Friday, November 30, 2018

Deconstructing Postmodernity

We are in the middle of enormous cultural changes within western society which have many observers bewildered and many participants bemused.

Wright offers his definitions of modernity and postmodernity.  The modern world, broadly speaking, is the Western world from the eighteenth century to the present:

The European Enlightenment at the intellectual level, and the Industrial Revolution at the social level…

This period gave us what Wright calls “the modernist trinity”: the confident individual (‘I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul’); there is certainty of the world, knowledge is objective; a mythology of progress.

…we were no longer bound to traditional religions or ethics…religion and ethics were a matter of private opinion. …We have learned to think for ourselves…to free ourselves from the tyranny of tradition.

This is what is meant – implicitly and explicitly – when we consider the meaning of living in the modern world.

In such a framework, negative consequences are not difficult to predict.  For example, the broad sweep of ideas that fall under the framework of Social Darwinism: eugenics, selective breeding, racial purity.  Then again, who am I to say that these are “negative” consequences?  Without some broadly accepted ethical framework, such a statement is impossible.

Wright uses language with which I am not comfortable, for example, “industrial wage slavery.”  I will describe this phrase in a manner with which I can live.

Inflation (via central banking and fiat money) and taxes have ensured that the modern man can live at some level above subsistence, but well short of any independence.  Since this was not enough for today’s noble elite, a lifetime yoke was created with student loans – ensuring that a large portion of young people will be paying interest for life.  Yes, I understand that this last one is a personal choice; yet it is society and our current ethic that says such a choice is normal – even expected.

And therefore we look around us and find that this modernity is having a hard go of it – we see this in the backlash made manifest in Trump’s election and in what are referred to as alt-right parties in Europe; in reality, all are some version of rejection of “modernity” and demonstrate a desire to return to some version (who knows what version) of “traditional.”

It is something that such as these have in common with the postmodernists: both camps reject the modern due to the failures of the modernists.  But instead of returning to some version of traditional, the postmodernists deconstruct everything; instead of looking to some version of the past for foundation, the postmodernist suggests that the only objective foundation is to have no foundation.

If reality is thus being merrily deconstructed, the same is even more true for stories.  One of the best known aspects of postmodernity is the so-called ‘death of the metanarrative’, the critique applied to the great stories by which our lives have been ruled.

Wright offers that these stories (metanarratives) that drive man, and not abstract ideological doctrines.  It is a point libertarians might take to heart; in fact, one very prominent libertarian has: The Libertarian Quest for a Grand Historical Narrative, by Hans-Hermann Hoppe:

…the general public is not used to or incapable of abstract reasoning, high theory and intellectual consistency, but forms its political views and convictions on the basis of historical narratives, i.e. of prevailing interpretations of past events, and hence it is upon those who want to change things for a better, liberal-libertarian future to challenge and correct such interpretations and propose and promote alternative, revisionist historical narratives.

Libertarians lament the relative lack of attraction for what seems to us a slam-dunk win: the non-aggression principle.  Hoppe recognizes that something else is needed.  As readers here know, I have also been searching for this “something else.”  Regardless of the superficial success of postmodernist philosophy (if you can call it that), human nature will not easily let go of the draw of the metanarrative.

Returning to Wright, he offers how the Bible challenges this postmodern deconstruction.  I will not address each point, as some venture into territory that I try to stay away from at this blog (someday I might give up on maintaining this boundary, but not today).

…the biblical metanarrative challenges and subverts the worldview of philosophical Idealism, in which historical events are mere contingent trivia, and reality is to be found in a set of abstractions…

Unknowingly, I guess, it is in this space where I have been spending so much time.  We cannot speak of the idea of “libertarianism” outside of recognition of the history – the history of facts and the history of values – that gave birth to this liberty.

We cannot build a foundation for liberty on an abstract idea (the non-aggression principle) without placing that idea in an objective framework – a framework of facts and a framework of values – that gave birth to this liberty.

…the biblical metanarrative challenged all pagan political power structures.

We saw this made manifest in the European Middle Ages – at least to the extent that imperfect man could achieve.  There was no “political power structure” outside of the old and good law; there was no sovereign, unless one wanted to consider this old and good law as sovereign.


…the biblical narrative…challenges all rival visions of the future (‘eschatologies’) and how we get there.

Certainly it challenges the visions as offered during the last five-hundred years.  As Wright offers: people didn’t sit around in the Middle Ages thinking “it sure is dark in here…I can’t wait to be Enlightened.”

And after all, the grandiose claims of the ‘Renaissance’ and the ‘Enlightenment’ are themselves full of holes… We live in a world where, increasingly, people are clutching at straws, unable to glimpse a story which would lead the way into true peace, freedom and justice.

Hoppe, in the aforementioned lecture, offered a portion of the Decalogue as part of his “Libertarian Quest for a Grand Historical Narrative.”  It is the portion covering law.  These may be enough of a foundation to build on for liberty.

Maybe, maybe not.  Perhaps we might also consider the other commandments – the ones that compel us to piety and humility.  After all, there is a reason that the Bible (or 100,000 years of evolution) has emphasized the Golden Rule and not the Silver Rule.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

The “Good” Liberal

Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn (EvKL) examines what he calls “Real Liberalism” in chapter 13 of this book.  I think it is worthwhile to capture his understanding of this political and economic philosophy.

Let us look at the verbal meaning. The root is liber ("free"). The term liberalis (and liberalitas) implies generosity in intellectual and material matters.

Such generosity, at least in intellectual matters, would seem a natural result of the freeing of the individual from the religious and cultural traditions of pre-Renaissance and pre-Reformation Europe.

Up to the beginning of the Nineteenth century the word "liberal" figured neither in politics nor really in economics.

For his timeline, he points to the first use of the term in politics or economics in 1812 Spain.  The revolutions in both America and France at the end of the eighteenth century would mark a more appropriate starting point; I think the distinction in events is important, even though the few decades separating EvKL’s timeline and mine seem rather insignificant.

He describes the Manchester School of the eighteenth century as “pre-liberal,” as forming or advancing ideas that we would be realized both politically and economically:

We are referring here to the Manchester School whose philosophical (or theological) roots were deep in the soil of deism. God, the Great Architect, had created the world nearly perfect. All evils were due to human intervention which upset the Divine plan.

As God’s creation was nearly perfect, what was required was for man to intervene as little as possible in state or society:

If state and society never intervened in commerce and industry, these would automatically flourish, while all artificial limitations, rules or regulations-for instance, guilds, labor laws, tariffs, currency reforms, etc.-would bring about the downfall of prosperity.

A libertarian can easily agree with the issue of non-interference by a state actor in commerce and industry.  This causes one to wonder: if God’s plan is perfect and it is beneficial for man to not intervene in matters of commerce, why is not beneficial that this perfect plan not also be interfered with in the social, cultural and religious fields.  In other words, why not remove the interference into God’s perfect plan by these voluntarily-formed societal institutions?

EvKL finds a mix of Calvinism and the Renaissance in this pre-liberal thought.  There is much good in the offspring of this marriage; for example, one cannot deny the valuable economic progress.  I have written elsewhere about the dangers – especially about the focus on the individual at the expense of all possible reasonably voluntary governance institutions.

Next comes the early liberal phase – the phase that EvKL first associates with the “good” liberal.”  Such as these were active primarily in the first half of the nineteenth century:

Though perhaps not entirely unaffected by deism, it had to a large extent the leadership of thinkers with decided religious affiliations or at least strong sympathies for the Christian tenets.

I cannot parse out the distinction between “not entirely unaffected by deism” and “strong sympathies for the Christian tenets.”  Deists hold strong sympathies for the Christian tenets: they appreciate the ethic and they believe in the watchmaker. 

The distinction hinges on troublesome features such as the Virgin Birth and physical Resurrection.  Once these are taken as myth, the slippery slope has begun to the loss of Christian ethics.  No eternal life?  Well, then: he who dies with the most toys wins.  I am not sure when the slippery slope hit bottom; maybe World War One?

We rightly cringe when greed is blamed for the economic woes of the last decades – as if greed is something new.  Instead, perhaps, it is that the belief in the reality of eternal life was the now-missing regulator of greed.

So, I do not see a very clean distinction between the pre-liberal phase and the early liberal phase: the pre-liberals (as EvKL labels these) gave us the two most important liberal revolutions in history – this cannot be swept aside; both phases were driven by a religious view based on something less than the Christianity of the Bible.

He offers the names of several contributors to this early liberal phase.  While I am not familiar with each of them, of the ones I am familiar it is safe to say that they are those that Classical Liberals and libertarians would point to and say “this is what we mean by ‘liberal.’” 

These “good” liberals were influenced by some aspect of the monotheistic God as depicted in the Christian Bible:

Many of these early liberals were not lovers of freedom besides being Christians but took their political inspiration either directly from Scripture or from theology.

To these “good” liberals, there was no freedom outside of Christian ethics and some selected aspects of the theology; yet, this should not be taken to mean anything more than Deism, given my reading here and elsewhere.  The benefits of the ethics without the foundation for the ethics – a house built on sand.

Friday, November 23, 2018

The Christian Challenge to Empire

Continuing on my journey of the necessity of Christian cultural foundations if liberty is the objective….

There is much in Wright’s work on this topic regarding theology; as you know, I try not to bring this into the discussion.  I look at Christianity as it was foundational to the liberties present in Western Civilization (and absent virtually everywhere else); I look at the Church (or churches, in our fractured era) as institutionally both large enough and with the right message – well, the right message if they would actually utilize the Gospels instead of the state-worshipping talking points.  It is with this in mind that I work through Wright’s essays.

Wright suggests that Christians who look for a future of glory are missing their calling today; this is because they misunderstand the meaning of the Resurrection.  My concern here is not a theological interpretation of the resurrection; my concern is liberty, therefore the call for Christian leaders to act today, in this world:

…God’s life-giving power is unleashed in works of justice and mercy and healing and beauty and hope already, in the present.  The Gnostic, like the fundamentalist, can never understand why we Christians are called to work for justice and health in the present world, but with the resurrection there is no question.  Of course we are.

I can’t say much about the Gnostics, but regarding the fundamentalists: After the resurrection, Jesus sent his disciples out into the world.  He did not call for them to pray for rapture and Armageddon; urge unconditional support for Israel; cheer on perpetual war in the Middle East; turn Sunday into a day of state-worship and warmongering. 

Yet, this describes many fundamentalist theologies.  As if Jesus was kidding when he said “You shall know them by their fruits.”

And that is the basis, too, of the Christian challenge to empire, to the arrogance which assumes that we (whoever ‘we’ are: it was ‘we British’ a hundred years ago, it’s the Americans now, it will be someone else before too long) innately possess justice, freedom and peace and have the right to bestow them on others, by force if necessary.  The thing about empires is that ultimately they rule by the power of fear, whose end is death.

The one thing I am not sure of: the fundamentalists in America love empire because they get to cheer the home team; when it is the “someone else” suggested by Wright, it will be interesting to watch how things play out on Sundays. 

It is here where Wright introduces his analysis and critique of post-modernism and their deconstruction of every grand narrative.  The resurrection of Jesus is at the heart of the grandest of grand narratives of the west.  It is both the history of the west and the tradition of the west; there is no such thing as western civilization without the resurrection specifically and Christianity generally as the foundational part of the story.

So…if your objective is to destroy western culture and tradition (and there should be no doubt about this objective) and your method is deconstruction, what is it that you go after?

Wright offers three “snapshots” of proper living for Christians in this world and at this time; examples that also stand in the face of empire.  For the first he writes of a local church in Teeside, assisting refugees seeking asylum.  A very Christian endeavor, keeping in mind that Christians are called to do this voluntarily and not lean on state support (a clarification not made by Wright).  I have written before: one can certainly find other reasons to assist refugees, just don’t lean on the NAP for justification.  The Gospel message is one such reason.

Second is an advertisement placed by the Salvation Army in the issue of the New Statesman referenced in my previous post.  The advertisement was headed ‘Belief in Action.’

That page offered a far more powerful statement of God in public than any of the articles in the official feature which was supposed to be dealing with that subject.

Third, what of the debating chambers – Parliament, Congress, or the United Nations?  Wright suggests that the major ethical and public-political issues are debated daily, with little or no input from those who can properly speak to the Gospel message.

…global debt, the ecological crisis, the new poverty in our own glossy Western society, the working and meaning of democracy itself, issues of gender and sex, stem cell research, euthanasia, and not least the [multiple] complex questions of the Middle East.  Oh, and ‘free speech’ too.

My point isn’t to debate the list; Wright offers that these issues are addressed without a voice grounded properly in the Gospel and the message of the resurrection.

As long as these debates are carried out in terms of fundamentalism on the one hand and secularism on the other, they will never be anything other than a shouting match.

And in a nutshell, there you have the politics of the west – certainly the United States.  Of course, not all people would frame it this way, but perhaps Wright offers a proper view of the problem at its root.

Wright suggests that we may have reached the point where the “Enlightenment dream has begun to eat its own tail.”  With its emphasis on reason – ungrounded reason – as the method by which all problems can be resolved, all we have is everyone convinced that their own reason is the only correct reason.  How do we judge?  Why, by our own ungrounded reason, of course.

Perhaps part of the unintended consequence of the postmodern revolution is to reveal that if Reason is to do what it says on the tin we may after all need to reckon with God in public.

Wright suggests that for this we need wise Christian voices, voices both humble and clear.  I agree completely.  In the meantime, I will suggest that we have Jordan Peterson.  While he says it will take him three more years to figure out if he believes in the physical resurrection of Jesus, he certainly has been doing the work of reckoning with God in public.

“But…he isn’t a Christian” voice, you insist.  Well, yeah.  But Jesus already has dealt with this objection:

Mark 9: 38 “Teacher,” said John, “we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.”

39 “Do not stop him,” Jesus said. “For no one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, 40 for whoever is not against us is for us. 41 Truly I tell you, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to the Messiah will certainly not lose their reward.

The left is crushing Jordan Peterson – at least trying to.  The reasons why are easy to understand – there is no universal political order without crushing culture and tradition, and the one universal order that has stood in the way of this in the west is Christianity. 

Many fundamentalist Christian leaders are also after him.  Superficially, it is because “he doesn’t believe in the resurrection.”  Perhaps the reality is that Peterson is an indictment of their failure.  Given the Christian quality of many of today’s Christian leaders, Jesus also has an answer here:

Matthew 7: 21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ 23 Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’


The rulers of this age need to be called to account.

I would say calling today’s rulers to account is about as important a task that there is if we are to move toward liberty. 

Whatever Jordan Peterson is doing, he is one man.  There is no institution behind him.  The only institution (if you can call it that) with both the reach and the message that is capable of calling today’s rulers to account are Christian leaders; and here, only if they return to the message of the Gospels.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

God in Public

[The essays in this compilation] have to do with society and culture as a whole rather than simply the challenge to individuals.

I have been grappling with how to understand and articulate the conclusion I seem to be reaching: liberty – even as the most devout libertarian sees it – is not achievable or survivable absent the foundations on which it was built in the west and absent the cultural foundations that Christianity offered.

I know the title of this post as well as the title of Wright’s book is blasphemous to many libertarians and others who hold to the view that one of the greatest outcomes of the Enlightenment is the separation of church and state.  I only consider – this isn’t the same thing as the separation of church and society.  Yet here we are.

I have only read the two-page preface and the first five pages of the first essay and find that there is enough for a post.  Let’s see.

To place some context for Wright’s work and also my interest, Wright offers that there is a crisis in Western democracies.  Yet, Western democracies reflect, in many ways, the fulfilment of the Enlightenment.  Sure, we can debate the meaning of liberty, equality, fraternity, property, the pursuit of happiness; we can point to Enlightenment thinkers that support a more libertarian version of these terms.

But we can also point to Enlightenment thinkers that provide a philosophical foundation for the version that found itself in the French Revolution and in Karl Marx.  These Enlightenment concepts are empty vessels; without an underlying foundation, these vessels can be filled by anyone with a “reasonable” idea. 

Wright offers three images that “bring into focus the question of ‘God in Public.’”  First is Tony Blair looking for answers in the Qur’an in the aftermath of September 11; one can also imagine a leader in Iraq or Afghanistan reading the Bible for the same reason.

Second, the UK government’s decision a few years ago to do away with funding for second degrees if the degree was not at a higher level than the first.  This has especially impacted the pursuit of theology degrees for those considering a path to ordained ministry.

Third, in 2009 the British weekly, New Statesman, ran a special edition: ‘God: What Do We Believe?  There was only one overtly Christian contributor, and she was allowed all of three sentences.  But there was one piece, from Sholto Byrnes.  Wright summarizes Byrnes’ thoughts:

…our moralities of scientific certainty, human rights, and ecology, just as strident and self-righteous as any puritan preacher, constituted a secular form of an earlier vision of God and his purposes, and that without that vision they were actually baseless.

How does Wright see this playing out today?

There is a deep uncertainty about who we are and what we’re here for, and I suggest that this malaise is directly linked to the banishment of God from the public square two hundred years ago.

Banishing God from the public square: one of the Enlightenment’s crowning achievements.  Does “uncertain” man seem like a good candidate through whom freedom can be advanced and sustained?  We see where free minds and (relatively) free markets have led – take a look around.  These are certainly characteristics of a free society, but these are not a foundation on which liberty can be built.

Wright offers other reasons why the question of God in public must be addressed: Gnosticism and empire.  Regarding Gnosticism, Wright offers The Da Vinci Code.  Why was this novel so popular?  One conspiracy inside the other, with the story of Jesus and Mary Magdalene at the heart of the biggest conspiracy ever known in the west.

When combined with empire…

…when people sense that the world is run by very rich and very powerful people, and there’s nothing they can do about it, they tend to shrug their shoulders and suppose they’d better turn inwards, away from the public sphere.

And this is precisely what the rich and powerful people want the rest of us to do.  There is nothing to see here; move along.  For this reason, we accept enslavement, bullying, and war as the manifestations of freedom, justice, and peace.


Tomorrow’s world will be dominated by these confusions. And if the Christian gospel can bring not only clarity but a fresh sense of direction we should all be grateful.

Is it possible that the Christian gospels could be an antidote to the confusion of today’s world; as Wright offers in the title of his book, speaking truth to power?  If one has liberty in mind, it might be worth finding some antidote to our current condition.

Because chanting NAP, NAP, NAP isn’t going to cut it.

Friday, November 16, 2018

Dealing With the Tyrant

The lingering question I have had since being introduced to and reading Althusius’ work is…what happens at the top?  How is one to deal with the tyrant?  We have seen in my previous post that Althusius has offered building blocks in society that are voluntary and / or offer means of secession.  His building blocks recognize man as he is – starting with the family and forming relationships based on subjective values.

But now, what about at the top?  What happens at the level of the commonwealth?  Althusius addresses this in a chapter entitled “Tyranny and Its Remedies.”  I will say up front: parts of Althusius’ construction is confusing to me in detail; however, on the important points of remedy, I believe his message is clear.

A tyrant is therefore one who, violating both word and oath, begins to shake the foundations and unloosen the bonds of the associated body of the commonwealth.  A tyrant may be either a monarch or polyarch that through avarice, pride, or perfidy cruelly overthrows and destroys the most important goods of the commonwealth, such as its peace, virtue, order, law, and nobility…

The tyrant is one who overthrows the fundamental laws of the realm, or acts in a manner contrary to piety and justice; he plunders in the same manner as a conquering enemy.  Althusius goes on to discuss various levels and types of tyranny, and remedies short of what could be considered an ultimate remedy. 

My focus will be on the ultimate remedy / remedies, as it is here where the last and most important building block of Althusius’ theory will be weighed by those who look for a decentralized and voluntary society.

…we are now to look for the remedy by which [the tyrant] may be opportunely removed.

It is left to the ephors – let’s call them senior figures who have responsibility to support the supreme magistrate in properly fulfilling his duty and correcting and resisting him – or removing him – if the tyrant does not return to proper governance.  If they cannot correct the tyrant, “they depose him and cast him out of their midst.”

These ephors can work collectively or individually to resist the tyrant “to the best of their ability.”  However, “resisting” should not be assumed the same as “removing.”

Subjects and citizens who love their country and resist a tyrant, and want the commonwealth and its rights to be safe and sound, should join themselves to a resisting ephor or optimate.

Those who refuse to assist in this resistance are also to be considered enemies.  Again, resistance is one thing; removal is a different issue: this can be done only by the ephors as a whole, not by one or some subset of ephors.  All is not lost, however, for the subset of ephors who find the magistrate a tyrant:

However, it shall be permitted one part of the realm, or individual ephors or estates of the realm, to withdraw from subjection to the tyranny of their magistrate and to defend themselves.

So, it is in theory possible to secede from the realm of the tyrannical magistrate – and it should be recalled from my prior post that it is possible for the lower levels to secede from a province.  In other words, secession or withdrawal is, in theory, possible at all levels of society under Althusius’ concept.  Althusius states this plainly:

Thus also subjects can withdraw their support from a magistrate who does not defend them when he should, and can justly have recourse to another prince and submit themselves to him.  Or if a magistrate refuses to administer justice, they can resist him and refuse to pay taxes.

Private persons do not have the rights of the ephors; they cannot resist directly.  They can, however, submit themselves to another prince.  Private persons can also resort to defense if they find themselves forced to be servants of tyranny or forced to do something contrary to God.

Althusius recognizes that those so choosing to secede – whether via the public ephors or whether as a private person – must “defend themselves.”  Tyrants do not, after all, easily let others leave freely. 

Althusius also raises the possibility of tyrannicide:

In one instance only can he justly be killed, namely, when his tyranny has been publicly acknowledged and is incurable...


Althusius has done a commendable job of recreating the governance model of the European Middle Ages within the reality that the universal Church no longer existed as an institution of authority.  I can only return to my thought that this missing piece is the critical piece, as without such a universal authority – one that had the respect of the kings and nobles – there was no institution powerful enough to keep the tyrannical ruler in check.  Excommunication mattered.

The closest we can get today?  Christian leaders that start speaking as if they believe the Bible and Christ’s message.  Those who do will lose many, but from what’s left perhaps an ethic can be restored.

I discovered Althusius thanks to Gerard Casey.  I will conclude this examination with Casey’s assessment of Althusius’ political philosophy:

Had the Althusian and not the Bodinian conception of the locus of sovereignty prevailed, the course of political history might well have been very different.