After Liberalism: Mass Democracy in the Managerial State

Liberalism and Democracy Are Now Conflated

Americans have given up freedom and self-government for a mess of pottage. Modern “liberalism,” argues political science professor Paul Gottfried in his insightful new book, rests on a “patricide” of the older liberalism. Whereas liberalism and democracy were once opposed concepts, they are now conflated, to the great detriment of the former.

Meanwhile, “democracy,” which replaced liberal republicanism, gave way to irresponsible centralized bureaucracies. Thus “liberal democracy” is “less and less” liberal or democratic by any standards. The liberals’ managerial state “succeeds by denying that it exercises power,” Gottfried writes. Liberals aspire to run the economy and “socialize” children away from their parents’ outworn values; they now wish to do so worldwide, as an outreach program of American imperialism. They are building a New Society that they, at least, expect to like better than the imperfect one they see around them.

Modern liberals—from J. S. Mill through Herbert Croly, Walter Weyl, Walter Lippmann, and John Dewey and his followers—justified the all-embracing state. Those social democrats stole their name from laissez-faire liberals, but talked a good game of democracy. As far back as Mill, they foresaw their ability, as a “new clerisy,” to guide democracy along desired paths.

Gottfried argues that liberalism had to become an “armed doctrine,” since “letting people go their own way will not suffice to make them open-minded or civic-spirited.” Only constant intervention by trained administrators with a “universal faith in rationality” could avert the horrors attendant on actually leaving anyone, anywhere, alone.

Fascist and Bolshevik “social reconstruction” fascinated the “liberals.” They settled for John Dewey’s “experimental-scientific” approach, allegedly open-ended and rooted in “neutral” criticism of all “values.” Natural scientists, who use this method in fields where it actually works, generally know when an experiment is over. In the New State it is the lab rats who are blamed for bad outcomes (if failure is even admitted) and ordered to ride the mass transit system of Progress and quit reading that pre-scientific Constitution.

By the 1940s liberals defined their outlook as a “fighting faith” opposed to fascism (communism having somewhat escaped their attention). “Value relativity” had been a useful cudgel against existing bourgeois, Christian values—“social acids” as one Deweyite put it—but liberalism itself was exempt from inquisition. Ongoing experiment gave ever-shifting “content” to an ever-new liberalism. The welfare state was means and end, since planning and economic redistribution were keys to a rational society. Freedom, Gottfried observes, was reduced to “what judges, public administrators, and journalists see fit to impose on other people.” Bored with handing out pottage, welfare states “also tried to shape or reshape social relations to fit particular worldviews.”

This social engineering and therapy is known, oddly, as “pluralism,” although it is “plural” only in terms of organized factions, accredited victims (lately), and the administrators themselves. Gottfried quarrels with paleoconservatives who see modern liberalism as a “front” for New Class public meddlers. The truth, he says, is much worse: the administrators actually believe in their ideology and wish to impose it everywhere.

Fearing, after 1945, that “fascism” might come back, liberals turned education into an engine of social reconstruction. Egged on by that emigré Marxist charlatan Theodor Adorno, they fretted over the backward Americans’ “mental health” and psychoanalyzed the “Radical Right” long distance. (This remains fashionable.) In the hands of journalists incapable of making distinctions, this attitude became a weapon of mass demonization.

“Multiculturalism” serves as another weapon in the liberal arsenal of dirigiste weaponry: “the present regime assigns ‘ethnicity’ and other generic categories to rearrangeable groups of citizens as an exercise of power,” writes Gottfried. From the managers’ standpoint, the “behavior modification” of Americans/Mankind “must go on indefinitely.” This is Bolshevism Light, I guess. Stalin could never completely achieve a state composed of “new Soviet men” and the modern liberals will never completely achieve a state of ideally servile, collectively minded citizens, but to give up would put the entire project at risk. Liberal managerial meddling has no logical stopping point.

Gottfried surveys sundry American and European populist movements, concluding that little can be done to roll back, or even slow, the advancing Leviathan. Its pessimism aside, I strongly recommend this densely packed and reflective book (to which I have hardly done justice), which rests on Professor Gottfried’s great erudition and close reading of the relevant European and American literature.

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