The root is liber (“free”). The term liberalis (and liberalitas) implies generosity in intellectual and material matters. The sentence “he gave liberally” means that the person in question gave with both hands. In this sense liberality is an “aristocratic” virtue. An illiberal person is avaricious, petty-minded, tight-fisted, self-centered. Up to the beginning of the Nineteenth century the word “liberal” figured neither in politics nor really in economics.
-Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, Leftism
It has become very popular among the new wave of Integralists and other counter-cultural political groups to speak of a “post-liberal” world or order in politics. This conception of history presupposes a vast triumph of so-called Liberalism in the general World Order which has created such dissatisfaction that it is on the brink of collapse. It identifies the main problem of Modernity as political and economic “Liberalism”, the collapse of which has opened many opportunities for those of a Catholic political orientation to exploit the “Liberal” state for their own ends. Abandon the hopeless task fighting the centralizing administration and embrace it, has become the new rallying cry. On the surface this all seems very appealing, name the enemy and use his own weapons and successes against him. While some might question the efficacy of using the very tactics of the Liberal State, very few realize the fundamental problem; that the Liberal World Order that is now supposedly collapsing never actually existed in the first place.
The illusion of the Liberal State is largely caused by the insistence by all parties involved to continuously abuse the term “liberalism” itself. Instead of defining themselves by the positive idea of the Common Good as the first wave of Integralism rightly attempted, they now define themselves more and more by opposition to “liberalism”, an umbrella term for all kinds of political errors that cannot be easily described as Communist or Fascism or any of the other classic aberrations. Thus we end up with such vague and unhelpful terminology as “left-liberal”, “right-liberal”, “liberal conservatives”, all political heresies. What does it mean and where does one go astray in being a “right liberal”? The temptation to ignore such questions is strong because they undermine the simplicity of the illiberal’s outright rejection of Liberalism.
Such schools of political thought, especially the Integralists, I would define as belonging to the Unconsious Right. They are willing to build a political and societal order on Rightist principles without understanding the comprehensive worldview organically formed from these principles. Many of course would deny this definition, claiming to transcend the divisions of Left and Right, for to claim otherwise would put them in a very uncomfortable proximity with the so called Right-Liberals. For many, the adherence to Rightist principles is subordinated to the goal of combating “Liberalism” and these would willing adopt Leftist ideas and practices in pursuit of this goal. In order to understand this phenomenon, it is first necessary to understand what “liberalism” really is, Catholic freedom and the virtue of Liberality, the vice of modern illiberalism, and how all of these come together in the Rightist’s comprehension of history.
The first mistake to avoid in defining liberalism is to conceive of it as a political philosophy or worldview. Indeed it is merely an aspect of political thought which may be found in any number of contradictory worldviews. So what is this ever illusive aspect of politics which can be said to be “usurping the name of liberty“¹? To be “liberal” in this sense is to seek above other considerations to empower the individual with the ability to act. The problem lies in the fact that this is an empowerment without a true freedom that orders and directs action to the good. This problem became evident when political thought incorporated this kind of Liberalism in the 19th century leading to its condemnation by the Church. However, if we look at the prominent openly Leftist ideologies we see instead an emphasis on Totalitarianism and the empowerment of the state (considered in the abstract). Turning to the Unconscious Left the case that liberalism is the driving ideology of the modern world breaks down ever more. Here one finds also a kind of soft Totalitarianism, nominally at the service of liberty but even that pretense has been largely dropped. In certain aspects, it can be considered to be “liberal”, particularly in its rhetoric, yet in order to be liberal it is necessary to have a concrete conception of liberty (however flawed) and in the modern Left this is clearly lacking.
The second and far less common mistake is to reject the true values simply because they are also found or promoted in liberalism. Though I say it is far less common, the first mistake unfailingly leads to the second at some stage in political development, flawed understanding leads to flawed action. I have already written at length on the Catholic definition and understanding of liberty. To this, I will simply add that the definitions of both freedom and liberty involve the deeply intrinsic reality of the community of persons. Freedom is not in tension with the Common Good, it is an aspect or principle of the Common Good. In fact Freedom, along with Justice, is one of the ordering principles of the Common Good, good in itself while at the same time defining the relationship of Persons seeking the common end in the Good. The liberals condemned by Pope Leo XIII went astray in their insistence on liberty alone, mistakenly defined as mere empowerment, to the detriment of other aspects of the Common Good. There is nothing wrong with stating that Civil Authority must promote Freedom as an ordering principle in society, which indeed the so-called Right-Liberals still understand, even if they do not fully understand the principle which they are advocating.
From this ordering principle of Liberty flows the virtue of Liberality, which is more than simply generosity. It is a kind of giving that only a free man in a free society can accomplish, not out of obligation but a certain moral fittingness. It is the cure for many of the societal and economic ills which the Integralists are seeking to combat, and importantly it is antithetical to the Leftist conception of the state as the prime provider. Any society which attempts to remove liberality and charity from the hands of free persons into the abstraction of the administrative state will be continually beset with economic crises and moral bankruptcy.
Which leads us to “Illiberalism”, in every way the opposite problem to that of liberalism. If liberalism is an ideology that most successfully usurps its name from liberty, the ideology of illiberalism could not be a more fitting heir to its name. If liberalism errs in giving too much primacy to liberty, illiberalism relegates freedom to a secondary or private good, a nice luxury to possess, but one ultimately unnecessary for a functional society. Illiberal regimes attempt to “nationalize” politics and economy as a solution to recurring crises and only accomplish the end of any genuine liberality among their population. The empowerment of the central administrative state by such regimes has not in fact led to an end of modern problems but only the destruction of authentic political communities on various levels. Illiberal regimes, like that of Viktor Orbán in Hungary, are so mired in political corruption, that their very legitimacy ought to be called in to question by any Integralist truly devoted to the Common Good.
Still there remains the question, why not be enthusiastic about a Post-Liberal World? One certainly needs to be at least empathetic to the question in order to understand the appeal of Illiberalism to conservative and Catholic thinkers. The very idea of the rise and fall of a “Liberal World Order” is rooted in a deeply Rightist and Catholic sense of history, badly misapplied. For the Rightist, history and the actions of persons in history are full of purpose and a trans-generational mission from God for the betterment of the world. The Totalitarian Left shares this vision, albeit darkly twisted and corrupted, and often involving the absence or replacement of God. The Unconscious Right has inherited this vision, but the Unconscious Left has not. For the rest of the Left, there is no long-term mission, there is no purpose save the accumulation of power to act relative to the moment, hence there is no overarching ideology or organization. “Liberalism is a world religion,”² says Adrian Vermeule, because in order for him to make sense of the ridiculously expansive umbrella term of Liberalism, it has to be. It’s easy to blame these vast sweeping movements like the “Enlightenment” or “Liberalism” (which are in reality exponentially more complex and contain much more of a mix of good and evil) than the thousands of little decisions and ideas of stemming from thousands of different motivations of the thousands of persons. The compromise and conflict of motives and policies that shaped our history in the past century while thinkers and politicians both Right and Left were victorious in some areas and lost in others has to be simplified to a triumph of “liberalism” so that we can more easily understand the current situation. “Liberalism” won, now it is our turn to win. And in so simplifying history, the Unconscious Right falls into the trap of defining itself solely by negation.
This is where the identification with Illiberalism comes from, the natural desire to win, to triumph by any means necessary. Illiberal regimes become “us” winning against our rival “world religion”, never mind the political and societal realities behind them. Once the identification with this negation of the Unconscious Left is complete, the use of its means of power must logically be adopted. These means are merely the same centralizing methods of accumulating power for the moment without regard for its long-terms effects. It seems only “right” that as liberalism falls to use its own methods against it; this is as illusory as the threat of liberalism itself in the modern day, and Integralism, or Conservatism, or any ideology which attempts it will only succeed in being devoured, the victim of its own inability to comprehend the very war it is fighting.
The solution is to reject such methods entirely, and instead focus on building a Conscious and focused Right in the tradition of Christendom. For what is Christendom? It is a Civilization of Free Men living rightly in a free society under the guidance of rightful Authority in complete devotion to the Common Good and to God, the ultimate Good of Man. It is not a Civilization that can be imposed upon the people by the abstraction of the central administrative state, for it calls for personal responsibility and personal sacrifice in those who govern, and respect for all sovereignties within it and over it. Rather it is a conscious way of life followed by the Person in every aspect of their life. It is spread by the long, hard, and narrow road of conversion, first within ourselves and then radiating outward to all levels of society. It requires us to act on a personal level, not to seek shortcuts ultimately leading nowhere but the ruination of our very ideals and the loss of our freedom. It requires us to “restore the good that decays“, however long that may take, the trans-generational mission of the Catholic Restorationist. So I take up the challenge of the Integralists, and offer all of you one in return:
For you, brethren, have been called unto liberty: only make not liberty an occasion to the flesh, but by charity of the spirit serve one another.
☩ CHRISTVS REGNAT ☩