When I took a course entitled “Introduction to Political Theory” as a freshman at the University of Iowa in 1972, the course reading requirements included Plato’s Republic, Machiavelli’s The Prince, John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, a selection of Karl Marx that included The Communist Manifesto and The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, and Theodore Roszak’s The Making of a Counter-Culture: Reflections on the Technocratic Society and Its Youthful Opposition. You may notice that one of the assigned authors was not like any of the others. Roszak’s book was only published in 1969, and he was not then (nor is he now) among the pantheon of great political thinkers. But the book was as important and influential on me as any of the others. As an ardent young Republican, this book introduced me to a way of thinking about politics and the contemporary world that I’d not been exposed to before (which was true of the other authors as well, but I at least had heard of them). Roszak discussed thinkers such as Herbert Marcuse, Paul Goodman, Norman O. Brown, and Lewis Mumford. What this book did was to critique the liberal consensus of American politics. And back then at least, this included both Republicans and Democrats. In later courses in contemporary political thought (with Lane Davis and John Nelson), the critiques of modernity, industrialism and technology, and liberalism (as a system of thought) became more distinct. I never wanted to throw out the liberal system (in this way I’m very much a conservative), but I appreciate these critiques and regard them (to some extent) as better templates than our current system. And now, with Requiem for Modern Politics: The Tragedy of the Enlightenment and the Challenge of the New Millennium by William Ophuls (1997) I’ve encountered a sustained and summary critique that captures all most everything that I’ve found suspect in social, economic, and political thought and action in the modern world.
For any reader of this blog, my affinity for this book should come as no surprise. In 2014 I had the good fortune to read both Plato’s Revenge and Immoderate Greatness, briefer, more recent books by Ophuls that focus on a vision of a new politics (Plato’s Revenge) and the inevitability of civilizational decline (Immoderate Greatness). Requiem follows his initial work, Ecology and the Politics of Scarcity Revisited (1992; earlier version 1977)(on my to-read list). Ecology focuses a great deal on ecological issues and less on the political and social theory, while Requiem is very much a work in political, social, and economic theory. (Can these three realms be separated? Not really.) In fact, Ophuls dispenses with most of contemporary social science work, finding what he needs in the works of Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Jefferson, Tocqueville, Lippmann, and others among the pantheon of great political and historical thinkers. There is no mention of John Rawls in this book. His self-imposed limitation does not impede his argument—it strengthens it. However, he does make one decisive move that distinguishes his work from that of his august forbearers in this field: he bases his work in the science of ecology, something that he emphasizes in all of his works. And, in conjunction with ecology, he necessarily incorporates thermodynamics, complexity theory, and evolution in his explanation of how we humans exist in nature.
His work can be described as one long diatribe (not intending a negative connotation here) against liberalism, and all that has flowered from it: capitalism, industrialism, scientism, and excessive rationalism. The root of Ophuls’s account starts with Hobbes and continues, with modifications, to Locke, and then the tradition blossoms out into a wider array of thinkers. Put simply: liberal culture, which seeks to maximize the liberty of the individual and free him or her from the constraints of tradition in politics, religion, family relations, and economics, is a parasite that destroys its host. In politics and society, liberalism feeds off of family, civil society, and mythic traditions; capitalism feeds off of traditional values, and industrialism feeds off the of environment. In each of these realms, I write “feed,” but the relationship is parasitic, not symbiotic. All of these parasitic systems weaken and will eventually destroy the hosts upon which they depend. Now lest you think Ophuls a fire-breathing radical (I believe he is best described as a prophet), he is careful to base his arguments on traditional commentators and well-supported facts. Nothing that he writes here hasn’t been said before, but nowhere in a single work have I found the critique so thoroughly and convincingly expounded. (Although I must say that he mostly ignores Hegel, although he recognized Fukuyama’s riff on Hegel as a prominent alternative perspective.)
When reading this work, anyone other than the most committed intellectual radical will find something shocking in Ophuls’s contentions. Ophuls castigates the entire liberal tradition, which at least until populism—a profoundly anti-intellectual, non-rational movement took over the Republican Party—was the basis of all American political assumptions. America is, and always has been the liberal society, par excellence. One can quibble about this observation or that, but Ophuls’s critique is radical in the most basic sense of the word: he strikes at the root. Ophuls doesn’t want to make the mistake of many radicals—destroying that which is valuable in the dominant liberal tradition. The recognition of the dignity and human rights of the individual are values that Ophuls recognizes and wants to preserve. (Ophuls gets down to the details of governance in his book Sane Polity: A Pattern Language (2012) (review forthcoming).
Some of the criticisms that Ophuls levels are not unique to liberalism or modernity. The creep of government, the liability to fall from youthful idealism to crotchety despotism—the Roman historians, Ibn Khaldun, and Gibbon all described these conditions centuries ago. (And Francis Fukuyama has updated them in his most recent book, Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy (2014). And not every fault is equal. An argument exists that the U.S. government is too big, too expensive, and too intrusive, but who wants to surrender the feed bag? The military, science, the middle class, the poor (who receive the smallest piece of the pie)? And is the intrusion, at least in economic affairs, so great? Some intervention is needed to protect consumers from corporations and to preserve the integrity and viability of markets. So while these are real concerns, they don’t rise to the level of his more fundamental critiques.
Ophuls has performed a great service with this book: he has criticized some of the key assumptions of our most cherished ideas; he has questioned the very nature of our collective enterprise, and he has done so without rancor and with a sincere care for the values worth preserving and further cultivating. This work is a profoundly mature and thoughtful work. The work is fundamental, and he describes it at the beginning:
I envision a politics of consciousness deeply rooted in a renewed erotic connection to nature and to the mysterious and sacred realm out of which both man and nature arise. The destruction is the precondition of creation. We must therefore begin by examining modernity on its funeral pyre, for it is from the ashes of the old order that the phoenix of the new will rise. (xv)
In the coming days, I’ll post some quotes from Ophuls, hoping to plant seeds of thought in interest readers.