A jurisprudence for all seasons—especially ours.
The Spent Society
Only through generative culture can we recover from sterilized liberalism.
Between a calcified, insular classical liberalism and a postmodern progressivism interested only in self-gratification, there seems to be no place for people who are interested in building up the world, from the family to the stars. Where is our growing, vital, life-affirming worldview that remains progressive in the classical sense of seeking to build a greater tomorrow for our children to enjoy and eventually surpass? Where is the progressive centrist party devoted to the principles of leaving more behind than when we started and saving today for the greater dividends of tomorrow? Where is the philosophy that says the salus populi itself is an axiomatic principle, its perpetuation and increase a self-evident good needing no rational justification? Is it not absurd that society should ask its members to justify their decision to have children, or that academic philosophy should ask its practitioners to justify their commitment to generativity and growth?
It is quite common to blame “postmodernism,” or a cluster of European philosophers, for this emerging state of affairs. But that’s not taking the line of causation back far enough. Postmodernism, poststructuralism, and the other bogeymen of liberal political theory are symptoms of a deeper problem: the fundamental sterility of the modern liberal worldview. The bogeymen of postmodernism are not enemies arranged against liberalism. They are the co-morbidities of a widespread impotence that has infected liberal political theory itself since the end of the First World War. Collective concurrence (or even discussion) around principles of right social order becomes impossible when words like “justice,” “right,” “truth,” and “good” are understood to designate matters of personal opinion or barely-rationalized petty resentments. Liberal politics is unravelling because contemporary philosophy denies any moral or political foundation other than subjective emotionalism or the narrow perspective of a solipsistic, atomized urbanite.
Liberals have come to trust “the experts” to respond to and sort out the ethical and practical problems with liberalism, and for this reason academic liberalism, despite its decay and weakness, still remains significant and responsible. But the blindness of the leading liberal theorist Richard Rorty to
the contradictions between elite university culture and that of the rest of the world has become characteristic of the liberal academy. Today, liberal intellectuals have retreated so deeply into Rorty’s fantasy of harmonizing Rawls and Foucault that they have willfully—and almost entirely—cut themselves off from what is real and what is human. Academia’s isolation from reality is reflected in, and amplified by, the personal choices of most academics to reject the essentially human elements of life. To them, the great cities of modern life serve as a kind of human terrarium, transforming the lived environment into one designed to minimize risk and maximize consumption. How much more so the university, where elites and their aspiring protégés operate outside the financial and social constraints which limit—albeit imperfectly—human hubris and folly. The idea that it is morally unacceptable to suffer loss, be exposed to risk, or be held responsible for actions can only emerge in a kind of community that is deeply isolated from the principles of life, nature, and growth.
The farmer who sees a freak storm wash away three months of work, the mother cradling an ill child, or the small businessman who closes his doors for the last time all have insight into the nature of reality that the academic philosopher flatly refuses to see. It is ironic that these people claim to champion Heidegger’s ideal that to be human is to be in a ceaseless a flux of Becoming, but blind themselves to the fact that growth requires true suffering and loss. Among such philosophers in such a rarified environment, how could there be anything but sterility, meaninglessness, and nihilism?
Modern philosophy has become nihilist because it has lost any principle of generativity which might justify the creation of anything new. Liberal philosophy has succumbed to this nihilism because it has placed its hopes for salvation in sterile ideas rather than productive life. The self-selection among academic philosophers for those who placed career over family has led to a systemic blindness of the field as a whole toward one of the central human experiences of life—perhaps to the experience of Life itself.
Babies and Reality
The act of begetting and raising up children serves as a key part of human existence, the very center of human connection with reality and the universe outside of the self. The child is the other-self: recognizably a mirror of one’s own ego, but not to be commanded by the will. The common trope of the mother who seeks to act out her own youth vicariously through her rebellious daughter represents the duality of this experience: the child as both the copy as well as the rival or replacement for the parent.
In the experience of parenthood one therefore comes to terms with an extension of the ego that is ultimately uncontrollable. The moment one realizes that a child’s path cannot be pre-ordained by the parent is the deepest and the most humanizing experience of the powerlessness of the self in the face of destiny or providence. The mastery of parenthood is the ability to find joy and fulfillment in surrendering the will to dominate the future and accepting what it has in store for the child. This is the fundamentally human experience of generativity, to create in our own image that which we are incapable of controlling.
How can philosophy survive as an exploration of all of that which is essentially human if it is dominated by those who choose a state of alienation from one of their fundamentally human characteristics, that of reproduction and parenthood? Why are we surprised when philosophy as a whole has embraced death and scorned anything resembling the generative principle, and that our politics take the form of narcissistic masturbation over a string of disposable and interchangeable identities?
What the vast majority of mainstream liberal writers refuse to see is that the urge to deconstruct and “transvalue” is not opposed to liberalism as such. It is an impulse of hatred and disgust toward the principle of generativity itself. It is the rejection of the idea that anything truly new can be born out of nothing, an entire epistemology built upon the principle that new springs cannot emerge out of the stones of the desert. The essence of post-structuralism is the notion that nobody can create anything that cannot be torn down with the very tools used to build it. It is an arrogance of the isolated intellectual, insulated from the risks of existence, who believes that reality and experience as a whole can be caged within language games. It arrogates the chthonian Earth as a mere substrate for its paving-stones, declaring it impossible that life should penetrate through the cracks and choose to live regardless of the words Man assigns to it.
But generativity inexorably exists, regardless of the word-games of the philosopher, and this is what modern philosophy finds so abhorrent that it must resort to deconstruction and transvaluation. It is far easier to wish away this reality when one is not reminded of it every day by the laughter and play of children in the home. The child is living proof that Man outruns himself, that a thing may exist whose essence cannot be deconstructed back to a source in the creator.
Anyone who spends significant time raising children (as opposed to birthing them and handing them off to day care workers) sees in those children an essence-in-Becoming which strongly reflects but cannot be reduced to the parental source, either in terms of genetics or environment. There is something in a child which is a fundamentally new creation, one whose essence did not already exist in the repository of living Being that predated its birth.
This is the mystery which has been expressed in various traditions through terms such as Anaximander’s innumerate apeiron or the orthodox Christian imago dei. It is this outside force generating the New that terrifies and disgusts modern philosophers of sterility. They hate and fear this power especially because it is inherent in the kind of people that they despise: ordinary folks who raise children without the pretense of modern and postmodern intellectual fashions.
Meanwhile, academic liberalism has become almost entirely irrelevant. Like a crazy old man pounding his fist on the table, modern liberal intellectuals are too busy arguing over how many inalienable natural rights can dance on the head of a pin rather than address the pressing concerns of twenty-first century life. Liberal political thought has been stagnant since its last productive moment at the end of World War II; the abstracted sentimentalism of Rawls marked the onset of liberal sterility. What passes for liberal ideas these days is a set of post-hoc rationalizations meant to justify the petty self-interest of partisan political factions—each seeking, to paraphrase Tocqueville, to gorge themselves at the feeding trough of the public treasury. Who can be surprised that young people today can’t seem to tell which are the pigs and which are the men?
The result is that academic liberals feel they are under attack from postmodern philosophers, but that perception is entirely one-sided. As Rorty points out, postmodernism isn’t hostile to liberalism. It’s indifferent to liberalism. Liberalism has failed to be fruitful and multiply, and so it poses no threat to the sterile worldview of a Foucault, a Derrida, or their modern followers. Their deepest hatred and their strongest political slurs are aimed at traditional religion, the natural reproductive family, and multigenerational communities, all of whom embody the natural reproductive character of humanity. Academic liberalism shuns growth and guards its borders vigilantly to avoid an influx of fresh blood from the undomesticated wildlife beyond the pasture’s enclosure. Why is it so surprising that such a creature should be pushed aside by a more robust and fertile species?
A Fruitless Tree
What, then, is the way forward?
There are two groups of thinkers who claim the mantle of growth today, but neither fulfills the criteria of a generative worldview. The first is the corrupt and opportunistic neoliberalism that obsesses over statistical artifacts of growth but practices, in fact, the dominant culture of sterility and suicide. The now 14-year-old false economic recovery, in which GDP goes up while life continues to get worse for everyone outside a small number of megacities, illustrates the facile mindset of neoliberal claims to support growth and prosperity.
By a number of sophistic slights of hand, neoliberals call oligopolistic managerialism a “free market.” A cartel of for-profit media corporations becomes “democratic consent.” John Kenneth Galbraith sounded the warning decades ago about the growing dominance of crooked corporate institutions whose perspective is limited to short-run profits at the expense of society’s long-term stock of social and political capital. In its quest to liquidate any capital available, neoliberal corporate culture has broken down the intermediate institutions which embedded individuals into communities and provided the practical education in social cooperation which is so lacking today. Labor immobility might reduce profits in the short-term, but—as Robert Putnam pointed out so well—a community of individuals who never remain in one place for long also never develop the social capital which is so necessary to quality of life.
Why should one invest in friends and neighbors when the corporation will move the job again in six months, only to phase it out altogether? The logical end of this world is infinite diversion and sterile solitary pleasure, billed monthly and ceasing only in despairing death. The end of this worldview is a culture of futility, delusion, and ultimately a lonely death in a corporate pod surrounded by the accumulated detritus of the materialistic life.
The second alternative which explicitly claims the title of vitalism is the growing fringe of neo-Nietzschean thought revolving around self-perfection and mastery. These groups do make the valid argument that they are advocating for things that are genuinely good and useful. Exercise, good diet, and self-education are not net negatives comparable to the consumerism, obesity, and materialism promoted by neoliberalism. However, many neo-Nietzscheans do not seem to understand is that the plethora of fertility imagery in Nietzsche’s work is not simply a stylistic flourish. Nietzsche recognized that a Will to Power which doesn’t generate offspring is mere masturbation.
The real path up and out of the nihilism of modernity is not to double-down on sterile forms of Will to Power that try to make up in performativity what they lack in generativity. Rorty’s desire to use political liberalism as a stick against the followers of Foucault who get out of line is no different than the writers who propose physical vanity and sport sex as the cure for men sick of modernity’s advanced syphilitic state. So go ahead and lift, brah, but don’t think that lifting alone is going to make you a principle of generativity amidst a culture of suicide. Read old books, too, but don’t pretend all that knowledge won’t die with you if you don’t pass it on to your descendants, or at least somebody’s.
Birth and Rebirth
There is a reason why so many of the dominant political theories in the United States reject generativity and embrace the principle of fruitless self-pleasure, and it can be found in a decrepit and unworthy governing caste who no longer deserve the right to make decisions on behalf of the whole. American leaders chose sterility and stasis over generativity and growth out of a solipsistic and arrogant denial of their own mortality—a denial that the central purpose of leadership is to be overcome and surpassed by successors. From an employment system in and out of academia that punishes and selects against people with family obligations to a degenerating culture which centers all politics on the personal vanities and identities of the political consumer, the period since the end of the Cold War has provided a hospitable environment for opportunistic ideological contagions to infect the body politic. As Eric Voegelin showed in Hitler and the Germans, it wasn’t Nazism that caused the terrible events of the mid-twentieth century; it was a society so corrupt and decadent that it would welcome “an idiot like Hitler.” Healthy societies don’t fall for wicked and stupid ideologies—only those so internally weakened and damaged that they lack any kind of immune system capable of fending them off.
A regenerative liberal American political culture must relearn and reflect that rights can only be properly understood and exercised through the practice of particular tradition social tradition: they do not spring fully formed from the heads of gods or men. They are asserted by political coalitions which understand them in the context of their upbringing and present them in a manner persuasive to a people which broadly shares that upbringing. Under today’s conditions of radical pluralism, there is no cultural hegemony strong enough to protect the idea of inalienable rights; instead, rights become a matter of petty partisan grievance and are debased into mere planks of various party platforms. A citizen’s rights change from administration to administration, which feeds the cycle of perpetual grievance-mongering that forms the basis of American politics today.
Political elites profit, and the public loses, when all opponents’ actions are cast as violations of some novel “right” and even procedural administration becomes a kind of rhetorical trench warfare. A different approach to human dignity and respect must revitalize the concepts of the American Founding within our new context, produce fresh methods of honoring the integrity, liberty, and distinctiveness of others with whom we must ultimately coexist, or both. The consequence of neglecting these changes has been a double envelopment: both our hive-like assimilation into neoliberal consumer culture and our atomization into self-created, alienated, mutually-hostile identities.
In academia, meanwhile, the result of the poststructuralist turn has been a headlong flight from any connection with the world as it actually exists, toward a world of the writer’s own imagination. Liberal intellectuals have failed to prevent their conceptual frameworks from decaying into Underpants Gnomes-style parody, where theory no longer concerns itself with the problems of implementation. Randy Barnett’s book Restoring the Lost Constitution (2003), for instance, demonstrates that the concept of “Consent of the Governed” has become nothing but a hollow slogan, impossible to implement in practice. This insight should have sparked a wave of work among mainstream liberal theorists attempting to either replace or revitalize an idea that claims to be at the center of American politics, but, at most, it seems to have pushed them toward accepting in woke practice a post-liberalism they still pretend to reject in theory.
Liberal theory must do better than that to save liberal tradition. A regenerate liberalism must not be directed at some hypothetical state of nature or utopian end of history but at the experience and the problems of the 21st century. Nature needs to be understood not as a mirror of our own backwards-facing idealized memories but an articulation of the practical experiences of people living within the context of our technologized era. The greatest strength of liberal thought has been the fact that people experience reality outside of themselves and use words to try to describe and account for these things. The appeal to common sense is the greatest rhetoric available to counter the absurdity of debased philosophy, but that appeal is lost when the only reaction to Rorty’s claim of “word-games all the way down” is another, “better” set of magical words that do not conform to anyone’s experience of reality.
The parent does not have the luxury to imagine a warm, inviting fantasy-world within which he can indulge himself in various modes of self-pleasure. A parent doesn’t have the luxury of hammering a fist on the table and insisting on stale old dogmas. The parent has an obligation, present and visible in the children beneath them, to create and preserve the conditions for generativity, life, and growth. Actual, biological nature, tied to the foundation of real, parochial human observations of the actions and consequences of life, is the authentic ground of self-evident truths, one that does not assume away pluralism or demand we accept doctrinal abstractions about our cosmic essence. It is the power of parenthood that focuses and forces the mind to approach the problem of reality rather than pursue various sterile intellectual playthings and vacuous political agendas. The challenge of begetting is the struggle to bring people entirely new into the world, and to strengthen them, in their vulnerable youth, for the harshness of life’s conditions. Until philosophers beget families or family men learn to philosophize, there will be no end to the nihilism at the heart of modern philosophy.
The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.