The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free SocietiesEncounter Books, 2016, 200 pp., $23.99
Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her SuperpowerSt. Martin’s Press, 2018, 288 pp., $25.99
Ryszard Legutko, an EU parliamentarian who once called gender studies the “original sin” of academia, would probably not get along with Brittney Cooper, who insists that “however dope fellatio may be, fellating the patriarchy is no way to win.”
Yet each has a written a book the other should read: The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies, wherein Legutko chronicles the putative resemblances between Soviet-style communism and post-60s liberalism; and Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower, Cooper’s memoir-cum-manifesto in defense of progressive woke-ism. Both provide evidence (some strong, some weak) that liberal democracy tends to decay under the weight of its own contradictions, with Legutko supplying the theory and Cooper the example. Both fret our current order isn’t living up to its professed values (it’s not particularly liberal or democratic), both call for resistance against a hegemonic power (white supremacy in Cooper’s case, the European Union in Legutko’s), and both use charged, charged language when attacking their targets: Legutko compares moderate Catholics to “cheerleaders with funny pompoms” and college students to the Stasi, while Cooper tells us her picket signs “are as likely to say FUCK THE POLICE as they are to say FUCK THE PATRIARCHY”—quite likely, in other words.
The books reflect the zeitgeist of what might be termed our post-liberal era, in which left- and right-wing radicals alike are gaining steam. Such radicals were relatively marginal until just a few years ago, contained by an effective cordon sanitaire. Now, however, the fringe is becoming mainstream, as more and more people (well, more and more pundits and professors) glom on to ideas and ideologies long considered heretical: protectionism, socialism, distributism, nationalism, even full-fledged anti-liberalism. For this reason, it’s worth examining both authors to get a sense of what’s driving today’s post-liberal crusade—and of whether the movement has legs.
As it turns out, each book usefully illustrates the limits of the other’s project. Legutko helps us see that classical and progressive liberalism are not unrelated or even antithetical; on the contrary, their relationship is why Cooper ends up constrained and confused by the very system she’s critiquing. Cooper, in turn, helps elucidate a tension at the heart of Legutko’s argument: Though he scorns liberal democracy for “blurring [the] differences between people,” he himself ignores how different people have adapted liberalism to different contexts and for different ends—how Habermas differs from Locke, say, or how Constant differs from Cooper. This tension doesn’t negate the book, but it does highlight an error to which modern-day critics of liberalism (left and right) often fall prey: conflating what is contingent with what is essential, such that everything bad about the present can be explained by ideas or institutions in the past. To note the essentialist fallacy is not to dismiss either author out of hand; it is merely to preempt the hysteria—and derangement—which their essentialism breeds.
On June 8, 1978, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn delivered a famous commencement address at Harvard University. It was famous, in part, because it was so unexpected. After noting that Western systems of government are “in theory . . . the best and in practice the most attractive,” the Nobel Prize-winning dissident began issuing wave after wave of pointed denunciations—only they weren’t aimed at the Soviet Union.
“The Western world,” he said, “has lost its civil courage,” especially “among the ruling groups and the intellectual elite.” These groups “show depression, passivity, and perplexity in their actions and in their statements, and even more so in theoretical reflections to explain how realistic, reasonable . . . and even morally worn it is to base state policies on weakness and cowardice.”
Indeed, Western liberalism had become so libertine it was in danger of imploding:
Destructive and irresponsible freedom has been granted boundless space. Society appears to have little defense against the abyss of human decadence, such as, for example, misuse of liberty for moral violence against young people, such as motion pictures full of pornography, crime, and horror. . . . Life organized legalistically has thus shown its inability to defend itself against the corrosion of evil.
And the media wasn’t helping. Even without censorship, “fashionable trends of thought . . . are carefully separated from those which are not fashionable; nothing is forbidden, but what is not fashionable will hardly ever find its way into periodicals or books or be heard in colleges.” This, in turn, “gives birth to strong mass prejudices” that serve as a kind of “petrified armor around” the mind, making it immune to reasoned criticism.
In many ways, Legutko is Solzhenitsyn redivivus. Communism is gone (mostly), but the anomie of liberalism remains, and if anything has gotten worse. Once upon a time, Legutko belonged to the Solidarity trade union, a key font of anti-communist organizing; today, he is a member of Poland’s right-wing Law and Justice Party, having lived through (and lamented) the post-Soviet transition. These experiences don’t place Legutko beyond critique, of course—I’ll offer several of those in a bit—but they at least entitle him to a hearing. Among his more striking observations are as follows:
Liberalism, like communism, has millenarian tendencies. It “immanentizes the eschaton,” to use Bill Buckley’s famous phrase, and so can grow hostile to the eschaton’s less immanent depictions—those proffered by Christianity, say, and especially by Catholicism. Like communism, liberalism has a progressive concept of history and a utopian sense of its role therein; like communism, it smears dissent as ideology while worshipping its own “ideological gods,” the holy triad of race, class, and gender.
And despite claiming to transcend politics, liberalism and communism have both “induced politicization on a scale unknown in previous history,” with schools and businesses and media all pressured to conform to the same staid pieties, the same stale narrative. Under communism, Legutko notes, “the proletariat” was an ideological mystification that lacked any concrete referent; it existed only insofar as it “fulfilled the political criteria” of the revolution, not as a real, tangible grouping. Likewise, “women” is an abstract concept that “does not denote any actual existing community, but only an imagined collective” of feminist worship, or so it is claimed. “Women, homosexuals, [and] Muslims” thus become “quasi-political parties,”1 “organized from above” and “possessing [no] other characteristics than those resulting from the struggle for power against other groups.”
Throughout all this, Legutko is careful to emphasize that whereas communism rested on terror, liberal democracy does not, a difference “only an insane person would deny.” Still, one obvious riposte is that Legutko isn’t describing liberalism per se, but rather a deranged form of progressivism. The great and the good, the whig and the woke have forgotten what true liberalism looks like, the objection goes—so, far from impugning liberal democracy, these parallels just show how much ground has been ceded to illiberalism in recent years, and how bad the recession has been. In that case, maybe what we need today is more liberalism, not less.
Maybe. But then why have these “progressive” trends emerged with such striking uniformity across the Western world? Why is it that political correctness is affecting policy in the United States and Canada and the EU? Why is it that invasive and unaccountable government has cropped up in just those places that style themselves liberal democracies, and why don’t liberals seem terribly troubled by this fact? A similar query could be posed to the defender of communism: Why is it that everywhere it’s been tried, from Venezuela to Cuba to Russia, central planning has evolved the exact same characteristic defects over time? To dismiss those defects as not “true” communism is to beg the question, and to ignore an awfully big coincidence. Mutatis mutandis, liberal democracy: If liberalism has devolved into progressivism everywhere it’s been tried—big “if”—then perhaps progressivism is a feature of the system rather than a bug.2
That ultimately is what Legutko is arguing. For him, the parallels between liberal democracy and communism are not incidental but systemic, and arise out of a common intellectual heritage. It’s difficult to fully evaluate this claim without diving deep into the weeds of Enlightenment exegesis, but the basic argument rests on three points.
First, liberal democracy and communism both value equality, albeit in different ways. The communists sought to “equalize” men by pauperizing them—materially, yes, but also socially, via the wholesale destruction of civic life. The mechanism in liberal democracy is more subtle (and more humane), but, Legutko suggests, perhaps more insidious as well: Democractic politics requires a presumption of equality that tends to metastasize across the culture, breeding distrust of traditional associations and attachments insofar as they embody non-egalitarian traits. The social scape of liberal democracy thus comes to resemble (he says) the barrenness of communism, except this barrenness does not result from state suppression or control; it’s instead generated spontaneously, within the liberal order, due to voluntary choices made by individual agents.
And “because egalitarianism weakens communities and thus deprives men of an identity-giving habitat, it creates a vacuum” that ideology is only too happy to fill. “Feminism makes all women sisters . . . all environmentalists become a part of an international green movement.” The cause is “similarly vulgar” in each case, and the mind “equally dogmatic, unperturbed by any testimony from outside”—Solzhenitsyn’s psychic armor in action.
Second, liberalism and communism both begin with what Legutko calls “anthropological minimalism”—the view that man lacks an intrinsic “good” or “end” toward which human life should be ordered. Absent such directives, the communist sees no real reason to constrain his brutality (where would that constraint come from?), while the liberal recognizes no obligation to anything other than his own desires, thereby compounding the atomism produced under an egalitarian ethos.
Third, liberal democracy and communism both aim to maximize personal freedom. This seemingly counterintuitive claim actually makes a good deal of sense when one considers the Marxian account of the end of history. “As soon as the distribution of labour comes into being,” Marx wrote, “each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape.” But in a communist society:
Nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, [because] society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.
Legutko’s core insight is that liberal democracy understands freedom in exactly these terms—the right, as Anthony Kennedy put it, “to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life” without interference, not just from government but from nature itself.
Yet “if man reaches fulfillment by increasing his decision-making power,” why think “this desire will vanish in some future system that allows the . . . free expression of human nature?” It won’t—which means liberalism, like Marxism, “is primarily a doctrine of power, both self-regarding and other-regarding:” in order to prevent private agents from dominating their countrymen, it must grant “enormous prerogatives for itself.” Hence the expansion of central authority, the proliferation of rules and regulators, in liberal-democratic life. There is an inverse relationship between freedom’s conceptual purport, on the one hand, and its concrete manifestation on the other, to wit:
If abortion means freedom, then we should . . . force doctors to support this freedom and silence priests so they do not interfere with it. If same-sex marriage means freedom, we should then compel its opponents to accept it and silence fools who may have doubts about it.
As a result, “those who write and speak not only face more limitations than they used to, but all the institutions and communities that traditionally stood in the way of this ‘coercion to freedom’ are being dismantled.” Examples of such freedom-coercing measures include demographic quotas, hate speech laws, campus speech codes, and—Legutko reminds us almost every other page—the EU, whose supranational diktats “ignore the rules followed in nation-states.” Dissent, meanwhile, is “considered a blasphemous assault on the very idea of the European Union and the noble principles that constitute it, just as in socialism every dissent was an incomprehensible act of treason that did not deserve to be left unpunished.”3
Liberalism as communism-lite is a provocative frame to say the least, and more than one critic has dismissed it as little more than trollish clickbait. You can reject that framing, though, without rejecting the substantive account of how liberal democracy currently operates—how the culture, courts, and corporate media form a system that’s less free or open or democratic than the official Narrative suggests, and which homogenizes citizens into isolated, lonely units.
Still, one problem with the book is that Legutko spends so much time outlining his theory he never actually gets around to proving it. Almost every mechanism he identifies acts through “social practices, mores,” and “attitudes,” all things that admit of anthropological (not just armchair) analysis. Yet scant analysis takes place. Legutko simply lists off properties of liberal-democratic life—loneliness, conformism, secularism—then tells an elaborate just-so story to explain them. Yes, this story has deep roots in political philosophy; yes, Legutko cites Rawls and Nozick and Tocquevillle; yes, establishing causation is difficult. But if your entire causal theory rests on particular “mores” and “attitudes,” you should probably provide some evidence that those attitudes (a) exist, and (b) are what’s driving liberalism’s turn toward progressivism.
Moreover, you would want to show that the turn isn’t merely philosophical but practical,4 that liberal-democratic values motivate ordinary people to become woke (or at least anti-anti-woke) until society resembles one big college campus—until Brussels becomes Brown, Washington Wesleyan. You’d want to find left-wing critics of liberalism who presuppose the very value system they’re critiquing—”crypto-liberalists,” as it were—and you’d also want such people to appear atomized and troubled, because that would make Polish-style illiberalism seem more like a kindness than an imposition, more like a cure than a disease.
In short, you’d want someone like Brittney Cooper.
A columnist at Cosmopolitan and a tweeter at “@ProfessorCrunk,” Cooper is not the sort one generally associates with Big Ideas, let alone with prickly Poles. I had never heard of her until my book club decided to read Eloquent Rage and Demon in Democracy in tandem, which many of us assumed was a joke. (It wasn’t.)
Cooper teaches Women’s Studies at Rutgers University, but her best known work isn’t really academic, nor does it try to be. Rather, Eloquent Rage is somewhere between a memoir and a manifesto, blending personal experience with political reflection in colloquial, often caustic prose—I counted 33 uses of “fuck” and 47 of “shit.”
It’s also informed by the “woke analysis feminism has bequeathed” the author “about the perils of getting in bed at any level with the logics of patriarchy and militarism.” But, as we learn soon enough, Cooper didn’t grow up around such language (she’s from a small Southern town), or around her father (he was shot dead when she was nine), and for the most part enjoyed little of the privilege that many academics (the lefties especially) tend to inhabit. Though she does name-drop here and there, her “feminist muse” is Beyonce, not Beauvoir—a poet, not a philosopher.
All this makes Eloquent Rage a good test of Legutko’s thesis: If liberal-democratic values help shape the awokening Cooper describes, it might mean Legutko is on to something when he says liberalism and progressivism are linked in practice as well as in theory. Whereas if those values don’t play a role—if her rage has other, more salient sources—then maybe what Legutko attributes to liberal democracy is really attributable to something else, extrinsic to our current order and therefore not an indictment of it.
At first glance, the thesis holds up quite well. There are times when Cooper joins liberalism to progressivism so explicitly she almost seems like a plant, deployed by Jacobite handlers in order to discredit the liberal project. She presents identity politics as a “language of liberation” and “self-possession”, evolved out of a “healthy love for ourselves,” and intersectionality as the idea that “systems of power interact in Black women’s lives to . . . hinder us from moving unencumbered through the social sphere.” Each concept is defined and defended in classically liberal terms—the Lockean meme of self-ownership, the Millian meme of laissez-faire—as is power itself, which Cooper conceives as “the ability to create better options” for one’s life. And each rests on a liberal notion of freedom, ”the ability to travel unencumbered to the places where you need to go,” to not be “limited by script and convention.”
It is this notion that Legutko thinks has undermined traditional sources of meaning and community. And sure enough, it’s what motivates Cooper’s splenetic jabs at organized religion. Most Christian theology is “infantiliz[ing],” she says, because it makes us think “God only ever sees us as children,” rather than as self-sufficient, autonomous beings. A better church would be one in which “Black women had the right to dissent from theologies that didn’t serve them well”—those that put limits on “their finances, their bodies, the number of children they bore, and the kind of sex they wanted to have”. Don’t abandon Jesus if he’s “important to you,” Cooper enjoins, in language behooving a self-help manual. But conservative Christian theology or (God forbid) sexual ethics? “That shit is just absurd.”
Absurd, and presumably unequal. The problem with God’s “favor”, as Cooper puts it, is that “favor isn’t fair. So we should have . . . a healthy skepticism of the institutions and opportunities that would make of us exceptions.” Here, she echoes almost verbatim the democratic disdain for religion described by Legutko: “Salvation, like anything that is not . . . distributed equally” will appear “ideologically suspect” to those with an egalitarian temperament, the ultimate form of favoritism and unfairness. Given how central this concept is to Christianity, it would not be a stretch to say that Cooper’s worldview effectively precludes participation in authentic Christian life—that it “deprives her”, in Legutko’s words, “of an identity-giving habitat” in which meaning can flourish.
And absent such a habitat, she displays many of the properties Legutko assigns the liberal subject. Cooper, one senses right away, is a lonely person. She recalls staying in “toxic” friendships with women out of a “fear of being alone,” and notes that she “came up in an era when Black girls loudly proclaimed that they didn’t have friends. They had associates”—a strikingly cold, contractual term. This attitude “has always rung false” to Cooper, “maybe because [she] had absolutely no interest in spending sustained time fake-grinning at people with whom [she] couldn’t be [her] whole self,” or maybe because consent is necessary but not sufficient for friendship, which requires the sort of thick ties that liberalism tends to corrode.
An example of that corrosion comes in Chapter 4, where Cooper offers a poignant critique of her father. People would always comment on “his empathy and kindness to others,” Cooper recalls, especially the “starving children in Africa.” But therein lies “the conundrum of American empathy:” Cooper’s father “cared more for these Black children abroad than he cared for his own children, whom he never financially or emotionally supported.” Put another way, he cared more for abstractions—Starving Children in Africa, the Universal Brotherhood of Man—than he did for tangible relationships, to the point that Cooper only remembers him as a “weekend bringer of chaos and destruction.” The paradox of American empathy, then, is really the paradox of liberal empathy: Care too much for The World, and pretty soon you’ll care nothing for the people within it, including your own flesh and blood. “Patriarchy and toxic masculinity . . . turned my father into a violent man,” Cooper tells us. Perhaps that’s true. But so, by her account, did liberalism, to the extent it strained the relational ties that might have made his life—and his daughter’s—better.
Whatever’s at fault, the fact remains that Cooper grew up profoundly alienated from faith, friends, and family. This should make her profoundly susceptible to identity politics on Legutko’s view; the “vacuum” must be filled somehow. And indeed, Cooper explicitly links her embrace of feminism to her desire for belonging:
Many of us who couldn’t access pretty privilege, those of us who weren’t popular or cool, those of us nerdy girls who stayed to ourselves, wrote stories and dreamed of lives as writers, grew up and found a home in feminism, a place where we were seen, a place where others were as mad about injustice as we were.
From liberalism to loneliness, from loneliness to progressivism—that is Legutko’s argument, and Cooper’s story.
Alas, both have a predictable ending. Legutko thinks liberalism will politicize every aspect of human life—language and love, friendship and sex—until there’s no escaping the panopticon. For her part, Cooper welcomes this process. “I’m tired of the lie that relationships and love are not political,” she declares at one point. “We need to pursue intimate solidarity with one another,” because “solidarity and allyship matter as much in the bedroom as they matter in the revolution.” Any “healthy or just version . . . of Black relationships” will therefore be “rooted in the concept of being allies and coconspirators”—of being part of a common struggle—against racism and patriarchy and xenophobia. Cooper thus understands politics in much the same way as Carl Schmitt, who wrote that “the specific political distinction . . . is that between friend and enemy.” So if friendship and love are political, they must ultimately be premised on antagonism rather than affection—on conflict rather than intimacy.
And because this distinction is essentially public, to assert that “the personal is political” is really just to abolish the personal—the very sphere in which meaningful attachments are formed. Eloquent Rage thus takes on a tragic, almost Sisyphean character: Cooper copes with loneliness by politicizing precisely those things that shouldn’t be political, which just ensures her atomization will continue. “I worry about a world in which” black girls only have “associates,” she remarks in chapter 2, because that word implies an attitude of “distrust”. Yet by chapter 10, she’s encouraging black girls to think of themselves as coconspirators without the slightest hint of irony. Per Legutko, it seems liberalism “has turned into an independent agent of such a coercive power that it force[s] people” like Cooper to say and do things that, by their own lights, “they should not be doing”—to self-destruct out of some misbegotten sense of enlightenment, their “pure love for the idea.”
Dig a little deeper, though, and this Legutkian schema begins to break down. For one thing, Cooper sounds like a communitarian at least as often as she sounds like a liberal. “Individual transformation is neither a substitute for nor a harbinger of structural transformation” she writes, “but the collective, orchestrated fury of Black women can move the whole world.” To that end, Cooper actually acknowledges the black church as “one of the historic structuring institutions for the social life of black people.” True, “churches have an exceedingly long way to go in combating . . . homophobia and sexism.” True, they’ve often abdicated their role “in ending white supremacy.” But even so, “it was at church that I learned to have a healthy relationship with my fears, anxieties, and fantasies.”
If Eloquent Rage is ambivalent about religion, it’s downright confused about theology. “Christian invocations of favor” are bad when they make us into “exceptions,” but good when they “are used as a resource to fight against routine injustices.” Or maybe that’s also bad, Cooper goes on, because “this approach to currying favor with God is individual” and thus offers no coherent critique of “the system.” She can’t make up her mind.
These passages complicate the straightforward reading of Cooper as a radical liberal democrat. It would be more correct to say that Eloquent Rage imbricates liberalism alongside many other traditions and ideologies, not all of which fit neatly into Legutko’s thesis. They do not fit, in part, because they lack any European analogue. As Legutko concedes, America has proven curiously resistant to the secularization that’s taken place across the Atlantic, having preserved a “strong presence of religion in the public square.” This presence helps explain why American social justice movements have historically been less secular than their European counterparts (just look at MLK), and why even at her most rageful Cooper can’t quite bring herself to disown the church, opting instead for a harsh yet indecisive sort of criticism.
Indeed, the whole emphasis on “rage” is somewhat specific to the American context. “When it comes to Black women”, Cooper writes, “sass is simply a more palatable form of rage. Americans adore sassy Black women. You know . . . women like Tyler Perry’s Madea, Mammy in Gone with the Wind, or Nell from that old eighties sitcom Gimme a Break! These kinds of Black women put white folks at ease.” The role of rage in black culture no doubt influenced its role in black feminism, which has long extolled what Audre Lorde called “the uses of anger”—its ability to mobilize and empower women “in the direction of our good,” as bell hooks put it. To the extent this tradition can be described as “liberal,” it is a much more passionate liberalism than the bloodless technocracy at play in the EU, where Habermas, not hooks, remains the court philosopher.
And those are just two examples. Liberalism has always emerged in response to—and been shaped by—particular exigencies at particular moments. As Sam Moyn notes in The Washington Post, “liberalism’s critics . . . often gesture nostalgically, and unspecifically, to the supposedly more rooted social order of the Middle Ages. Yet liberalism arose from that social order because illiberalism itself failed badly.” Figures like Hobbes and Locke had no interest in the sort of deracinated individualism with which they are now associated; their main goal was to prevent a repeat of the religious wars that rocked Europe from the 16th to early 17th century.
French liberalism, by contrast, was more about defending the achievements of the French Revolution against its critics. This effort consciously emphasized duty, virtue, and self-sacrifice, as Helena Rosenblatt has shown, both as goods in themselves and as essential prerequisites for freedom. The desire to conserve a revolution also shaped the liberalism of the American Founders, who had no problem speaking in terms of a common good, or in terms of “justice,” or in terms of our “Posterity” as distinct from theirs. Freedom was merely part of that good, and meant something quite different to Madison and Washington than what it means today.
Such particularities don’t disprove the claim that liberalism tends to decay over time, of course. But “tends” is the operative word. And once you appreciate how different liberalism can look in different contexts—how it can be both religious and secular, communal and libertarian—you begin to wonder whether we really had to end up here as Legutko suggests, or whether what ails us is more contingent, more subject to change than Demon in Democracy would have it.
I think the bulk of the evidence points toward option two, including the evidence Legutko cites. At times, he seems almost as confused as Cooper about just how essentialist he wants to be. Hyper-politicization had deep “roots in the past,” one sentence begins, but the most “direct impact came from what happened throughout the Western world in the 1960s.” Was that happening the inevitable result of liberal democracy? Perhaps, Legutko ventures, insofar as the “paramount status of equality clearly favored the Left” more than the Right. Yet on the very same page, he notes three decade-specific factors that “substantially changed the mood of the public: the European powers’ stormy process of decolonization, America’s entanglement in the Vietnam war, and [the] political awakening of the black population.” It’s quite possible that liberalism was a necessary condition for what happened next; but absent these paroxysms it would hardly have been sufficient.
Legutko falls into a similar trap when discussing the sexual revolution, that “existential vacuum” of “despair and senselessness.” For more than 300 years, from 17th-century Britain to 20th-century America, “the family, while not particularly respected by philosophers of liberal and democratic persuasions, was not an object of systemic attack. Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau certainly did not fight against it.” But then came the counterculture, which
repeated the old communist plan to overthrow the repressive power structures, including marriage and family. This time, however—and that was what made it different from previous revolutions—its slogans of sexual liberation mobilized millions of people and it had at its disposal previously unheard-of instruments of ideological warfare, notably mass culture and mass media . . . . The message that reached the millions was that human sexual impulses had been so far suppressed, that this suppression had been deleterious, and that once sex was liberated, life would be immeasurably nicer. [Emphasis added]
One way of interpreting this is that liberalism’s “inner dialectic” finally reached its denouement with the liberalization of sex, regulated for so long by “social practices” and “precepts.” But here’s another: Slogans of sexual liberation had existed for more than a hundred years before they caught on with the general public—and even then, it took “previously unheard-of instruments” of mass media (never mind the pill) to ensure that the change would be permanent. Libertinism doesn’t appear to be the liberal default, in other words; it required a very particular mix of socio-scientific conditions, as well as a very long time-horizon, to come about.
By contrast, communism registered its characteristic defects almost immediately. The Soviet Union experienced its first major famine in 1921, while it was still in the process of being established; in 1934 the purges began, and by 1937 Stalin had achieved total political control, buttressed by a febrile cult of personality. One decade later, the Romanian monarchy became the People’s Republic of Romania under Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej; economic and political turmoil soon followed, culminating in Nicolae Ceaușescu’s infamous regime.
If liberalism tends to produce sybarites, then, communism has a much stronger tendency to produce dictators, so much so that “essence” seems like a more appropriate term. And even if you accept the comparison between communist Newspeak and liberal “language rituals,” those rituals did not develop until rather late in liberalism’s lifespan; communism, on the other hand, had Newspeak from the beginning and displayed relatively less variance in its internal operations. Whatever affinity exists between the two today, it is probably not solely or even primarily the fault of their shared intellectual structure. At least as important were Fortuna, accident, luck, forces that play a larger role in liberal democracy than communism precisely because they are allowed to. Perhaps Legutko would say that “real” liberalism did not exist before 1960, just as “real” communism did not exist before 1917; if so, he’d be distorting language on a scale commensurate with the Politburo, which would in turn undermine the very premise that makes his book interesting, if at times quite frustrating.
Most frustrating of all is the way Legutko will make a good or even brilliant point, only to stretch it beyond the bounds of decency and common sense. Hate speech laws are “dangerous,” he warns, because they allow for “drastic intervention by the government and the courts in family life, the media, public institutions, and schools.” An entirely reasonable view, consonant with his claims about “coerced” liberty. But then comes the rub: For Legutko, “domestic violence” laws are also an “Orwellian” measure, “making people believe that freedom is slavery and slavery is freedom.” He does not see (or does not indicate he sees) any moral difference between policing thought and policing rape, provided both take place at home; it’s all part of liberalism’s inner logic, and for that reason must be opposed.
I’m sure Cooper would take this passage as proof that the only thing conservatives want to conserve is patriarchy. So, I suspect, would many centrists who might otherwise entertain Legutko’s argument. And that’s what’s so maddening about today’s post-liberal craze: Its leaders are every bit as blinkered by abstraction as the Potemkin liberalism they decry. The result is a kind of essentialist death-spiral in which the straw-men of the Right feed the straw-men of Left and vice versa, until neither side can find anything to admire about our current order—it’s hedonism or white nationalism all the way down. Maybe liberal democracy will collapse, maybe it won’t. All I know is I don’t want Cooper or Legutko picking up the pieces if it does.
1It’s important to note that none of those groups are especially powerful in Poland. Nor are Jews, as evidenced by a now-repealed law that would have made it illegal to discuss Poland’s complicity in the Holocaust. By contrast, Legutko’s anti-immigrant, socially conservative Law and Justice party controls over half the Polish Parliament.
2Lest I be misunderstood: Even if progressivism were an essential feature of liberalism, it would not follow that liberalism and communism are morally equivalent. They aren’t. My point is simply that reactionary critics of liberalism are making the same kind of argument as liberal critics of communism, which is why it is question-begging to invoke “true” liberalism as some sort of trump card. Put another way, you won’t persuade post-liberals unless you address their argument on its own terms. As a liberal myself, I think this is worth doing.
3Curiously, the Brave Dissident Legutko has been given every opportunity to express himself, such as when he accused Angela Merkel of being “hijacked” by the Left on the floor of the European Parliament.
4That Legutko himself fails to show this is odd considering how much of his career has been spent in politics. Though he does indeed teach philosophy at Jagiellonian University, he has also served as a Polish Senator and Secretary of State. You’d think those experiences would translate into an impressive grasp of the relation between theory and praxis, but, alas, they do not.