Identity politics, T. S. Eliot, Roger Scruton, standing for free speech, life after the pandemic, and more
The Dogma of Our Times
What history will think of our times is something that only history will reveal.
But it is a good guess that it will select collectivism as the identifying characteristic of the twentieth century. For even a quick survey of the developing pattern of thought during the past fifty years shows up the dominance of one central idea: that society is a transcendent entity, something apart and greater than the sum of its parts, possessing a suprahuman character and endowed with like capacities. It operates in a field of its own, ethically and philosophically, and is guided by stars unknown to mortals.
Hence, the individual, the unit of society, cannot judge it by his own limitations or apply to it standards by which he measures his own thinking and behavior. He is necessary to it, of course, but only as a replaceable part of a machine. It follows, therefore, that society, which may concern itself paternalistically with individuals, is in no way dependent on them.
In one way or another, this idea has insinuated itself into almost every branch of thought and, as ideas have a way of doing, has become institutionalized. Perhaps the most glaring example is the modern orientation of the philosophy of education. Many of the professionals in this field frankly assert that the primary purpose of education is not to develop the individual’s capacity for learning, as was held in the past, but to prepare him for a fruitful and “happy” place in society; his inclinations must be turned away from himself, so that he can adjust himself to the mores of his age group and beyond that to the social milieu in which he will live out his life. He is not an end in himself.
Jurisprudence has come around to the same idea, holding more and more that human behavior is not a matter of personal responsibility as much as it is a reflection of the social forces working on the individual; the tendency is to shift onto society the blame for crimes committed by its members.
This, too, is a tenet of sociology, the increasing popularity of which, and its elevation to a science, attest to the hold collectivism has on our times. The scientist is no longer honored as a bold adventurer into the unknown, in search of nature’s principles, but has become a servant of society, to which he owes his training and his keep. Heroes and heroic exploits are being demoted to accidental outcroppings of mass thought and movement. The superior person, the self-starting “captain of industry,” the inherent genius—these are fictions; all are but robots made by society. Economics is the study of how society makes a living, under its own techniques and prescriptions, not how individuals, in pursuit of happiness, go about the making of a living. And philosophy, or what goes by that name, has made truth itself an attribute of society.
Collectivism is more than an idea. In itself, an idea is nothing but a toy of speculation, a mental idol. Since, as the myth holds, the suprapersonal society is replete with possibilities, the profitable thing to do is to put the myth to work, to energize its virtue. The instrument at hand is the state, throbbing with political energy and quite willing to expend it on this glorious adventure.
Statism is not a modern invention. Even before Plato, political philosophy concerned itself with the nature, origin, and justification of the state. But, while the thinkers speculated on it, the general public accepted political authority as a fact to be lived with and let it go at that.
It is only within recent times (except, perhaps, during periods when church and state were one, thus endowing political coercion with divine sanction) that the mass of people has consciously or implicitly accepted the Hegelian dictum that “the state is the general substance, whereof individuals are but the accidents.” It is this acceptance of the state as “substance,” as a suprapersonal reality, and its investment with a competence no individual can lay claim to, that is the special characteristic of the twentieth century.
In times past, the disposition was to look upon the state as something one had to reckon with, but as a complete outsider.
One got along with the state as best one could, feared or admired it, hoped to be taken in by it and to enjoy its perquisites, or held it at arm’s length as an untouchable thing; one hardly thought of the state as the integral of society. One had to support the state—there was no way of avoiding taxes— and one tolerated its interventions as interventions, not as the warp and woof of life. And the state itself was proud of its position apart from, and above, society.
The present disposition is to liquidate any distinction between state and society, conceptually or institutionally. The state is society; the social order is indeed an appendage of the political establishment, depending on it for sustenance, health, education, communications, and all things coming under the head of “the pursuit of happiness.” In theory, taking college textbooks on economics and political science for authority, the integration is about as complete as words can make it. In the operation of human affairs, despite the fact that lip service is rendered to the concept of inherent personal rights, the tendency to call upon the state for the solution of all the problems of life shows how far we have abandoned the doctrine of rights, with its correlative of self-reliance, and have accepted the state as the reality of society. It is this actual integration, rather than the theory, that marks the twentieth century off from its predecessors.
One indication of how far the integration has gone is the disappearance of any discussion of the state as state—a discussion that engaged the best minds of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The inadequacies of a particular regime, or its personnel, are under constant attack, but there is no fault-finding with the institution itself. The state is all right, by common agreement, and it would work perfectly if the “right” people were at its helm. It does not occur to most critics of the New Deal that all its deficiencies are inherent in any state, under anybody’s guidance, or that when the political establishment garners enough power a demagogue will sprout. The idea that this power apparatus is indeed the enemy of society, that the interests of these institutions are in opposition, is simply unthinkable. If it is brought up, it is dismissed as “old-fashioned,” which it is; until the modern era, it was an axiom that the state bears constant watching, that pernicious proclivities are built into it.
A few illustrations of the temper of our times come to mind.
The oft-used statement that “we owe it to ourselves,” in relation to the debts incurred in the name of the state, is indicative of the tendency to obliterate from our consciousness the line of demarcation between governed and governors. It not only is a stock phrase in economics textbooks, but is tacitly accepted in many financial circles as sound in principle. To many modern bankers a government bond is at least as sound as an obligation of a private citizen, since the bond is in fact an obligation of the citizen to pay taxes.
Those bankers make no distinction between a debt backed by production or productive ability and a debt secured by political power; in the final analysis a government bond is a lien on production, so what’s the difference? By such reasoning, the interests of the public, which are always centered in the production of goods, are equated with the predatory interests of the state.
In many economics textbooks, government borrowing from citizens, whether done openly or by pressure brought upon the banks to lend their depositors’ savings, is explained as a transaction equivalent to the transfer of money from one pocket to another, of the same pants; the citizen lends to himself what he lends to the government. The rationale of this absurdity is that the effect on the nation’s economy is the same whether the citizen spends his money or the government does it for him. He has simply given up his negligible right of choice. The fact that he has no desire for what the government spends his money on, that he would not of his own free will contribute to the buying of it, is blithely overlooked.
The “same pants” notion rests on the identification of the amorphous “national economy” with the well-being of the individual; he is thus merged into the mass and loses his personality.
Of a piece with this kind of thinking is a companion phrase, “We are the government.” Its use and acceptance are most illustrative of the hold collectivism has taken on the American mind in this century, to the exclusion of the basic American tradition. When the Union was founded, the overriding fear of Americans was that the new government might become a threat to their freedom, and the framers of the Constitution were hard put to allay this fear. Now it is held that freedom is a gift from government in return for subservience. The reversal has been accomplished by a neat trick in semantics. The word “democracy” is the key to this trick. When one looks for a definition of this word, one finds that it is not a clearly defined form of government but rather the rule by “social attitudes.” But what is a “social attitude”? Putting aside the wordy explanations of this slippery concept, it turns out to be in practice good old majoritarianism; what fifty-one percent of the people deem right is right, and the minority is perforce wrong. It is the general-will fiction under a new name. There is no place in this concept for the doctrine of inherent rights; the only right left to the minority, even the minority of one, is conformity with the dominant “social attitude.”
If “we are the government,” then it follows that the man who finds himself in jail must blame himself for his plight, and the man who takes all the tax deduction the law allows is really cheating himself. . . .
This is the fulfillment of statism. It is a state of mind that does not recognize any ego but that of the collective. For analogy one must go to the pagan practice of human sacrifice: when the gods called for it, when the medicine man so insisted, as a condition for prospering the clan, it was incumbent on the individual to throw himself into the sacrificial fire.
In point of fact, statism is a form of paganism, for it is worship of an idol, something made by man. Its base is pure dogma. Like all dogmas this one is subject to interpretations and rationales, each with its coterie of devotees. But, whether one calls himself a communist, socialist, New Dealer, or just plain “democrat,” each begins with the premise that the individual is of consequence only as a servant of the mass-idol. Its will be done.
There are stalwart souls, even in this twentieth century.
There are some who in the privacy of their personality hold that collectivism is a denial of a higher order of things. There are nonconformists who reject the Hegelian notion that “the state incarnates the divine idea on earth.” There are some who firmly maintain that only man is made in the image of God.
As this remnant—these individuals—gains understanding and improves its explanations, the myth that happiness is to be found under collective authority must fade away in the light of liberty.
About the Author
Frank Chodorov (1887-1966) was a leading proponent of individualism who influenced generations of thinkers on the right with his incisive critiques of statism. Recognizing that “every diagnostician is faced with the demand for a cure,” Chodorov founded the Intercollegiate Studies Institute in 1953.
Sign up for our weekly newsletter
We hand-pick the best of independent thought from around the web and deliver it to your inbox weekly. Sign up for the ISI newsletter!
“I always look forward to this newsletter on Thursdays. Good observation, smart commentary.”
—John Miller, host of the National Review Great Books podcast
“The format and style is outstanding. I love the brief summaries and look forward to every email!”
Top 10 C. S. Lewis books you should read, how colleges went woke, and why Peter Thiel says competition is for losers
Thiel’s advice for success, the rise of the “multiversity,” C. S. Lewis, T. S. Eliot, and more