Some Thoughts about Liberty

I have been working on a long post about the meaning of liberty. In the course of looking for sources I came across a provocative article by Alain de Benoist, “Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft: A sociological view of the decay of modern society” (originally published in The Mankind Quarterly, Vol. 34, No. 3, pp. 263-270). Here are some excerpts to ponder:

Peaceful modern societies which respect the individual evolved from age-old familistic ties. The transition from band-type societies, through clan and tribal organizations, into nation-states was peaceful only when accomplished without disruption of the basic ties which link the individual to the larger society by a sense of a common history, culture and kinship. The sense of “belonging” to a nation by virtue of such shared ties promotes cooperation, altruism and respect for other members. In modern times, traditional ties have been weakened by the rise of mass societies and rapid global communication, factors which bring with them rapid social change and new philosophies which deny the significance of the sense of nationhood, and emphasize individualism and individualistic goals. The cohesion of societies has consequently been threatened, and replaced by multicultural and multi-ethnic societies and the overwhelming sense of lost identity in the mass global society in which Western man, at least, has come to conceive himself as belonging. . . .

Fundamentally, classical liberalism was a doctrine which, out of an abstract individual, created the pivot of its survival. In its mildest form it merely emphasized individual freedom of action, and condemned excessive bureaucratic involvement by government. But praiseworthy though its defense of individual freedom was, its claim that the ideal system is that in which there is the least possible emphasis on nationhood leads to situations which in fact endanger the freedom of the individual. In its extreme form, classical liberalism has developed into universal libertarianism, and at this point it comes close to advocating anarchy.

From the sociological standpoint, in its extreme form, modern internationalist liberalism defines itself totally in terms of the gesellschaft society of Tonnies[*]. It denies the historical concept of the nation state by rejecting the notion of any common interest between individuals who traditionally shared a common heritage. In the place of nationhood it proposes to generate a new international social pattern centered on the individual’s quest for optimal personal and economic interest. Within the context of extreme liberalism, only the interplay of individual interests creates a functional society – a society in which the whole is viewed only as a chance aggregate of anonymous particles. The essence of modern liberal thought is that order is believed to be able to consolidate itself by means of all-out economic competition, that is, through the battle of all against all, requiring governments to do no more than set certain essential ground rules and provide certain services which the individual alone cannot adequately provide. Indeed, modern liberalism has gone so far along this path that it is today directly opposed to thee goals of classical liberalism and libertarianism in that it denies the individual any inalienable right to property, but still shares with modern liberalism and with libertarianism an antagonism toward the idea of nationhood. Shorn of the protection of a society which identifies with its members because of a shared national history and destiny, the individual is left to grasp struggle for his own survival, without the protective sense of community which his forebears enjoyed since the earliest of human history.

Decadence in modern mass multi-cultural societies begins at a moment when there is no longer any discernable meaning within society. Meaning is destroyed by raising individualism above all other values because rampant individualism encourages the anarchical proliferation of egotism at the expense of the values that were once part of the national heritage, values that give form to the concept of nationhood and the nation state, to a state which is more than just a political entity, and which corresponds to a particular people who are conscious of sharing a common heritage for the survival of which they are prepared to make personal sacrifices.

Man evolved in cooperating groups united by common cultural and genetic ties, and it is only in such a setting that the individual can feel truly free, and truly protected. Men cannot live happily alone and without values or any sense of identity: such a situation leads to nihilism, drug abuse, criminality and worse. With the spread of purely egotistic goals at the expense of the altruistic regard for family and nation, the individual begins to talk of his rights rather than his duties, for he no longer feels any sense of destiny, of belonging to and being a part of a greater and more enduring entity. He no longer rejoices in the secure belief that he shares in a heritage which it is part of his common duty to protect – he no longer feels that he has anything in common with those around him. In short, he feels lonely and oppressed. Since all values have become strictly personal, everything is now equal to everything; e.g., nothing equals nothing.

“A society without strong beliefs,” declared Regis Debray in his interview with J.P. Enthoven in Le Nouvel Observateur, (October 10, 1981), ” is a society about to die.” Modern liberalism is particularly critical of nationalism. Hence, the question needs to be raised: Can modern liberal society provide strong unifying communal beliefs in view of the fact that on the one hand it views communal life as nonessential, while on the other, it remains impotent to envision any belief – unless this belief is reducible to economic conduct? . . .

There are two ways of conceiving of man and society. The fundamental value may be placed on the individual, and when this is done the whole of mankind is conceived as the sum total of all individuals – a vast faceless proletariat – instead of as a rich fabric of diverse nations, cultures and races. It is this conception that is inherent in liberal and socialist thought. The other view, which appears to be more compatible with man’s evolutionary and socio-biological character, is when the individual is seen as enjoying a specific biological and culture legacy – a notion which recognizes the importance of kinship and nationhood. In the first instance, mankind, as a sum total of individuals, appears to be “contained” in each individual human being; that is, one becomes first a “human being,” and only then, as by accident, a member of a specific culture or a people. In the second instance, mankind comprises a complex phylogenetic and historic network, whereby the freedom of the individual is guaranteed by the protection of family by his nation, which provide him with a sense of identity and with a meaningful orientation to the entire world population. It is by virtue of their organic adherence to the society of which they are a part that men build their humanity. . . .

Furthermore, proponents of nationhood contend that a society or a people can survive only when: a) they remain aware of their cultural and historical origins; b) when they can assemble around a mediator, be it individual, or symbolic, who is capable of reassembling their energies and catalyzing their will to have a destiny; c) when they can retain the courage to designate their enemy. None of these conditions have been realized in societies that put economic gain above all other values, and which consequently: a) dissolve historical memories; b) extinguish the sublime and eliminate subliminal ideals; c) assume that it is possible not to have enemies.

The results of the rapid change from national or tribal-oriented societies to the modern, anti-national individualism prevalent in contemporary “advanced” societies have been very well described by Cornelius Castoriadis: “Western societies are in absolute decomposition. There is no longer a vision of the whole that could permit them to determine and apply any political action . . . Western societies have practically ceased to be [nation] states . . . Simply put, they have become agglomerations of lobbies which, in a myopic manner, tear the society apart; where nobody can propose a coherent policy, and where everybody is capable of blocking an action deemed hostile to his own interests.” (Liberation, 16 and 21 December, 1981).

Modern liberalism has suppressed patriotic nationhood into a situation in which politics has been reduced to a “delivery service” decisionmaking process resembling the economic “command post,” statesmen have been reduced to serving as tools for special interest groups, and nations have become little more than markets. The heads of modern liberal states have no options but to watch their citizenry being somatized by civilizational ills such as violence, delinquency, and drugs. . . .

Patriotic nationhood does not target the notion of “formal liberties, ” as some rigorous Marxists do. Rather, its purpose is to demonstrate that “collective liberty,” i.e., the liberty of peoples to be themselves and to continue to enjoy the privilege of having a destiny, does not result from the simple addition of individual liberties. Proponents of nationhood instead contend that the “liberties” granted to individuals by liberal societies are frequently nonexistent; they represent simulacra of what real liberties should be. It does not suffice to be free to do something. Rather, what is needed is one’s ability to participate in determining the course of historical events. Societies dominated by modern liberal traditions are “permissive” only in so far as their general macrostability strips the populace of any real participation in the actual decision-making process. As the sphere in which the citizenry is permitted to “do everything” becomes larger, the sense of nationhood becomes paralyzed and loses its direction.

Liberty cannot be reduced to the sentiment that one has about it. For that matter, both the slave and the robot could equally well perceive themselves as free. The meaning of liberty is inseparable from the founding anthropology of man, an individual sharing a common history and common culture in a common community. Decadence vaporizes peoples, frequently in the gentlest of manners. This is the reason why individuals acting as individuals can only hope to flee tyranny, but cooperating actively as a nation they can often defeat tyranny.

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* Editor’s note: The reference is to German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies (1855-1936), who was best known for his theory of Gemeinshcaft and Gesellschaft. Wikipedia explains:

Tönnies distinguished between two types of social groupings. Gemeinschaft — often translated as community — refers to groupings based on a feeling of togetherness. Gesellschaft — often translated as society — on the other hand, refers to groups that are sustained by an instrumental goal. Gemeinschaft may by exemplified by a family or a neighbourhood; Gesellschaft by a joint-stock company or a state.

. . . Following his “essential will” (“Wesenwille“), an actor will see himself as a means to serve the goals of social grouping; very often it is an underlying, subconscious force. Groupings formed around an essential will are called a Gemeinschaft. The other will is the “arbitrary will” (“Kürwille“): An actor sees a social grouping as a means to further his individual goals; so it is purposive and future-oriented. Groupings around the latter are called Gesellschaft. Whereas the membership in a Gemeinschaft is self-fulfilling, a Gesellschaft is instrumental for its members. . . .