In 1938, T.S. Eliot wrote The Idea of a Christian Society. Eliot’s major theme—a sketched outline of what a Christian society might entail—is stimulating despite the limitations of its context: it deals with England’s situation with the prospect of war casting its grim shadow. But his minor theme—the slide of a liberal society into a type of totalitarian democracy—has a broader, provocative relevance. The degeneration of Italy and Germany into dictatorships and the malignancy of the Soviet Union provided Eliot with examples of nations whose governments made much use of the words freedom and democracy, but twisted them to fit their preferred meaning. Eliot saw this lamentable pattern developing in liberal countries. His nuanced vision is worth revisiting, nearly eighty years later.
Eliot thought that liberalism would do most to prepare the way for a type of totalitarian democracy. (Eliot capitalised Liberalism, but I won’t so that the political project isn’t confused with the Australian political party.) This “totalitarian democracy”—seemingly an oxymoron—would be:
a state of affairs in which we shall have regimentation and conformity, without respect for the needs of the individual soul; the puritanism of a hygienic morality in the interests of efficiency; uniformity of opinion through propaganda, and art only encouraged when it flatters the official doctrines of the time.
Liberalism would prepare the way for this degraded democracy because liberalism was largely a negative force; Eliot saw that it wasn’t a comprehensive philosophy but a limited movement that defined itself by its rejections. It wasn’t so much going somewhere as not going back to something else. It persuaded itself that it was going forwards—Progress is its motto—but with no defined destination and with only glances backwards to its point of departure to ensure that whatever the direction, at least it was moving reassuringly away from what it condemned. This negativity and the vagaries it generates are liberalism’s main inadequacies:
For it is something which tends to release energy rather than to accumulate it, to relax rather than to fortify. It is a movement not so much defined by its end, as by its starting point; away from, rather than towards something definite. Our point of departure is more real to us than our destination; and the destination is likely to present a very different picture when arrived at, from the vaguer image formed in the imagination.
G.K. Chesterton, also writing in England between the wars, made a similar point when he noted that the “progressive” person was always walking away from something—usually something that common people desire such as smoking or hunting, low taxes, marriage or babies—rather than towards something else:
All modern thinkers are reactionaries; for their thought is always a reaction to what went before. When you meet a modern man he is always coming from a place, not going to it.
Moreover, Chesterton pointed out that the word they love beyond all others, progress, is a comparative term that is meaningless in the absence of a superlative. Both Eliot and Chesterton noticed that the liberal never defined their ultimate destination; and if they were forced to define it, it would be widely unpopular because so many people would not want to be dragged into the morass of the liberal’s enacted ideals. Eliot repeated, so we wouldn’t miss the point or the irony, that liberalism would inevitably result in deep and widespread social ills and then it would of necessity become punitive and controlling in a vain attempt to restrict the social mess its own policies had created.
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Similarly, Chesterton said that governments, rather than changing their faulty policies, set up departments and expand authorities to deal with the problems created by these exact policies. For example, in Australia today the imprudent generosity of many Centrelink payments helps to create tens of thousands of dependants for the overburdened Department of Family and Community Services, Housing Commission, police, courts and health systems. In addition, every town now has a coterie of government-funded welfare agencies replicating to a significant degree each other’s services to damaged lives—and likely to be achieving much less than their annual reports would suggest. Eliot tracks the causes of this peculiar species of decadence:
By destroying traditional social habits of the people, by dissolving their natural collective consciousness into individual constituents, by licensing the opinions of the most foolish, by substituting instruction for education, by encouraging cleverness rather than wisdom, the upstart rather than the qualified, by fostering a notion of getting on to which the alternative is a hopeless apathy, Liberalism can prepare the way for that which is its own negation: the artificial, mechanised or brutalised control which is a desperate remedy for its chaos.
Liberalism in practice means a massive increase in legislation of an ever more particularised nature. The tendency to greater control of many aspects of people’s lives by the liberal-dominated state takes some time to emerge into an obvious, alarming and dysfunctional loss of freedom, partly because of the restraining effects of tradition and the church, but state control develops in vigour as those restraints are dismantled or abandoned. Moreover, the waning strength of widespread religiously-based convictions opens the way for liberalism to more trenchantly target its critics and those who dissent from the liberal program. Thus, the church in many Western countries is treated with open contempt by some liberals because the church sees—and sometimes warns as it should—that the blind are leading the blind and both are in danger of falling into a ditch.
Sir Roger Scruton, who shares Eliot’s Anglicanism, documented the waning strength of religious traditions in England in his recent book Our Church: A Personal View of the Church of England. Scruton sees happening today what Eliot only foresaw. Scruton provides examples of liberal ideals resulting in illiberal acts: an NHS nurse is sacked for offering to pray with a patient; an airline hostess is banned from wearing a cross on her necklace; a bishop is fined £47,000 for discriminating against a youth worker who sought a position in the diocese, because the youth worker was at odds in practice with the Church’s teaching on sexuality.
Eliot is a subtle thinker. He doesn’t imagine that conservatism holds all the political and social answers, or that liberalism has no value. It does have a negative value; that of the critic who points out faults and exaggerations. The trouble Eliot sees with liberalism is that it is a negative position which has tried to become a substitute for a commonly held positive philosophy, a position once held by Christendom:
And I shall have expressed myself very ill if I give the impression that I think of Liberalism as something simply to be rejected and extirpated, as an evil for which there is a simple alternative. It is a necessary negative element; when I have said the worst of it, that worst only comes to this, that a negative element made to serve the purpose of a positive is objectionable. In the sense in which Liberalism is contrasted with Conservatism, both can be equally repellent; if the former can mean chaos, the latter can mean petrification. We are always faced both with the question “what must be preserved?” and with the question “what must be changed?” and neither Liberalism nor Conservatism, which are not philosophies and may be merely habits, is enough to guide us.
Like Eliot, Chesterton was a champion of a religiously-based polity rather than an agnostic or atheistic liberalism, and made a similar observation. Chesterton’s criticism of liberal programs did not automatically lead him to embrace conservative positions:
The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of Conservatives is to prevent mistakes from being corrected. Even when the revolutionist might himself repent of his revolution, the traditionalist is already defending it as part of his tradition. Thus we have two great types—the advanced person who rushes us into ruin, and the retrospective person who admires the ruins.
The tendency of liberals is to trumpet liberty, but the area they leave free for private choice, habit or prejudice gets ever smaller as the liberal state grows and seeks to ensure that its values dominate. Eliot noted:
Out of Liberalism itself come philosophies which deny it. We do not proceed from Liberalism to its apparent end of authoritarian democracy, at a uniform pace in every respect. There are so many centres of it—Britain, France, America and the Dominions—that the development of Western society must proceed more slowly than that of a compact body like Germany, and its tendencies are less apparent. Furthermore, those who are most convinced of the necessity of étatisme as a control of some activities of life, can be the loudest professors of libertarianism in others, and insist upon the preserves of “private life” in which each man may obey his own convictions or follow his own whim: while imperceptibly this domain of “private life” becomes smaller and smaller, and may eventually disappear altogether.
The effect of this curtailed domain of private life was observed by Scruton during his involvement in the 1980s with underground movements in the “totalitarian democracies” behind the Iron Curtain. He noticed that enforced political correctness had a corrosive effect on communities, institutions, friendships and even families because people were never sure who might report what they said or did. Private life was compromised by informers; hospitality became problematic and airing honest opinions was discouraged. Further, Scruton perceived that it created a tragi-comic inauthenticity because people gave token assent to values and conventions that they—in fact, most of the society—knew to be shams.
Eliot’s chief concern was that any government that he could foresee in England—and shall we say the same pertains to Australia?—would be materialistic. That is, its anthropology saw the end of man primarily in terms of prosperity and comfort, and it rejected the classical Christian specification of “the natural end of man being virtue, and well-being in community”. Prosperity and comfort are good things, Eliot knew, but in a crisis they provided no motivation to address tough challenges or to confront evil. It rocked Eliot to the core—it led him to write the book—to see the Czech people sacrificed to Hitler’s ambitions so Britain and France could enjoy prosperity and peace for a little longer:
The feeling which was new and unexpected was a feeling of humiliation, which seemed to demand an act of personal contrition, of humility, repentance and amendment; what had happened was something in which one was deeply implicated and responsible. It was not, I repeat, a criticism of the government, but a doubt of the validity of a civilisation. We could not match conviction with conviction, we had no ideas with which we could either meet or oppose the ideas opposed to us. Was our society, which had always been so assured of its superiority and rectitude, so confident of its unexamined premises, assembled round anything more permanent than a congeries of banks, insurance companies and industries, and had it any beliefs more essential than a belief in compound interest and the maintenance of dividends?
Fortunately, the people of Britain did have the residue of robust convictions to oppose the dictators of Europe and the militarists of Japan: a love of country and a love of freedom. But it was not obvious and could not be assumed at the time.
Complementary to his two main themes, Eliot made the point that the liberals would seek to capture the nation’s educational systems to facilitate the inculcation of liberal ideals. In many Western countries, this capture is well advanced in state-organised schools, colleges and universities, and in many other government-funded institutions. Eliot wrote:
One would indeed be surprised to find the educational system and the political system of any country in complete disaccord; and what I have said about the negative character of our political philosophy should suggest a parallel criticism of our education, not as it is found in practice here or there, but in the assumptions about the nature and purpose of education which tend to affect practice throughout the country. And I do not need to remind you that a pagan totalitarian government is hardly likely to leave education to look after itself, or to refrain from interfering with the traditional methods of the oldest institutions; of some of the results abroad of such interference on the most irrelevant grounds we are quite well aware. There is likely to be, everywhere, more and more pressure of circumstance towards adapting educational ideals to political ideals …
Eliot had serious concerns about the quality of the education that would result from this state control. His main concern was that because liberalism was negative, it was not capable of a reaching a consensus defining the enduring values and subjects that should be taught; the result would be a hodge-podge curriculum unified only by its subservience to the state’s values:
In a negative liberal society you have no agreement as to there being any body of knowledge which any educated person should have acquired at any particular stage: the idea of wisdom disappears, and you get sporadic and unrelated experimentation. A national system of education is much more important than its system of government: only a proper system of education can unify the active and the contemplative life, action and speculation. But “education,” said Coleridge, “is to be reformed, and defined as synonymous with instruction.” This revolution has been effected: to the populace education means instruction. The next step to be taken by the clericalism of secularism, is the inculcation of the political principles approved by the party in power.
Chesterton also saw that the government schools would teach the government’s values, and that the equity and uniformity favoured by governments would result in “standardisation to a low standard”. Further, like Eliot, he thought that untested and unwarranted “sporadic and unrelated experimentation” would be common, driven by faddists in the educational bureaucracy who would try to impose new ideas, ideas younger than the children who were being taught them. Chesterton observed:
The trouble with too many of our modern schools is that the State, being controlled so specially by the few, allows cranks and experiments to go straight to the schoolroom when they have never passed through the parliament, the public house, the private house, the church, or the marketplace. Obviously, it ought to be the oldest things that are taught to the youngest people; the assured and experienced truths that are put first to the baby. But in a school to-day the baby has to submit to a system that is younger than himself. The flopping infant of four actually has more experience, and has weathered the world longer, than the dogma to which he is made to submit. Many a school boasts of having the latest ideas in education, when it has not even the first idea; for the first idea is that even innocence, divine as it is, may learn something from experience. But this, as I say, is all due to the fact that we are managed by a little oligarchy …
Eliot understood that it wasn’t just the liberals in isolation who were creating the conditions for a totalitarian democracy. The media had a role because it controlled “all the best advertising space”; the churches had not effectively conveyed their alternative vision of life and in particular had neglected the great restorative value of monastic orders; and the population had become complacent in its ease and pleasures. There was a confluence of factors. In his endnotes, Eliot commends this passage from Christian Polity by V.A. Demant:
This fact of the secularisation of human life does not arise mainly from the extension of the State’s powers. This is rather the effort of the State to recover significance in the life of a people which has become disintegrated through the confusion of social means and ends which is its secularisation.
Hope, in England in 1938, was perhaps a fugitive virtue. A potential disaster was in plain sight, and Eliot saw the danger looming large and the hope somewhat small and distant. He was melancholic about the prospects for England, even without looking at what was happening in Europe:
The more highly industrialised the country, the more easily a materialistic philosophy will flourish in it, and the more deadly that philosophy will be. Britain has been highly industrialised longer than any other country. And the tendency of unlimited industrialisation is to create bodies of men and women—of all classes—detached from tradition, alienated from religion and susceptible to mass suggestion: in other words, a mob. And a mob will be no less a mob if it is well fed, well clothed, well housed and well disciplined.
Perhaps Eliot overstates the case here. He distrusted a mob, but possibly underestimates the healthy scepticism and independence of the individual and the possibilities for a Socratic response—as Soren Kierkegaard envisaged—to the attempt of the controlling state to “level” the values and attitudes of a population. There is always the likelihood of reaction—it is part of humanity’s unpredictable dynamism. Chesterton expected reaction because reality was complicated beyond anyone’s comprehension:
And one of the things that are undoubtedly real is reaction: that is, the practical possibility of some reversal of direction, and of our partially succeeding in doing the opposite of what we mean to do. What experience does teach us is this: that there is something in the make-up and mechanism of mankind, whereby the result of action upon it is often unexpected, and almost always more complicated than we expect.
Kierkegaard was especially sensitive to the tendency of temporal society to denigrate the uniqueness of the individual and to elevate an abstraction such as the species, the class, “the public”. Kierkegaard called this denigration of the individual “levelling” and it was effected by a process of “reflection”, which was not deep thought but the lazy adoption of the values and attitudes of other people; the “levelled” person “reflected” like a mirror what he recognised in others. Kierkegaard identified the media—in his day, the press—as one of the most potent levelling forces in a society. It constructed a changeable monster in “the public” who could hold the most opposing views because it was an abstraction; and “the public” always seemed to be in a majority, ready to intimidate individuals.
Yet Kierkegaard understood that the very attempt at levelling would produce a reaction, a maieutic response, like the response Socrates sought to engender; inadvertently, “levelling” would act as a midwife to push a person towards fuller consciousness as a divinely-summoned individual. Some people would think and choose for themselves because “levelling” was deadening and had become hateful to them. To give an example, as government schools become places of lowered standards where the values of the parents are contradicted—that is, levelled—more and more overtly by liberal values, a reaction might be parents abandoning government schools in favour of private schools and home schooling where they have real choice and direct influence. Government functionaries will be alarmed by this reaction and will seek to control—by threats to funding and yet more regulation—the freedoms of private schools and home schoolers. Bureaucrats who can’t run their own schools will try to run other people’s schools. And then there will be another reaction of another type the state controllers will not anticipate and probably won’t comprehend.
Eliot knew that a constant struggle was necessary to maintain the primacy of human essentials against expediency, of reason against unreason, of freedom against compulsion. This is from his concluding remarks:
… unless we can find a pattern into which all problems of life can have their place, we are likely to go on complicating chaos. So long, for instance, as we consider finance, industry, trade, agriculture merely as competing interests to be reconciled from time to time as best they may, so long as we consider “education” as a good in itself of which everyone has a right to the utmost, without any ideal of the good life for society or for the individual, we shall move from one uneasy compromise to another. To the quick and simple organisation of society for ends which, being only material and worldly, must be as ephemeral as worldly success, there is only one alternative. As political philosophy derives its sanction from ethics, and ethics from the truths of religion, it is only by returning to the eternal source of truth that we can hope for any social organisation which will not, to its ultimate destruction, ignore some essential aspect of reality. The term “democracy,” as I have said again and again, does not contain enough positive content to stand against the forces that you dislike—it can easily be transformed by them. If you will not pay your respects to God (and He is a jealous God) you should pay your respects to Hitler or Stalin.
Gary Furnell, a regular contributor of non-fiction and fiction, wrote the story “Two Removals” in the October issue, and the article “Full-Witted Women, Decorum and Comedy” in the September issue.