As I sit in my post-2016 fascist hellscape of the British Isles, waiting for the jackboots to kick down the door at three in the morning to lead me to state-orchestrated brutality, I was thinking, Which thought crime should I commit first?
Of course, none of what I just said is true. The West is not a fascist hellscape, regardless of how much The Guardian, Southern Poverty Law Center, or Vox.com would force you to “believe” it is. What we are seeing, however, across the planet, and not just the West, is a breakdown of status quo, a changing of the prevailing order since 2016, just like 1805, 1889, 1910, 1945, and 1991 before that. There is a distinct dissatisfaction with the “liberal internationalism” and the institutional comity that enables it.
The question, as ever, is why? It is easy to pin the answer down to a simple monocausality. The human mind likes patterns, and simpleton answers are often the most popular: racism, sexism, imperialism, transphobia, you name it. Such simplistic notions are often wrong, for no other reason than life is complex.
With that in mind, how should we understand this cultural moment, the rise of conservative nationalism, return of Great Power rivalry, and simmering collapse of the liberal hegemony that we are undergoing? Here’s a list of books that might shed some light.
I didn’t necessarily agree with everything in these books. Nevertheless, given the volumes of simplistic analysis making rounds in media, these books go against the conventional wisdom and confirmation biases and provide a counter-argument. So, in no particular order, here they are.
Why Liberalism Failed, by Patrick J. Deneen
Liberalism, according to Deneen, is not just a theory about liberty and equality under the law for all, as it was supposed to be. It is, in its modern form, an ideology, like fascism or Marxism, hammering societies. As societies based on family, marriage, religion, and community faded in the face of liberal dogma, the all-encompassing managerial state took its place. As an ideology that accepts no loyalty to the land, but only loyalty to some undefined internationalist universalist ideas, “liberalism valorizes placelessness.”
Modern liberalism turned increasingly anti-democratic and cosmopolitan, just like other universalist ideas about the arc of history bending towards progress. “Contemporary liberalism will increasingly resort to imposing the liberal order by fiat—especially in the form of the administrative state run by a small minority who increasingly disdain democracy. End runs around democratic and populist discontent have become the norm,” observes Deneen.
To channel Alexis de Tocqueville, liberal democracy culminates in a new form of despotism. Put simply, if one is a nationalist or believes in any religion, tradition, or community, then you are by definition considered illiberal, and therefore evil. Evil cannot be reasoned with, but only eradicated. Liberalism, in its current form, is therefore unsustainable and will result in a backlash.
The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities, by John J. Mearsheimer
Some similar themes in Deneen’s book surface in Mearsheimer’s latest, which seeks to explain why the promotion of liberalism is failing internationally. A purely liberal state, according to Mearsheimer, is soulless and has a crusading zeal to promote ideology and values.
As a result, liberal states end up fighting endless wars, which increases rather than reduces the level of conflict in international politics. Egged on by a handful of rabid ideologues, “committed liberals are deeply concerned about the rights of virtually every individual on the planet. This universalist logic creates a powerful incentive for liberal states to get involved in the affairs of countries that seriously violate their citizens’ rights.”
Naturally, liberalism comes into conflict with a greater force: nationalism. “Liberalism downplays the social nature of human beings to the point of almost ignoring it, instead of treating people largely as atomistic actors,” whereas, “nationalism places great emphasis on self-determination, which means that most countries will resist a liberal great power’s efforts to interfere in their domestic politics.”
The Hell of Good Intentions: America’s Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of U.S. Primacy, by Stephen M. Walt
Promoting liberal values through force and empathy is usually the cause of recent foreign policy troubles, argues Walt in his new book. (Walt previously co-authored the hotly debated book, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, with Mearsheimer.) “The Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations all made democracy promotion a central goal of US foreign policy and were confident that US power could reinforce a powerful secular trend,” Walt writes.
He argues the reason is an instinctive “Do something!” impulse that runs high. The American public are easily swayed by an appeal to emotions in a 24-hour televised news cycle, as well as the skewed perspective and incentives of the bipartisan D.C. foreign policy careerists.
Naturally, this results in American taxpayers being fleeced and allies who, “instead of welcoming US leadership, [take] advantage by free-riding.” Walt suggests a return to the Cold War era of hard, amoral realpolitik, based on narrow strategic calculations, which would include looking away from conflicts where possible and prioritizing which battles to fight. In other words, a return to the classical American foreign policy of James Monroe and John Quincy Adams. Emotions and an activist foreign policy elite are therefore incompatible with the conservation of resources and national interest.
The Virtue of Nationalism, by Yoram Hazony
Perhaps no book was more influential and prophetic last year, a polemic against one of the most pervasive myths of modern politics, that nationalism is somehow evil. Hazony traces the biblical and philosophical roots of nationalism and considers it to be the only unifying factor. Based on their shared culture, and most importantly shared language, humans find loyalty to the land beneath their feet. Liberalism and libertarianism both lead to unchecked liberty without responsibility, authority, or community, and individualism and atomization are ultimately divisive.
Since humans are social animals, the toxic atomization leads to people finding tribes based on race, caste, and ethnicity. A healthy civic nationalism, on the other hand, is unifying.
The second myth that Hazony demolishes is the post-1960s leftist history of Nazism being a nationalistic force. In reality, Nazism, like any internationalist ideology, was imperial in nature, seeking to “put an end to the principle of the national independence, and the self-determination of peoples once and for all.”
Hazony ends with equating the European Union to the Soviet Union of yore — a growing liberal empire instead of a Marxist one, which will inevitably come into conflict with conservative Christian democracies within, as well as great powers outside, like the United States, China, Russia, and the United Kingdom.
The Diversity Delusion: How Race and Gender Pandering Corrupt the University and Undermine Our Culture, by Heather Mac Donald
Foreign policy guys, including yours truly, often obsessively focus on books that primarily deal with the world order, international relations, structural and systemic forces, and other macro concepts. But it is wrong to ignore domestic forces that shape our culture. On that note, my last recommendation is a superlative book that warrants mentioning, which I won’t be able to do justice given the limited scope of this arciel. (See my longer review of this book here.)
It is often a caricature of conservatives that they see a Gramscian, Neo-Marxist conspiracy in every institution, and often hijacked by people pretending to be either liberals or conservatives. Mac Donald, for the first time, provides the empirical evidence and hundreds of case studies to demonstrate just this. She explains how media and academia, the two pillars and gatekeepers of a free society, are completely controlled by a certain section of ideologues who are continuing a vicious culture war, which is now spreading to every aspect of society from judiciary to military, and how that is leading to a backlash.
From #MeToo to transgender and LGBT overdrive, to campus feminism and due process, to race-baiting and affirmative action, every single culture war is dominated by this section of ideologues, who are completely out of touch with the people across the West. Consequently, there’s a huge perception gap reflected in failed polls and predictions.
“Progressive pedagogy has long embraced the idea that students should work exclusively in groups as a way to model collectivist democracy. This political agenda is simply a pretext for masking individual differences in achievement that might reinforce group stereotypes,” Mac Donald writes.
She goes on to note “the consequences of that cultural revolution are all around us: lagging education levels, the lowest male workforce participation rate since the Great Depression, opioid abuse, and high illegitimacy rates” as “entire fields have sprung up around race, ethnicity, sex, and gender identity” at universities. This in turn fuels a victimology that shapes forces who then go on to vote. In a quasi-Maoist way, one can shape society if one controls the institutions, and the chief causes of societal destruction, as well as enemies, are often found within.
On that upbeat note, here’s wishing a happy New Year! Please keep reading books. There’s no greater gift than knowledge.