Liberty or Equality: The Challenge of Our Time, by Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn (EvKL)
From the description of the book at the Mises Institute site:
[Kuehnelt-Leddihn] marshals the strongest possible case that democratic equality is the very basis not of liberty, as is commonly believed, but the total state…. He further argues the old notion of government by law is upheld in old monarchies, restrained by a noble elite. Aristocracy, not democracy, gave us liberty.
I will review here the first chapter: Democracy and Totalitarianism: The Prophets. To properly capture the meaning of the title of EvKL’s book, consider that democracy is the most appropriate, if not only, proper political expression for a society comprised of “equals.” So, you could consider instead: Liberty or Democracy.
The notion that tyranny evolves naturally from democracy can be traced back to the earliest political theorists…
Aristotle offers a glimpse; Plato's Republic offers “an almost perfectly accurate facsimile….” EvKL does not rely solely on such ancient sources; he focusses on those from the one or two centuries prior to the totalitarian twentieth century – those who saw the direction that the West was taking since the Enlightenment and could see where this path would lead.
The long gap in examples between Plato and the Enlightenment was because democracy during this intervening time was relatively unknown except for the case of certain city governments. This changed with the American and French Revolutions. Some observers saw this movement toward democracy as one which would provide stability and balance; others saw it merely as a step toward tyranny and total servitude.
EvKL offers a long list of such thinkers, concentrated in the first half of the nineteenth century. Something for me to consider, given statements I have made in the past: about half of these could be called liberals, and these were the most vocal in their denunciation of the pending evil:
Contemplating this list it is certainly no exaggeration to state that, during the nineteenth century, some of the best minds in Europe (and in America) were haunted by the fear that there were forces, principles and tendencies in democracy which were, either in their very nature or, at least, in their dialectic potentialities, inimical to many basic human ideals —freedom being one among them.
Democracy: the god that was destined to fail.
Standing Naked Before Man
Lord Canning, who had a sharp eye for the signs of the times, stated that “the philosophy of the French Revolution reduced the nation into individuals, in order afterwards to congregate them into mobs."
We saw this idea in Nisbet’s work. Democracy is based on all men created equal; democracy demands uniformity. It is this uniformity that threatens liberty and gives rise to tyranny:
Citing Benjamin de Constant, writing in 1814:
[Despotism] has an easier road with individuals: it rolls its enormous weight over them as easily as over sand.
Lower Your Shields
Lower your shields and surrender your ships.
We will add your biological and technological distinctiveness to our own.
Your culture will adapt to service us.
Resistance is futile.
Continuing with Benjamin de Constant
The same code of law, the same system of weights and measures, the same regulations, and (if one can arrive at it) eventually the same language—this is what one proclaims the perfection of any social organization. . . .
Arguments in favor of liberty that are grounded in universalism cannot stand in the way of the totalitarianism that results from conformity; certainly, universalism demands ever expanding (in geography and scope) conformity, and conformity neuters the individual – more precisely, conformity destroys the intermediating social institutions that stand between man and an all-powerful State.
Jacob Burckhardt writes, regarding a speech of President U. S. Grant:
The complete programme contains Grant's latest address, which points to a single state with one language as the necessary aim of a purely acquisitive world
In the words of an early example of pop-culture virtue signaling, we are the world.
The Lowest Common Denominator
In one of many observations offered by EvKL that has a very unfortunate similarity to events of our own time, N. D. Fustel de Coulanges offers:
With two or three honourable exceptions, the tyrants who arose in all the Greek cities in the fourth and third centuries reigned only by flattering whatever was worst in the mob and violently suppressing whoever was superior by birth, wealth or merit. This technique, already noted by Plato, is intrinsically democratic—in the classic sense.
As Dostoyevski writes in The Possessed:
Shigalyov is a man of genius. He has discovered “equality." He has it all so beautifully written down in his copy-book. He believes in espionage. He wants the members of society to control each other and be in duty bound to denounce their neighbours. Everybody belongs to all and all belong to each single one. All are slaves and equals in slavery. As a final resort there will be calumny and murder; but the most important thing remains equality.
If equality is the objective, which task is easier – and certainly more likely: turn all men into Jesus Christ, or turn all men into the devil?
When economic efficiency is the criteria used for liberty….
It is the 26th century and humans have become “Numbers”—automatons who prioritise efficiency over freedom.
We is a dystopian novel by Russian writer Yevgeny Zamyatin, completed in 1921…. People march in step with each other and are uniformed. There is no way of referring to people except by their given numbers. The society is run strictly by logic or reason as the primary justification for the laws or the construct of the society. The individual's behaviour is based on logic by way of formulas and equations outlined by the One State.
In the One State of the great Benefactor, there are no individuals, only numbers. Life is an ongoing process of mathematical precision, a perfectly balanced equation. Primitive passions and instincts have been subdued.
When a nation abandons its religious concepts a wicked and fear-inspired craving for union is generated which has as its goal the salvation of the belly. In this case social union has no other aim. … But the “salvation of the belly” is the most impotent of all concepts of union. This is the beginning of the end.
Democracy: Heads We Lose, Tails They Win
Macaulay, writing to an American friend in 1857:
I have long been convinced that institutions purely democratic must, sooner or later, destroy liberty, or civilization, or both.
De Tocqueville writes:
The absolute monarchies have dishonoured despotism; let us be careful that the democratic republics do not rehabilitate it.
A Vanilla World
De Tocqueville describes “masses of men alike and equal" attracted by small and vulgar pleasures. Yet:
…above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications, and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident and mild.
Other than the “mild” part, he pretty much nailed it. Further, even as early as his time, De Tocqueville sees a measure of groupthink unheard of in Europe – the majority controlling the walls of intellectual thought:
But the price paid for this sort of intellectual pacification is the sacrifice of the entire moral courage of the human mind.
Count Montalembert offers:
To be sure, I am not speaking about Christian equality, whose real name is equity; but about this democratic and social equality, which is nothing but the canonization of envy and the chimera of jealous ineptitude. This equality was never anything but a mask which could not become reality without the abolition of all merit and virtue….
Emaciated (aka “Thin”) Libertarianism
He continues, with – it seems to me – a rebuke to those who place faith in the thinnest of thin libertarianism to survive application:
No, property, the last religion of bastard societies, cannot resist alone the onslaught of the levellers.
Vassili Rozanov offers:
The deeper reason for everything now happening lies in the circumstance that enormous cavernous hollows were formed in the European part of mankind by the vanishing Christian belief, and into these everything is tumbling.
Herman Melville, himself not a Catholic, regarding the Church of Rome, would write in Clarel:
Whatever your belief may be—
If well ye wish to human kind,
Be not so mad, unblest and blind
As, in such days as these, to try
To pull down Rome. If Rome could fall
Twould not be Rome alone, but all Religion.
As if not enough, he would add:
Rome and the Atheist have gained:
These two shall fight it out—these two;
Protestantism being retained
For base of operations sly
Juan Donoso Cortes, Marques de Valdegamas, offers in his speech before the Madrid Diet on January 4, 1849:
Liberty is dead! She is not going to rise again, not on the third day, not in three years, perhaps not even in three centuries….
The world, gentlemen, marches with rapid steps towards the establishment of the greatest and darkest despotism in human memory. This is the goal of civilization, this is the goal of the world. In order to be able to foretell these things one does not have to be a prophet. For me it is sufficient to contemplate this terrible maze of human events from its only genuine point of view—from the heights of Catholicism.
For Donoso Cortes, Christianity was the religion of liberty. By Christianity, he had one view in mind:
He insisted that the Reformation had fostered the rise of absolute monarchies all over Europe…
All Creatures Great and Small
The Marquis de Sade, one of the most original defenders of democratic dictatorship, combined his immoralism with the notion that the principle of equality should be extended to plants and animals, not only to man.
From Popular Science:
Should Animals Have The Same Rights As People? Humans have always seen themselves as distinct from other creatures, but science is forcing us to reconsider that position.
All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful:
The Lord God made them all…. [Equal]
Henry Adams wrote, in 1905:
Yet it is quite sure, according to my score of ratios and curves, that, at the accelerated rate of progression shown since 1600, it will not need another century to tip thought upside down. Law, in that case, would disappear as theory or a priori principle, and give place to force. Morality would become police. Explosives would reach cosmic violence. Disintegration would overcome disintegration.
H. G. Wells, once Britain's leading progressivist, shortly before his death in 1946 was forced to write about "our world of self-delusion ":
It will perish amidst its evasions and fatuities. It is like a convoy lost in darkness on an unknown coast, with quarrelling pirates in the chartroom and savages clambering up the sides of the ship to plunder and do evil as the whim may take them.
After all, the present writer has no compelling argument to convince the reader that he should not be cruel or mean or cowardly. Such things are also in his own make-up in a large measure, but none the less he hates and fights against them with all his strength. He would rather our species ended its story in dignity, kindliness and generosity, and not like drunken cowards in a daze or poisoned rats in a sack. But this is a matter of individual predilection, for everyone to decide for himself.
As offered by EvKL:
In this lament we also see the bankruptcy of logical ethics without a religious basis obliquely admitted. Indeed there is no “compelling argument" not to slit anybody's throat except the Commandments given on Mount Sinai.
Día de Muertos
EvKL closes the chapter with the words of Goethe:
What kind of a time is this, when one has to envy those who have already been buried?