The Porter Zone

Philosophical musings and more

Tag Archives: society

The illiberal nature of modern liberalism


My title seems nonsensical; surely liberals must be liberal?  Is that not a tautology?  And yet modern self-described liberals seem to be moving further away from what we might expect to be liberal positions such as respect for the rule of law, the concept that human rights are indeed universal, and the championing of those, at home or abroad, whose rights are under attack.  One can more or less guarantee that in recent years, whenever action is taken to curtail repressive acts by a dictatorial regime, liberal intellectuals have lined up to condemn it. So Robert Fisk writes a piece in which he seems to argue that it would have been much better to leave Colonel Qaddafi to get on with massacring the Libyan people, irrespective of their request for help.  Similarly, liberal luminaries have argued that Slobodan Milosevich et al should have been left to do their thing, in spite of the fact that evidence suggested that their regimes were not very nice, and as a reductio ad absurdum of the whole sorry story, in 1990 Margaret Drabble announced that she could not possibly support action to repel the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait because – wait for it – Baroness Thatcher was in favour of it, so it must be wrong.

One would expect such a position of libertarians: libertarianism as it is currently expressed, with its insistence that the sole organising principle of society is the liberty of the individual, is fundamentally selfish.  But liberals are meant to care about things like human rights, and to get distressed if people of any nation are not given the chance to exercise them.  So why this strange convergence of attitude between liberals and a political group with which one would expect them to be at variance?   Why it is that  action has become so utterly unacceptable in liberal opinion that literally anything is preferable.  And before I am called on this, let me point out that I have seen one ‘liberal’ writer claim that it would have been better if the Allies had not fought the Second World War, because the Nazi regime would probably only have lasted a century or so, and obviously a Europe (or possibly a world) under the Nazi yoke for a century was preferable to the unspeakable moral stain of going to war.  So when did liberals become so selfish?

This mystery is the subject of this essay.  I will start, as one should, by very carefully defining liberalism and associated concepts.  I will turn to the central question of what ideas turned the liberalism of Hume and Gladstone into the bastard child of corporatism and libertarianism that is called liberalism today, or, more exactly, social liberalism.  I had originally intended to discuss such canards as the claims that Christ would have been a pacifist; that his followers should reject any exercise of force that is not purely defensive (the Archbishop of Canterbury says so!); that in order for any action, no matter how trivial, to be morally justified, those undertaking the action must themselves be of absolute moral purity (this relates to the first point, as it seems to derive at least partially from a radical misreading of the incident of the woman taken in adultery); or that a liberal society can be entirely inward-looking, and not concern itself with injustice elsewhere.  However, fascinating though this may be, it would take me too far afield, and so I dangle before you the hopeful idea of a sequel in which I ask ‘Was Christ a pacifist?’.

What is liberalism?

In order to define liberalism properly I will set about characterising a number of political philosophies, both those similar to liberalism and those antithetical to it.  The reason for this is that we will see that what is called liberalism today is generally not liberalism at all, but rather a mixture of libertarianism and corporatism.

Existing political philosophies

Fascism / corporatism

Before it became a term of general abuse meaning ‘anyone who disagrees with my political views or thwarts me in any way’, fascist meant something very specific.  In general a fascist state is one that is totalitarian and corporatist.  As totalitarianism is essentially a strengthening of corporatist ideas which emphasises the state as the sole source of authority, I shall concentrate mostly on the corporatist aspects.

The essence of corporatism is that the basic unit in society is the society as a whole, and it is treated as (appropriately) a single body, in which individuals are organs who act in ways specified by the brain that is the leadership, the intent being that these actions will benefit the social body as a whole, even if they do not necessarily benefit the individual.  Therefore such concepts as individual freedom are meaningless, as what matters is the state and its survival, not the individual, who is impermanent.  The surprising thing about corporatism is that it is not the preserve of any one part of the social spectrum, as this system of thought is as characteristic of the extreme left as it is of the extreme right.  We can even see it in moderate form in the protestations of those who decry the involvement of the private sector in activities that are ‘naturally’ the preserve of the state, such as health-care and education.  It is, in fact, a terribly seductive idea that can, to a greater or lesser extent, take root whenever we debate the balance between the rights of the individual and the needs of the state.

How do we escape from this conundrum?  My solution, which I will describe in detail in the section about liberalism below, is that in a liberal society we should never, ever justify any proposal in terms of the needs of or the good of the state; every proposal to limit the freedom of individuals must at some point be turned around and justified in terms of preserving that freedom.  That sounds paradoxical, but it turns out that it is not.  It also sounds rather libertarian, but it is not, for reasons I will now discuss.


Libertarianism stands at the other pole from corporatism, in that it argues that the sole organising principle for society should be personal liberty.  That is to say, society should do nothing that infringes the freedom of the individual, which is taken as paramount.  A very important point to note here is that this is freedom construed as freedom to and not freedom from, that is to say, it is about my freedom to do that which I will, and it is not at all about my freedom from your interference in my freedom.  Possibly the reason for this is that freedom from is only properly expressible in terms of rights, but libertarianism does not know of the concept of rights.  Rights flow from law and law constraints natural liberty and hence is the enemy in the libertarian model.  With its emphasis on the innate liberty of the individual, libertarianism is, in fact, surprisingly close to Nietzsche’s concept of the  übermensch:  the higher person who knows no external law or morality.

It need not be said that libertarianism begs any number of questions, such as exactly how a large-scale libertarian society could  function with no state to, where necessary, compel individuals to do that which they do not wish to do.  The answer, if it comes, always seems to be that somehow people will solve their problems together in a sensible way with no need for compulsion, but such an optimistic view of the essential goodness of humanity, laudable though it may be, fails to take into account the fact that even if people are on the whole good, they are easily led into bad, and far too many individuals exist who are not motivated by good will, and who are not susceptible to reason.  Thus, libertarianism seems to be doomed to be, beyond the very small scale, doomed to be at best a theoretical model.  It is, however, an interesting theoretical model for it shows how a purely ‘liberal’ society, where we trust to the good will of the individual, is bound to fail.  We need some additional mechanism: the freedom from as well as the freedom to, and that is what we will discuss next.

Classical liberalism

Classical liberalism is concerned with the freedom of the individual.  Therefore it espouses limited state intervention in individuals’ affairs, the rule of law and the principles that all are equal before the law and the state’s actions are predictable and transparent.   This is the liberalism of Hume, Smith, Hayek and Popper and also, surprisingly in view of the way they have been co-opted of late by libertarians, the Founding Fathers of the United States.  However, what is not clear is exactly how this differs from libertarianism.

Let me explain.  I said earlier that in a liberal society every proposal to limit the freedom of individuals must at some point be turned around and justified in terms of preserving that freedom, which sounds nonsensical.  But consider the following.  Say we decide that such and such a freedom should be guaranteed to individuals.  This is freedom to: the freedom to exercise guaranteed freedoms.  But now, others may try to impede my freedom to; as the state has guaranteed this freedom, therefore the rights of those others must be limited so as to prevent this.  But now, all things being equal, as all are equal before the law, my freedom must be limited in the same way, so that I cannot impede others’ freedom to.  This is freedom from: the freedom from interference in the exercise of guaranteed freedoms.  So the state intervenes to limit the freedom of individuals precisely when their freedom, unlimited, would impede the freedoms of others.

In this model, therefore the state acts as the guarantor of individual freedoms.  This there is fundamentally different from libertarianism in which the individuals are guarantors of their own freedoms.  Whereas the libertarian believes that individuals are basically good and capable of living together peacefully without coercion, the classical liberal agrees with Hobbes that the state is required to protect individuals from themselves and one another.  In other words, it takes a decidedly pessimistic view of human nature and adopts the minimal approach required to rectify that fact.  Corporatism, which also takes a pessimistic view adopts, instead, the maximal approach of dictating what each individual shall do, while optimistic libertarianism presumes that everything will work out in the end.

Modern day liberalism

Most self-proclaimed modern liberals are social liberals, their primary concern being not the freedom of the individual but the rather ill-defined concept of social justice.  I say ill-defined because this is not any form of justice defined in its usual sense of being the machinery of law and its application, which is clearly defined and known to all.  Rather it is a set of beliefs about the way that society ought to be structured.  Consequently, social liberalism extends the role of the state from being the guarantor of freedom to  managing economic and social issues so as to realise these ideas, so it intervenes in individuals’ lives in order to promote an idea of the way society ought to be.  So what is good for society is good for the individual.

Now this can be said to be a non-minimalist version of classical liberalism, but there is a crucial difference.  In classical liberalism the freedom of the individual is only limited in so far as it is necessary to do so in order to guarantee the free exercise of guaranteed rights.  Thus the state may define laws and may define standards for those offering services to others (if I set up as a water supplier and elected to use only lead pipes then I would be limiting my customers’ right to good health).  However, in social liberalism things go further.  In social liberalism the freedom of the individual may be limited even if it does no actual harm to any other individual, but because it does perceived harm in causing the structure of society to deviate from the preferred model.  In other words, social liberalism indulges in social engineering, the shaping of society to meet an idea.  And where does the idea come from?  The idea comes from the state.

We can also look at this from a point of view of the extent to which the state intervenes in individuals’ lives and the message that it sends to them.  In classical liberalism we say that so long as individuals do not interfere with one another’s rights then they are free to be themselves.  In social liberalism that is not enough: people must aspire to a higher standard.  We want to make people better, and so the state intervenes in their lives so as to bring them in line with the desired goal.  Now again, this could be viewed as a difference of degree, but there is also a fundamental difference of attitude.  Classical liberalism’s attitude is summed up best in Crowley’s famous maxim: ‘do what thou will shall be the whole of the law provided it cause no harm.’  Social liberalism, on the other hand says ‘be what I want’.  Bluntly, classical liberalism is about what you do while social liberalism is about what you are.  To that extent, it is almost a religious position, with social justice replacing God as the object of veneration.  Indeed, if one examines recent pronouncements by senior clerics one might be forgiven for thinking that this substitution had been formalised.

All of this means that social liberalism is very far from being anything that a classical liberal might recognise as liberalism.  In fact, it appears to be a form of corporatism with a left-leaning veneer.  However, things are more complex, because though an enthusiasm for state control of education, culture and the microeconomy is characteristic of modern liberals, this is generally combined with a belief, again almost religious in its fervour, that the state is the enemy and is basically up to no good Paranoia about ‘the man’ or what ‘they’ might be doing and an absolute conviction, worthy of a libertarian, that those organs of the state that carry out such basic functions as managing the rule of law are acting against the common good is therefore combined with a belief that the state should be the sole supplier of any number of services.  Interestingly, it seems that modern liberals insist that it is wrong for the state to undertake any of the functions that a classical liberal would expect of it, and yet consider it only right and proper that it should intervene in any number of areas that in classical liberalism are none of its business.  Thus modern liberalism is in fact not just different to classical liberalism, it is antithetical to it.

Whence liberalism?

Compassionate liberalism

Let me start by dealing with some possible criticism of classical liberalism.  It is argued that it is very rule-based and not sufficiently compassionate.  Social liberalism likes to claim that it, on the other hand, cares for people rather than abstract notions such as ‘justice’.  This is both true and not true.  An approach to running society based on emotion rather than reason might be very satisfying for those exercising the emotion, but it is scarcely the way to guarantee that the state is genuinely impartial.  But this is, we are told, also a bad thing.  Rather than ensuring that none have privilege in their access to law, it is argued that societal circumstances should be taken into account and that the ‘disadvantaged’ be given special treatment, thereby making them the advantaged, and creating a new privileged group.  Thus egalitarians end up, in the name of equality, creating precisely the kind of bias they claim to decry, only as it is their bias it is apparently different.  Classical liberalism, of course, knows no concept of egalitarianism.  All are equal in the eyes of the state, but as the state is not concerned with what they do, save it cause no harm, that does not mean they are equal in any other sense.  Social liberalism’s great fallacy is the attempt to shift this equality from being an aspect of how one deals with the state to being an aspect of what one is.

To return to compassion, some critics appear to believe that classical liberalism is compatible only with robber baron capitalism, and hence has no concern for people.  And yet, under robber baron capitalism it is actually quite hard for individuals who are not robber barons to exercise their rights with any degree of vigour.  The critical difference between a classical liberal and a social liberal is that a social liberal would tend to view success in a capitalist economy as being not very nice, whereas a classical liberal would wish that everyone could achieve it.  Thus a social liberal indulges in dangerous tinkering with the economy (such as the Clinton administration’s downright reckless interference in the mortgage markets) while a classical liberal regulates it.  Again, this distinction may seem small, but it is the difference between telling individuals what are acceptable economic activities and trying to push individuals in particular directions, and indicating to individuals how they should comport their economic activities so as to do no harm to others.  This extends to other areas.  The social liberal asserts that any private education or medicine is an affront to the dignity of man and offers instead a mediocre state-controlled egalitarian approach.  The classical liberal does not care how either is obtained provided that education or health-care of a defined standard is available to all.  Regulation – the setting of standards – is strangely anathema to social liberals, who appear to think that there is more to health-care than making people well and more to education than giving people useful skills, but who do not appear able to define precisely what this more is.  And yet, for example, actually guaranteeing that all schools met the same standard of education, coupled with regulation of university selection, would surely be a far more effective way of ending educational privilege than abstruse schemes to bias the system in favour of the ‘disadvantaged’?  Better by far, one would have thought, to ensure that they were not disadvantaged in the first place.

This, I think, underlines a key shift in ideas from classical to social liberalism.  Classical liberalism contains a very clear set of ideas that one can act on to build whatever kind of state the people happen to want.  This is its strength: provided the state is fair and impartial and just, the individuals who make up its people can make of it whatever they want.  This is also a potential weakness, of course, as without sufficiently strong institutions it is not hard to turn a classically liberal state into a corporatist state, as happened in Germany at the end of the 1920s; the remedy for this is to ensure that the people want to live in a liberal state.  In social liberalism, on the other hand, there is a well-defined ideology of what the state ought to look like and what kind of thing the people ought to want (or be allowed to have), but it is generally expressed so vaguely that it is not at all clear how this ideology is to be realised other than by faith or compulsion.  There is no need to worry about whether a socially liberal state will become repressive, because it already is.  Indeed, some social liberals even question the value of abstract justice, in the sense of an abstract impartial system of law, on the grounds that it does not care about the underlying problem, whatever that means (generally whatever the social liberal in question happens to be upset about today) but is only concerned with preserving order.  So this is a shift from precision to vagueness, from the machinery of government to quasi-religious ideology, from treating individuals as adults free to make their own lives to treating them as children needing to be led.  In fact, in the transition from ideas to faith and partnership to direction one might as well drop the ‘quasi’ and say that we have seen a shift from the world-view of the Enlightenment to that of authoritarian religion.

This is where social liberalism wants it both ways.  While claiming to be permissive and compassionate, it wants to be didactic and prescribe everyone’s behaviour, but it does not consider those  in power as being fit to be so.  One might be cynical and argue that their lack of suitability is based not in the fact that they are provably bad but rather in the fact that they are provably not the sort of people social liberals invite to their dinner parties.  In other words, we have the classic cultist’s belief system: things would be so much better if only I were in charge, and none but I has a legitimate right to rule.    Hence the apparent paradoxical combination of opposition to established power and an extremely repressive ideology, and once again the threat of religious extremism.

Social liberalism as cult

Examining the thesis of social liberalism as a quasi-religious cult, it is clear that there is considerable evidence in its favour.  To start at the beginning, the ideology is founded on assertions that are claimed to be self-evidently true, but which turn out to be muddy, ill-defined and most-likely mutually contradictory.  As I have said, the concept of ‘social justice’ is more or less impossible to define, but it generally seems to come down to some vision of the way society ought to be and the way it ought not to be.  This vision itself generally derives from a number of more basic ideas, like radical egalitarianism, redistribution, social engineering, pacifism and libertarianism.  Now, none of these is self-evident, and it is indeed very far from self-evident how egalitarianism can be reconciled with (say)  a redistributionism which requires the existence of a super-class to make decisions about who is and is not deserving.  Therefore, the ideology is founded on a collection of assumptions which are themselves complex, in that they are not at all well-defined, and which are insusceptible to argument; they can only be asserted.  Contrast this with the situation in classical liberalism, where the basis is the idea that for every right granted, certain rights must be rescinded in order to protect the ability to exercise that right.  This is simple and susceptible to logical analysis; once one accepts the concept of granted rights, it follows more or less as a logical truism.

What we see here is a clear example of the difference between religion and science.  Science is based on well-defined premises that are subject to verification.  Religion is based on dogmatic assertion that must be accepted in an act of faith.  In view of this, clearly classical liberalism is scientific in its approach, while social liberalism, with its motley collection of vague but unquestionable beliefs, is religious.  So, for example, we recently saw in the UK an argument put forward by  economists that the highest tax-band was economically harmful.  A leading ‘liberal’ politician rebutted their argument not on economic grounds, but because removing said tax-band would be ‘morally repugnant’.  He did not argue that their proposal was economically harmful, but that somehow social justice demanded that it be ignored.  In other words, he took a technical proposition based in the language of economics and attempted to rubbish it using a quasi-religious appeal to a woolly concept that has nothing at all to do with economics, and he clearly saw no need to make an economic argument.  In religious terms, he used the familiar get-out-of-jail-free card of declaring the idea anathema: if one can say that an idea is heretical there is no need to understand it or answer its questions, it is just wrong and it should not be posed.

Another aspect of religious thinking is the establishment of an elite or priestly caste whose function is to interpret dogma for the masses and to provide leadership and direction in establishing the way that society responds to the dogma.  Now, again, if the dogma consisted of self-evident, or at least simple and arguable, principles there would be no need for such a caste, as one could be reasonably certain that all individuals would be able to interpret the principles in a consistent way, and so such enforcement mechanisms as are required would be those required by the principles themselves.  So in classical liberalism, once the granted rights and the penalties for interfering with those rights are defined, there is no need for further discussion or interpretation: an individual knows that if they interfere with others’ exercise of their granted rights they will be subject to a defined penalty, and that otherwise they are free to act.  In a system based on dogma, however, even if everyone knows what the principles are, as they are unclear or ill-defined, they need to be told what they mean, resulting either in an ever-expanding commentary on the law or in case-by-case special pleading.  We know that social liberals, with their notion that abstract justice must be modified to consider individual circumstances, would support the special pleading.

As evidence of priestly thinking it is worth noting the often rather condescending attitude of professional social liberals to the people as a whole.  They are not content to accept that if people want something and it doesn’t actually hurt anyone then they should be allowed to do it, for it may be ideologically wrong.  Hence the rather regrettable fact that modern action movies appear to be no more than cinematic noise and fury is generally condemned as a bad thing, with little attention being paid to the fact that these films are incredibly popular.  The people who flock to see them are clearly misled, and so not to be trusted to have the right taste; such decisions should be made by an elite (people like us).  The same attitude is to be seen throughout coverage of culture and even politics where, for example, many social liberal thinkers appear to have yet to reconcile themselves to the fact that though they despise Tony Blair, polls made it clear that had he still been leading the Labour Party, it would have won the 2010 general election.

If the people cannot be trusted, then clearly their ideas on what society should do cannot be trusted, and so there is the need for a caste of thinkers and commentators to make decisions for them.  This might well go some way to explaining the social liberal’s loathing of the state’s machinery: politicians have the inestimable disadvantage, as compared to journalists, academics and think tank members, of having to mix with the people and pay attention to what they say.  Thus they can claim greater legitimacy than the social liberal luminaries, but they are infected with the heresy of pragmatism, and so hostility is inevitable, reminiscent of the hostility between King and Pope.  Thus, just as the Popes did in the past, social liberalism insist that they have the sole legitimacy, setting themselves up as a unique source of untainted truth.  The fact that they cannot justify any of their beliefs (including this one) only makes their legitimacy the greater.

Returning to the example of the movies, we see an interesting fact.  It is not enough to say that tastes change and that people really like mindless violence, so what are you going to do about it.  That would be akin to accepting Hobbesian pessimism about human nature rather than Rousseau’s optimism.  If people are basically bad and stupid then anything is possible and one and the same person can be a great writer and a moral pygmy.  However, if one has it as an article of faith that people are basically good, then there must be something more sinister at work: the temptation of the world.  And so we see that far too many critics insist that modern movies are pretty dumb because studio bosses are deliberately ‘dumbing down the medium, which is ridiculous, because studio bosses are interested in one thing: making money.  If there was as much money to be made with movies like Last Year at Marienbad as there is with Transformers 4: Here we go Again then Hollywood would be churning out complex, ambiguous, stylised art movies by the ton.  But this argument does not work for the critics, because instead of accepting that nearly everyone is pretty dumb but only a very few people are really bad, they prefer to see movie-goers as sheep to be led, and the studios as demonic tempters who are leading them into sin.  This attitude, again, generalises.  In political debate their opponents cannot be mistaken, they have to be wrong, almost morally wrong.  Pragmatism (allowing the sinful world to enter into the paradise garden) is the ultimate evil: it is not sufficient that something work; sooner it fail entirely than it work but be impure.

This disdain for the practical has another effect.  The dogmatic beliefs making up social liberalism must be absolute; if they admit any restraint, moderation or regulation, then they are rendered impure.  Now, in classical liberalism, everything is subject to regulation, from individual rights to the system of justice itself, as it is accepted that everything needs oversight and that any absolute can in itself be harmful.  In the Manichean world of the social liberal this is no longer true: rights or facts can be established as being unquestionable.  And as such one ends up creating an über-class which has rights not available to others.  For example, social liberals (probably because many of them are journalists) are adamant that journalistic protection of sources must be an absolute right.  Now, it is a quite reasonable right, but why should it be absolute?  And, more to the point, should we not be concerned that, by making it an absolute, we have now created an über-class of journalists who are accountable to none, who basically have the right to dictate to the justice system what it may or may not know, and who therefore stand above the law?  This looks very much like authoritarianism under another name.

A liberalism for the selfish

Of course, one characteristic of the more cultic kind of religion is that it tends to distinguish very clearly between the esoteric and the exoteric, between true believers and outsiders, and, on the whole, is largely uninterested in the welfare of those outsiders.  They are also generally strongly hierarchical, with obedience to the leaders emphasised.  As we have seen, social liberalism strongly manifests this latter tendency, so the obvious question is whether it also manifests the former.

As a starting point, it is easy to see that the prominent social liberal are themselves selfish in their application of social liberalism.  The most egregious evidence of this is the apparent belief that use of force is such a moral stain on the character that one should tolerate anything in order to avoid it, including ignoring actual requests to exercise it by those who are being deprived of many of the more basic rights (such as to live) that we tend to take for granted.  Indeed, we see the somewhat comical spectacle of a current Archbishop of Canterbury and a former Pope flatly contradicting Jesus Christ on the the subject of intervening in others’ affairs.  So it seems that what matters is that I and my friends be okay, and ‘other’ people can suffer deprivation of all those social benefits I claim to be in favour of, because, well, I don’t know them, and I might have to get my hands dirty in the process.  That this is selfishness goes without saying: what matters is me and my moral state, and when I claim to be interested in social justice I define society in the narrowest possible sense so as to exclude, strangely enough, often those in most need it.  We also saw this in reaction of to the recent English rioting.  In order to promote their own agenda, they made a case that the rioters were those of the dispossessed working class made desperate by the evils of the police, the free market and so on and so forth.  In the process, they privileged the rioters, who actually turned out to be anything but dispossessed workers, and themselves dispossessed the large numbers of genuinely working class individuals who stood with the police against the rioters, and argued that the well-being of the rioters counted for more than that of the genuine workers whose livelihoods they destroyed.  Thus they created a deserving and undeserving poor based not on any true concept of social justice, but rather entirely on which group it most suited them to appear to side with in order to achieve their own ends.  This is selfishness again, in that the rioters and their victims become playing-pieces in a game between social liberals and their enemies.

Now, it is a truism that the selfishness of individual social liberals does not make social liberalism selfish, and yet it is very uncommon to find a social liberal who does not subscribe to the kind of error I described above.  Abstracting, we see that two points emerge.  First, in Manichean fashion, the world is divided into those who count and those who do not, so society is not totality, rather those whom one wishes to benefit with social justice are a distinct subgroup.  Second, what really matters is the promotion of an agenda, whether it be personal moral purity or state ownership of public services, that has little real basis in any benefit to society, even that part of it that one cares about.  It is clear that if one subscribes to these points then one will inevitably be selfish, because the people who do not count do not concern one, and the people who do exist only to serve one’s will.  But, once again, we are in the world of cultic religion.  Let the liberal elite be the priesthood, those who count be the believers and those who do not the pagans, and the agenda (whatever it may be) the dogma.  With those definitions, my two points become inevitable: cultic religions define a very clear division of humanity into us and them in which the out-group is of little of no significance and all that matters is the benefit of the in-group;  moreover they have ineffable and inviolable commandments that the in-group must obey; and, most important, the priesthood get to define us and them and what the commandments are.  We concluded above that social liberalism is, in fact, a cultic religion, and so the two points apply automatically.  Therefore social liberalism is selfish.

 This goes a long way towards explaining some of the more mysterious features of social liberalism.  Given that so many of its proponents claim to take inspiration from the grand universalist philosophies of Marx, their cheerful tendency to ignore entirely the well-being of anyone it suits them to seems somewhat mysterious, as Marx was quite clear that he was talking about the World, not one group in one country.  And yet, if social liberalism is a cultic religion which uses the language but not the ideas of Marxism, such anomalies as Sartre (rightly) condemning atrocities committed by the French in Algeria while (wrongly) cheering on even worse atrocities in the USSR become at least comprehensible.  Sartre was not a Marxist; he was a priest of a religious cult that co-opted Marxism for its own ends.  Classical liberalism, such as in the abolitionist campaign, is universalist.  If social liberals had been around at the time they would probably have found a reason why only some slaves were men and brothers.


Rita Hayworth, the male gaze and the unconscious mind


A few days ago, I wrote more a squib than an essay, a piece that attempted to clarify my assertion (in Less is More and The Male Gaze Gone Wrong) that in the world of cinema, the male gaze has shifted in the last-half century, that shift having involved a passage from male gazers entering into a relationship with the gazed at of transformational devotion to one of simple sexual attraction.  Using Rita Hayworth as an example, I argued that in fact the simple selling of sex appeal is not, after all new.  Scarcely a novel assertion, I know.  The novelty came in the principle I adopted to explain why it is that though the movies have always sold sex, it appears to be so much more prevalent now.

So far so good.  Where the previous piece fell down somewhat was in that it skated around the whole question of the way in which sex is sold, and how that has changed over the half-century, for there there really is a significant shift, towards a greater commoditisation, and away from (hypothetically) mutually rewarding eroticism to the clinical isolation of masturbatory fantasy.  We can explain away the ‘there’s a lot more of it about’ phenomenon, but we cannot explain away this.  Instead we need to explain it, and that is what I intend to do.

Therefore, in this essay I will start by recapitulating, more formally, the argument of the former piece as to why the appearance that there is more selling of sex now is just that, an appearance.  Then I will proceed to analyse the underlying shift in approches to sex that the removal of the bias caused by time’s censorship makes clear.  In the process I shall correct some errors that crept into the earlier piece, particularly the assumption that because with Rita Hayworth the emphasis was very much on the ‘sex’ part of sex goddess, that meant her passionate eroticism was on a par with the lifeless sexualism of a modern starlet.

Sex is always with us

My original hypothesis

The hypothesis put forward in the pieces linked to above, is that screen goddesses were arousing, yes, but what one felt one seeing them wasn’t simply erotic arousal.  Rather there was some kind of pull, an attraction, a shock, similar to that created by experiencing great art, that created a space between them and the viewer that could then be filled, by the viewer, with new material derived from the devotion thus formed.  Like any good work of art, they offered the viewer the possibility of a transformative experience which the viewer can then make use of to develop, to change, to transcend themselves.

On the other hand, looking at the cinema today, one finds innumerable more or less identical young women who pose in various stages of undress, and who are treated in movies purely as sexual objects.  They do not send the message ‘ don’t I make you want to develop yourself?’, they send the message ‘don’t you wish you could have sex with me?’  And so they are offering not a transformational and ongoing mental journey, but a simple act of physical satisfaction.  But maybe not even that, for they are objects of lust rather than promises of the satisfaction of lust.

This is not a false analysis.  These two categories exist, and it is clear that the goddesses of today are thin on the ground.  My error lay in thinking that there was no equivalent in the past to the sexual offer of today’s starlets.  It turns out that there was, though different in kind.  Enter Miss Hayworth.

Miss Hayworth puts the ‘sex’ in sex goddess

Rita Hayworth Rita Hayworth
1 2
Rita Hayworth Rita Hayworth
3 4

So, here we have four images of Miss Hayworth.  I deliberately chose ‘glamour’ pictures as opposed to cheesecake shots, as I was trying to get her as close as possible to the style of the goddesses.  Shot number two is more or less unique in entering true goddess territory, the others being much more representative.

And what do these pictures say? I think it’s fair to say that pictures one, three and four are all focussed on one, or rather two, things. And it’s not her face.  And the message is pretty clear.  Miss Hayworth is not offering an experience akin to that of first reading Devils, which may end with the viewer a quite different person.  She is offering herself, as a (quite remarkable) subject of sexual desire.  So clearly, sex was being sold in the past, just as now.

Before I move on, it is worth noting some further points about these images.  For one thing, though pictures one and three may be focussed on Miss Hayworth’s breasts, there is a considerable subtlety about it.  Clearly she and her couturier knew that eroticism is all about what is revealed, and that in order to reveal one must first conceal.  The modern variety (I shall illustrate below) have nothing of the subtlety of, say a dress with a gauze over-dress and a fabric under-dress with the fabric colour precisely matched to skin-tone.  But, passing over that level of detail, this is a sexuality that works by suggestion rather than by plonking assertion, so it is eroticism rather than sexualism.

Note also Miss Hayworth’s expression.  This is not merely a matter of saying ‘look at me, I’m sexy, I bet you want me’.  There is definite longing, desire.  Though she is not offering the transcendance offered by the true goddesses, she is still selling more than mere gratification.  Instead she is selling desirability and desire: a mutual experience not a solitary one.

I will return to those points.  For now note that we have found that half a century ago there were pure goddesses and sex goddesses; there were actresses whose sole selling point was their body (Jane Russell springs to mind) and there were actresses so transcendant that their body was entirely incidental (Katharine Hepburn, for example).  The oddity is surely that while now I can point at any number of sex kittens, it’s not entirely clear what has happened to the goddesses (of either description).

Time’s censor

In an essay called The Censorship of Time I attempted to explain the phenomenon that art from the past seems to consist solely of masterpieces, while modern art seems to be predominantly of a very low quality.  The argument, simply told, is that art from any period is winnowed, so the great and lasting endures, while the ephemeral ends up being consigned to history’s archives (until dug up by some over-zealous cultural antiquary).  And so, for all periods of time but one we see only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to artistic production, the winnowed out wheat.  The one exception is the present, when we cannot help but see the tares, simply because the winnowing process has not yet happened.  And thus, modern art is predominantly dreadful, but then so was what constituted modern art in 1911, 1811 and so on.  Art on the whole is predominantly dreadful, but the dreadful works of former years now languish in deserved obscurity, and we can guarantee that in 2111 people will look back on our time and see it as just as artistically golden as we see any past era as being.

So, we can adapt this thesis to explain a number of things.  For example, there is a definite shift in the nature of mainstream movies over the past half-century, but before simply saying that cinema now is worse that (as opposed to different from) that of old, we need to remember that it is highly unlikely that any of the current slew of superhero pictures will stand the test of time as has The Day the Earth Stood Still, and that therefore a reliable analysis of changes in the moves needs to deal with thematic and technical trends (such as my analysis of creeping over-reliance on realism in The Tyranny of Realism)  rather than at attempt at measuring changes in quality.  Thus I still stand by my analysis in Whither the Movies? because it is thematic and not based on quality.

Censoring Miss Hayworth

So, let us apply the notion of the temporal censor to the cinema and sex.  Well, it seems fairly reasonable to say that selling pure sex, be it erotic or sexualist, is an ephemeral thing.  Yes, Miss Hayworth was extremely beautiful and highly concupiscent, but being a sex goddess is not a life-long activity: there will always be newer, younger women to appeal to the sexual urges of the male gaze.  In other words, sexual allure is a relatively commonplace commodity, so there’s no real need for the targets of desire in one generation to be remembered by the next.  Being a goddess is different.  Obviously it is a much rarer commodity, and as such it is worth preserving, for things that can offer the transcendant experience, whether they be pinups, pictures or symphonies, are clearly of great worth.  And thus goddesses will survive the winnowing process whereas only the most exceptional of sex goddesses will.

The consequence of this is that the censorship effect means that we would expect the sirens and sex goddesses of yesteryear to be largely forgotten, while the goddesses are remembered.  As a neat example, consider the three leads of How to Marry a Millionaire. Miss Bacall is a goddess pure and simple and is still considered one of Hollywood’s greats.  Miss Monroe is that rare thing, a sex goddess so supernal that she has survived (though that may be in part because she was a fine actress who deliberately adopted the persona of a sex goddess who didn’t know that she was one).  Miss Grable, who was a sex goddess at the time, has suffered more than a little diminution in her image, and seems well on the way to obscurity.

Ginger Rogers Ginger Rogers
5 6

What this means is that the censorship effect predicts that we will appear to see sex by the bucketful in modern cinema, and, apparently, little in the past.  And that is precisely what we do see.  Everywhere we look we see modern starlets showing of almost literally their all, but we tend not to remember Ginger Rogers giving us a good look straight down her cleavage while wearing her most inviting smile, or sitting on top of a piano wearing a see-through dress.

The wider picture

From eroticism to sexualism

I have written about this before, but it is worth discussing again.  As I noted above, these older examples of selling sex, where what matters is basically the woman’s body and her sex appeal rather than anything else, are of considerable subtlety.  I noted the way that Miss Hayworth’s dress, though exposing (and forming, there appears to be some subte corsetry at work, as one can see by comparing her waist in images 3 and 4) her bosom in a most admirable way, is even more admirable in that it appears to be exposing much more than it really is.  Again, there is just a touch of room for the imagination to enter.  Likewise, Miss Rogers’ dresses in the two pictures advertise her charms most effectively, but they merely advertise them; they do not demonstrate them.

Now part of this is, obviously, a consequence of censorship of another kind, and the need to encode rather than state explicitly, but it is more than that.  It is this allowance of the imagination into the picture that raises these images above the level of fodder for masturbatory fantasies and turns them into a source of erotic reverie.  And before I am accused of playing semantic games, my point is that in all of these older cases the male gazer sees a highly sexually attractive woman, but his sexual fantasy has to engage imagination.  He is not just looking at a body, it is a body that he has to relate to, that he has to get to know, that has an owner, who is saying, by her manner, that she wants him.  And who, by virtue of that, is a person and not an object.

As a somewhat more modern example, consider this short scene from Don Levy’s great film Herostratus, where the (very) young Dame Helen Mirren flings herself into the part of a woman who is quite literally selling herself, or rather using herself to sell rubber gloves.  The scene is overpoweringly erotic, but though Dame Helen’s undoubted physical charms play a part in that, more of it comes from her acting.  From her very first ‘Do you want me?’ we see a woman filled with desire, looking only for someone who can satisfy it.  The image she creates is that of a very sexy woman who wants to give herself to the male gazer, but as a whole, not as just a body.  And of course, it is testament to both the film’s and Dame Helen’s greatness that whereas Miss Hayworth was a sex goddess, here Dame Helen is a professional actress playing the part of a professional actress playing the part of a sex goddess.  In fact, it is arguable that Dame Helen is that rarest of things, a true goddess who is also a sex goddess.

katherine heigl Katherine Heigl
7 8

Now let us look at the modern alternative.  We have here two posed shots of the leading actress Katherine Heigl, who would appear, judging from her extreme popularity, a good candidate for modern-day sex goddess status.

There are two things to note.  First of all, there is no longer any pretence at subtlety (it is hard to imagine how much less subtle than image 8 one could be), and these images do indeed demonstrate as opposed to merely advertise the wares.  So eroticism is gone, and we are firmly into the territory of the male gaze objectifying that at which it gazes.

Second look at Miss Heigl’s expression.  Or, rather, lack of it.  There is no allure, nothing.  She is making no effort to engage, even at a remove, with the viewer of the image.  She knows perfectly well that she is an object pure and simple, and so she is acting as one.  All in all looking at these images is a rather depressing experience, and one feels rather sorry for Miss Heigl (the alternative, of course being that she is not being exploited, but is a willing conspirator in her objectification, in which case one should be sorry about her).

Forms of the male gaze

To summarise what has happened, it seems worth trying to fit what we have seen into a more general model.  As so often, ideas from medieval philosophy turn out to be quite useful; I am referring to the theories of different styles of love, from the spiritual, via courtly down to physical love and then base lust at the bottom.  So I shall, translating this into more modern language, define three forms of male gazing: the creative form (corresponding to courtly or spiritual love), the erotic form (physical love) and finally the sexual form (lust).

Some psychology

Before I go any further, let me expose a simple psychological model.  In Jungian psychology, the mind has two main parts: the conscious and the unconscious.  We all know more or less what the conscious is, but the unconscious is a bit of a mystery.  What we think of as intellectual pursuits are largely conscious, but they are generally driven by deep roots in the unconscious, which provides the energy and source that drives them.  In particular, creativity involves considerable conscious work, but is driven from the unconscious.

The unconscious also has some structure.  In fact there are two distinct divisions.  One is into the human unconscious and the reptilian unconscious.  We all have, within our brains, a fully functioning reptilian brain, parts of which are constantly suppressed so we do not, in fact, act like crocodiles.  And with that brain, we all have the basic animal urges of lust, fear, aggression and hunger, which are pure, simple and primal, with nothing of the human about them.  The human unconscious deals with more complex, nuanced emotions and so, in our particular area of enquiry, it is the locus of eroticism and sexual desire (as opposed to sexual lust).

The other division is into the visible unconscious and the shadow.  Basically the shadow constitutes those parts of our minds that we have pushed away from ourselves and are dissociated from, either by desire or by force.  So those aspects of the personality that we do not wish to express or even to admit to having will end up in the shadow.  So, positive creative behaviour and thinking are driven from the visible unconscious, from the well-integrated parts of our personality.  Uncharacteristic behaviour comes from the shadow.

Kinds of gazing

Lauren Bacall

So, I see a clear distinction between male gazing which is primarily sexually driven and that which is driven by something else, such as the urge for self-transformation.  I spoke before of a shock, as of that of experiencing great art, or religious revelation, or some great insight, as it were the ‘wow’ factor.   Now, Lauren Bacall is quite capable of inducing that simply by staring rather severely at the camera while giving no hint at all as to what shape her body might be (image 9), and that is what makes her a goddess proper.  Here thoughts of sex are irrelevant, or else so transformed as to scarcely be describable as sexual.

So this is the abstract, non-sexual form of the gaze.  It speaks to those parts of the mind that make us truly human, the intellect and non-sexual passions, such as passion for justice, or truth, or beauty (including creativity).

Now, moving on to the sex goddesses of the past, this form of male gazing is driven by eroticism or sexual desire, which is the humanised form of the basic animal sexual urge.  This humanisation is seen in the way that there is still room for the human attribute of imagination, and that the gaze speaks of desire for a person rather than for satiation.

Finally, today we see the animal lust of the reptilian unconscious, without any embroidery.  The images 7 and 8 of Miss Heigl, and innumerable even more blatant images of other starlets, make it quite clear that we have moved beyond desire and on to the simple urge to satisfy sexual need.

So what happened?

So, what I believe has happened in the transition from Miss Hayworth’s erotic allure to Miss Heigl’s impersonal sexualism is as follows.  The reptilian unconscious has, for much of human history, been very firmly embedded within the shadow.  That is why, though abominations happened, and animalistic behaviour happened, it occurs as a sudden eruption from the shadow, and is contrary to the trend of society (and even, quite often, the individuals in question) as a whole.  And so, with the reptilian unconscious hidden away, the outlet for sexual feeling has been erotic desire.

It would appear that, at some time in the last half-century, the reptilian unconscious has started to emerge from the collective shadow, and so now naked lust, naked greed and so on are becoming more acceptable as people begin to integrate those urges directly into their personality, rather than going via the intermediation of some other more complex emotion.  And so the sexual male gaze has shifted simply because, distressing though it may be, pure lust is a more efficient way of getting what you want than the perfumed garden of eroticism.

Charlie Sheen, Societal Roles and Transgression


In recent days it has been very hard not to be aware of Charlie Sheen and his curiously uninhibited life-style; indeed the media coverage of his each and every action or utterance has been such that even one so generally ignorant of popular culture as I has (eventually) noticed that something excitingly strange was going on.  And I was struck, rather forcibly, by the nature of much of the commentary on Mr Sheen, which, I felt exposed certain structural features of our society.  And, indeed, of any sufficiently large society.  So that is what I am going to write about.

Now, before you get all happy and excited, I am afraid that I do not intend to delve into Mr Sheen’s unconventional sexual arrangements or to attempt to understand what it says about his psychology that he describes his concubines as ‘goddesses’.  Nor do I intend to discuss ‘tiger blood’ or a drug habit that Hunter S Thompson might have envied. No, this is going to be a simple philosophical piece about societal roles, and what transgression of said roles means.

The reason, before we go on, why I shall not delve into the ‘goddesses’ (and that double entendre was entirely unintentional) is not that I have any objection to discussing attractive women (rather the converse), but simply because they are just one of many symptoms that go to mark out Mr Sheen as a role transgressor.  Likewise, I shall make no moral judgement about his behaviour; the details of what he does are unimportant for my argument: all that matters is that (in a telling phrase) he is a ‘bad role model’.  

Societal roles

What are societal roles?

We all play out roles.  Some roles are very explicit and deliberately assumed, like the doctor’s bedside manner, but the roles that are really interesting are those that we don’t think about.  So, for example, there are gender roles or stereotypes.  Men, we are told, are emotionally null, logical, aggressive and goal-oriented, while women are nurturing peace-makers, concerned with feeling and emotion.  Men like to get drunk and watch sports.  Women gossip and talk about their children, while men talk about sport and exchange crude sexual banter.  Likewise students are radical drunkards who take drugs by the ton and have sex with everything that moves; their parents are conservative conformists with empty lives of quiet despair; their grand-parents are (depending on which stereotype you’re using) either sclerotic, racist, sexist fascists or wild party animals.  There are even roles based on jobs: secretaries are air-headed young women who wear very short skirts and plunging necklines and are generally assumed to be sexually available to anyone who asks; anyone doing anything faintly scientific has no personal skills, has dubious personal hygeine, looks strange, is probably male and will never, ever get off with a girl.  And so on and so forth.

Now, in daily life we will normally deploy one or more roles at any time (so the aggressive executive who talks corporate-speak by day might morph into a party-animal male by night).  And that’s just fine for those people whose psychological make-up makes them comfortable with the existing portfolio of societal roles.  But say somebody doesn’t?  What is to be done by (or with) a man who loathes all sports, doesn’t enjoy being drunk and who finds sexist banter offensive?  Well, what generally happens is that the unhappy individual builds a protective shell which enables them to function socially by appearing to fit their expected role, while protecting their true self which is hidden underneath.  It need hardly be said that this is not necessarily psychologically healthy.  And in very rare cases, an individual (like Oscar Wilde, Aleister Crowley, Katharine Hepburn, Freddie Mercury or Mr Sheen) decides to ignore the roles and be in public what they are in private.  So they become transgressive.

Where do they come from?

I’ll come back to being transgressive in a moment.  Before that, let’s see where roles come from and why it’s so important to society that people act them out.  In small, static societies, like, say, a pre-industrial revolution European village, where one may encounter at most a few dozens of people, and new people arrive only infrequently, it’s possible to interact with people on a basis of knowing them as individuals.  That is to say, if the list of ‘people I know’ is small and changes slowly, I can interact with each person based on my detailed knowledge of them.  However, in large, dynamic societies, like a major metropolis, one can encounter hundreds of people on a regular basis, and the roster of people one interacts with is constantly changing.  And in this case, one cannot rely on knowing everyone well.  So, if society is not to fall apart, it is necessary to have a relatively simple way of classifying people one encounters casually so that one knows how to relate to them.  And thus societal roles are born.

So, we can see why it might be good to have stereotypes or roles that help you relate to people you don’t know very well.  How do we get from that to people actually living the role?  Well, it turns out that there’s actually an advantage in acting the role too.  Because if you don’t clearly signal to someone how they should treat you, then they won’t know how to interact with you at all, and most likely anything you might have hoped to gain from encountering them will be lost.  So, just as you seeing someone else acting out a role helps you relate to them, which is good for you, you acting out a role helps them relate to you, which is also good for you.  

This means that there is a feedback loop, which has three main drivers.  First, that the roles should cover sufficiently much of the available space that most people should fit in at least one, second that there should be a relatively small number of roles (so everyone can learn all of them), and third, that they should be clearly identifiable, so you know which one applies when.  So the first driver promotes creating lots of very specific roles, while the second driver counteracts that by driving their number down, and the third driver ensures that they are fairly generic and clear-cut.  And that is precisely what we see: the roles are almost Platonic, extracting the essence of the normative behaviour of their respective group.

When do they break down?

Now, you’ll note that I said that the first driver was to cover nearly everyone.  Clearly any categorisation as crude as subdivision into a small number of roles cannot hope to cover everyone.  But, given that society has a huge investment in the roles, largely because its smooth functioning is predicated on their continued effectiveness, there is pressure for even those individuals who are not covered by any of the roles to conform to some role.  And usually that is what happens, the end-result being that the aberrant individual becomes just a little less well-adjusted than they might be.  But sometimes people transgress.

So what happens when an individual transgresses, and so insists on behaving as they want to, rather than how society says they ought to given their categorisation?  Well, it’s fairly obvious, really.  If you don’t fit, society doesn’t know what to do with you, and there are two things that can happen.  The easiest approach is to marginalise you – squeeze you out – so you become isolated from the mainstream of society: in a rather exact analogy, this is like the formation of a pearl around an irritant.  And, not surprisingly, we find that a lot of non-stereotypical people live alternative lifestyles and are more or less divorced from mainstream society.

But some individuals, whether it is due to the extreme nature of their transgression, or simply because their sheer ability makes them impossible to ignore, cannot be marginalised and rendered safe.  They are a threat to the stability of the system of roles, because if one person can get away with transgression, then the precedent is set for others to follow and simply be themselves.  Organisms (and we can view society as a meta-organism) tend to respond to threats in one of two ways: retreat or attack.  In this case, just as with a body responding to infection, there is nowhere to retreat to, so the only option is to attack.

And this, regrettably, is precisely what we see: Wilde and Crowley were vilified and hounded during their lives to an extent quite disproportionate with their (really rather tame) exploits.  Indeed, what are arguably Crowley’s worst acts (his irresponsible imperilment of fellow mountaineers) tended to be ignored entirely in favour of hysteria over his largely harmless magickal activities.  Hepburn was just too great a talent and too popular post 1940, but the near-terminal collapse of her career in the late ’30s and the post mortem revisionism that she is now subject to are clear evidence of society objecting to someone who defiantly created her own role.  Freddie Mercury was vilified in his lifetime, but he was loved by millions, so the forces of normativeness had to wait until after his death.  Mr Sheen is no Hepburn or Mercury, so he is attacked as a lunatic, etc, etc, etc and, of course, an unfit role model.

Which is where we came in.  Transgressive individuals suggest the need for new roles to add to the existing system.  But the system has huge inertia, and is (as we noted above) resistant to creation of new roles.  And this is its great weakness.  For transgressive individuals should be seen as a safety value.  They point to failures of the normative typology, and hence ways it could be improved.  And if the typology were the result of intelligent action that is, no doubt, what would happen.  But, of course, there is no intelligence at work, just an emergent structure deriving from the chaotic interactions of millions of individuals.  So, unfortunately, unless the millenium comes, we have to live with a society in which we are pigeon-holed into roles which fit some of us better than others, while only the occasional individual braves society’s ridicule by being themself.