An underappreciated effect of the events of Covid-19 has been the neglect of works that would have ordinarily garnered a wider acclaim. Distracted as we’ve been by the medical events, as assortment of commendable offerings has escaped our attention.
One such work is The Demon in Democracy – Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies by Polish philosopher and European Parliament member Ryszard Legutko.Originally published in Polish in 2012 as Triumf Człowieka Pospolitego (‘Triumph of the Common Man’), then edited and appearing in English in 2016, Legutko’s book is a rare recent work of real import.
In a similar vein to the works of Christopher Lasch or John Gray, Legutko’s is an account that is tepid towards the Thatcherite consensus that has come to define the right, whilst resisting the easy overtures of our regnant left-liberalism. It’s a book that illuminates the errors of our age as it rejects the pieties that the epoch also demands.
Legutko, like Ed West or Christopher Caldwell, is one of few contemporary writers willing to critique the left-liberal status quo. And by not succumbing to our assorted unrealities, he articulates the inadequacies of our liberal democracy without the pusillanimity that’s all too prevalent. The book is thus a welcome addition to what is an otherwise bleak scene for the conservatively-inclined, entrapped as we are in an all-pervasive liberalism.
Such commendations aren’t restricted to this reviewer, however. Figures such as Harvard’s Adrian Vermeule and Notre Dame’s Patrick Deneen have been equally effusive. For Vermeule “Legutko has written the indispensable book about the current crisis of liberalism and the relationship of liberalism to democracy”while for Deneen the book is a“work of scintillating brilliance. [With] every page…brimming with insights.”
High praise, undoubtedly. Yet it’s well vindicated upon reading. The central thesis is that in spite of obvious outward appearances of difference, communism and liberal democracy share a range of similarities. An observation that is prima facie preposterous, yet after 200 pages of tightly-packed prose the reader leaves the book unable to avoid this somewhat unsettling insight.
The rationale for Legutko’s claim is as such: both are inorganic systems that involve unnatural impositions and coercive zeal in their pursuit of illusory utopias. Utopias that are to be achieved practically through technology and ‘modernisation’ and buttressed theoretically by the purported fact of human equality. The two are thus historicist projects seeking to ground human affairs in delusions of ‘progress’ rather than in the more stable strata of underlying nature.
Thus ultimately, both platforms are mere dogma. They are, as Legutko states:
“nourished by the belief that the world cannot be tolerated as it is and that is should be changed: that the old should be replaced with the new. Both systems strongly and – so to speak – impatiently intrude into the social fabric and both justify their intrusion with the argument that it leads to the improvement of the state of affairs by ‘modernizing’ it.”
The two systems are hence unable to accept human beings and political affairs as they actually are: man and the polis must be remoulded along the lines of each respective ideology. For the communists, this involves the denial of man’s natural egotism and the subordination of his individual efforts to an ostensible communal good. That this requires unfathomable levels of coercion and violence in practice, and has been deemed a delusion since at least Plato’s Republic, is an lesson that’s now all too common, living as we do in the wake of Marx, Mao, and the horrors of the 20th Century.
So far, nothing new. Yet it’s the author’s elucidation of the unsavoury aspects of liberal democracy that’s of particular note, especially for us at the ‘end of history’ and in light of the easy-going liberalism that still permeates our societies, even as they slip further and further into self-evident decay. As Legutko informs us, liberal democracy shares a proselytising urge akin to that of Leninist communism, yet it’s as equally blind to its theoretical errors and evangelical impulses as was its communist forebear.
As Legutko sees it, liberal-democratic man can’t rest until the world has been vouched safe for liberal-democracy. Never mind that this liberal-democratic delusion requires a tyranny over the individual soul – we’re neither wholly liberal nor democratic – and entire groups of people. With an emblematic example of this the recent US-led failure to impose either democracy or liberalism (terms that Legutko fuses and distinguishes, as appropriate) on the tribal peoples of Afghanistan.
If such a stance is futile, why try it? Arms-deals, political and economic considerations aside, the justification for our liberal-democratic ‘imperialism’ is, of course, its final and glorious end. Once there’s a left-liberal telos in sight, then all means to its achievement are henceforth valid. Thus, like communism, ‘real’ liberal-democracy has never been tried.
For the communists, their failures are now common lore; but for our liberal-democrats their (largely unacknowledged) fantasies continue apace, aided as they are by their patina of ‘enlightened improvement’ and the American imperial patron that enables them.
That the effects of all of this ‘liberalising’ are unnatural, usually unwanted, and often repulsive to the recipients tends not to matter. Like all ‘true believers’, there is no room for the heretic: ever onward one must plough.
The spell cast by liberalism is thus as strong as any other. As Legutko observes:
The liberal-democratic mind, just as the mind of a true communist, feels as inner compulsion to manifest its pious loyalty to the doctrine. Public life is [thus] full of mandatory rituals…[in which all] must prove that their liberal-democratic creed springs spontaneously from the depth of their hearts.”
With the afflicted “expected to give one’s approving opinion about the rights of homosexuals and women and to condemn the usual villains such as domestic violence, racism, xenophobia, or discrimination, or to find some other means of kowtowing to the ideological gods.”
Words that ring eerily true when we consider our societies in light of recent movements like the death of George Floyd and our ever-increasing infatuation with ‘trans’ issues.
A stance that isn’t only evident in our rhetoric, but by material phenomena as well. One need only think of the now-ubiquitous rainbow flags, ‘transition’ surgeries, cosmopolitan billboards and adverts, ‘opt-in’ birth certificates, gender-neutral bathrooms, ‘Pride’ parades, and biological males in female sporting events to confirm the legitimacy of Legutko’s claims, and our outright denial of physiological reality. Indeed, as Legutko adds:
[left-liberalism] “has practically monopolized the public space and invaded schools, popular culture, academic life and advertising. Today it is no longer enough simply to advertise a product; the companies feel an irresistible need to attach it to a message that is ideologically correct. Even if this message does not have any commercial function – and it hardly ever does – any occasion is good to prove oneself to be a proponent of the brotherhood of races, a critic of the Church, and a supporter of homosexual marriage.”
“This sycophantic wheedling is practiced by journalists, TV morons, pornographers, athletes, professors, artists, professional groups, and young people already infected with the ideological mass culture. Today’s ideology is so powerful that almost everyone desires to join the great camp of progress”.
Thus whilst the tenets of our left-liberalism clearly differ from those of 20th Century communism, both systems are akin in their totalitarian essence:
“To be sure, there are different actors in both cases, and yet they perform similar roles: a proletarian was replaced by a homosexual, a capitalist by a fundamentalist, exploitation by discrimination, a communist revolutionary by a feminist, and a red flag by a vagina”.
Variations on this theme inform the entirety of the book and are developed throughout its five chapters. And while there is some overlap, the work is written with a philosophical depth reflective of Legutko’s professorial status and which only a few contemporaries can effectively muster. As Deenen remarks: “I underlined most of the book upon first reading, and have underlined nearly all the rest [since]. It is the most insightful work of political philosophy during this still young, but troubled century”.
But the book isn’t exclusively an arcane tome. Aside from Legutko’s evident learning, what enhances the work is the author’s ability to draw upon his own experience: born in the wake of the Second World War, raised in the ambit of Soviet communism, and employed in adulthood in the European Parliament, Legutko’s is a life which has witnessed the workings of both regimes first hand.
With Legutko recalling that the transition to liberal democracy in his native Poland was greeted with an enthusiasm that soon devolved into disenchantment. As he states, his initial exuberance swiftly subsided, sensing early on that
“liberal democracy significantly narrowed the area of what was permissible – [with the] sense of having many doors open and many possibilities to pursue [soon evaporating], subdued by the new rhetoric of necessity that the liberal democratic system brought with itself.”
An insight that deepened the longer he worked within that most emblematic institution of modern-day liberalism: the European Parliament.
“Whilst there, I saw up close what…escapes the attention of many observers. If the European Parliament is supposed to be the emanation of the spirit of today’s liberal democracy, then this spirit is certainly neither good nor beautiful: it has many bad and ugly features, some of which, unfortunately, it shares with communism.”
“Even a preliminary contact…allows one to feel a stifling atmosphere typical of a political monopoly, to see the destruction of language turning into a new form of Newspeak, to observe the creation of a surreality, mostly ideological, that obfuscates the real world, to witness an uncompromising hostility against all dissidents, and to perceive many other things only too familiar to anyone who remembers the world governed by the Communist Party”.
And it is this tyrannical aspect of liberal democracy to which Legutko ultimately inveighs. After brief remarks on the eclipse of the old religion (Christianity) at the hands of the new liberal order, Legutko’s parting words are an understandable lament that liberal-democratic man – “more stubborn, more narrow-minded, and…less willing to learn from others” – appears to have vanquished all-comers.
As he adds:
“with Christianity being driven out of the main tract, the liberal-democratic man – unchallenged and totally secure in his rule – will become a sole master of today’s imagination, apodictically determining the boundaries of human nature and, at the very outset, disavowing everything that dares to reach beyond his narrow perspective.” A sad state whereby “the liberal democrat will reign over human aspirations like a tyrant”.
Something the presence of left-liberal social-democratic parties in the US, Canada, New Zealand, and now Australia, only further confirms.
To this end, Legutko’s remarks echo the German proto-fascist-cum-democratic-dissident, Ernst Junger, who ‘hated democracy like the plague’ and who saw the post-war triumph of America-led liberalism as an utter catastrophe. A position further evident in Junger’s near-contemporary and compatriot, Martin Heidegger, and in his notion of the ‘darkening of the world.’
Yet it’s perhaps the most famous German theorist of all, Friedrich Nietzsche, to whom we should turn and in whose light Legutko ends the book. Largely accepting Alexis de Tocqueville’s notion of the ‘tyranny of the majority’ and the popularised Hegelianism of Francis Fukuyama – i.e. that there’s no alternative to liberal democracy – Legutko nevertheless muses over whether our status as Nietzschean ‘Last Men’ is a concession we must make to live in this best of all practical political worlds, or an indictment of our all-pervasive political and spiritual poverty.
As Legutko concludes, the perpetuation of liberal-democracy “would be, for some, a comforting testimony that man finally learned to live in a sustainable harmony with his nature. For others, it will be a final confirmation that his mediocrity is inveterate.”
A more accurate precis of our current situation I’ve yet to see, and one of many reasons to read this most wonderful of books.