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Society and Culture

Can Rights-Theory Save the West?

CJay Engel
November 27, 2019
Ideology as a source of unity against statism can only take us so far. We must look to the structure of society and cultural elements as well.
Society and Culture

Can Rights-Theory Save the West?


CJay Engel

November 27, 2019

Ideology as a source of unity against statism can only take us so far. We must look to the structure of society and cultural elements as well.

In the mid 1930s, the eminent Southern conservative Richard Weaver underwent an intellectual crisis. In those years, he was a youthful ideologue swayed, as were so many others, by the intellectual rigor of socialist dogma. Socialism in those years, alleged to be scientific and intellectually profound, was attractive to the young advocates of rationalism applied to the construction of a just social order.

Even F.A. Hayek, later socialism’s most popular enemy (even if not as rigorous or complete as the great master of Austrian economics, Ludwig von Mises), was at first compelled by the promises of the socialist program. Confronted with a recognition that World War I had brought about a massive international and civilizational social change, Hayek “felt that the civilization in which we had grown up had collapsed. We were determined to build a better world, and it was this desire to reconstruct society that led many of us to the study of economics. Socialism promised to fulfill our hopes for a more rational, more just world.”

The event that saved Hayek and set him on course to become socialism’s enemy was quite different than the set of sentiments faced by Weaver. For Hayek, it was the economic-sociological analysis of socialism as published by Mises in his 1922 treatise. For Weaver, however, it was the rising recognition that a rational theory alone did not a sound society make. Indeed, Weaver faced a painful dilemma in his own participation with a very local socialist party during his student years at the University of Kentucky.

The dilemma was this (taken from Up From Liberalism):

In the course of a membership of about two years, during which I served as secretary of the “local,” as it was called, I discovered that although the socialist program had a certain intellectual appeal for me, I could not like the members of the movement as persons. They seemed dry, insistent people, of shallow objectives; seeing them often and sharing a common endeavor, moreover, did nothing to remove the disliking.

This dilemma only worsened several years later during his graduate years at Vanderbilt. There, he was introduced to the social philosophy known as “Southern Agrarianism,” which had as a component of its outlook its own critique of the rising doctrine of socialism. Southern Agrarianism is much more feudalist in its tendencies, much more focused on the unity in hierarchy and the family-nature of the ideal social order, and therefore, unlike classical liberalism, attacks socialism under the guise of distrust of its scientism and rational constructionism. Despite Weaver’s own preference for socialism at the time, his dilemma was the same, if not more intense:

But here, to my great surprise and growing confusion, I found that although I disagreed with these men on matters of social and political doctrine, I liked them all as persons. They seemed to me more humane, more generous, and considerably less dogmatic than those with whom I had been associated under the opposing banner.

And with this, he faced the very difficult question that would lead him out of socialism and toward the Southern-style conservatism that he is now recognized for. It is a conundrum, I would argue, that has already pervaded many in their twenties and thirties who once identified with a dogmatic libertarianism but who are now struggling to find mental relief from the recognizable fact that the typical libertarian is not someone he would otherwise identify and socialize with. It is an uncomfortable question because, if faced honestly, one has to admit that all political movements in our time are profoundly distasteful for a small set of many of us who are becoming increasingly disinterested in the very idea of mass-activism. Weaver expresses it thusly:

It began to dawn upon me uneasily that perhaps the right way to judge a movement was by the persons who made it up rather than by its rationalistic perfection and by the promises it held out. Perhaps, after all, the proof of social schemes was meant to be a posteriori rather than a priori.

And most profoundly of all:

It would be a poor trade to give up a non-rational world in which you liked everybody for a rational one in which you liked nobody.

Such is the dilemma of the libertarian who finds himself completely at odds not only with the movement, but indeed with the entire milieu of modern man in all his childish, cheap, and boorish ways. Thus, we begin to recognize that the frustrations we feel in our time are only incidentally about the struggle between man and the state; this struggle is only a veil over the more fundamental problem of a society and culture that is itself the enemy of man and his nature.

The ravages of democratic, administrative statism in our time is a symptom, as much as it is a cause, of contemporary malaise. That is to say, our social problems will not be solved merely by reducing the state back down to some ideal level. And therefore the focus of a meaningful way forward must not begin or end with a war on statism alone.

It is unfortunate that this is the case, because this makes the prospects for success much less sellable; it is a position that fosters a distrust of libertarian optimism because culture is a result of development over a length time that extends beyond what is achievable in the lifespan of one, two, or even three generations. Civilizations do not grow over the course of one man’s lifetime, and neither do they decay as quickly. Weaver makes the case that the seeds of decay first arose in the fourteenth century.

This is absurd to modern man, who judges social progress merely in terms of material progress. Let’s call this theory of progress Tuckerism. Tuckerism is the tendency to primarily look to increasing access to consumer goods as the determining factor of our advancement. It’s opposite, doom-and-gloomism, also takes up a materialistic view of a coming social collapse where we struggle to acquire the basic needs of survival.

Both of these materialistic measuring sticks refuse to interact with an approach to life and humanity that is considered dead and gone in our age of the triumph of science and technology. Here, we find profundity in Weaver, whose contributions to sociology urge the reader to recognize that decadence is a spiritual/intellectual phenomenon, not a material one. While it is true that the modern world has been flooded with cheap consumer goods, porn on demand, and blaring entertainment that desensitizes the intellect, the soul, a reflective survey of the rising generation sees a tragic crisis of sicknesses, mental problems, sexual confusions, neurosis, depression, and shocking levels of emotional instability. These are not phenomena that will be overcome with material goods and billions of dollars in pharmaceutical research.

Modern man feels agitated, argues Weaver in Ideas Have Consequences, because he has been wholly disconnected from the transcendent world of universal truth. Our cultural contributions therefore no longer attempt to recreate or reflect the eternal and beautiful. Eternal truths have been traded for “scientific facts,” and eternal beauty has been traded for relativistic aesthetics; the influencers of society are no longer the theologians and philosophers of the medieval world but have been replaced by entertainers, technological entrepreneurs, and professional emotional stimulators (of which politicians are a species), all of which have contributed to the transition of man away from a creator and participant for a common purpose into a spoiled consumer of invented material poisons.

We do not reflect on higher things, but instead consume the poisons that are manufactured for immediate consumption: journalism, politics, drama, music, and art. Even more uncomfortably, Weaver places other things in this category, things like: relationships, sex, and education. The consumer goods, especially true in entertainment and the arts, are no longer reflective of higher things but are increasingly obscene, obnoxious, barbaric, and coarse. Modern man consumes that which instantaneously titillates and as time goes on, the vehicles by which we are entertained become more revolting and disturbing to the gentleman of ages prior.

By lacking a sentiment toward the transcendent, the cultural struggle and strife is inevitable because it leads to an unraveling of older sources of social bonds. States Weaver:

It is inevitable that the decay of sentiment should be accompanied by a deterioration of human relationships, both those of the family and those of friendly association, because the passion for immediacy concentrates upon the presently advantageous. After all, there is nothing but sentiment to bind us to the very old or to the very young, Burke saw this point when he said that those who have no concern for their ancestors will, by simple application of the same rule, have none for their descendants.
The decision of modern man to live in the here and now is reflected in the neglect of aging parents, whom proper sentiment once kept in positions of honor and authority. There was a time when the elder generation was cherished because it represented the past; now it is avoided and thrust out of sight for the same reason. Children are liabilities. As man becomes more immersed in time and material gratifications, belief in the continuum of race fades, and not all the tinkering of sociologists can put homes together again.

Here we find confrontation with our own version of Weaver’s original disillusioning dilemma: the modern libertarian, so focused on rights at the expense of all other social sentiments, is himself a personification of the aged child who did not mature into a better human being, nor, largely, does he want to. He is only concerned about the state’s breach of his rights to engage in outrageous behavior. It is certainly true that some of the best libertarian theorists (Mises, Rothbard, Hoppe) led lives in harmony with western civilization as it once was, but as is true of most things, as libertarianism came to the attention of the masses, the masses plagued it with the very ugliness they have plagued what was once a great western cultural heritage.

Thus, as with Weaver, we wonder whether “it would be a poor trade to give up a non-rational world in which you liked everybody for a rational one in which you liked nobody.”

Perhaps this sentiment has been echoed well by Jeff Deist when he recently stated that:

Finally, for its own self-preservation, the twenty-first century Misesian model encourages and nurtures the vital intermediary institutions of society, including faith and family, and rejects libertine culture. It thus recognizes human nature, and acknowledges the need for internal governance to reduce the need for external governance. It encourages real culture over pop culture, intellectualism over anti-intellectualism, truth and beauty over mindless pursuits, and real liberal arts education, including history and classical languages, over modern curricula and dumbed-down hyphenated studies.
In conclusion, ladies and gentlemen, our revolution is paleo, not neo.

To achieve this noble end, modern man himself would need to reject the development of culture as it has taken place since the first World War. But more fundamentally, he would need to return to a recognition of the transcendent for the protection of his sentiment, for an informed aesthetic, for an emphasis on the social stability and intergenerational continuity over against the barbarism of crude and libertine individualism. This is because it was the original social sin of separating man from the transcendent that reversed man’s preference for a culture of civilizational improvement and transformed it into a grotesque cultural relativism of individual immediate-fulfillment.

Men no longer conceive of their existence on earth as, in part, demanding obligation and duty to go along with their rights. They have taken up the rhetoric of rights and placed it on a pedestal while heaving duty and virtue onto the scrapheap. Rejecting a commitment to family and kin, community and its various institutions, modern man has pursued a French-style individualism that has left them without protection against the all-powerful state. It seems paradoxical, but it is true, that man’s emphasis on his own self-fulfillment with a rejection of history and community has led not to freedom but to state-authoritarianism.

A people severed from each other under a social spirit of independence from their own past will find that the only line of defense against authoritarianism that they have left are a series of abstractly conceived “rights.” The search for a theory of rights in our time, then, which has not come about in the context of an actual tradition (as FA Hayek and Edmund Burke called for—also see The Great Debate by Yuval Levin) has not produced any meaningful victory. Theory itself is largely ignored by a mass society that is consumed by emotion and egotism rather than intellect. Therefore a preferable rights-theory has an actual social ceiling upon its adoption. For it is not in the nature of modern man to live in accordance with eternal truths.

A people that depend on rights theory as their line of defense against power will find themselves in a constant state of internal strife as meaningful community and harmony are produced not on theories but on strong social bonds. We must look beyond slogans such as "toleration" and "inclusiveness" and "rights" and look to a positive prescription of the elements of a sustainable society. Cultural neutrality and a spirit of non-judgementalness, a sort of cultural nihilism where it doesn't matter what you do, as long as it's peaceful is not the most pressing need; in fact, this mode of thinking has produced a civilization where there is no hierarchy of values and virtues. Family and guilds and institutions of religion and the passing on of eternal truths are therefore far better at confronting the ever-rising statism in our time than relativism. But such institutions rely on a harmony of interests, habits, norms, and behavioral patterns, on duties, responsibilities, and obligations. Or as Weaver put it:  

The ancient feeling of brotherhood carries obligations of which equality knows nothing. It calls for respect and protection, for brotherhood Is status in family, and family is by nature hierarchical. It demands patience with little brother, and it may sternly exact duty of big brother. It places people in a network of sentiment, not of rights— that hortus siccus of modem vainglory.

A rejection of authoritarianism and international statism in our time, therefore, is not to be spread by the universalization of rights, but by a return to real communities; communities that may very well have been destroyed over the course of the twentieth-century. A recovery therefore, is to be pursued immediately, but cannot be expected to reach fulfillment, fruitition, triumph in our time.

We must take up the mentality of an investment in the immediate term for a payoff that may only be experienced in the future age of our sons and daughters. We fight for them, not for ourselves.

About the author

C.Jay Engel is the founder and publisher of Bastion Magazine. He has written for Mises.org, LRC, David Stockman, and related. He owns several consulting business, actively works on the magazine, and lives in Northern CA.

from the editor's blog