The Failing Dam of Liberal Society

The Mosul Dam is failing. While the structure of the dam itself is robust, it is built upon a poor foundation of soluble rock. In order to prevent this foundation from giving way, workers at the dam continuously have to pump cement into the earth beneath it. Unfortunately, when the dam was attacked and captured by ISIS, workers abandoned their task and work didn’t recommence until some time after it was recaptured. The condition of the dam is now incredibly serious. If the dam were to sink into the unstable ground beneath it and wash away, millions of people would be affected and several hundreds of thousands would probably lose their lives. The Iraqi government is refusing to acknowledge the seriousness of the problem, yet catastrophe could be imminent: as spring leads to the melting of snow in the region, the swollen waters of the Tigris may place the dam under unsustainable pressure.

The situation of the Mosul Dam came to my mind yesterday in a conversation with a friend about the current situation of the liberal West. Like the Mosul Dam, Western liberalism is only as secure as the increasingly uncertain ground that it is built upon. As that ground gives way beneath rising social pressures, the entire edifice could disastrously collapse.

A common fantasy among those committed to liberal ideology is the assumption that liberalism can provide its own foundations, rather than needing to be erected upon some stable and secure pre-ideological and pre-political ground. Unfortunately, such ground is not easy to find and many societies in the world do not offer suitable ground upon which the edifice of an open and liberal society can be founded. On account of this fantasy, we have been insufficiently mindful of the necessity of preserving the strength of the social underpinnings of the political, legal, and institutional superstructure of our society and have succumbed in many areas to a thoroughgoing liberalism that ultimately threatens to destroy it.

Liberalism’s discourse is drawn around the universal subject—the de-particularized individual. However, not only does the de-particularized individual not actually exist, such a conception of the person, if absolutized, can destroy the foundation upon which a liberal society rests. A robust liberal society cannot be founded upon the sand of radically de-particularized individualism, which soon collapses under the shear forces created by its weight. Rather, such a society requires the strong foundation formed from the tight bonds of a particular society’s shared peoplehood, expressed in its common life, practices, customs, culture, history, goods, and loves. Out of and within the framework of such bonds can arise the shared institutions that sustain a liberal polity and society: institutions of learning and the exchange of ideas, commerce, laws, and governments.

Liberalism undermines itself as it absolutizes its principles and fails to protect and preserve the social foundation upon which it is built. The radicalization of liberalism takes different forms on different sides of the political aisle (both of which tend to be liberal in differing ways). For those on the right, it can take the form of the absolutization of free speech, individual autonomy, and the free market. For those on the left, it can take the form of the radicalization of gender neutrality and the atomizing forces of the Sexual Revolution, the dismissal of given identities and the duties that accompany them, resistance to borders and support of mass immigration, and opposition to the traditions, authorities, symbols, and sacred values by which particular peoples are forged and united. Both sides are also deeply invested in modern technologies and systems that radicalize liberal freedoms of exchange, expression, movement, association, belief, and identity.

There is a certain social complacency that can arise when we have lost our acquaintance with the limits or demands placed upon us by nature and the dangers posed to us by it. On the one hand, nature is like the immense and terrifying force of water that the dam of our social structures must hold back. Were the dam to fail, the destructive power of the forces of nature—both within the world and within ourselves—would tear through our society. On the other hand, nature represents the limits placed upon us by the world and our beings to which we must conform ourselves and by which we are formed into something more than creatures of untamed appetite.

On the one hand, then, nature is an immense lurking destructive power against which we must practice vigilance. On the other, it is a set of boundaries that can guide some of our passage into the practice of virtue. For instance, the natural obstacles of distance and danger, and the necessity of interdependence for survival in historic societies, encouraged the practice of the art of living together, as there really wasn’t much of an alternative. We have lost much of our acquaintance with both nature’s threat and nature’s limits. One result is that the satisfaction of appetite is often prized over the cultivation of virtue and a deep acquaintance with nature and its fitting ends. Another result is a lack of due concern about the fragility of our social structures, should the waters of historical crisis rapidly rise against them.

An overweening confidence in liberalism’s power of social construction and the inability of nature to overcome it, much like the self-assured hubris of the builders of the Mosul Dam, courts the possibility of extreme catastrophe. A forgetfulness of and inattention to the limits of nature—as we grow in our sense of autonomy with respect to and our control over it—can leave us caught in a fraught relationship and difficult relationship with it. Like the workers on the Mosul Dam, having been proudly unmindful of and unchastened by the limits of nature and having built society as we pleased, we must now unrelentingly pour grout into our dissolving foundations.

Liberalism’s characterized overvaluation of negative liberty—the absence of external constraints, obstacles, limits, and coercion—has left us blind to many of the conditions of a free society and has rendered us insensible to the erosion of these conditions in many quarters of our own, often precisely through the maximization of liberalism’s negative liberties. The maximization of negative liberty can leave us ever more at the mercy of our appetites and instincts, less and less able to attain to the full stature of our humanity.

A recurring theme in my writing over the last few years, for instance, has been the argument that the Internet stifles discourse and harms society by undermining the differentiation that makes healthy forms of them possible. Ecosystems typically contain a large variety of species, species that directly and indirectly depend upon each other for their well-being and upon the particular niches afforded to them within their shared environment. A disruption of the ecosystem can result in the proliferation of particular species to the detriment of others. In its current form, the Internet is both breaking down many old cultural niches and bringing radical environmental transformation to our social discourses, threatening the survival of the forms of speech and community that used to exist within them.

Unfortunately, the scale of these problems can easily be missed when the great value of ‘free speech’ that we stand for is one that has been drawn around the removal of external constraints upon our discourse. When speech is so construed, the Internet would seem to be the breaking of a glorious new dawn of an era of free discourse. The Internet unshackles speech from old limits. It enables us to escape the prison of the body to engage directly with the thoughts of others. It obliterates the obstacle of physical distance that tied speech to physical context. It overcomes the onerous tardiness of old media, enabling us to engage in instantaneous exchanges with people from all corners of the globe. It overcomes barriers of status and expertise, allowing those without credentials, prestige, or office a place in the conversation. It smashes exclusionary barriers that prevented equal participation in social discourses, democratizing our media. It delivers people from the state of obscurity, allowing their voices to reach millions. It rescues the lonely, isolated, or the marginalized from their solitude, facilitating the creation of new communities where they can find a place. It dismantles the walls between peoples and their lives, exposing us to each other in our differences.

Yet this supposed liberation of speech has in many respects not produced a freer society. Freedom from obscurity has led to unprecedented exposure to social, commercial, and governmental scrutiny. Governments, businesses, our employers, and our neighbours can now learn far more about our identities, histories, values, and secrets than they ever could before. In a great many respects, such deliverance from obscurity has not made us freer, instead rendering us ever more vulnerable to control and surveillance.

Freedom from solitude and isolation has brought about a stiflingly dense sociality, wherein we are caught up in the viral movements of mass opinion, and increasingly unable to reflection, deliberate, and meditate in a manner that would enable us effectively to form our own minds on matters. This ‘freedom’ from isolation exposes us to the terrifying power of the mob, its outrage, and its shaming of people into conformity. The removal of the burden of solitude has itself locked us in a prison of sociality and group opinion, strengthened by our own natural instincts.

Freedom from the barriers of status and expertise has enabled a host of people to share their perspectives and opinions. It has undermined old monopolies on the formation of the public’s mind. However, it has brought about a competition of self-proclaimed authorities, with a disoriented, and by turns hopelessly distrusting and utterly credulous, population left to arbitrate between them. It has led to ever more partisan news and opinion, a tendency to select the ‘authorities’ that most appeal to us, and a socially and politically debilitating breakdown of trust in experts and office-holders, enslaving us to charlatans, demagogues, unreliable media, and to the uninformed and reactive opinions of our fellows. Such freedom from the power of status and expertise has proved disorienting and has eroded trust and social unity.

Freedom from the prison of our bodies has allowed us to converse with people without being constrained by the limits and localities of our bodies. However, in downplaying the part of the body in our social discourse, it has rendered the bodily order of action increasingly invisible and the order of opinion increasingly dominant. It has dulled our awareness of the rough yet rich humanity of the people we are engaging with, encouraging a new incivility. It has lowered our awareness of basic human differences that are revealed by the body—things such as gender, age, race, illness, or disability—alerting us to the importance of treating people differently accordingly, reducing compassion and care for each other. Such freedom from the visibility and limits of the body has often proved alienating and created an unhealthy society where words weigh more than actions.

Freedom from the obstacle of physical distance has produced a world where context is ever thinner and where there are ever fewer places to take distance from the crowd. It has enabled others to follow us wherever we are, and increasingly detached our attention from our physical presence. The more invested in communities that exist outside of physical space we have become, the less invested we are in the lives of our neighbours, and the more communities themselves have become polarized.

Freedom from the limits of time has enabled us to enjoy instantaneous exchanges with people around the world and to keep abreast of the very latest happenings, wherever they might have occurred. However, in the process, we have become sucked into the disorienting flux of incessant news, cut loose from deep moorings in history and a temporal horizon beyond the immediate. The sense-making rhythms of healthy social and personal lives have been attenuated and the cycles of nature are ever more foreign to us. Without such regularities and patterns, it becomes much harder for us to see the novelties and changes of life and society for what they are, and to find our bearings in a rapidly changing culture. The increased speed of our interactions has robbed us of the time for deep thought, reflection, meditation, and deliberation, training us to be reactive people, who function on instinct, prejudice, unconsidered habit, and passion, enslaving us to our own uncultivated natures.

Freedom from the exclusivity of old communities and expose to greater diversity has acquainted us with a richer variety of human experience. However, it has produced new tensions and antagonisms between groups. It has stifled once deep socialities, as we must now operate alongside others that do not share, strongly oppose, or are unsettled by our ways of life and community. It has left many feeling threatened and besieged. Once again, what was once expected to be liberative has often proved to have the opposite effect.

All of the above are illustrations of the ways that increasing the negative liberties of liberalism is often more problem than solution. Similar points could be made about the absolutization of the free market, extreme individualism, or radical ‘blank slateism’: unbounded by and disrespectful of a thick concrete social and natural reality, liberalism is destructive and unsustainable. What is really required of us is a return to and reinforcement of the social and natural realities upon which the institutions that uphold liberal freedoms are founded. Without a strong common life, we will not be able to sustain the liberal values that we cherish. Indeed, where the liberal values are absolutized in various forms (whether on the left or the right), but the social reality beneath them is not strengthened, both the social reality and the liberal values that rest upon it will collapse together.

In conclusion, I want to observe some of the dangers inherent in the sorts of ideological fights into which we can so often be drawn. These ideological fights all too often tend to involve conflict between the various negative liberties of liberalism. Not only are they generally produced by the fault lines, the subsidence, and the fracturing of the social foundations of our society, their outcomes tend to add ever more pressure upon social realities that can no longer sustain them. Like a couple in the process of a divorce, we have lost loves that once held us together and can now feel alienated both from each other and realities we once shared. The ground is giving way. Our challenge should be that of, wherever possible, transposing the ideological battles of our current liberal order into the more fundamental practical and concrete shared task of strengthening our common life, establishing shared goods, investing in shared projects, forging the sorts of respectful communities which can sustain difficult conversations, etc. This may be the only way to escape social disaster.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in Culture, Ethics, In the News, Politics, Society. Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to The Failing Dam of Liberal Society

  1. WenatcheeTheHatchet says:

    I’ve wondered whether Hitchens’ defection from the left was informed by an observation that the Left had worked on the assumption that if we grant everyone maximal individual liberty prosperity would result–but there was a piece in The American Conservative a few years ago that proposed that Anglo-American liberalism has tended to mistake its historic geographic stability for adherence to the tenets of liberalism as the basis of its history of prosperity. I.e. the empires needed to be stable long enough for liberal traditions to emerge. Without a base line of economic and social stability liberalism can’t take root. So in a way the Left may have been making the mistake of wanting more of the fruit of liberalism without ascertaining the health of the tree. Conservatives have historically erred on the side of denying the fruits of liberalism’s benefits to those they considered unfit to benefit from that prosperity whether based on gender or skin color. So it seems neither the left nor the right come up looking all that good in the end.

    The most troubling pattern I’ve seen in the wake of the recent election is how both the red and blue teams seem determined to view any number of executive decisions and actions as tyrannical ONLY when the other team does it. The kinds of people who vent their spleen on politics on social media now generally seem to me to be totalitarian ideologues who identify as having a particular party but the totalitarian mentality is still there.

    But then I spent a good bit of last year reading Ellul on propaganda. What Ellul regarded as nearly impossible to create on the art of nation states (what he called sociological propaganda) is now a minute-by-minute reality for life on the net.

  2. Physiocrat1 says:

    In an interview with Tim Harford for his recent book Messy he commented that many younger people (I imagine under 25) prefer digital to physical contact with people because they do not want the pressure of being spontaneous- digital communication allows them to think (possibly only briefly) before responding. So rather than the internet (almost exclusively social media) encourages a lower standard deviation of response time rather than necessarily reducing it across the board. It does though fit with the flattening of cultural interactions.

  3. Physiocrat1 says:

    Post to setup email notifications of comments

  4. Geoff says:

    This from Chesterton:
    G.K. Chesterton:

    In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”

    This paradox rests on the most elementary common sense. The gate or fence did not grow there. It was not set up by somnambulists who built it in their sleep. It is highly improbable that it was put there by escaped lunatics who were for some reason loose in the street. Some person had some reason for thinking it would be a good thing for somebody. And until we know what the reason was, we really cannot judge whether the reason was reasonable. It is extremely probable that we have overlooked some whole aspect of the question, if something set up by human beings like ourselves seems to be entirely meaningless and mysterious. There are reformers who get over this difficulty by assuming that all their fathers were fools; but if that be so, we can only say that folly appears to be a hereditary disease. But the truth is that nobody has any business to destroy a social institution until he has really seen it as an historical institution. If he knows how it arose, and what purposes it was supposed to serve, he may really be able to say that they were bad purposes, or that they have since become bad purposes, or that they are purposes which are no longer served. But if he simply stares at the thing as a senseless monstrosity that has somehow sprung up in his path, it is he and not the traditionalist who is suffering from an illusion.

  5. bethyada says:

    Your first article was interesting. For myself, I would expect that turnouts in DC for an inauguration would generally favour Democrats given the locality and the voting trends for the city.

    I find the graphs at the bottom intriguing, though not the way the authors do. Scientific “knowledge” is sidelined for “curiosity”. And how is this so called “curiosity” really measured? I note that the outcome favours the initial liberal position. Do we see examples where curious liberals parallel the initial conservative position? Is it possible that “curiosity” is really just a marker for liberalism? And the metric is just identifying the more liberal conservatives?

    I have seen this previously looking at analysing knowledge of conservatives (such as viewers of conservative news). Of course all the so called “knowledge” was actually issues that were very partisan with the liberal take being defined as the truth. Well of course you are going to get the answer you want.

  6. BamBam says:

    This sounds like an outworking of Sarah Perry’s ‘De-Condensation’ idea that you’ve linked to a few times. And skimming it on my pinboard again, it sounds like what you’re advocating for here is her ‘Re-Condensation’ against the destinations that technology have brought us. But being that the direction for that is forward (‘let’s fashion communities & institutions attentive to natural and social realities’) rather than backward (‘let’s live like the post-war 50s’), I think the challenge–for someone like me–is in knowing just what these natural realities look like and how to build on them in ways that shape people outside of my family and close friends.

    For example, accepting that body dimorphism is an inescapable fact really only changes my interactions with those (esp. the women) around me, in ways that the average citizen regards quaint, at best. Same with bodily presence, physical distance, variegated/cyclical time, and etc. In all those cases, I buy the diagnosis but I cannot fathom the treatment. At least not yet. Perhaps our time is ripe for some of that prophetic imagination.

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