Can we escape the nightmare of egalitarian liberalism?
First published in the Summer 2021 edition of The Salisbury Review
Few pastimes are more perversely consoling in an age of civilisational collapse than taking refuge in that notable twentieth-century literary tradition, the depiction of dystopian worlds to come. George Orwell’s (1984) and Aldous Huxley’s (Brave New World) are the most celebrated of these prophetic nightmarish visions, but a host of others have contributed classic works, visionary and disturbing, yet also hugely enjoyable.
My own favourites include Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, whose hero, a book-burning fireman, inexplicably saves a book from the fire and thereby seals his fate, and Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano, in which consumer needs are ministered to by a computerised bureaucratic machine, and those with low IQs and who have been displaced by machines are consigned to the ‘Reek and Wrecks’ chain gangs.
Yevgeny Zamyatin’s classic We, where numbered inmates are encased in the Great Benefactor’s glass-domed machine, and the ‘enemies of happiness’ are hunted down by the Guardians, became the first book to be banned in the Soviet Union, in 1921. And then there is B F Skinner’s Walden Two, the intriguing thought experiment of the master psychologist of behaviourism, who believed we were all conditioned anyway.
The irony underlying all dystopian fiction is, of course, that these nightmare worlds were intended as utopias; indeed, the citizens are conditioned into believing that they are living the best of lives in the best of all possible worlds, except for the novel’s doomed hero, the social misfit who comes to see though the charade. Throughout dystopian fiction, the themes recur: behavioural engineering, social conditioning, instant gratification of our needs and desires, unquestioning belief that an anonymous all- controlling beneficent bureaucratic machine knows best, and ceaseless vigilance for any deviants who might undermine the system.
The result? Perpetual happiness, or at least pleasure, for all. There is the occasional glimmer of hope, as the hero finds a few kindred spirits, they momentarily rediscover authentic old-world experiences and freedoms, or find refuge in a forest clearing around a primeval fire under a starry night, but usually they are doomed. The hero imagines he has escaped, only to find he has been watched the whole time, even that his escapades were stage managed from the start. There is no escape.
Critics debate whether Orwell or Huxley was the more prophetic. Although Orwell was spot on in his depiction of state communism, Huxley seems the more relevant today, in that he depicts the meritocratic ideal taken to its grotesque but supremely rational limit, a society in which a meritocratic elite of Alphas rule in the public interest and a combination of social engineering and pleasure-inducing drugs (for drugs, now read digital media) serves to satisfy the needs of the masses.
There is no need for faces to be stamped on by jackboots, or for deviants to undergo hideous tortures with rats; the means of social control are far more refined and insidious. But either way, we have come a long way from the great tradition of Western individualism Hayek identified, that centred on ‘the respect for the individual man qua man, that is the recognition of his own views and tastes as supreme in his own sphere’; and from that great tradition of nineteenth-century liberalism which preached political freedom as ‘the freedom from coercion, freedom from the arbitrary power of other men’.
As for the freedom of expression which John Stuart Mill defended in On Liberty, the right to attack ‘prevailing opinion’, his castigation of those who would stigmatise ‘those who hold any unpopular opinion’ as ‘bad and immoral men’, and who thereby assume their own infallibility, this now seems but a distant memory.
Where did it all go wrong? In The Road to Serfdom, Hayek identified socialist planning as the great threat, because it would lead inevitably to a totalitarian state. But the dystopia we seem headed for today seems to have its perverse origins in the very liberalism that ought to have saved us from this fate. For the answer, we must turn instead to Democracy in America, where Tocqueville identified the root of the problem with acute perception and, what seems to us 180 years on, extraordinary prescience.
For Tocqueville, the problem lay in the principle of equality, not the familiar dogma that income or wealth should be equalised (socialism had not yet even arrived on the scene), but the Enlightenment principle of universal rights and its accompanying refrain that all forms of privilege should be abolished. In many ways, the new American republic was admirable.
Tocqueville witnessed a rugged breed of men whose acquisitive impulses were tempered by a strong religious code, and the devolution of power to states and local townships. The old republican principle of active citizenship, with its roots in the Athenian polis, was alive and well. But it was the principle of equality, the resentment at any form of privilege, that caused Tocqueville to fear for the future. For ‘if despotism were to be established among the democratic nations of our days’, it would assume a quite different character to the tyrannies of old.
Above ‘the innumerable multitude of men, all equal and alike, incessantly endeavouring to procure the petty and paltry pleasures with which they glut their lives’, stands ‘an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild’.
In the end, relieved altogether of ‘the care of thinking and all the trouble of living’, the nation is reduced to ‘nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd’, its people consoled ‘by the reflection that they have chosen their own guardians’.
The irony, for Tocqueville, was that it is democratic man’s hatred of privilege and inequality, that ‘is peculiarly favourable to the gradual concentration of all political rights in the hands of … the state alone’, because ‘being necessarily and incontestably above all the citizens’, the state ‘does not excite their envy’.
The upshot is that just as ‘every central power … courts and encourages the principle of equality … for equality singularly facilitates, extends, and secures the influence of the central power’, it also ‘worships uniformity’, which ‘relieves it from inquiry into an infinity of details, which must be attended to if rules have to be adapted to different men’.
It is, then, but a small step from liberalism to totalitarianism, from democracy to tyranny, and from freedom to social conditioning and thought control. What are today’s campaigns for inclusion and diversity, against discrimination and oppression, but expressions of the desire to eliminate privilege?
What are cancel culture and the prosecution of hate crime but expressions of the desire to ensure that universal rights are strictly enforced – in this case, the right not to be offended or insulted? Combine the war on privilege, fuelled by resentment and dressed up as ‘equality of opportunity’, or ‘meritocracy’, with the imperative to gratify individual needs and desires without restraint, the twin pillars of egalitarian liberalism, and we are well on the way to Huxley’s dystopia.
Quaint notions of freedom of speech and democracy are then little more than hangovers from a revolutionary age. In a secular liberal meritocracy, what matters is that we charge the brightest and the best with the responsibility of delivering the twin goods of equality of opportunity (that is, absence of privilege) and individual happiness. Unlike the aristocratic elites of old, today’s meritocratic technocratic elite serves the people by administering the systems that will maximise their utility and satisfaction. So long as nobody is privileged or disadvantaged, we are free to lead our lives and to sate our desires.
Privacy, the idea of an inviolable personal space, is another quaint remnant from an earlier age. The freedom for individuals to fully satisfy their wants, needs, and desires (for what else can freedom amount to) is being enhanced as never before by the advent of information technology and artificial intelligence. Call it mass surveillance and talk of Big Brother or Big Tech if you like, but it is only by knowing our preferences that they can be satisfied – by apps, games, social media, and the rest. The smart cities, smart neighbourhoods, and smart homes of the future will all be data systems. It is all for the greater good.
Is there any escape from this dystopian nightmare? Talk of cultivating civic virtue, public spaces, and the common good, as critics of liberalism often do, is all very well. But in the absence of a common culture, of shared experiences and memories, of loyalties and affections, and of values, the common good is nothing but the sum of our appetitive desires. Tocqueville understood that hierarchies and privileges, rooted in custom, tradition, inheritance, and natural advantage, have inestimable value.
Without them, liberty is drained of any significance, ambition and passion are neutered, and man reduced to a helpless state of ‘perpetual childhood’. Instead of aping egalitarian liberals by campaigning for universal rights and social mobility, conservatives should dare to defend privilege, inequality, and discrimination. They should defend our culture and our history. And they should defend that inviolable private space, that little world, in which the individual reigns supreme, and his thoughts and dreams, his prejudices and eccentricities, are his own.