I‘ve been rereading T.S. Eliot's Idea of a Christian Society. He wrote the book as World War II was beginning. It was a time when many were questioning whether liberal democratic societies had any future. Fascism and Communism seemed the vital new movements that had the upper hand. The gist of Eliot's argument is that modern liberalism is a largely negative project, one that pushes back against the constraining forms of traditional life to make room for the individual to live more freely. He does not reject liberalism, but Eliot thinks it incapable of providing an enduring basis for society. We're social animals, and there needs to be a binding power at the basis of any society, not a loosening, freeing one. When liberalism tries to become the basis for society, it paradoxically can create the conditions for tyranny. As Eliot observes, “By destroying traditional social habits of the people, by dissolving their natural collective consciousness into individual constituents, by licensing the opinions of the most foolish, by substituting instruction for education, by encouraging cleverness rather than wisdom, the upstart rather than the qualified, by fostering a notion of getting on to which the alternative is hopeless apathy, Liberalism can prepare the way for that which is its own negation: the artificial, mechanized or brutalized control which is a desperate remedy for its chaos.”
It is increasingly evident that Eliot was right. Poor black Americans are almost entirely wards of modern liberalism. And, lo, we are in a season of hand wringing over the fact that their communities are subject to brutal methods of police control. Universities are more and more under the complete dominion of liberal ideas. Again, although they are not violent places, we see the negation of liberalism: speech codes, an atmosphere of censorship, and increasingly legalistic and bureaucratic efforts to regulate sexual relations. More broadly, our contemporary culture combines seemingly opposite tendencies. On the one hand, we hear ever greater protests against constraints on “identity,” now to the point of anxious efforts to accommodate and even affirm transgenderism. Yet, at the same time and in the same upper middle class settings where the demands for freedom are most strongly made we find a frantic, grasping competitiveness and a demanding hygenic Puritanism. The gods of health and wealth impose order on the chaos of “identity” that liberalism unleashes. And not just the gods of health and wealth, but also the modern regulatory and bureaucratic state. Eliot's observation helps explain why liberalism is both committed to freedom as the highest good and to an ever-enlarged state. It needs the latter as a remedy for the consequences of the former.
R. R. Reno is the editor of First Things.