The Suicide of Conservatism: Jonah Goldberg’s “Suicide of the West”

Jonah Goldberg is the most recent of a cadre of popular writers and academics, all of a decisively neo-Whig orientation and consciousness, who has written a defense of the greatest myth ever told since the publication of Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum. Goldberg’s tale of the “suicide of the West” is nothing new. It is just a repackaged and regurgitated reimagining of the Whig myth of progress (and a very narrowed sighted one at that).

At first glance Goldberg’s Suicide of West may be tempting for many to swallow hook, line, and sinker. Given its publication in the midst of political and cultural upheaval, and its decidedly negative outlook on “tribalism” and “identity politics,” Goldberg’s book is as much an open swipe against Donald Trump and the “Alt-Right” as it is against the identity politics of the political left that Mark Lilla assailed in his work The Once and Future Liberal. However, in presenting “The Miracle” of the eighteenth century – by which Goldberg is referring the rise of the industrial revolution, capitalism, and the slow consummation of the global and international capitalist and ‘free trade’ order and human ethos he attributes to the philosophy of John Locke – he shows himself as a tired and undressed thought-leader simply restating the same tale that has been told ad nauseam over the last century by the children of the Whigs who declare the superiority of Anglosphere philosophy and consign the continental tradition to the dustbin of history.

An additional seduction to Goldberg’s book is that it implicitly embodies the same motto – at least in spirit – that Donald Trump ran on. The entire book is a celebration of the former city on the hill and what went wrong and how we can return to being the city on the hill. The anger, grievances, and resentments that Goldberg analyzes, but then denounces, and his inability to see what Hegel called the Sache Selbst (real issue), should be reason enough for any moderately educated and philosophically literate person to treat Goldberg’s work with deep suspicion to otherwise seeing many misleading and glaring faults with it.

The crux of Goldberg’s book hinges on what he calls “the miracle of modernity” which supposedly began in the early 1700s following the Glorious Revolution in England – the “glorious accident” that eventually gave rise to capitalism which is the means of the miracle Goldberg lauds and the beginning of the triumph of Anglosphere utilitarian philosophy. This miracle, Goldberg asserts, produced a “profound and unprecedented transformation in the ways humans thought about the world and their place in it.” To this extent what Goldberg says is somewhat correct. But he misidentifies Locke – whom he lauds throughout the book – as the arbiter and prophet of this transformation out of that Hobbesian state of nature which was solitary, nasty, poor, brutish, and short, into a wealth-abounding, hedonistic, and powerful civilization wrought by the fires of industry, capitalism, and the conquest of nature.

The radical transformation in the way humans thought and related to the world and with each other begins, of course, not with John Locke but Francis Bacon as any philosophy student would know. For it is Bacon’s Novum Organum which the later English classical liberal tradition in philosophy built from, and it is Bacon whom John Dewey eulogized as the ‘greatest philosopher.’ Bacon pitted humanity against nature, the individual as separate from the natural world and its intricate web of relationships, and one in which nature had to be ‘subdued by submission’ in order for humans to consummate all of their desires – thus creating the ‘empire of man’ which begins with the ‘reign of man.’ It is Bacon’s presentation of humanity as overcoming and taming nature which served as the foundational anthropological and metaphysical premise that underlay the visions of humanity in the classical liberal tradition which Goldberg speaks ever so highly about.

Of course, the problem with Goldberg’s prophetic heroes is that they are the priests of the god, Bacon, whom Goldberg only faintly acknowledges in passing glance – “would the Miracle have happened without Isaac Newton, Francis Bacon, and Thomas Edison?” It is interesting, again, to note that Goldberg praises English-speaking scientists and philosophers at the exclusion of non-English scientists and philosophers.

Furthermore, there is a certain irony given the opening sentence of Goldberg’s book, “There is no God in this book.” But there is. The god who goes unseen throughout this illiterate eulogy is Francis Bacon, and the world that Bacon created is the world stewarded – or more appropriately destroyed – by Bacon’s faithful disciples, John Locke most explicitly.

Goldberg’s defense of Locke (which is really a defense of Francis Bacon) comes with profound consequences to society and human relationships which are coming to a crisis point in the twenty-first century. The a-social, atomistic, and consumeristic – near artificial and robotic – human, the novus homo economicus (new economic man), is the type of society that Goldberg celebrates as being the salvation of humanity and of human society. But this is no society at all because society is something intensely social (hence the root cognate of society being that which is social) and not a-social and atomistic.

Most philosophers and anthropologists have long disagreed with the Baconian-Hobbesian-Lockean presentation of humankind that is the celebrated model in Goldberg’s book. Had Goldberg read Locke he would know that Locke’s atomistic human spirals into conflict in the state of nature where humanity’s insatiable lust for consumption leads to conflict with other humans lusting for consumption. Goldberg’s humanity and engine of the “Miracle” is the same old pull yourself up from the bootstraps, or primordial stew as he calls it, that is already commonplace in our atomistic world.

Additionally, the mythical limited government and natural rights that is often attributed to Locke doesn’t square with Locke’s actual political order which is totalizing and regulatory. The “sacred and unalterable legislature” that Locke speaks of is permanent to which all persons who share any of the benefits of this new civil society must remain subject to. It is also the task of the government, Locke says in the Second Treatise, to ‘decide the rights of the subject.’ All political rights, beyond the right to property since Locke attaches property to the law of nature which is self-preservation, are merely conventional rights by Locke’s own words. And Locke wrote in English, so nothing was potentially lost in translation.

The vision of humanity that Goldberg praises is the same humanity and world that Karl Marx so keenly and intelligently observed during his lifetime. Humanity is alienated from other humans because humans are turned into competitive consumers and producers who threaten my existence and livelihood unless I outcompete them. Humanity, atomistic and isolated, never forms any bonds of relationality. The conflictual and agonistic reality of the present which Goldberg deplores is precisely the logical outcome of the anthropological and political philosophy he praises. The opposite is occurring. Precisely because of this atomistic and conflictual portrait of humanity offered by Bacon and his most faithful son, Locke, the bonds of human attachment, rootedness, and relationality are being destroyed in order to advance the freedom of capital and the human lust for domination and consumption which drive the progress of history forward in the Whig disposition.

If Goldberg actually knew philosophy, instead of presenting the deeply misleading cliff notes and officially licensed Whig version most people are spoon fed, perhaps he would change his outlook and not blame the disposed, alienated, and downtrodden peoples who have been abused and oppressed by the vicious energies and system of liberal capitalism as the catalyst of the apocalypse destroying this mythical enlightened social construction now under threat of implosion because of the realization of its own anthropology and political philosophy. The attempts to foster real human relationships, live with rather than against nature, and the cries of the downtrodden, disposed, and increasingly vanquished peoples and their cultures, are what Goldberg considers the problem of the present age that threaten the miracle of industrial technocratic capitalist progress. All the while the destruction of human relationships, the conquest and rape of nature, and the establishment of a uniform and homogeneous consumeristic and technocratic society is what Goldberg identifies as the “miracle” of human socio-political and economic triumph.

The real struggle of modern politics is the ongoing battle between Bacon’s worldview that Goldberg unconsciously identifies as the moment of radical transformation in human history, and the traditional social, relational, and humanistic worldviews offered from everyone from Plato, Aristotle, and Augustine, to Hegel, Marx, and Tolkien. The natural state of humanity is not one of atomistic and alienated conflict but one of harmony, living in and with the web of Gaia, and social relationships and the bonds of humanism formed such social relationships which heal and mend a broken and wounded humanity and world. The ideal polis of Plato and Aristotle, Augustine’s city of God united in the bond of social love and justice, Marx’s commune, or Tolkien’s Shire, all communicate, in their own ways (though admittedly with different metaphysical presuppositions) the very opposite view offered by Bacon, Hobbes, and Goldberg’s hero, Locke (who was nothing more than a disciple of Bacon).

Goldberg’s book acknowledges that there is a human nature. But the political society and ideology that he sides with is that which runs counter to what he acknowledges as human nature: the deep bonds of relationality which Goldberg fears can often spiral into tribalism, nationalism, and identity-politics. Goldberg’s presentation of the human, human nature, and the philosophy of his miracle are contradictory at many points. He asserts that humans are possessed by their “inner tribesman” recognizing the deep bonds of, if not an outright tribalism, at minimum a deeply social and relational nature. Yet, the miracle he lauds is the evolutionary jump away from this social and relational nature to an atomistic, self-centered, and consumeristic nature reflective of Baconian-Lockean anthropology. It seems Goldberg wants to have his cake and eat it too.

Moreover, if freedom is – as Bacon, Hobbes, and Locke, said it was – the absence of barriers to the free exertion of human power to produce and consume (and this power was always going to be held by the landowning becoming capitalist class), then it is necessary that all the barriers preventing this realization had to be destroyed. Nature, as a barrier to the free exertion of capital and industry needed to be destroyed and utilized to fuel those ‘dark satanic mills’ that William Blake speaks of. The labor unions, attempting to keep human relationality intact and prevent the alienation of labor and abuse from the technological engines of capitalism, also had to be destroyed (or tamed). Families too, as G.K. Chesterton noted, would have to be broken up for capitalism to consummate itself writ large. This conquest of all barriers to where humans would ascend to be the gods of the world is what Bacon’s philosophy always had in mind.

There are, undoubtedly, legitimate worries one should have with the reaction that comes from alienation and atomization. But these cries of nature, as Rousseau calls them in his Discourses on Inequality, are not unfounded – though they fall on the deaf ears of Goldberg who holds Rousseau in dramatic contempt though not realizing that he, in many ways, is an equal heir of the Enlightenment tradition he otherwise praises. The negative view of Rousseau taken by Goldberg furthers the Anglophilia and tacit Europhobia that runs throughout the pages of the book which reads increasingly more like a eulogy to Anglosphere philosophy having been corrupted by continental philosophy. The cry of nature yearns for restoration.

But if nature is relational, premised on attachment and roots which give rise to humanism and authentic living, then Goldberg’s “miracle” is not the road to salvation but the road to damnation and destruction. The destruction of democracy which he opines is the very consequence of embracing that “profound and unprecedented transformation in the ways humans thought about the world and their place in it.” Marx, unlike all other nineteenth century philosophers, saw where this agonistic, alienating, and atomistic system was moving toward.

To this end we should not be surprised with much of what is occurring at present. As Marx foresaw, increasing atomization, alienation, and commodity fetishism, would breed conflict, discontent, and resentment as people grew more and more aware of their current predicament and squeezing dry by the forces and powers that Goldberg showers with unceasing praise as all that is good and responsible for our present way of life. Goldberg never once considers the possibility that the present way of life and our current state of being is insufficient or problematic. In fact, he condemns all attempts of reemerging social, human, and relational bonds by presenting the characteristic straw-man argument that only the most radical forms of tribalism, nationalism, and collectivism will emerge in reaction to increasing burdens of social tension, alienation, and atomization.

What Jonah Goldberg identifies as the suicide of the West and of American democracy is completely unfounded and misplaced. The breakdown of society, the increasing agonism sweeping across the globe, and rising discontent against the managerial technocratic Taylorite capitalist class which is finally feeling threatened from its unrestricted license to pillage the world and destroy human relationships in the process, is not because of the rise of populism, identity politics, tribalism, or nationalism per se, or even the ills of the philosophy of Rousseau becoming more prominent at present. These are all symptoms of the consequences of the Baconian-Lockean outlook which Goldberg praises as the system that made the modern world. But rather than seeing the impending crisis we currently find ourselves in as the very culmination of the “miracle” which Goldberg praises, his general ignorance of the history of philosophy and the dynamics of dialectic undermines the argument of this most recent attempt to rehabilitate the Whig dream and myth.

Jonah Goldberg is right about one thing. There is a tremendous pain and conflagration occurring right now. But it is not for the reasons he identifies. And his suggestion that we need to return to Locke is the road that has led to our present discontents. The very world he eulogizes as having been created by this “miracle”, which remains with us at the moment, is the world that Bacon and his disciples have created.

It is precisely because this world runs counter to the human spirit that it is suffering from the consequences of its own success. Goldberg is the latest sophist, and the newest cheerleader of suicide, cheering our demise whilst claiming our descent into the Abyss is really the movement to our salvation. The conclusion of the work, which suddenly makes a strong appeal to the traditional Abrahamic God, notwithstanding the scattered ruminations about the “idea of God” beforehand (ironic given the first sentence of the book), ultimately falls on deaf ears after presenting a secular salvific tale that runs entirely counter to the Abrahamic mythos.

The current deconstruction of the West and of American democracy is the result of being in what Adorno called the spirit and age of late capitalism. The push to unity and community in the multiplicity of ways that are currently being manifested in opposition to the current order of things, not to overlook the reality that some of these manifestations due pose tremendous problems in of themselves, needs to be attacked by a classical atomistic liberal like Goldberg because he knows that these new manifestations threaten his world. To this end Goldberg offers nothing new in his book beyond the latest of a series neo-Whig screed against the forces that threaten to prevent the consummation of Bacon’s horrifying dream; perhaps the final cry of the Baconian establishment growing ever more conscious that its moment under the sun is over.

Conservatism is probably the least understood school of philosophy because it is, properly, supra-political (beyond or transcending political ideology). Conservatism is not distilled to ideological talking points like ‘individual freedom,’ or ‘low taxes.’ Ideology, in Greek, literally means speaking of a vision. Ideology is not based in reality but a dream and the attempt to make that dream manifest; which is precisely what Bacon, Locke, and all the classical liberals attempted to in the seventeenth century. Conservatism is not ideological; conservatism is the philosophy of nature and human nature – allowing that nature to unfold and develop without forced social engineering efforts.

Students of philosophy will know that conservatism is the organic inheritance and growth of ancient customs and traditions. Students of philosophy will also know that conservatism is not the relativized definition that Goldberg employs to claim his conservatism, that conservatism in the West wants to conserve something different than the conservatism of the hardline anti-reformists of the Soviet Union or the conservatives of the Islamic Republic of Iran. This is a horrendous relativization of the meaning of conservatism within philosophical literature.

In philosophy, conservatism is not based on the radical classical liberalism of Locke—as recent philosophers, like Patrick Deneen (Why Liberalism Failed) and D.C. Schindler (Freedom from Reality), have (re)shown. It is not idolatry of market fundamentalism either, as Roger Scruton has written about (The Meaning of Conservatism and How to be Conservative). Conservatism is rooted in culture, identity, and community (cf. Robert Nisbet The Quest for Community). The conservative understanding of man is that he is not an economic animal or a liberated individual but a social, relational, and therefore communitarian animal. Man flourishes when he is in community and man naturally seeks community (an insight that goes as far back as Aristotle). Conservatism’s communitarianism has meant that genuine conservatives, unlike Goldberg who is, at best, a neo-Whig of a classical liberal disposition, have opposed ideologies that promote atomized individualism and the dissolution of family and community (and culture) in the bid to ‘free individuals.’ Locke, mind you, wrote that the dissolution of family was necessary for the full freedom of individuals. Rousseau, incidentally, also agreed. Locke and Rousseau are two sides of the same coin. Looking at the heads (Locke) or tails (Rousseau) seems to show a lot of difference until you realize both sides are part of one body.

The romantic movement that Goldberg routinely attacks and demeans is typical of someone who is a liberal (in the Enlightenment sense). The romantic movement was a rebellion that attempted to save transcendental reason against the hollow and encroaching homogenizing nihilism of materialist empiricism. This is basic philosophy 101 for anyone who has studied Johann Hamann, Johann Herder, Immanuel Kant, Johann Fichte, and G.W.F. Hegel, among many others. One could read Frederick Beiser’s fantastic books concerning German Romanticism and particular figures associated therein. The impetus of the romantics was to preserve the organic, biological, and transcendent nature of human life threatened by the radical materialism and implicit atheism of Enlightenment philosophy. True that the romantics, especially in Germany, eventually exhausted into nihilism because they rebelled for the sake of rebellion with no particular end in sight, it is nevertheless philosophical crime to label them all irrationalists. Though given Goldberg’s history of fudging history and philosophy for cutesy phraseology it’s unsurprising that he has done the same. According to Goldberg, everything “bad” (that is, everything in opposition to the Baconian-Lockean tradition) is “romantic” which he just defines as “bad”, providing no substantial context to the works of those venerable conservatives whom he demonizes.

Any conservatism that places economic individualism, materialism, and the conquest of nature above community, family, and identity cannot be honestly described as conservative. For those interested in a real conservative overview of the crisis of Western civilization read James Burnham’s Suicide of West: An Essay on the Meaning and Destiny of Liberalism. Conservatives: beware of being hoodwinked by the disordered liberty and flight from reality offered by Locke and his defenders, old or new. “Conservatives” who embrace the tradition of Bacon, of which Locke was his most faithful disciple, will only bring about the suicide of Western conservatism, that noble tradition found in Greek and Roman philosophy, nurtured and developed by Christianity, and severed in the so-called “Enlightenment.” Western civilization is not based on the philosophy of the Enlightenment; the Enlightenment is the anti-Western universalistic and homogenizing poison destroying the distinctiveness of Western civilization: that marriage of Athens, Rome, and Jerusalem, for the purpose, as Burnham says, to create the universal civilization of mankind. The eradication of national sovereignty, community, tribe, identity, borders, etc., all things that those enemies destroying the West in Goldberg’s twisted view are trying to save, is already implied in the classical liberal philosophers whom he loves. Goldberg’s idolatry to (classical) liberalism will not only bring about the dissolution of the West (as it is and he is too ignorant to realize it), it will also bring about the destruction of all the world’s other great civilizations too.

Is this a serious book? Not by the standards of serious philosophy, or political philosophy. Conservatives, genuine conservatives, should not regard this work with seriousness in the same manner as Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed, Schindler’s Freedom from Reality, or Burnham’s original Suicide of the West. For serious works on the crisis of the West and the problems of modernity head to those authors and works while keeping this as useful burning paper.

 

This is adapted from my July 3, 2018 review on Amazon.

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