Reflections on 2017: cultural decay and political institutions

In reviewing my notes for the year – diligently if effortlessly recorded in Evernote – I came across  my discovery of an essay from the late 1970s by Leszek Kolakowski, “How to be a Conservative-Liberal-Socialist.” I do not recall how I discovered this gem, as apposite to our times as Kolakowski’s exile from Poland in the 1970s. Perhaps it was a book review by another politically ambidextrous thinker, John Gray? In any case the recommendation fell on prepared ground; and spoke to some universal themes in this year’s political chronicle.

Kolakowski was a philosopher and former Communist from Poland, who,  after the Prague Spring, broke the spells of orthodoxy and the privileged life of an insider, and then led an itinerant and dissident life in the main universities of “the West”. I used to possess his three-volume Main Currents of Marxism (I sold it in a fit of poverty in Canberra the year the Berlin Wall fell), and absorbed its deep aversion to the totalitarian spirit at the heart of that hydra-headed monster. I am forever grateful for the lifelong immunisation against that spirit, and look warily on spruikers of the revival of Marxist ideas in our troubled times.

Those ideas are resurgent in response to growing concerns with inequality, the disappointments of growth, and the predations of a merchant elite. Kolakowski’s essay recognises the truth in socialism, without succumbing to that instinct for one-party rule, for intellectual domination of society by the vanguard of the proletariat. He writes that a socialist believes:

“That it is absurd and hypocritical to conclude that, simply because a perfect, conflictless society is impossible, every existing form of inequality is inevitable and all ways of profit-making justified. ” Kolakowski

But his essay also sees the truth in liberalism. The ambidextrous liberal believes that the State must play a role in security, and that security should be extended to health care, education, employment, and a basic income. But they also believe that “human communities are threatened not only by stagnation but also by degradation when they are so organized that there is no longer room for individual initiative and inventiveness.” Today, Kolakowski might also see a threat of the strangulation of communities through the strictures placed on thought and speech by a radicalism that seeks to cleanse humanity of its traditions, affiliations and improvisations because they inevitably contain errors, guilty associations and unexamined habits.

That cultural repository is the domain of the conservative: the garden which serves as a refuge from a troubled world. Kolakowski gives the conservative three truthful propositions. Firstly:

“That in human life there never have been and never will be improvements that are not paid for with deteriorations and evils; thus, in considering each project of reform and amelioration, its price has to be assessed. Put another way, innumerable evils are compatible (i.e. we can suffer them comprehensively and simultaneously); but many goods limit or cancel each other, and therefore we will never enjoy them fully at the same time. ” Kolakowski

Secondly,

“That we do not know the extent to which various traditional forms of social life–families, rituals, nations, religious communities–are indispensable if life in a society is to be tolerable or even possible. There are no grounds for believing that when we destroy these forms, or brand them as irrational, we increase the chance of happiness, peace, security, or freedom.” Kolakowski

Thirdly,

“That the idee fixe of the Enlightenment — that envy, vanity, greed, and  aggression are all caused by the deficiencies of social institutions and that they will be swept away once these institutions are reformed — is not only utterly incredible and contrary to all experience, but is highly dangerous.” Kolakowski

These nostrums speak to our times. In this year we have seen increasingly shrill debates between progressives, conservatives and radicals in a house they no longer wish to share. We have seen a backlash of populist nostalgia for ordinary ways of life . This is a revolt against the Enlightenment purity of economic reformers and their dangerous vision of a society ruled by contracts between individuals. This idea has dominated elites for thirty years. I have seen it up close. It has ravaged the institutions of government, and filled the halls of power with amoral condottiere, who ceaselessly mouth inanities about change and reform but do not comprehend what they have undone. We have seen a radicalised sexual politics, with its utopianism of the bedroom foisted onto classrooms, that is every bit as scary as Marcuse’s polymorphous perversity. We have seen a return of sacred violence, which can only be understood by acknowledging the power of traditional forms of social life, and especially religion. We have seen domineering autocrats, with no respect for the subtleties of our cultural inheritance, rise to power on the back of resentment. This resentment has been fueled by the attacks of reformers, corporations and identity politics on the lebenswelt of their fellow citizens.

Kolakowski’s invention of the ideal pluralist political thinker – the Conservative-Liberal-Socialist – is a gift of wisdom to our troubled times. It provides a way through the confusion of this moment of cultural disintegration that is infecting our political institutions. In this weekend’s Australian, the doyen of Australian political columnists, Paul Kelly, has published a piece entitled – “2017: West challenged in a spinning world.” It begins:

“Our age of disruption, decay and transformation reached a peak in 2017 and unleashed a shower of contradictions: democracy looks ineffective, politics has surrendered to an era of strong men, and the quest for enhanced individual autonomy now drives the culture.”

Like all political columns, it is an improvised interpretation of events passing before us. Just as, I suppose, any blog is too. While I do not share all of Kelly’s unease about the defeat of the Christian tradition, I agree with his three principal ideas: our political system is collapsing into dysfunction; our culture is experiencing deep losses and decay, and these two trends are deeply intertwined.

“The problem of our dysfunctional political system does not relate just to politics, finance, parties or the parliament. It is also about the public culture and where that culture is ultimately heading.” from Kelly”2017: West challenged in a spinning world.”

Nietzsche: “We are definitely ephemeral.”

 

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