side and deconstructive egalitarianism on the other. The most productive political dialogue is the most openly paradoxical, in the sense that although those on both sides seek to achieve their goals, both also realize that if this achievement too greatly damaged the other side, it would destroy the system itself. Liberal-democratic political debate requires that all value the survival of the institution that maintains the dialogue more than any given victory.
Every political system must respect to some extent the paradoxical foundation of human culture, the necessity of taking both a universal perspective and one’s own included within it. All systems of government, even the most tyrannical, must implement this principle; even the absolute tyrant cannot administer his realm if he fails to take into account the needs of his subjects. If he keeps all wealth for himself and starves everyone else, his tyranny will vanish. But the republican system of “checks and balances” such as that our founding fathers in their wisdom created maximizes the degree to which each member of society can follow his own interests while taking those of the whole polity into account. No individual citizen can be expected to grasp the needs of the whole, but the “political market” of free elections offers the best chance for a self-equilibrating result.
Legutko does not deny this so much as leave it unmentioned as irrelevant to his spiritual argument. And Trump’s wholly unexpected success demonstrates the pertinence of Legutko’s analysis, while vindicating the point made in a number of these Chronicles well before the Trump campaign that the real danger to American democracy was the increasingly victimary cast of the administrative state. Trump’s victory in the face of the establishment of both parties showed the victimary factor to be more central than nearly anyone thought. Even if we go so far as to stipulate that this factor has a minimal effect on the economy, its devastating effect on mainstream culture was what delivered Trump the presidency.
But after breathing a sigh of relief that the pendulum worked this time, that the final phase of what Allan Bloom called some years ago the “closing of the American mind” has been forestalled, the question of furnishing a counterweight to the victimary remains. The despairing tone of many recent Chronicles reflects the fact that for the past couple of decades the victimary “march through the institutions” had seemed unstoppable. The traditional Burkean values of civil society were being revealed one after the other as hollow shells. Thus homosexual marriage, which until a few years ago was simply unthinkable, has become universally accepted by the political class as well as by a large majority of the younger generations. Irrespective of the value of the arguments pro and con, the rapidity of this development demonstrated the alarming fragility of what had been since the beginning of history a universally respected social norm. No wonder the Left now examines every similar norm for its content of “discrimination.”
Nonetheless, I cannot help seeing recent developments of resistance to the victimary trends of the EU and the US not only as proof that the democratic process continues to work but as signs in both cases of a modest religious revival. (I know Trevor would agree with this.) In France in particular, the surprising victory in the conservative primary of the practicing Catholic François Fillon, who is more than likely to win the presidency later this year, would put the leadership of France in the hands of the first serious practicing Catholic since de Gaulle, and the first since Marshal MacMahon in the 1870s to emphasize the importance of his faith. In the US, Trump’s victory was dependent on the strong support of evangelicals and Catholics. No doubt Trump himself is hardly a religious man, but I agree with Victor Davis Hanson that whatever the irregularities of his private life, he is a man of tradition, as more unproblematically is his vice-president, in a way that the Democrats clearly are not.
As an expression of optimism in the longer term, I can only reiterate my faith in the eventual acceptance of GA in the place of the dogmatically atheistic anthropologies currently in vogue. The survival of what can broadly be called Girardian thinking is not due to a mere “cult of personality,” nor is it directly dependent on organized religion. Whatever the religious convictions of the Girardians or of those active in GA, their distinctive quality is that they take religion not exclusively as an article of faith but as a central source of anthropological insight. This is not simply the “respect for religion” that was in its day a more benign form of PC, but an understanding of religion’s central importance to human society even on the part of those who do not participate in its rituals.
The paradoxical quasi-identity drawn by GA between cultural significance and the sacred is not a mere metaphor. We need not accept the Dostoevskian dictum that if God does not exist, anything is possible, for the human itself depends on the moral model inaugurated in its founding event. Christianity and Judaism each in their own way, and in different ways the world’s other major religions as well, insist that God is the guarantee of the moral equality of all human souls, and of their consequent obligation to respect this equality in their dealings with others.
As Richard van Oort remarked some time ago, GA is not a substitute for religion, and would be of little use in the foxholes. But as a means of bringing together, if not reconciling completely, religion and anthropology, I think its fundamental insights have their role to play in the preservation of liberal democracy, in such a way as to satisfy Legutko that the West and those who follow its model are indeed capable of freeing their valid concern for moral equality from the disfiguring excesses of the victimary era.