Editor’s Note: Every week, Michael Brendan Dougherty writes an “Off the Shelf” column sharing casual observations on the books he’s reading and the passing scene.
Before social media, Jonah Goldberg would respond to obstreperous emails from a much younger version of me with a characteristically light touch. And although some people still consider me a young and fresh writer, I can find an email exchange from almost twelve years ago in which Jonah and I are talking about James Burnham, the one-time Marxist who became one of the most serious figures here at National Review. Back then it was still common to call all the cranky right-leaning intellectual dissenters “paleo-cons.” The “paleo” label usually did more to obscure than illumine; it united people who disliked the war in Iraq or who just disliked the editors of certain conservative magazines. But these paleo-cons otherwise would disagree about almost everything else. Jonah told me that he found it odd that so many paleo-conservatives claimed to like James Burnham. He thought that if James Burnham were alive today, most paleos (presumably even myself) would hate his guts.
Jonah was probably right. Still, occasionally, I thrill to reading Burnham. It appeals to some fatalistic mood in me. In The Machiavellians, Defenders of Freedom (1943), Burnham interprets for American readers a number of Italian political thinkers, and his takeaway presents just about the bleakest view of the state and society imaginable:
The Machiavellians are the only ones who have told us the full truth about power. . . . The primary object, in practice, of all rulers is to serve their own interest, to maintain their own power and privilege. . . . No theory, no promises, no morality, no amount of good will, no religion will restrain power. Neither priests nor soldiers, neither labor leaders nor business men, neither bureaucrats nor feudal lords will differ from each other in the basic use they will seek to make of power. . . . Only power restrains power. . . . When all opposition is destroyed, there is no longer any limit to what power may do. A despotism, any kind of despotism, can be benevolent only by accident.
Burnham writes as if he is letting readers in on an awful secret about history and politics. However, this knowledge prejudiced Burnham’s own judgment. His view of power made the predictive reliability of his punditry as bad as or worse than average. For this reason his columns in National Review are fascinating. Burnham was so convinced of his theory that power is protected by force and fraud that he often overrated political movements precisely when he found them most irrational. You can find him suggesting in the pages of our venerable magazine that America’s black-nationalist movement has great prospects for achieving its aims. It can be bewildering for an outsider to read, because Burnham seems to be denigrating the movement in the harshest terms. It’s irrational, its historical claims are without merit, it is based on a spurious mythology. And then he wraps it up by saying that more or less it has all the ingredients of a sound and successful enterprise. I’m exaggerating for effect, but only just barely.
In any case, when Jonah told me he was writing a book called “Suicide of The West,” I was more than intrigued. Like Douglas Murray’s The Strange Death of Europe, it repurposes an old title and promises some gloomy reading. That’s my kind of thing. And now that we’re getting into my substantive thoughts, I’ll switch to the less familiar form and, like a proper reviewer, call him by his last name.
Just to clear the decks, I want to say something about the Jonah Goldberg style, which is underappreciated. My copy of the book has some stuff written by the publisher, talking up Jonah’s “trademark blend of political history, social science, economics, and pop culture.” Good enough for ad copy, but I think it misses Goldberg’s real genius, as a teacher. What Goldberg does better than any other writers is communicate lots of big ideas to the widest possible audience they can reach. It’s a style of writing that offends the self-serious who willingly write for a smaller, more selective audience. Jonah’s book imitates and ultimately transcends the great dorm-room bull session. And he will use every hook he can get into the reader. It’s an uncommon gift.
Goldberg’s borrowing from Burnham is appropriate because he too is writing about politics and human nature on a similarly sweeping scale. Goldberg’s Suicide of the West is written to defend what he calls “the Miracle” of liberal democratic capitalism. This miracle is the font of our prosperity, and of political arrangements that are far more congenial to human flourishing than anything that came before. Essentially before the Miracle, human life was nasty, brutish, and short. The amount of material progress made in the last 300 years is many, many, many multiples of the material progress made in the millennia that are before that in history and prehistory. We are richer and freer and live longer lives than ever before.
“Miracle” is an apt word for getting across his thesis. For one, the Miracle cannot quite be recreated in a lab. You can tease out and describe the political, philosophical, and religious ideas that made it possible. You can study the evolving habits of being and institutional conflicts that nurtured it in infancy. Like a supernatural event, the Miracle mysteriously builds on and perfects something natural. That is, it recruits our human nature into more productive and civilizing purposes than we would choose for ourselves, unaided by its light. And finally, the Miracle is vulnerable to our return to what’s natural.
Goldberg’s book, in a way, is a rejoinder to Steven Pinker’s recent efforts. For Pinker, the Enlightenment provides an almost unstoppable engine of material and civilizational progress. You just have to beat back the religious cranks and dumb political theories that occasionally get in the way of its progress. Goldberg is here to remind us that in fact the great engine of Progress depends on a complex mix of religious, institutional, and cultural inputs. Press too hard on any part of it and the whole thing can fall apart. Goldberg emphasizes civilization’s vulnerability.
Although a friend of mine calls this Suicide of the West cheerier and more optimistic than Burnham’s own, I found its thesis, if anything, more discomfiting. In Burnham’s world, one set of irrational myths about power is merely exchanged for or replaced by another. The West retreats, and managerialism replaces it. Or black nationalism, perhaps. But there is a chance for liberty to reemerge if there is a balance of powers checking one another again. In Goldberg’s Suicide, the end of the Miracle is a return to power worship, unfreedom, clientelism, war, and shorter, less rewarding lives.
In the hyper-liberal order, commerce is now more important than the bonds of religion and family. We have a society in which credit-card debt is legally much more difficult to escape than a marriage.
And this is why Goldberg arms himself against what he sees as the enemies of liberalism. Populism and nationalism are enemy ideologies (or moods, in his telling) that can recruit the most powerful impulses in human nature to destroy liberalism. He actually is quite right about some of the characteristics and dangers that these can present to a liberal order. And I agree with him about the vulnerability of the liberal order. But I tend to agree with Patrick Deneen that liberalism’s current vulnerability is due not to our political defections from it but from its own dominance and preeminence in the life of the West. Reading Goldberg’s Suicide finally illuminated where my disagreements come from.
I admit that nationalism is often a kind of eruption within politics. And nationalisms need to be judged by the worthiness of the project they are engaged in, and by the means they use. There is a massive difference between a nationalism that wants a Home Rule Parliament in Dublin, and peacefully votes in candidates to Westminster to effect that outcome, and a nationalism that seeks Lebensraum by means of ethnic cleansing and genocide.
By my lights most of the nationalism in Europe today is an effort to restore popular sovereignty, and democratic legitimacy to government. It is a reaction to a political class that, in a splurge of optimism, tried to move the policy preferences of liberals for the ever-freer movement of goods, capital, and people into unquestionable dogmas that democratic politics could never restrain or modify. In the case of Hungary, I think there is a larger, fitful, and more explicit attempt to restore and maintain elements of a pre-liberal order that liberalism ultimately depends on. But, yes, I’m troubled by some of what I see and hear out of Budapest as well.
Instead of a diminution of liberalism in the West, I think I see the logic of liberalism intruding where it has no place. Separated from any reciprocal sense of duty, the language and habits built around “human rights” can make our natural selfishness more destructive. This sovereign individual is becoming incapable of making covenants with his nation, and even his loved ones. In the hyper-liberal order, commerce is now more important than the bonds of religion and family. We have a society in which credit-card debt is legally much more difficult to escape than a marriage. A religious group that tried to deploy social stigma to effect discipline and respect for its doctrines would be the subject of immense scandal. But the government garnishing your wages to pay for a student loan it gave you for a useless degree is just ho-hum.
The diminution of religion and the refusal of so many to create a posterity is fatally weakening Western man’s capacity to lay aside his immediate desires for any greater good.
The complex mix of social, political, and cultural attitudes produced by hyper-liberalism seems to be overcoming our human nature. I’m less worried about foaming tribalists drunk on natural passion than I am of a generation of grass-eating males, who mute the natural passions and ambitions through drugs, pornography, and the flickering of the backlit screens. And so, in the immediate future, I don’t fear a return to the natural, I fear our continued flight from it. Conservatives used to look at the falling rates of teen pregnancy in the 1990s as a sign of healthy recovery after the antinomian cultural revolution. Now I look at them with utter dread. This isn’t a return to chastity. It’s young people barely venturing out to do “what comes natural” and bonding with each other at all. Americans have fewer friends than they did a generation ago. They socialize less. They marry less. They have fewer children. And the ones we do have are more often than not half-abandoned by their fathers. But they certainly still participate in commercial society, and a small segment of them dream of creating the next major technological breakthrough.
Much of the nationalist reaction we have seen in America seems to me more like a futile gesture against the grass-eating-male future rather than a real political movement. This is particularly true of the alt-right variety, a movement that exhibits all the characteristics of abandoned male adolescents, who have too much time in front of screens and not enough real life.
The diminution of religion and the refusal of so many to create a posterity is fatally weakening Western man’s capacity to lay aside his immediate desires for any greater good. There is simply no reward in his sacrifice if its value is not recognized in the hereafter, among his descendants, or by his society. This total disenchantment of our social life, in turn, gives even greater incentives for those with power to further de-rationalize any sense of national or “tribal” obligations, as they seek to liberate themselves from any residual duties to their own countrymen.
Trade, commerce, and invention all seem secure to me and able to withstand the current political spasms. What I worry about is that a society that de-rationalizes all sense of duty, sacrifice, and even glory will become so unlovely that anyone with a beating heart will wish its destruction even at the cost of trade, commerce, and invention.
Goldberg and I differ in our analysis in that way, but we aren’t so far apart as I’ve made it seem above. Suicide of the West makes ample room for the claims of family and civil society on the individual. Goldberg’s concluding recommendation that we dedicate ourselves to the “dogma” that makes liberalism possible is a deeply conservative one, which distinguishes him from liberals like Pinker. It is a stance of gratitude for what we have, one that enjoins us to something like piety. And ultimately, his vision of liberalism is one that is beneficent, and brings out of us the loyalties and self-sacrifice that would make liberty sustainable. His labor in this book is his own act of genuine piety, and like all such acts, it will move those who do not have a heart of stone.