Mark Lilla writing about the end of ideology at the New Republic:
this is a libertarian age. That is not because democracy is on the march (it is regressing in many places), or because the bounty of the free market has reached everyone (we have a new class of paupers), or because we are now all free to do as we wish (since wishes inevitably conflict). No, ours is a libertarian age by default: whatever ideas or beliefs or feelings muted the demand for individual autonomy in the past have atrophied. There were no public debates on this and no votes were taken. Since the cold war ended we have simply found ourselves in a world in which every advance of the principle of freedom in one sphere advances it in the others, whether we wish it to or not. The only freedom we are losing is the freedom to choose our freedoms…
et our libertarianism is not an ideology in the old sense. It is a dogma. The distinction between ideology and dogma is worth bearing in mind. Ideology tries to master the historical forces shaping society by first understanding them. The grand ideologies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries did just that, and much too well; since they were intellectually “totalizing,” they countenanced political totalitarianism. Our libertarianism operates differently: it is supremely dogmatic, and like every dogma it sanctions ignorance about the world, and therefore blinds adherents to its effects in that world. It begins with basic liberal principles—the sanctity of the individual, the priority of freedom, distrust of public authority, tolerance—and advances no further. It has no taste for reality, no curiosity about how we got here or where we are going. There is no libertarian sociology (an oxymoron) or psychology or philosophy of history. Nor, strictly speaking, is there a libertarian political theory, since it has no interest in institutions and has nothing to say about the necessary, and productive, tension between individual and collective purposes. It is not liberal in a sense that Montesquieu, the American Framers, Tocqueville, or Mill would have recognized. They would have seen it as a creed little different from Luther’s sola fide: give individuals maximum freedom in every aspect of their lives and all will be well. And if not, then pereat mundus.
Libertarianism’s dogmatic simplicity explains why people who otherwise share little can subscribe to it: small-government fundamentalists on the American right, anarchists on the European and Latin American left, democratization prophets, civil liberties absolutists, human rights crusaders, neoliberal growth evangelists, rogue hackers, gun fanatics, porn manufacturers, and Chicago School economists the world over. The dogma that unites them is implicit and does not require explication; it is a mentality, a mood, a presumption—what used to be called, non-pejoratively, a prejudice.
This brings to mind a couple of observations. A few years ago, I read a nice one-volume history of Japan. It was exactly what I would have said I was looking for in a history book: one without ideological blinders, without villains that the writer makes no effort to understand, without a grand narrative of progress or fall imposed on the facts. I finished the book, but I can’t remember a single specific thing that happened in it. I was left with the impression that Japanese history is a sequence of changes that were good in some ways and bad in others, which is probably true, but without big ideas to latch onto, history just seems like noise.
Second, I’ve found that some groups of Leftists clearly produce more interesting writings than others. Every feminist essay I’ve ever read has been intellectually worthless: illogical, question-begging, philistine, hysterical crap. On the other hand, Marxists regularly impress me with their observations. I now see the reason is that Marxism is a real ideology, and Marxist historians and sociologists genuinely try to put together a coherent picture of the world rather than just vent. So, for example, a Marxist will not just throw every contradictory insult in the book at capitalists; he will say precisely what he thinks is wrong with capitalists, and if another Leftist says the problem with capitalism is something else that doesn’t fit the theory, the Marxist will correct him. As a Catholic, I would say that Marxists share with us the dogmatic spirit. (We use the word “dogmatic” in a way opposite to Lilla’s.) It also makes the commies a slightly more likable bunch that “history” has now passed them by like it did to us, so we share an alienation from the direction of history, a willingness to critique what passes for progress in a radical way.
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