Perhaps it is in bad taste to respond to a book review as if it is a treatise, but sometimes someone writes a book review that correctly diagnoses a problem not just with the text reviewed, but with culture writ large. And in those instances, you will have to forgive me for taking a book review to be paradigmatic of a specific argument and standpoint.
Recently my friend Joe Laughon wrote one such review. In his book review for Jonah Goldberg’s Suicide of The West, he explains what he takes the be the strengths of Goldberg’s work, while critiquing its inability to resolve the problems it presents. Although this article was not meant as a philosophical or political treatise, I find that Laughon successfully and succinctly summarizes the conservative traditionalist perspective on a certain crisis within western society, and more specifically within western liberalism.
Joe and I have politics which are very far apart, and impossible to reconcile, but we both have a certain penchant for now outdated concepts like truth, objectivity, and teleology. As such, I do not wish to dismiss either Goldberg’s views, or Laughon’s critiques of them as mere conservative paranoia about the decline of the west. Rather, I hope to suggest that both Goldberg and Laughon are responding to a real crisis; both have noted changes and social developments which do indeed point to something being not quite right in contemporary western capitalist liberalism.
As such, I turn to Laughon’s review because it seems paradigmatic of the conservative and traditionalist ability to recognize a crisis which liberalism is entirely blind to, and it is paradigmatic of the failure of conservative traditionalism to correctly diagnose the cause of this crisis. The claims that Goldberg and Laughon make demonstrate the conservative failure to provide more than a metaphysical and fatalistic diagnosis that leads to political stagnation and a defeated acceptance of social inequity. I want to suggest that when conservative traditionalists point out these moments of crisis, we ought not simply brush them aside but must instead demonstrate that a marxist and materialist viewpoint has superior analytic and diagnostic tools for explaining these crisis.
On that note…
What Laughon and Goldberg Get (Kinda) Right:
While Laughon does not ultimately find that Goldberg’s work has succeeded in what it sets out to do, he does agree with many of the central claims Goldberg puts forward. Laughon summarizes Goldberg’s argument as follows:
We are living in an unnaturally prosperous time. Our prosperity is not merely material but political and philosophical. We live in a miraculous time, by historical standards, where every human born is recognized by law and culture as a sovereign individual with unalienable rights. This is not normal in humanity’s natural environment. It is, to use the label I have used throughout this book, a Miracle.
We stumbled into this Miracle without intending to, and we can stumble out of it.
Human nature not only exists but is fundamentally unchanging.
If we do not account for and channel human nature, it will overpower and corrupt the institutions that make prosperity possible.
Where Goldberg and Laughon are both correct is their recognition that while life in contemporary western capitalism is fairly prosperous from a historical perspective, there is a sort of corruption which seems to undermine the promise of this historical moment.
It takes hardly any time at all to notice that something is wrong specifically within american politics. Both Goldberg and Laughon point to a radicalization within american politics, and isolate a form of tribalism and identitarianism which has begun to erode away at contemporary liberal values. The promise of liberalism has always been universality and agnosticism towards identity. Rawlsian liberalism has been predicated precisely on this identity agnosticism after all. And yet, within western liberal society, we have seen a reorientation of politics which is seemingly obsessed with particularity and identity. Laughon is correct to note that even parts of the right have begun to embrace an identitarian politics with explicitly racist and concerning results.
So something is clearly wrong. Liberalism is not working as it has promised. And in a sense, one does feel like the capitalist republican society we live in today is committing suicide. It simply does feel like things are falling apart. For Laughon and Goldberg, this is a tragedy, but I would suggest that for those of us who dream of more than the status quo, this is an opportunity.
Prosperity, Universality, and Values:
I’ve been as generous as I can be by pointing out where I think Laughon and Goldberg are correct. Now I need to explain, quite extensively, where they are patently incorrect. I will address Laughon’s summarized versions of Goldberg’s arguments in order.
We are living in an unnaturally prosperous time. Our prosperity is not merely material but political and philosophical. We live in a miraculous time, by historical standards, where every human born is recognized by law and culture as a sovereign individual with unalienable rights.
This statement is not strictly false. It’s truth is contingent on where one has the blind and dumb luck of being born. If one has the privilege of living within the various western capitalist republics, then this is certainly the case. Quality of life within America and Europe does seem to be something of a historical abnormality. No marxist would deny this: it is obvious that capitalism is an improvement upon previous socioeconomic models in many ways. The bourgeois revolutions of Europe and America did create the possibility for technological and economic innovation which could have never occurred under the old monarchical and feudal rule. These innovations have created significant quality of life increases for those who have benefited from them.
At the same time, I take huge issues with the claim that “every human born is recognized by law and culture as a sovereign individual with unalienable rights.” In fact, I find that this claim is so patently false that one is left in awe by the fact that anyone can believe it. One has to wonder how anyone could assume that Tamir Rice and Baron Trump have equal standing under the law, equal respect for their sovereign individuality, and equally recognized and respected unalienable rights. Within the United States, we might pronounce such universal recognition to exist, but in practice racial and economic inequality create conditions which makes that pronouncement merely hypothetical. Children in schools without heat in detroit, who’s lives are marked both by overpolicing and poverty, simply cannot be said to have equal standing with those growing up in the rich suburbs of Los Angeles. At some point, we cannot simply insist that the universality of liberalism is true because it is pronounced, we must recognize that it is nothing more than a myth.
What is particularly shocking about how Laughon phrases this claim, is that it does not even limit itself to those fortunate enough to live within western capitalist republics. Instead, it claims that “every person” has access to these universalities. But we might as, what of children born within occupied Palestine, whose lives are marked by encroaching settlements, daily violence, state restriction of water and resources, and who are likely to live much shorter lives? What about the countless laborers who die in the mines of the congo to retrieve the minerals which power western technology? What of the sweatshop laborers? What of all the victims of colonial expansion, and imperial war, which were central in allowing western capitalist states to achieve the quality of life gains that Laughon and Goldberg marvel at? We must either conclude that these lives fail to meet the criteria used to determine a “person” or that the claim that “every person” has equal access to these gains is simply factually incorrect.
In terms of the universality of these liberal principles, I think Laughon and Goldberg are simply incorrect. It is a simple factual question that can be easily dismissed with a moments reflection on the countless lives lost to create the power of the west. But, moving forward, I have to shift somewhat to more theoretical objections over human nature. Summarizing Goldberg, Laughon states:
This is not normal in humanity’s natural environment. It is, to use the label I have used throughout this book, a Miracle. We stumbled into this Miracle without intending to, and we can stumble out of it.
From the traditionalist conservative perspective, these (now contested) gains which the west has made cannot be understood to be anything other than a miracle or a fluke. Laughon in particular is so committed to an idea of human depravity, that the only way to explain gains made in terms of human prosperity is as a miracle that humans have simply stumbled into.
I think the analytic weakness of this explanation is, once again, obvious. Presented with evidence that would challenge human depravity (overall improvements in quality of life), Laughon and Goldberg areforced to conclude that this is all simply a historical accident. But, let us ask, what is more plausible: that human nature is inherently flawed and that somehow by an unexplained miracle we accidentally ended up in a society which does not demonstrate total depravity, or that human nature is not totally fixed, or that if it is fixed, it is not a nature of complete depravity. The latter explanation is not only the skeptical explanation, it is the only sensible one if we believe that we live in a world of laws which are scientifically knowable and demonstrable. If you are comfortable with simply shrugging and saying “its a miracle” that is perfectly fine, but I would suggest you have abandoned a belief in a even somewhat ordered world (A strange move to do for Laughon, who later defends the need for a telos).
The Traditionalist Conservative Solution (And Why It Won’t Work):
Laughon largely agrees with the picture that Goldberg paints of the world, but criticizes the solutions Goldberg offers. Both Goldberg and Laughon agree that some sort of telos, from which values can be derived, is necessary to stop liberalism from fragmenting into tribalist political struggle. Laughon suggests that Goldberg’s secularism ultimately impedes his ability to successfully provide such a telos. Laughon instead argues that we need an “objective transcendence” such as God which we could within which we could anchor liberal values. Laughon further explains that, “Without a shared concept of telos or purpose, without a shared moral universe, ideas like property, liberty and equality lose their proper place.”
Thus, for Laughon, the solution to the crisis of western liberalism is fundamentally spiritual and metaphysical in nature. Because humans are seen as innately and inherently depraved, and external source of values and principles is necessary to ensure that the supposed. miraculous gains of western civilizations can be sustained. Additionally, in such a view, the proliferation of identitarian politics on both the right and the left results from a loss of these shared values, and a shared starting point to derive them from. For Laughon, the diagnosis is metaphysical in nature, and so to is the proper course of treatment.
Laugon is right, that there is a loss of a belief in a telos which is reflected in contemporary politics. No one believes in universality anymore, and identity has become a primary factor for organization of political struggle. Without a belief in no only universal principles, but universal principles which are part of a broader order, there is no way to prevent this.
What Laughon fails to ask is: why is it that people have forsaken universality and a belief in a shared objective transcendence from which universality flows? The answer to this is, from a materialist perspective, obvious (and we have already hinted at it). When we understand the achievements of western civilization if material terms (as opposed to metaphysical or religious terms) we realize that they came as a result of shifts in material relations and conditions under capitalism. The extent to which Europe and American could centralize wealth was largely a product of their own colonial enterprises, moving wealth from the now impoverished parts of the world to colonial and imperial nations. The rise of liberal republicanism is also marked by the rise of modern colonialism. American hegemony is and safety is maintained by brutal military and political suppression of its enemies. The supposed universality of western civilization has never been truly universal. Liberalism has always, fundamentally, been a capitalist ideology. It has always served the interests of the rich and the property owning class.
Additionally, within the United States and European nations, universality is nonexistent. Systems of patriarchy, white supremacy, and capitalism ensure that true universal access to a shared set of rights and privileges under the law is simply non existent. Broken bail systems, expensive legal fees and costs for legal representation, and biases within juries and judges ensures that in the concrete application of the law, liberalism is not agnostic to the identities of citizens, but profoundly and violently attentive to them. The overpolicing of black communities, the intense anti-latinx rhetoric of the immigration debate, the sexual harassment of women, all demonstrate the ways in which liberalism uses identity as a means of denying access to universality.
As such, we can understand that increased turns to tribalist identitarianism are not a result of a metaphysical failure; they do not stem from the population failing to have proper piety towards God, but from the failure of liberalism and western civilization to live up to their promises of universal rights. This is why the traditionalist conservative approach cannot ever resolve the problems of our current political crisis. We could spend all day telling the masses “Stop fighting on identity lines, the west offers you universal rights, and if we return to God as a foundation we can protect those rights” and all day those who have lived real experiences of marginalization will respond correctly with “That’s bullshit.”
The problems which create our current crisis are not to be found in the metaphysical realm. They are material and stem from the contradictions of liberal capitalism. Liberalism at once promises universal rights, while propping up an economic system that benefits the few over the many. Liberalism preaches individual autonomy, while the capitalist base collectivizes workers into ever more dehumanizing work environments. There are fundamental and irreconcilable contradictions within capitalism, and this current crisis, this “suicide” of the west, is nothing more than those contradictions pushing capitalism to its breaking point.
The solution is not to posit God as a transcendent entity which could impose teleological order onto the world. Rather, we must recognize that if there is a telos and an ordering at play, it is one of dialectic contradiction and struggle. All of history attests to this: regime after regime toppled by the endless movement of history through class struggle between newly emerging and then newly toppled classes. We do not stand now in some miraculous moment outside of history where suddenly we have escaped this. We have simply hidden this struggle outside the eyes of the privileged; this struggle bares its ugly face in the third world, in the prisons of America, in the backs of police cars, and in the hellish mines which provide the resources which allow westerners to live their lavish lives.
The solution to these problems, to this crisis, is not the metaphysical solution that Laughon suggests. The west is committing suicide because it is founded on fundamentally irreconcilable contradictions. It’s suicide is inevitable, as was Rome’s. History moves on whether we like it or not. There will be a time after the west, after capitalism, and after liberalism, because in a sense, Laughon and Goldberg are correct: there is a telos and there is an order to this world, but it is not a spiritual one and it is not a static one. The question is not. how do we prolong the current historical moment of western domination, but is instead, how do we ensure that after the west commits suicide, we continue to progress historically. How do we make sure that the fall of capitalism is not a return to a “nasty, brutish, and short” life?
Well as Rosa once told us, its socialism or barbarism.