Breaking Our Modern Paralysis
A little less conversation, a little more action.
Six months ago, political theorists were already worried over the health of modern government and society. Left and Right shared a concern that the basis for the rule of law was weakening. We on the Right worried society was crumbling and liberalism’s ascendency was on the wane; our friends on the Left worried identity politics threatened the respect for expertise and that the progress of human rights was grinding to a halt.
Today, what was hitherto a theoretical concern for academics has become a practical fear for us all: in between watching episodes of Tiger King and scrolling through articles on DIY facemasks, every citizen of the West has ample time to wonder whether government and society are really O.K. Fear of the SARS-CoV-2 virus rises hand in hand with fear that the basis for our shared rule of law is less stable than we had previously thought.
The COVID-19 crisis reveals at least three weaknesses in our modern government and society:
- We have a limited ability to truly act, that is, to deliberate between qualitatively different natural ends, like preserving the lives of our citizens and preserving our regimes.
- Instead of acting, we tend to provisionally specify one end (“Stop the virus at all costs!”), but we constantly adjust the dimensions of that end (e.g., our assumptions about the virus’s spread and severity) in a way that undercuts our commitment to achieving it.
- In the place of true deliberation, we attempt to substitute the power of predictive models. The model-makers consistently remind us that their tools do not replace decision-making, but these reminders fall on deaf ears, and all too often our political leaders leap to a conclusion and then justify it on the grounds that they are “following science.”
As model forecasts shift and quarantine goalposts move, it is becoming clearer to everyone that government needs a stronger basis for deliberating about the common good, and that, pace Andrew Yang, math by itself is not the answer.
We don’t yet know what the outcome of this terrible crisis will be for the health of mankind or the strength of our governments and societies. But you don’t need a model or a crystal ball to know that when the initial wave of disease has passed, everyone is going to be asking one thing.
We don’t yet know precisely how we will put the question. How could the global community have put so much trust in China? How could the West have been so slow? Perhaps, I hope: How could we have overreacted so dramatically?
Whatever happens, everyone—from academics to armchair pundits to regular citizens trying to feed their families—will converge on just one inquiry:
Why was the action of modern government and society so weak? How could it be stronger?
Three months ago, the French political theorist Pierre Manent offered an answer to that question. It was lost in the subsequent flood of coronavirus news. But as the nations of the West struggle to understand the weakness of our response to this great crisis, his solution may offer us the best path forward.
In last year’s Natural Law and Human Rights: Toward a Recovery of Practical Reason, Manent shows that modern politics has become weak because it has lost sight of the question that guides all human action: What is to be done?
The English translation of Natural Law and Human Rights appeared earlier this year, sometime between when the Chinese government learned that the virus was a serious threat and the time when the rest of the world learned the same thing.
Manent’s prescient critique of human rights may be the best tool at our disposal to interpret the weaknesses that COVID-19 has revealed. The modern politics of human rights is too individualistic, too theoretical, and too technical, Manent warns, all faults that poison our ability to deliberate the natural ends of man and make a real choices, take real actions.
One of the strengths of this critique is that it starts from our everyday experience. For Manent, the hypocrisies and contradictions implicit in the politics of human rights are the keys to understanding our predicament.
When it comes to human rights, we appear to have different standards for “our” conduct “here” than for “their” conduct “abroad.” “Here” in the West, we demand no stone be left unturned in the search to ferret out (e.g.) male cisgender privilege and deconstruct it; but “there,” outside of our borders in the Middle East or Africa, we often turn a blind eye to far more egregious persecution of women, minority groups, homosexuals, and the poor. We are reticent to “impose our values” upon other societies. For “themselves,” the Europeans demand that the right to various kinds of equality is paramount; but for “them,” the right to express the diversity of “their” culture trumps equality.
Manent archly observes that this foreign policy problem has become a domestic problem as more of those from “abroad” have come “here”: the opening of Europe to mass economic migration has transformed theoretical hypocrisy into a practical threat.
The hypocrisy Manent highlights in relations between Europe and the Middle East is also evident today in relations between the West and China. For decades, the European Union, global organizations, and the progressive Left have held America and Europe to ever-higher and ever-more exacting standards for human rights, social equity, and “environmental justice.” But China, as a “member of the developing world,” has been hypocritically exempted from such scrutiny.
Are Western clergy speaking against gay marriage? Take away their tax-exempt status! Are the Chinese imprisoning religious dissidents and harvesting their organs? Ah, well; what is one to do?
Are American multinationals genetically modifying their corn to make it easier to grow? There ought to be a law against it! Are the Chinese selling bats and seafood in an unsanitary wet market down the street from a bioweapons cache? Ah, well; that is their way.
It is all too clear today that such theoretical hypocrisies have practical consequences. But Manent contends that these hypocrisies are also a clue to a deeper weakness in modern government and society.
For centuries, liberalism held free speech and private property sacrosanct. The progressives’ beloved arc of history bent mostly toward greater freedom of speech for each citizen and greater prosperity for all.
But now, at what had seemed to be its apex, the arc of history bends backwards and, snakelike, swallows its own curve. Now everyone must be compelled to affirmatively acknowledge that gay marriage is marriage too, on pain of taxation: the right to have one’s marriage recognized as valid by society has somehow become more authoritative than the right to freedom of speech.
Likewise, the protection of human life was once a non-negotiable good for liberal politics: Rousseau went so far as to argue that the increase of population is mathematical proof of the existence of good laws. But now, each individual’s right to “define the meaning of the universe” trumps the right to life, and it has become an article of faith for all Americans and Europeans on the Left that abortion is essential health care.
Similarly, the right to private property used to be the heart of modern politics. Montesquieu characterized property rights as the perimeter fence that keeps tyrannical rulers from trying to control one’s life, one’s liberty, and one’s very soul. But now cries for Universal Basic Income have become commonplace on the Left.
The pace of liberalism’s inner contradiction, accelerating slowly throughout the beginning of our century, has approached terminal velocity amid the pandemic. Never in the past century have so many Western citizens acquiesced so swiftly to the suspension of rights as we have in the last two months. This acquiescence may or may not prove to be justified. Either way, its sheer speed necessarily raises questions as to whether such rights really provide a sufficiently solid foundation for our governments and our societies.
The political weakness of Europe manifests itself in its late stages not as civil strife but as a paralyzing inability to act effectively. The unelected bureaucracy of the E.U., accountable to no one, does not make laws but regulations. It does not resolve on policies but restates a presumed administrative consensus—one left unexamined by public deliberation and bereft of public confidence.
We witness the poisonous effect of domestic contradictions on political action here in America, too. Our nation is founded upon inalienable rights, but we no longer agree on the content of rights. The Left likes “new rights” like gay marriage, abortion, and Universal Basic Income: we on the Right prefer the “old rights” of liberty, life, and property. Legislative deadlock and partisan rancor are inevitable.
In America, too, our political weakness manifests itself not through violent political upheaval but the paralysis of true political action. Americans are indeed more divided than ever on the most fundamental issues. But our Cold Civil War shows little sign of becoming a hot one, simply because the continual expansion of the administrative state allows legislators to fight partisan battles with no consequences for law. American citizens—concerned all Congress does is go back and forth between name-calling and voting “yes” on omnibus funding bills—retreat further and further from political action.
The Theory of Individualism
For Manent, all of our contradictions, hypocrisies, and weakness for action are not accidents: they are the logical consequences of individualism.
Since Tocqueville, theorists have identified individualism as a definitive modern political problem. While accounts differ, the basic thrust is that individualism tends to emphasize the rights, interests, and identities of persons over those of political or societal groups. This tends to result in the decay of concern for the common good, the fraying of social bonds, and the retreat into private life. Something about individualism makes it hard for us to do things together. Our church attendance flags; our confidence in elected officials declines; our birth rates plummet.
As moderns, we really ought to be quite surprised to find our capacity to act declining. After all, the great promise of the modern project was to deliver practical, real-world results for mankind: Bacon’s new modern natural science promised to “relieve man’s estate.” Hobbes and Machiavelli offered us a blunt pragmatism with assurances of bold results.
But Manent offers us a challenging and counterintuitive interpretation of modern politics. Going right to the source, to “that great Florentine who is father of us all,” Manent argues Machiavelli didn’t make politics more practical, but more theoretical: Machiavelli’s great innovation was to attempt to abstract politics from the reality of deliberative action and to ground government and society in the theory of individualism.
This interpretation of Machiavelli is surprising to say the least: After all, was it not Machiavelli who taught us that the Prince must be prepared to be as good or bad as the times demand? Is this not the essence of pragmatism?
Not so fast, argues Manent: if you read Machiavelli carefully, he does not advise us to break moral rules sometimes; he advises we must begin by dismissing practical morality always. Machiavelli’s radical innovation is that the best way to conduct political affairs is to use the theoretical principle of individualism to stop deliberating about what is the best thing to do, the most pleasant thing to do, or the noblest thing to do in any given situation.
To clarify the radicalness of Machiavelli’s turn, Manent contrasts him with the ancients.
Ancient and medieval philosophers had acknowledged that there was a gap between the noble things men always say and the bad things they often do. The classical response to this gap between word and deed was to try to close it as much as possible by making men better. The gap between word and deed was widened, to say the least, by the appearance of the Word incarnate in the person of Christ.
For the ancients, the key to closing the gap between man’s noble aspirations and his actions was to attend closely to the authority of Nature: natural ends like the good, the pleasant, and the noble have the force of command. By thinking about these ends and deliberating between them, men assent to the command of Nature, and this provides the ultimate basis of political authority: natural law. Those who follow this natural law “are the lords and owners of their faces / Others but stewards of their excellence.” To follow the natural law is to deliberate; to exercise prudence; to act, in the truest sense of the word, in full consideration of all the possible ends of action.
Machiavelli decides that the tension between word and deed, naturally intrinsic though it is to the human experience of action, has become untenable. His solution is to abstract from the consideration of this moral gap altogether, to proceed directly from a theoretical proposition about politics to its technical application through government and society, without stopping to experience the quandaries that naturally arise in practical deliberation.
Individualism is the theoretical principle Machiavelli uses to avoid practical deliberation: if we start by thinking of each human being as an individual striving to preserve or to increase his power, we will do a better job conducting political affairs than we would by starting with natural law.
According to Manent, Machiavelli and his successors deliberately strip man of all of this natural content and his natural ends and reduce him to just one thing: the individual with political power. This reduction of natural man to the individual is the first step in the history of rights politics.
Natural and spiritual characteristics like sex, race, strength, health, creed, nationality, culture, and every other physical, intellectual, and spiritual difference are indifferent to the individual. The individual as individual is the entity endowed with powers which find their articulation in rights. This individual who was once a human being is henceforth defined solely and exclusively as the being who bears rights, who makes or demands the recognition of rights:
Human rights by themselves provide no positive determination of the contents, or of the “goods,” of human life…the idea of rights tends to become an empty form in search of matter, and everything, literally everything, can become matter for this form.
Endowed with all power, producing all of the laws that he himself obeys, the individual and his human rights are formulated from the very beginning as a way of evading the authority of natural law, as a way of silencing that most fundamental of questions: What is to be done?
By abstracting from the natural law, modern politics designates the individual as the maker of rights, the maker of all of his own ends and all his own means to those ends. Or so it promises.
Rights against Nature?
Manent contends that individualism is what leads to weakness in modern politics, and that it does so by undermining natural reason in two ways.
The first way that individualism leads to weakness is by inclining us to prefer laws that are opposed to natural ends to those that support those ends—precisely because the unnatural character of such ends testifies to the independence of the individual.
How can leftist writers rail against “manspreading” on the subways of the West while refusing to condemn the Islamic tradition of compelling women to wear niqabs and burkas? Why do they spend more effort on tweets calling on us to #believeallwomen’s accusations of sexual assault (however unsubstantiated) than on curtailing the savage practice of female genital mutilation in the Muslim world?
Manent sees these hypocrisies as signs that the logic of rights prefers laws that conflict with natural ends rather than those that harmonize with them. An anti-natural law, he notes,
is seen as very remarkable evidence of this freedom, that is, of the free production by human beings of their way of life. Such a law calls for a special kind of admiration on our part, and admiration that refers not to the barbarous custom itself but to the plasticity of the human form of which this custom is evidence.
Similarly, how did gay marriage, an issue that affects such a small percentage of the population, become a cause célèbre so sacred that it is socially impermissible and in some nations illegal to express any opposition to it?
Because the logic of rights reaches its final destination in the demand for a “right to be all that we want to be,” a right to recognize even our most arbitrary desires as valid principles for defining a way of life. For Manent, the push for gay marriage is more than the effort of homosexual couples to seek happiness as they see it: “the point is to require members of society to recognize by word and deed that there is no natural law, or that the human world can and must be organized without reference to a natural law.”
Finally, how have cries for Universal Basic Income spread across the nations of the West like a pandemic? Manent sees in the push for UBI an effort to “liberate the right of the living-individual from his dependency in relation to the support of our animal nature, to the needs bound up with the life of the body. It would cut the root of human dependency in relation to the objective order of things.”
Manent describes the fundamental desire that underlies UBI as a desire for utter self-sufficiency: “Thus humanity would, as it were, receive life from its own hand, devoting its last effort to establishing itself in the terminal passivity of a life not needing to be earned, a life that could be received without gratitude since everyone would receive only what they had a right to.”
The sudden rage for Universal Basic Income is a clue to the second way in which rights-only politics undermines natural reason and enfeebles action: it strives to reduce man to life alone, to life as the smallest measurable unit of power. Once even economic prosperity is conceived as purely artificial, only the bare fact of life will remain as the natural content to which humanity gives form.
The more we denude man of his natural content, natural virtues, and natural ends, the more the fear of death takes on an unreasonable, overmastering, pathological strength: “the free individual encounters death as the obstacle par excellence…the security of the body, the preservation, comfort and health of the body, become the most obsessive concern, even more and more an exclusive concern, of the living-and-free individual.”
Deprived of the ends that ought naturally to command our obedience and to serve as the starting point for practical deliberation, we avoid instead of choosing; we flee instead of acting:
The individual who sees in life a series of obstacles to avert ends up seeing in life only the threat of death, whereas the agent [who truly acts], finding in life a plurality of motives and rules of actions that it is important to combine rightly, sees before himself a very rich field of practice, which death, however much it may be feared, cannot come to occupy all by itself, nor even in general to dominate.
As we reflect upon how our governments and societies have responded to the crisis of COVID-19, there can be no doubt which description more accurately reflects us as we stand today.
Critiquing Modern Politics on its Own Terms
Manent distinguishes his more accurate and persuasive critique of modern political theory from a host of others in three ways. First, other critics typically adopt the vantage point of some other political theory, whether classical or Christian. Whatever their merits, these critiques all end up sounding like accusations that modern politics makes men wicked. Manent is a conservative Catholic with strong classical sympathies, but he brings the fight to modern politics on its own ground: it promised to make humanity stronger, but instead it enervates us. Manent’s criticism is not that modern politics makes man wicked, but that it makes him weaker.
Second, other critics have attacked modernity as too focused on the “low” ends of man while neglecting his “higher” nature. Such attacks are unpersuasive to many, because lots of people are quite happy to focus on practical matters over theoretical ones. Manent takes a tack that is unexpected and more persuasive: he argues that modern politics isn’t “too practical” but rather too theoretical: it begins by setting aside practical thinking and starting from abstractions.
Finally, Manent’s argument itself is phenomenological, not theoretical: rather than applying posited principles to our current situation, he starts from the hypocrisies and contradictions as they present themselves, using ethem to explain how and why modern politics has become weak.
By critiquing modern politics on its own terms, Manent puts himself in a powerful position to propose an alternative in the form of natural law.
The Rebirth of Natural Law
One thing Manent is certain of is that we can no longer fight a rearguard action. “It is too late for us to limit ourselves to the defensive use of natural law,” he writes, “when we aim to preserve a kind of minimal humanity against the assault of unlimited artifice in the service of disordered desire. To use a military metaphor, law’s last line of defense is about to give way. We are required to be more ambitious.”
But what does it actually mean to “recover the intelligence of law as rule and measure of action,” to “rediscover the rule of human action,” to “recover the fullness of law as practical reason motivating and regulating action, specifically action aiming at the common good?”
To find a way forward out of our crisis of action, Manent thinks we need to look back—way back, to the natural law of Thomas Aquinas. Manent acknowledges the obvious objection to turning to St. Thomas: “His Treatise on Law has been available for centuries without preventing or slowing down our retreat from law.”
Manent is no integralist: Natural Law and Human Rights gives a lot of credit to the modern critique of medieval politics, and Manent imagines the rebirth of natural law as “a political but a nonpartisan program, not the formation of some ‘Catholic Party.’”
In the end, Manent does not show us what his new nations of natural law will look like or predict how they will arise, but he does predict that there are only two choices available to
Europe as its star descends:
Either this decline will proceed to an inglorious end, or the need finally to govern ourselves again will meet with the proposition of high political prudence contained in the Thomistic natural law teaching. In this [latter] case, we will open the way…through the common action of European nations, to a reestablishment and renewal of the physiognomy of our continent.
For all of the brilliance of Manent’s account and all the prescience of his critique, I find one flaw in his argument—a flaw that is much easier for us to see now in light of the crisis precipitated by COVID-19.
If we are to follow Aristotle (and who on these matters could claim to be a greater authority than Aristotle?), there are three modes of thought proper to man: theory, practice, and art or technology. Manent focuses on the interplay between the first two, but he devotes insufficient attention to the third.
Manent says modern politics fails because it tries to be too theoretical. But it also fails because it ends up being too technical. The moderns defend their abandonment of practical reason by amplifying the power of technology. This means more computers and machines, but it also means more administration and more rights: as the founders of the American republic recognized, political rights are the technology at the core of the modern political machine.
COVID-19 has laid bare the weakness of modern politics, and this weakness has come to light first and foremost in the failure of our technical tools—in rights politics, true, but also in other tools like the artifices of our global supply chain, and most of all in the predictive models that we use to guide decision making.
Because modern politics is so technical, its weaknesses are necessarily technical difficulties. The great challenge that confronts any critic of modern politics is therefore not so much theoretical as it is technical. It is not enough to undercut modern political theory and simply call for “more prudence” or “less reliance on experts”: one must find a practical replacement for the vast technical apparatus that has been generated by modern politics.
Manent’s critique of human rights poses a bold challenge for anyone who would restore Nature as the principle of political rule: If rights, predictive modeling, the global market and modern technology are four great modern arts of politics, what new arts will reform or replace them?
The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.