Saturday, July 23, 2011

Birth of "the modern liberal state"

The phrase in quotes above is from the very end of Rory Muir's review (in the July 1 Times Literary Supplement) of several new publications (re)evaluating military strategy of the Napoleonic era. In his summation of the five books under review, he mentions the "diversity" of those who fought against Napoleon: the rank-and-file British soldiers under Wellington; the peasants and ordinary people, especially in Spain, who took to the hills to resist the French; the Austrian Joseph Radetzky and his polyglot army; and Clausewitz and the Prussian officer corps. Thus, the portrait here of a Cameron piper urging on the Highland Line at the Battle of Waterloo. And, Muir writes, "it was this very diversity that was at stake in a struggle to preserve local traditions and differences in the face of an intrusive modernizing government that was intervening to an unprecedented extent in areas of life and belief that had hitherto been private."

In the end, the battle was won -- Waterloo -- but the war was lost. As Muir writes, the battle was won only by copying Napoleon's methods: "Income tax, conscription and the gendarmerie became permanent fixtures of European life. The modern liberal state was here to stay."
At a glance, I can't quite see what income taxes, conscription, and the gendarmerie have to do with the "liberal state," which for most us probably rests principally on the rights and freedoms guaranteed by law. It is true, however, that modern law is "universal" and, indeed, in its application is by its very nature contemptuous of local traditions. For instance, all men (make that "humans") are "equal." The insistence on equality means that all of us must be reduced to the same common denominator, without allowance for local sentiments, traditions, and the like.

But our so-called liberal values and rights are not "universal." I agree with the postmodernists in this respect. Those values and rights have been historically achieved, the outcome of centuries of attempts by peoples all over western Europe to carve out different realms of freedom for themselves: to own businesses, to make a profit, to worship as they chose, to exchange cultural and scientific information, to pay less in taxes, to hold the powerful accountable. And it was the intercourse among all these different peoples that gradually produced, by the beginning of the 19th century, a very similar way of life among the elites and well-to-do of these different cultures and the belief among them that their way of life was "natural." And, so, though they were products of different cultures, they all ended up producing legal systems that protected this way of life.

Clearly, there is something about "Western" institutions that is attractive, especially to people from nations inimical to individual rights, but one should not think that there is anything "natural" about these institutions. As I point out in the introduction to my new book on the history of freedom of speech, our values seem natural to us, because they are "our" values. And because they are "ours," a legacy from previous generations, they should be cherished like any precious object that we inherit from our forefathers and foremothers.

When I was doing research for my introduction, I came across an interesting quote from the utilitarian Jeremy Bentham. His response to the doctrine of natural rights was that it was, "from beginning to end so much flat assertion." Islam, after all, also claims universality for its doctrines, and its adherents believe these are self-evident. For instance, the women above probably believe it is natural to be fully covered at all times, even in 104 degree heat. Or maybe 120 in Afghanistan. But Islam and other world religions are also powerful traditional and institutional entities. The current "return of religion" does not necessarily indicate revanchism, as some claim; rather, it affirms the power of institutions and traditions, not just religious, but also social, political, cultural, and so on.

Thus, the modern liberal state and the values it enshrines are not merely an abstract construct, but, in a multicultural world, represent an authentic cultural product, one that is the work of generations. Knowledge of how this product was created -- and imparting that knowledge is the aim of my book -- will also help us to preserve it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Very interesting post. I look forward to this book, this contribution. Thank you for another heroic labor of love. I've been reading a book by a Eugene Sheppard on Leo Strauss and the "making of a political philosopher" in terms of the lifelong personal and politico-theological theme of exile. One can hardly put a book like this down, especially if one was trained by several "Straussians," one the dissertation under Harry Jaffa; the other under Harvey Mansfield. What is most striking at this point is the extent to which the young scholar during the Weimar years (1918 to 1932) immersed himself in Nietzsche (actually this was in high school!); studied directly under Heidegger (after getting his doctorate at 21 on Jacobi--under Cassirer!); got a job with a recommendation by Carl Schmitt!; and generally fought hard in many ways for certain traditions even in the context of what appears to be lifelong "enlightenment"-based atheism. I'm also looking forward to rereading Strauss, especially "Natural Right and History." My paperback edition has a picture of the Declaration in the background. Very appropriate!