January 1, 2017 by John Bruce Leonard
The Democratic Era: Part II, Tomorrow and the Day After
III. Through the Fog of Tomorrow
I LEAVE THE ANALYSIS of democracy as a regime to those better prepared for it. I limit myself to a cursory examination of certain possibilities which I perceive in our future. For I believe that nothing is so needful for us now, at the dawn of this very late day, than to exert whatever powers are at our disposal, in anticipation of where our modernity is tending, and what we might expect to find in the Democratic Era or Epoch which even now is coming into its own. It is only by peering as keenly as we may into the fog of tomorrow that we may hope to perceive even in dimmest outline those obstacles, perils, and opportunities which are awaiting us.
These can only be elaborated if we understand the particular ways in which the principles which presently drive our societies will unfold and burgeon in the coming time. All the future is but the expression of the seeds of the present: to guess even the roughest silhouette its canopy may take against the sky, or the nature of the life that will govern its forms, we must begin with the kernel itself.
Liberty and Equality
THE TWO PRINCIPLES which more than any other lie at the base of contemporary forms of government are liberty and equality. It is almost taken for granted in our day that these two principles are not only compatible, but even mutually requisite: without one, the other falls. And yet there are some voices even today which question this fact, and perceive some tension, even some strife, between the two. Not one hundred years ago, Thomas Mann could still state:
Equality and freedom—but this has probably been said all too often—obviously exclude one another.
No less an authority than Alexis de Tocqueville said this of the relation between the two:
I think that democratic peoples have a natural taste for freedom; left to themselves they seek it, they love it, and they will see themselves parted from it only with sorrow. But for equality they have an ardent, insatiable, eternal, invincible passion; they want equality in freedom, and, if they cannot get it, they still want it in slavery. They will tolerate poverty, enslavement, barbarism, but they will not tolerate aristocracy.
This is true in all times, and above all in ours. All men and all powers that wish to struggle against this irresistible power will be overturned and destroyed by it. In our day freedom cannot be established without its support, and despotism itself cannot reign without it.
Of course, the existence of dissenting voices (even voices of such rank as Mann and Tocqueville) is not sufficient to prove the point, but at the very least they make this much clear: the very modern democratically-minded assumption that liberty is perfected to the precise extent that equality is perfected cannot be adopted without some defense. Moreover, given the alteration in our views of liberty and equality, it would seem that there has been some essential alteration in the nature of our concepts, even in very late years, which it behooves us to attempt to define.
Both liberty and equality are concepts with many possible meanings, but, for reasons we will soon surmise, equality is today the less ambiguous of the two. Liberty has two primary meanings, one that we may call the classical, which was wed with classic philosophy, and a second which we may call the modern, and which emerged from, or with, our totally non-teleological science. The great problem of liberty in all its aspects is bound up essentially with the question of teleology, and this is a question which surpasses the bounds of our present purposes. It is not necessary however to tarry at present on that deeper philosophical problem; it suffices to consider liberty as it is understood here and now.
The larger part of people today adheres to the liberal democratic vision of freedom. To quote Benjamin Constant,
The aim of the moderns is the enjoyment of security in private pleasures; and they call liberty the guarantees accorded by institutions to these pleasures.
It is acute and most honest of Mr. Constant to make reference here to “pleasures” (and, incidentally, it is probably a goodly part of the reason he so badly misunderstood the classic conception of liberty). Put most essentially, we believe that liberty, or freedom as we are wont to call it, is the ability to do as one pleases, within the limits established by law.
Now, those limits are very abstract: for the limits imposed by the law in one country will not be identical with those imposed by another, and in some nations these limits will be so extreme as even to abolish the very notion of freedom that we adhere to. This means that the modern conception of freedom is possible or meaningful only in certain distinct kinds of governments—speaking generally, in liberal ones.
Yet we perceive at once a problem. The laws of all liberal nations, without exception, place certain bounds on “the enjoyment of security in private pleasures,” which is to say, they place limits to freedom, they stand in tension with freedom. Consider for example laws against prostitution, laws limiting the use or purchase of arms, laws restricting the manner in which one builds one’s house on private property. It may be responded, quite justly, that certain of these restrictions, and certainly all those which are unequivocally justifiable, are established to protect freedom from itself; for without them men should exercise their freedom in ways which are injurious to the freedom of others, or in ways which are self-destructive. For this reason, it will be insisted, good laws do not stand in tension to freedom, but rather form its necessary underpinning. But this at best would prove, not that a tension between law and freedom does not exist, but only that it is a necessary tension, mandated by something self-contradictory or inadequate within our very idea of freedom.
Given our modern conception of freedom, it becomes clear that the concept of equality defines in large part the legal boundaries set around personal liberty. Laws in favor of equality of any sort necessarily restrict to some extent the “freedom to do as one pleases.” An extreme example: the equalization of a slave with a free man requires the abolition of the master’s freedom to own and dispose of another human being. One may call that a detestable freedom, but by our modern understanding, freedom it is, and the point stands: the expansion of equality represents a contraction of freedom on the social scale.
It may well be replied that as the liberty of the master is reduced, the freedom of the slave is augmented, so that the overall level of freedom remains the same, while the level of equality receives a net increase. In other words, by any large-scale calculus, we may posit a point at which both freedom and equality are maximized. This is the point sought after by all liberals, and the point which, we are constantly reminded, our societies ought to be tending.
This insight permits us to get to the very root of the conflict between liberty and equality. For this liberal reasoning stands only insofar as every individual is perfectly interchangeable with every other. If we suppose for a moment that one person has a greater capacity for liberty, a greater degree of possibility at his disposal on account of what he is, then it becomes clear that restricting the liberty of one while augmenting the liberty of another does not necessarily result in a net equality of the quantity of liberty, but much more probably results in a diminution or in an increase, even a very dramatic diminution or increase, depending on the individuals in question. But this conclusion is surely abhorrent to the partisan of equality, for it suggests that inequalities are innate in human beings, and that the just society should attempt as much as possible to reflect these inequalities of human beings in inequalities also of law. This is the position today known as “elitism.” The only way of avoiding this necessity, is by defining freedom in a purely potential way: freedom represents nothing but possibilities, never capacities. Freedom does not pretend to consider what is not measurable in any case, namely, the internal capability of a given individual to do this or that, but restricts itself merely to establishing that the external possibility of doing this or that is provided to all individuals without exception. In other words, freedom represents the possibilities of what one may do, never of what one is.
Freedom, the very concept of freedom, is thus redefined so as to make it subservient to the concept of equality. And so we perceive that egalitarianism does not limit liberty first in law, but rather in custom and in theory; as ever, the law merely follows. In society, equality and freedom do not necessarily or altogether stand one against the other; but in philosophy, liberty and equality very necessarily do. Liberty and equality, speaking conceptually, inhabit two diverse terrains that border one on the other, so that as the extent of one grows, that of the other diminishes. And this must be remembered always and ever, if one is to adequately understand the relation between them: the one territory is inhabited by few, and the other by many; and thus the one territory is in general more vulnerable than the other, particularly insofar as the former learn to be ashamed, and the latter are encouraged to boldness.
It is difficult for us of the present day to appreciate the extent to which these principles might collide, and we owe our dim vision precisely to the astounding success that the founders of the Modern Era have had at reconciling them. But prior to modernity the very clash between liberty and equality formed the stuff of civil wars, popular uprisings, and conflicts between nations. Given what we have in the first part of these reflections, we find ourselves in a position to understand this tension with a degree of clarity.
Equality is without any doubt whatsoever the essential principle of democracies: liberty, however, is much more a principle of aristocracies. This will seem to our modern eyes very strange, for aristocracies seem predicated on the existence of gross inequalities of wealth and status which result necessarily in a degree of illiberalism, if not in outright slavery. Yet one must remember that all aristocratic societies are founded on the presupposition that the perfection of human nature can be approached only by a small percentage of specially endowed human beings. Human liberty thus requires a social structure that favors the few over the many, and which thus promotes, though it can never guarantee, the perfection of human liberty. Equality and liberty are thus favored respectively by two contrary social systems. The successful unification of liberty and equality for any amount of time whatsoever is possible only in a republic, in which the aristocratic and democratic principles have been reconciled through the balance of powers and the adherence to law, in which the principles that guide aristocracies have been compromised with those that guide democracies.
Put otherwise, the republics of the Modern Era resolved the conflict between liberty and equality through that most elegant principle of “equality before the law,” which is the republican principle par excellence. This principle establishes that there be one and a single law for all the citizens of the state, which makes no exception between group or kind, class or individual. Its lack of exceptionalism is of the essence of the principle; so soon as one makes exceptions of any kind for any reason whatsoever, the principle of “equality before the law” reduces itself to a mere tautology to the effect that “even discriminatory laws apply to all the citizens,” a principle which describes any nation, of any form whatsoever, in which the laws are obeyed.
An example: supposing that in a given totalitarian state, all the members of the Party, and only the members of the Party, had the right to vote, to hold property, or to stay outside of their homes after the hour of nine in the evening. No one will say that the state in question enjoys equality under the law, simply because no violation to this law are ever permitted by the ruling powers. For the law itself, as we would rightly retort, exists in violation of the principle of equality under the law. “Equality before the law” therefore can mean only this: the law may discriminate between citizens on the basis of what they do (i.e., criminals lose some portion of their rights), but never on the basis of what they are. This is one of the key changes that the founders of the Modern Era effected in the realm of political philosophy. And in order to establish this ideal of the law in the form of republics, they were forced to adopt the liberal idea of freedom.
If we are wakeful, we will see at once that many of the laws of our day exist violation of the principle of equality before the law. Some of these infractions are more or less benign, and would be considered unobjectionable by most of our citizens: as that law which establishes an age limit before which one may not vote, or which prohibits the blind from driving, or which places a higher percentage of taxation on the rich than on the poor. There are, to be sure, real difficulties concealed in such laws for the republican principles, but they need not concern us at the present moment. More to our point are those examples which are widely controversial even here and now, such as those encouraged by so-called “affirmative action.” For these laws, given what we have stated, exist in flagrant and contentious violation of the principle of equality before the law.
We perceive here an essential point: equal opportunity and equality before the law, so far from being twin principles as they are too often taken to be, stand in fact contrary to one another.
As demonstration of this fact, which might seem at first glance absurd to lovers of democracy, it suffices to pose a simple question, and to follow it through to the end: namely, in what way does equality of opportunity differ from equality before the law—or, put otherwise, why does the concept of equality before the law not suffice? Why do we need the principle of equality of opportunity at all? The answer can only be that laws regarding equal opportunity seek to provide or secure equal conditions for “disadvantages groups.” These conditions may be, for instance, that no one will hire or rent on a “discriminatory” basis, or they might entail something like our quotas in college or in work, or they might go so far as to demand reparations for past wrongs against individual groups of human beings. What is important to our present purposes is this: these laws grant a certain group legal privileges which are denied to all other groups: these laws wish to step beyond mere legal equality, and to establish a much more concrete equality, at the expense of certain aspects of personal liberty. These laws form a movement away from republican equality before the law, and toward democratic equality as such.
This peculiar dynamic, this movement toward equality and away from liberty, could not be more modern; it is implicit in all the great acts of modernity with but few exceptions. And I anticipate we will experience this movement ever more forcibly in the coming years. Indeed, I believe we are on the verge of a great shift, one might even say, a tectonic shift, in which liberty will less and less concern our people. The traditions of classic liberalism are strongly enough ingrained on the American mind that we will likely continue to speak of it, even after we have largely abandoned it as a guiding or regulatory principle. But I would not be much surprised if, by the year 2100, we Americans should not have almost totally replaced the word “freedom” with the world “equality” in our general parlance, just as we have almost entirely replaced the words “liberty” and “republic” with the words “freedom” and “democracy,” respectively. Where we preserve these words, I anticipate they will largely be but synonyms for equality or egalitarianism, as when we speak of “civil liberties,” or even “liberalism” as such.
Corollary to this, I anticipate that we will radicalize even further in a direction we have already long been traveling: namely, in our total substitution of duties with rights, and in the continual proliferation of the latter. We can expect most shameless demands to emerge from this transformation, as—the right to health, the right to pleasure, the right to respect, the right to admiration; and when our blessedly still juvenile science of genetics and bio-engineering really begins to flower in all its mad and incalculable forms, we can anticipate that birth of yet new “rights” shall keep pace with it. Then we will hear even of the right to beauty, the right to intelligence, the right to love, the right to—but it is better, perhaps, to leave the matter to my reader’s most capable imagination.
As equality becomes ever more predominately the guiding principle of our society, custom and law will follow form. “Political correctness” is but the most recent child of this change, and the attitude it represents will begin to find increasing legal expression in our times—ever, of course, toward the protection of rights, the establishment of ever greater “equal opportunity.” But much more importantly, it will find a widespread social expression which will be much more potent. It will become dangerous to one’s very prosperity and social standing to so much as mention certain questions, as those regarding differences between human races and genders, for instance; all of society will grow almost neurotically sensitive to those theories which even slightly challenge the predominant egalitarian position, and woe to him who dares prod the raw palpitating skin of society. Certain words, and more and more certain ideas, will become unspeakable in all society; certain attitudes will simply no longer be tolerated. These changes will occur for the simple fact that, while equality cannot be perfectly secured without “changing hearts,” it is impossible to change all hearts or to guarantee that no malign influence will come once again to corrupt hearts. It will be divined then (for the lovers of equality, though as any human group they are not always bright-minded, are generally gifted with a startling intuitive power in these matters) that all that can be practically accomplished, is to bind actions and tongues to the service of these ideals. Because it would be both obnoxious and incoherent for the democrat to infringe too far or too obviously upon the realm of “civil liberties,” the quieter and surer road of simple ostracization of dissidents will be preferred.
One will speak a great deal of “rights” and of the “protection of rights”; by this, one will obscure the shifting borders beneath our feet, and distract attention from the fact that liberty is diminishing at an ever increasing rate, to pay for the imperial ambitions of egalitarianism. I foresee a time not far from us now, in which a man at his job, in his public writing, perhaps even in his private home, will no longer be at his ease, but will be forced to speak through clenched teeth, catching a veritable lexicon of disreputable words and a veritable ossuary of heterodox thoughts in his throat. Every now and then some offender will be picked out by the roving public eye, and will be subjected to a merciless disciplining for something or other he has said. A mere handful of such examples every now and then will suffice to remind the general public of the state of affairs, even as in a harsher dictatorship it is enough to periodically and arbitrarily select a dozen scapegoats to execute before a firing squad. We moderns will be very much more civil; we will not use anything so gross and tyrannical as guns to establish our order. Nay, but it will be enough merely to wrap silence around the one who speaks in a way that does not please us, to heap scorn and hatred upon his head, to cast him from his social position, to deny him work, to deny him recognition, and to forget him. And his peers, seeing the horrible suffocating isolation into which he has been unofficially banished, will conform that much more readily to the uniform orthodoxy of the egalitarian state.
These are some of the tendencies I perceive in the Western democratic world for the coming day.
Of course, there will be—who but the most pessimistic of human observers would deny it?—individuals and even groups of human beings who rise up to bravely protest these changes to society. They will be tolerated only insofar as they are cut off entirely from the gorged and sluggish river of egalitarianism, and do not succeed in intermixing with it. They will form conclaves, and they will reunite with one another (perhaps amidst the protestations of angry mobs moiling about their very conference halls) and speak of how to bring their message to the mainstream, without perceiving that the mainstream is and must be against them. For with the coming of equality, the greatest alteration to society is this: the degree to which the voices of individuals, no matter how stentorian, must be swallowed by the garbling million-throated voice of the masses; the degree to which the power of the exceptional individual is buried in the aggregate force of the majority. New ways and means must be found for that individual in particular: this is one of the most pressing of our contemporary duties. We must establish a new discipline for new hardships, a new morality for new exigencies, and new manners for a new society. We must elaborate a new speech for new days, and must train the ears of those who would listen. And we must use the possibilities at our disposal to the utmost, exploiting every inch of ground we are still permitted. Beyond that, we must cultivate, so far as lies in our power, the great virtue of patience, which is a virtue all the moreso insofar as it stands against the worst tendencies of our age. Not tomorrow, but the day after, must become the ground of our architecture.
With that firmly in mind, we gaze long into the horizons of the future, and perceive there two distinct tendencies for this modern age—two diverse and divergent paths, which may lead to two very different ends. For the growing and ever more penetrating egalitarianism of our democratic societies will embrace as its greatest virtue the virtue of tolerance, and will much preen itself on the diversity which results from this tolerance. Yet through the “opening of borders and minds,” it shall invite into its lands a great turmoil of voices, ways, religions, customs, beliefs, and desires. There are only two means by which it might confront this immense chaos and soothe this chafing crowd: either by neutralizing it, or by letting it run amok; either by producing a fundamentally homogeneous state, or by fragmenting into many diverse states.
Neither in the one case nor in the other may it finally preserve itself.
Chyrabdis and Skylla
DEMOCRACIES inevitably transform into something else; democracy itself is a political waypoint between the here and the there. It is fashionable today to consider democracy even the stablest form of government, but that, as we have noted, is based on a fundamental conflation of republics with democracies. Even the oldest living republic, we would do well to note, has existed only a quarter of a millennium, which, by the standards of empires, is not so long at all. If what we have said is true, the republics of the world are already dying, and the regime which is replacing them, to judge by history, must count itself fortunate if it lives even so long as a particularly longevous human being. It would be well for those of us who are awake to such lessons, to learn them before they are taught to us with all the ruthlessness of history. Only as we apprehend the changes that are coming may we ready ourselves to confront them, that they do not whelm us in heavy waters over our straggling barks.
In all the West, we have embraced a political stance which has resulted in the most unprecedented opening of borders and mixing of populations, classes, and races ever seen in history. The potpourri which has resulted from this has given birth to difficulties that no other country or epoch of the world has ever known, because no other country or epoch of the world has ever carried “integration” to such folly limits, and at such a breakneck pace. Whosoever loves democracies will certainly resist my words. I have not the voice to warn such ears as that. But I will attempt to reach even them, by saying, more emphatically, that what is best in democracy can, if we are wary and watchful in the coming years, be preserved.
If we lay aside the abhorrent possibility of the deterioration of the modern state into civil war, or the issuance of despotism from out of the seething waters of its populism, it seems to me that there are two real political alternatives before us today—two real political choices, that is to say, facing the children and inheritors of the post-World War II Occident. We may retain the large political forms that we have inherited by sanding them down like wood until they have attained a uniform and soft exterior, or we may relinquish them to splinters, broken along the very grain running through our society.
This question is of utmost complexity and has to it a manifold of facets, and it will require the best brilliance of our finest minds to confront it with even a semblance of success. We concern ourselves here however with the broad vision.
I do not believe that even the most doggedly devoted admirer of diversity will deny that diversity produces certain conflicts—the more rapidly it is intensified, the more violent the conflicts. The devotee of diversity, however, believes that these conflicts can be resolved peaceably in a pluralistic society, and that this is one of those rare cases when the illness is cure to the infection: only by diversity can the problems of diversity be overcome. This kind of political homeopathy is widespread today—so widespread, indeed, that the alternative responses to the problems brought about by diversity are almost certain to be ignored in the long run.
Any pluralistic society will include cultures, races, and peoples that have historically been at odds with each other, or have waged war with one another, or have even sought to annihilate each other. It will include widely differing and deeply divisive views, not only regarding this or that policy of this or that political organ or party, but rather regarding the must fundamental political, social, religious, and vital questions under the sun. A pluralistic society for these very reasons must be tolerant: tolerance is the soft and permeable membrane against which all these conflicting impacts are received, and through which the shock of them is abated. Indeed, this tolerance is held by the pluralistic to be its greatest point of distinction and pride.
Now, to be tolerant is to accept the legitimacy of other viewpoints than one’s own, other ways and customs than one’s own, other ideals and life-visions than one’s own. The great test of tolerance—and thence of pluralistic society itself—is in its reaction, not to this or that oddity of manner or dress or any other incidental aspect of human life, but rather in its reaction to intolerant ideologies, which present visions of life or society contrary to its very philosophical core. It may react in one of two ways: either by what we may call “hard tolerance,” or by what we may call “soft tolerance.” In the former case, tolerance is extended only to to those who extend tolerance in return, in a kind of reinterpretation of the golden rule in the light of liberal ideology. In the latter case, one accepts with magnanimity the existence of contrary, fundamentally hostile elements, and one embraces their existence, and even encourages their presence in and contribution to one’s society.
Though we shall not in the present place venture deep analyses of these two possibilities, some overview of their general founts and features is in order. We keep in mind that no society will embrace exclusively the one or the other; all pluralistic societies will represent some mix of the two. Yet in all pluralistic societies either the one attitude or the other will come to be prevalent, and by considering the matter somewhat in the method of scientists, which is to say, by eliminating extraneous variables, we can come to perceive the consequences of both with greater clarity.
Hard tolerance makes, if only tacitly, the following claim: tolerance, as recognition of the human inability to adequately determine “objective” differences between right and wrong, becomes itself the moral commandment. It is the obligatory law, the sine qua non of all liberal society. Any ideology or morality which proposes to distinguish between a universally binding good and evil, or good and bad, reveals itself as illiberal, intolerant, and therefore unjust; it stands contrary to the liberal and just society. Intolerant thought cannot be permitted in a tolerant society, for intolerant thought contradicts the single cardinal moral teaching governing human life; intolerant thought in all its guises is not only morally perverse, but socially noxious, and therefore must be rooted out by whatever means necessary.
Thus the hidden logic beneath a great deal of contemporary liberal thought. At times, this logic is concealed even from those who adhere to it—but, as any psychologist knows, this does not stop it from being determinant to action. The basic premise of this kind of liberal thought is as follows: all human thought is to be embraced—so long as it is liberal.
The term “liberal” here is something of an archaism, precisely of the type mentioned above: it no longer means what it once purported to mean, and what one might assume it means judging by its etymology: it has nothing at all, or little enough, to do with “liberty.” The contemporary liberal is in fact as thoroughgoing an egalitarian as ever the world has seen. Hard tolerance is nothing but the practical implementation of egalitarianism, and can only be understood in this light. The liberal’s liberality consists in leveling society so as to generalize and equalize opportunity for all human beings without exception, and this cannot be attained without first rendering all human beings tolerant of all other human beings.
This kind of tolerance makes for a remarkable homogeneity, and indeed, the form of contemporary democratic society which results from it, and which tends to be decidedly “leftist,” might best be called the homogeneous society. In the homogeneous society, it is realized, or at least instinctively felt, that a true and truly stable equality can be achieved only by making everyone as similar as possible. Thus it often occurs that the same liberals who declare themselves to be unequivocally in favor of diversity rise up in arms when they hear any sentiment or thought that does not accord with their egalitarianism; thus they pine for the so called “beige future,” when all races have been blended into a single indistinguishable phenotype; thus they establish the most rigorous limitations on acceptable speech, and punish deviation therefrom with that kind of internal exile that Tocqueville so eloquently warned us against.
In the homogeneous society, we can expect to see tendencies like these reaching their apex, and pressing hard on the limits of the credible. There will be an ever increasing uniformity between all members of our society in dress, in speech patterns, in vocabulary, in musical and artistic taste. As ever, one of the finest metrics for this transformation will be found in the pitch and tenor of public speeches on the part of politicians, the quality of public writings on the part of journalists and essayists, and the style adopted by mainstream novelists: it will be found, that is to say, in our language. We can expect a great lowering of the quality of this language, a simplification of vocabulary and syntax, and an almost obtuse insistence on blunt meanings. This will be followed quite naturally by what I call the inflation of language, a phenomenon analogous to economic inflation. Our words will become trivial and commonplace, and we will see the greatest words either forgotten or used synonymously with words of a much humbler significance. As but a few examples, consider the following: a person who donates blood is called a hero; it is excellent when the weather is good on the day we have planned an outing; it is awesome that our friend has just got a new job, and it is terrible when he has lost it again. It is tragic when a fellow loses a hand, and we are miserable when it rains. Aunt Sue is brilliant because she creates knick-knacks out of plastic bottles. Just as in the economy inflated money loses its value, so our inflated speech will lose its own, and it will become more and more necessary, and more and more common, to pepper one’s speech with vulgarities simply to make oneself felt. With the debasement of our language, it will be harder and harder for us to conceptualize the very qualities we have so demeaned, and life will become flatter, and the people in it less differentiated.
We can also expect to see significant tendencies in the structure of our language which reflect our new outlook, as for instance, the replacement of the universal pronoun he with various “inclusive” alternatives, or the emergence of curious suggestions for the engineering a of more perfectly egalitarian language. Some theorists have already proposed various “gender neutral” universal pronouns, to be used when gender of the subject is not known, or when it is meant to include all human beings. At the extremes of this trend I can anticipate that someone or other (if such has not already occurred) will begin to suggest the outright elimination of gendered language as such, even when the gender of the person in question is known, on the grounds that gendered language of any kind is in some way sexist, since “gender” is nothing but a social construct. We should therefore have, this visionary will propose, a single pronoun, to be used in all cases, one which makes no such odious distinctions and does not distract from the raw undifferentiated humanity of the person in question.
Another point at which these transformations will become evident are in the changes in the comportment and dress of the genders: and we can expect to see an increase in that trend, already strong with us, toward androgyny on the part of both men and women. This will be reflected in everything from the voice with which one speaks to the way that one walks. There will be growing confusion in the relations between the sexes as they attempt to come to terms with the discrepancies between the demands of their genders, and the expectations that society imposes upon them. Shame, which once was reserved for the sexual aspect of love, will now extend much more insidiously throughout all relations between men and women; only it will be a shame which, in a prime example of our peculiar modern sophistry, will call itself liberation and free expression.
Because of the fundamental nature of sexuality in acts of creation, we can expect to feel the consequences of these transformations echoing throughout all the artistic and cultural endeavors of humanity. I am afraid nothing good can come of it in these quarters; indeed, I suspect that shameless sexual licence, combined with a muddling of the amorous tensions between the genders and a blurring of their differences, will prove to be one of the most artistically stunting metamorphoses ever suffered by any human society, and will come more and more to ruin the highest possibilities in art. The artist will have to make himself hard in conditions like these; but that itself is one of the hardest demands one can lay on an artist, who is in and of himself among the most sensitive and receptive of human types, subject both physiologically and psychologically to a variety of illnesses.
Society will quite unconsciously begin to seek out new mores fit to its rampant egalitarianism. It will fill its own heart with pity and shame; it will come to consider its criminals as but other victims, and will develop a startling array of new theories regarding the equalities between animals and men. The expectations of all will be lowered to fit the capacities of all, and the only exceptions, or indeed exceptionalism, that will be tolerated, will be in the narrow field of the specialists, and only insofar as these specialists modestly keep their noses buried in their specialties. This will accord with a general peculiarity of the democratic condition: namely, an increased capacity to view isolated and superficial phenomenon, and a simultaneous reduction of the capacity to pierce through to principle and the deepest roots of an issue. Our democratic period is bound to be a very factual period; it will earn its right to that great factuality through the sacrifice of its profundity and its ability to perceive first principles.
We can anticipate that science will be for the most part excluded from this grand leveling—but only insofar as it readily bends its labors toward the satisfaction of the desires of the homogeneous many, and toward abetting, through technology or theory, the egalitarian agenda. This will require some compromise of science’s strict intellectual probity, but probably not much more than it has already surrendered, and mostly only in acceptably peripheral fields of its research.
The overlap between this egalitarianism and the burgeoning of novel and ever-more powerful technologies, will permit such a restructuring of society as has never before been contemplated by even the most radical egalitarians of the past. Security and safety will be gladly bartered for with liberty, and an ever widening umbrella of ever subtler and more penetrating state surveillance will be most mildly accepted for the greater protection of those new rights we are only just beginning to enjoy. The moreso as this umbrella corresponds with the widening role of political correctness in our lives. For it will be increasingly possible thereby to root out the hidden enemies to the new order. The weakest of them, of course, will be left to mutter innocuously in the shadows; for it is becoming that a tolerant state permits voices of dissent in this or that nook or cranny, and the token dissident convinces everyone that “freedom of speech” is still sacred. But when these shadow figures gain too much in power, and stand too much in the light, then the “pluralistic society” will reveal its true face; and woe to its foes if they so much as suggest the superiority of some individuals over others, even in their private correspondences, or make anything approaching a racist, a sexist, or an elitist comment. So soon as the better part of our communications become digital, it will be possible to turn even offhanded comments against their writers, whenever necessary, either to ruin or to cow them, and this will be a great power in the hands of the egalitarian masses.
The homogeneous society will, if it does not much expand in its geographical reach, at least not appreciably shrink in it. It will prove to be a very stable form of society, monstrously stable, so long as its proclivities toward populism do not incite its people to factionalism, and its envies do not press them to overtax the welfare of the state. On the other hand, the homogeneous society must take care not to unleash the essentially unpredictable powers that it attempts to harness through its technologies; restraint which will be most difficult with it, for it will even be the most enthusiastic patron of technology in all the world, and can be brought only with great difficulty, or through some near disaster, to see the menace it is incubating. Supposing it manages to navigate these perils—which is improbable enough—then it might come into its own at last. Its members, (after an initial period of even quite vocal, tendentious, and militant insistence on universal equality of various hues) will reduce themselves over the course of some few centuries to meek mediocrity and startling internal and external uniformity, and will constrain their desires and their ambitions within very manageable, and very monotonous, limits. They will form the wide and unshakable ballast of a new state which is capable of protracting itself far into the future, the possibilities of which are perhaps as unprecedented and superb, as are the dangers that must be surpassed to establish them.
This much for hard tolerance, and the homogeneous society it will tend to produce.
Soft tolerance, on the other hand, will inevitably result in the fragmentation of larger political orders into smaller ones, as the final consequence of those tendencies known as particularism or “identity politics.” Soft tolerance cannot avoid such fragmentation because of an inner weakness: soft tolerance demands the simultaneous practice of two irreconcilable ideals. In the first place, due to its acceptance of the basic thesis of relativism, it embraces true diversity, encourages the opening of borders and of minds, and acknowledges the inherent value of all individuals, ways, and beliefs, without or almost without exception. At the same time, through a ruthless inner consistency, it refuses to place its own social vision onto a privileged position vis-à-vis the other possible visions of the world. It therefore refuses to forcibly establish any basic similarity, any point of concord, between all of the harshly different worldviews it aggregates under one society, such that these might coexist peacefully on that single shred of communal ground. Its more optimistic adherents might hope vaguely that even very militant opponents to equality and diversity will come round sooner or later, given enough time, as soon as they experience the advantages that the open society brings: but that is merely a self-indulgent and self-contradictory pipe dream, for such an egalitarian has already allowed that, due to the radical non-existence of human right or wrong, there are no valid reasons for which any one ought to subscribe to the soft-tolerant position.
Inevitably, then, an egalitarian society built tacitly or explicitly on this principle will fail to secure its own internal integrity; it will bring about its own dissolution, its fragmentation into its constituent groups. This breaking apart may be peaceful, but it need not be; it may lead to a more or less stable confederacy of small, peaceable, and above all democratic states—but to hope for this is to give oneself over that very groundless egalitarian optimism which, as we have said, cannot keep even the pluralistic state together in one piece.
What is certain about such egalitarianism is that it will remain much more “liberal” in the older sense of that word than the hard-tolerant society. It will represent indeed the latest phase of traditional liberalism, but initially at least without the conviction in the truth and rightness of such. It will give birth, therefore, to a variety of societies, whose ways are based less strictly on democratic-egalitarian premises, than on a deeper bedrock of older, maybe even long-contemned traditions or ethnic customs.
There is no reason why only one of the democratic forms described above, the homogeneous or the fragmentary, must hold sway universally in all the democratic world. I perceive, for instance, that the United States, which has strong historical reasons for opposing the secession of any of its member states, is at present drifting toward homogeneity, while I foresee that Europe will follow most likely the fragmentary path, as the European Union collapses into its constituent nations, and even those nations themselves begun to break apart into their constituent ethnic groups, or what is left of these. One can easily imagine, for instance, a Basque or Corsican, a Bavarian or South Tyrolean state, and it seems unlikely that Britain in the wake of Brexit will not lose some if not all of its historical territories. The fragmentation, once begun, will be difficult if not impossible to stem. Yet these are only the present trends, which might be overthrown by the unexpected vicissitudes of tomorrow.
There is probably only a limited degree to which we will be able to direct the course of these developments, though the degree to which we understand the conceptual roots of the present situation will certainly augment our powers over it. For my part, I hold this much at least to be inescapable: we are entering even now into a more purely democratic epoch than any we have known, and this epoch will almost certainly enshrine egalitarianism as its golden calf. It will therefore tend to traverse, if it does not first come to ruin, one of the two paths I have delineated here. Even those movements within it, which seem at first glance to be reaction to it, will reveal themselves in the long run to be merely recapitulation of it, its restatement in other words, its manifestation in new forms. This is inevitable for the simple reason that republicanism really is founded on the sovereignty of the people, so that to the degree to which republican safeguards against the excesses of democracy dissolve, the sovereignty of the people will be revealed to that same extent as the nude kernel of power at the basis of all contemporary expressions of the state. All the major political movements within republicanism without exception emerge from this kernel of power, and therefore are not, and cannot be, against it; and those powers which attempt to manipulate or control it, no matter what temporary successes they might enjoy, will find in the end that they have really been molded into its image.
What is not known about the future is the particular structural and institutional forms our contemporary democracy will tend to adopt, nor (and this is an integrally related question) how long it will last, or what effects its ascendancy will have on the souls of its people. We can predict that no widespread political movement will likely stand against it, save in its expiring days, and that before then all opposition to even its least palatable excesses will remain ever and always to some extent “subterranean” or “alternative,” to use our contemporary language. And so it is in the individual soul alone that these influences may be truly countermanded.
An enormity could be written regarding these possibilities, and it is really high time we begin to think of them with a little more diligence and clarity than we have in general dedicated to the question before us. But we here are concerned solely with the problem of the ultimate governing of democracies, and for this reason it is essential that we mention in brief the great points of weakness inherent in both the alternatives presented above. This will form the conclusion of the present section; then we may turn to those wider challenges which face all democratic nations, no matter what particular form they might take, as embodied in the perils of factionalism and technocracy.
Through meditations like these alone will we develop a proper sense of what preparatory acts it behooves us to take, and in what directions we should be working. We forget not that future and opportunity are synchronous, and that to understand the basic essence of the future, is to learn how it can be tended, shaped, guided, and nourished.
Apart from the fundamental and absolutely urgent menace embodied in technology, which we will later address, the greatest danger to the homogeneous state is likely to be an internal economic implosion resulting from too widespread a patronizing of the state’s coffers. Despite all exigencies of the state, despite its growing inability to pay for such programs, the welfare state will continue to expand, until it simply cannot any longer bear its own morbid obesity. This for the simple reason that the people will refuse to surrender what they have gained and come to regard as their “right,” and will jealously crave those benefits they perceive accruing to other heads than their own. And meanwhile the politicians which in a republic might have been the shepherds of these desires, in a democracy tend to become their abject servants, and must do as the people demands, lest they be driven out of their offices, and find their dearest ambitions jeopardized. Thus the growth of the state will continue, I say, until the limits of the possible have been breached, and the whole structure comes precipitating down on our heads. Then our nations shall be bankrupt, with no power above them to “bail them out,” save perchance that embodied in certain societies of extraordinarily wealthy individuals, which have been awaiting just such a chance.
This can be avoided only with great difficulty, and only by encouraging as much as possible such economic growth as might permit the welfare state to carry on, and its people to find work. For this reason, the homogeneous state and the free market must be brought to overlap as much as possible, and it would be well to strive for the realization of Bobbitt’s market-state. Those customs and traditions in the people which support or encourage this overlap must be celebrated where they can still be found, and resurrected where they have begun to decay. Barring this, and as the last line of defense, bureaucracy itself may become an ally against too abrupt and violent a breakdown; for bureaucracy slows the metabolism of the state, and puts a natural dampener on the expectations of the people. This in turn will yield other discontents, but those are more easily regulated by superficial politics, and placated by that empty democratic rhetoric which our modern demagogues have so refined.
All those contemporary popular-philosophastic movements which promote “spiritualism” are most favorable in either case: for they teach the masses, as much as can be done, to temper their appetites, to attenuate their materialism, and to read “life lessons” into misfortunes. This is a most difficult cause, and one in which all allies are welcome, for love of money, envy of the good fortune of others, and secularism are practically inseparable from democracy.
In general, and particularly in the stuttering first years of the homogeneous society, one of two things is required more than aught else: either a society which can guarantee high levels of employment, or a society which is willing and able to offer universal minimum income from out of its revenues. The first possibility can be attained only insofar as the modern state finds some way of restoring the fast-vanishing notion of dignity in labor by which even jobs of low social status might regain their value in the eyes of the workers; the second can be attained only insofar as the state manages to produce the revenues necessary to maintain a growing welfare state, despite the challenges brought by natural economic fluctuations and generational changes in demographics. All of these solutions will be difficult if not impossible to maintain, and this will represent the great struggle confronting the homogeneous society in our time. For if such measures fail, then the result will be almost certainly a descent into populist chaos, and the final emergence of a dictator.
The fragmentation of the democratic state, on the other hand, will in large part obviate these peculiar troubles. It will allay the tendency of democracy toward uniformity by returning to those deep, diverse, and often religiously oriented roots which are nourished by the very blood of our European peoples; it will make economic meltdown and political instability more manageable, by reducing the scale of both and rendering the political system simpler and more compact; it will help to obviate the danger of a centralized technocratic state by insisting on the human aspect to human politics and reestablishing the first bonds between citizen and statesman. Those individuals who stand out for their excellence might find better role in society, for their qualities will be more easily perceived than they would be in a grossly enormous state, and their deeds will seem more directly to work toward the common good. These are some of the benefits we might expect from the dissolution of our present coalitions and federations of states.
That same fragmentation will, however, carry with it much more tangible and immediate threats: as, the sudden and most precarious military enfeeblement of large swaths of the Occident. As the unified front of our great political states collapses, it will leave in its dust a rabble of small and possibly antagonistic states. These may maintain peaceful relations between themselves, at least for a time, but it is most unlikely they can keep up alliances forever with those undemocratic monsters even now rising in the East, which will sooner or later grow too keen of their hunger, and will come to snap up such easy little prey. The great and, as it seems to me, inevitable conflict between East and West has yet to fall upon our heads; it is only now that its shadow begins to loom over us, so that we must begin, urgently, to consider how the menace growing in the East might be faced. And it is imperative that we, who have become too complacent in our superiority, recognize that we cannot count any longer on some glorious stand at Thermopylae, by which the Asian hordes are defeated, if not in numbers then in spirit. For technology, that radical agent of radical egalitarianism, has seen to it that the valor and soldierly readiness of a people, even when backed by tactical or strategic genius, do not any longer suffice to win wars or preserve peoples. A fragmented Europe or America would be most vulnerable indeed before the modernized hordes of the Orient, and one may legitimately wonder how long they could last against the economic and military pressures of the same, without effecting a forcible reunification of their scattered pieces.
We are on the threshold of this new world, and it behooves us to consider with great care our next and most immediate steps. Sure it is that the fragmented democratic world would be richer to eye and to mind, more brilliant to thought and to virtue, more conducive to artistic and intellectual improvement, and of much greater satisfaction to us here and now. Much more importantly, it will most likely reveal a peculiar resistance to enslavement by technocrats or to a universal and dictatorial undermining of human nature via technology. We may even live to see its arrival in our own day, and that is great incentive for us to favor it. It is all in all more to a human scale; and for that very reason, it might be more conducive as well to that truest human excellence, which expands that human sphere, to the precise degree it surpasses it.
There is no question that the fragmentation of Europe or of the United States would represent in many ways a retrogression to a prior state of politics and society, and that it would seem, at least at first, to surrender those grand political hopes which actuated the very dreams of America and a unified Europe. It must be asked, and with greatest care—would that retrogression represent the last and final squandering of the energies which have been slowly accumulated in the heart of Europe over the past five hundred years? Or is that stepping backward rather the preparation—for a greater leap?
Man divested of the future is but a beast. We must hold before ourselves ever the question: what of the day after tomorrow? What of the more distant future, and the higher heights to which we would have our race aspire? How, in the end, how do we best tighten the bow?—But we must also remember, we must never forget, that the answer to this question which might have been offered to us a hundred years ago did not, because it could not, take into account the terrifying possibilities that technology has brought into this world from out of its barren womb.
Return to The Democratic Era, Part I.
Continue to The Democratic Era, Part II, cont.