Why I am a “Non-Liberal” — More What Alasdair MacIntyre Continues to Teach Me

In the past few years I have learned that should call myself a “non-liberal” rather than an “anti-liberal.”   I use the word “liberal” not as used in the United States today, but as the political theory inscribed in the Constitution of the United States and the French Revolution, the dominate political theory of “the West” today.

I am not an “anti-liberal” because there is much about liberalism that I would want to affirm – I particularly would not want to affirm the antitheses of liberalism.  I consider liberalism a cheap imitation, a parody of the historic Christian faith.  Like any parody, it has elements of continuity as a Christian heresy.  In its association with the Western liberal democratic nation state, it malforms people with incoherence at its core.

I had sensed this early on in life, but MacIntyre gave me words to go with my intuitions.  In the preface to the third edition of Marxism and Christianity, MacIntyre writes

Why is political liberalism to be rejected?  The self-image of the liberal is after all that of a protagonist of human rights and liberties.  Those liberals who are social democrats aspire to construct institutions in the trade union movement and the welfare state that will enable workers to participate in capitalist prosperity. And it would be absurd to deny that the achievement of pensions, health services and unemployment benefits for workers under capitalism has always been a great and incontrovertible good.  Why then did and do I reject liberal social democracy?  (pp. xx)

Part of the political, moral, and ethical confusion of the age comes from the post-WWII use of the language of “human rights” as the core ethical procedure that Western European scholars developed to differentiate American hegemony from the Soviet block.  You don’t have to live around me long to see that the language of “human rights” works to enforce the absolute authority of the state.  I was fascinated to read in Joseph Bottum’s book, An Anxious Age? a quote from a Canadian law professor, John Humphrey, a member of the committee that drafted the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  Humphrey wrote in his diary after completing the first draft of the document “that what had been achieved was ‘something like the Christian morality without the tommyrot’”  (p. 117).   Liberalism lives on the social capital of the traditions that it erodes; it is parasitical at its very core because it undercuts the very conditions for a society committed to the human flourishing of all.  Self-expression replaces human flourishing.  Without flourishing, however, more and more networks within the political assemblage has no self left to express.

MacIntyre summarizes three major problems in liberalism that he recognized from his early Marxist days.   The criticisms all have empirical validity.  MacIntyre writes,

First, Marxist theorists had predicted that, if trade unions made it their only goes to work for betterment within the confines imposed by capitalism and parliamentary democracy, the outcome would be a movement towards first the domestication and then the destruction of effective trade union power.  Workers would be so far as possible be returned to the condition of mere instruments of capital formation . . . it has of course turned out to be true.  xx – xxi

Does anyone doubt this now after the 35 years of growing economic disparity within the United States?   Check out the charts at http://blogs.wsj.com/economics/2015/01/01/what-we-know-about-inequality-in-14-charts/.  Economic disparity continues to grow.  I am now old enough that I can actually see around me the deep social changes as all economic gains from increased productivity went to the upper economic stratum in opposition to the years following WWII into the early 70s. MacIntrye made the comment before the trend really accelerated in the middle of the 1990s.

Second, MacIntyre argues that

liberalism is the politics of a set of elites, whose members through their control of party machines and of the media, predetermine for the most part the range of political choices open to the vast mass of ordinary voters.  Of those voters, apart from the making of electoral choices, passivity is required.  Politics and their cultural ambiance have become areas of professionalized life, and among the most important of the relevant professionals are the professional manipulators of mass opinion.  . . . Liberalism thus ensures for the most part the exclusion of most people from any possibility of active and rational participation in determining the form of community in which they live.  pp. xxi-xxii

Again one doesn’t need to look far to find that MacIntyre’s account.  Here is a youtube that summarizes the research on the relationship between the public’s position and elite’s position in influencing the passing of legislation:

So This is Democracy?

Think, for instance, of TARP.  Think of Obama’s Afghanistan invasion.  If economic elites want it, it will happen; if the general public is against it, it doesn’t matter.  As I say, I’m not necessarily against democracy; I just don’t if I’ve ever seen it.  Democracy in the United States has no basis in majoritarian rule – which itself is still absolutist.  Government runs by the economic elite, for the economic elite.  If you want to read the full study, you can find it at http://scholar.princeton.edu/sites/default/files/mgilens/files/gilens_and_page_2014_-testing_theories_of_american_politics.doc.pdf.  Again, MacIntyre’s account shows that this is not some weird mutation within liberal democracies, but inherent within its very structure.

Finally, MacIntrye argues that

the moral individualism of liberalism is itself a solvent of participatory community.  For liberalism in its practice as well as in much of its theory promotes a vision of the social world as an arena in which each individual, in pursuit of the achievement of whatever she or he takes to be her or his good, needs to be protected from other such individuals by the enforcement of individual rights.  Moral argument within liberalism cannot therefore begin from some conception of a genuinely common good that is more and other than the sum of the preferences of individuals.  But argument to, from and about such a conception of the common good is integral to the practice of participatory community.  p.. xxii

Is he correct?  Of course Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone shows the ongoing corrosive effect of liberalism.  Robert Nisbet’s The Quest for Community:  A Study in the Ethics of Order and Freedom (Oxford Press, 1953) diagnosed the issue quite early.  As neo-liberalism, a strong government that uses its force to individuate to coerce individual participation in a “free-market” as individuals, has reigned the last 35 years, its corrosive moral effect continues apace.  Jean Twenge from San Diego State has documented the rising narcisim and individualism that continues to rise – and correlates with the loss of participation in congregations.  Here is a blurb for Twenge’s Generation Me:  “In this provocative and newly revised book, headline-making psychologist Dr. Jean Twenge explores why the young people she calls “Generation Me” are tolerant, confident, open-minded, and ambitious but also disengaged, narcissistic, distrustful, and anxious.”   The impact particularly on the poor becomes devastating.

MacIntyre’s observations of the conflicts between liberalism predicts what will happen to the life of the church that accommodates to liberal political thought.   The church will become more and more present to the elite and abandon the poor (or use the poor as recipients to work with the “underprivileged) rather than live as congregations as and with the poor [check]; will see its political duty in trying to become among the elite so as to influence the elite rather than engage in habitual works of mercy with and as the poor [check]; and will cater to the consumerist demands of individuals to compete with each other for every dwindling market interest in the product of relationships that a “fellowship” (not a congregation or parish) offers (over 50% of Americans now worship in a mega-church) [check].  Of course, as the corrosive effects of liberalism undercut the ongoing life of congregations, congregations will have increased trouble explaining why emerging and young adults should adhere to “inconveniences” of participating in a congregation that is not all about them as individuals.  [check].

Liberalism erodes the very conditions necessary to pass on the faith once delivered to the saints.  If one checks out the data from the latest Pew Research Study, America’s Changing Religious Landscape, one can find that the rise of the “none’s” correlates with loses in Mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic congregations – and, as I will cover later, the Roman Catholic loses come from the progressivist/liberal wing of the post-Vatican II church.

There is no need to live as an “anti-liberal” – indeed, at point we might form momentary alliances, much like someone does to get through graduate schools.  Ironic, perhaps at times the church must sustain a liberal political order against its own worst tendencies.  Those committed to liberal political entities have more than enough resources within liberalism itself to undercut their own convictions.  MacIntyre continues to amaze me with the explanatory power of his writings and convictions.  His thought will never not move silently underneath my thoughts.

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