Kenneth Minogue’s On Liberty And Its Enemies

Nowhere have I found a more perspicacious diagnosis of our modern malaise than in the writings of Kenneth Minogue, a New Zealand-born political philosopher who spent more than a decade of his life teaching at the London School of Economics. Minogue’s writings – which in this volume span more than 50 years, from 1961 to 2013, the year of his death – anticipate and elucidate some of today’s most pressing problems, from the decline in marriage and male-female social relations, to the proliferation of sclerotic state bureaucracies, to the rise of a modern dogmatism even now chasing heretical thinkers off college campuses and out of major newspapers for the crime of finding something or other positive to say about their countries and cultures. Part of that insight, no doubt, derives from Minogue’s longevity: he lived long enough to see trends that began fifty years ago come to fruition in the modern world. But part of it also derives from his unique perspective, his ability to see liberalism – the default ideology of the our time – with the eyes of an appreciative skeptic. “It is only the very cynical, the unassailably religious and the atavistically conservative who have remained unaffected [by liberalism],” he tells us at one point, in declaring his intentions in writing these essays. “Our concern is simply to investigate liberalism as a movement. It is neither to praise nor bury it, but to consider what might be called its intellectual and emotional dynamics.” Minogue, I will say at the outset, does this with rare insight and intelligence, praising where liberalism has been praiseworthy and criticizing where it has been blameworthy, and it is in this latter capacity that so many modern readers will discover Minogue’s worth and originality.

For my part, I fell in love with Minogue from the introductory essay, supplied by Colorado College professor Timothy Fuller, who quotes from Minogue’s book The Liberal Mind to summarize both the historical perspective of modern liberals, and their unique conundrum in the 21st century:

The story of liberalism, as liberals tell it, is rather like the legend of St. George and the dragon. After many centuries of hopelessness and superstition, St. George, in the guise of Rationality, appeared in the world somewhere about the sixteenth century. The first dragons upon whom he turned his lance were those of despotic kingship and religious intolerance. These battles won, he rested a time, until such questions as slavery, or prison conditions, or the state of the poor, began to command his attention. During the nineteenth century, his lance was never still, prodding this way and that against the inert scaliness of privilege, vested interest, or patrician insolence. But, unlike St. George, he did not know when to retire. The more he succeeded, the more he became bewitched with the thought of a world free of dragons, and the less capable he became of ever returning to private life. He needed his dragons. He could only live by fighting for causes – the people, the poor, the exploited, the colonially oppressed, the underprivileged and the underdeveloped. As an ageing warrior, he grew breathless in his pursuit of smaller and smaller dragons – for the big dragons were now harder to come by.

This is a portrait of modern liberalism I find equal parts depressing and accurate. I have witnessed, on an almost daily basis, intelligent, wealthy and well-employed men and women describe their own societies in the most damning of terms. By the lights of what today passes for an intelligentsia, the United States is irredeemably racist, sexist and xenophobic – which comes as no small surprise to the millions of people each year who express an interest in leaving their homelands in search of a better life in America. Slavery and child poverty, to be sure, are dragons, but what do we make of a society obsessed with the question of “representation” on popular television shows, or in the upper echelons of Silicon Valley? One wonders how much smaller the dragons can get.

But there is another fault in that above-quoted liberal narrative, one that deserves even more scrutiny: that Reason emerged “somewhere about the sixteenth century,” and that we have been ever more Reasonable ever since. For the sake of argument, let us say that despotic kingship and religious intolerance are bad things, and that we are happy to be rid of them. Are they, therefore, also automatically unreasonable? Does the fact that all our modern societies grew out of monarchies argue in favour of their necessity, at some point in time? And much though we might deplore religious intolerance, particularly as it manifested in Inquisitions and witch trials, does the universality of religious belief, or the communities of like-minded people these believers created, not also argue in favour of their serving a purpose – at least at some point in our history? By way of analogy, consider the institution of marriage, which Minogue treats of in “Marriage in Our Time.” There has been astoundingly scant public recognition of this fact, but marriage, in a secular, liberal society, makes very little sense. “The utilitarian imperative to maximize pleasure and minimize pain,” Minogue tells us, “has never ben absent from human affairs, but today it is virtually our only principle of public policy.” Feminist scholarship has argued that marriage is a patriarchal institution, rooted in male ownership of women, and therefore either superfluous or badly in need of reform. Reform came, first in the form of no-fault divorce laws, and later in the toppling of marriage from its cultural pedestal: marriage was to be considered optional and non-binding – at which point it isn’t marriage at all, but merely a relationship involving state-enforced contractual obligations. Unsurprisingly, marriage rates plummeted.

Curiously, however, the marriage rates have not plummeted equally across society. It is, in fact, the wealthy and well-educated who continue to get married, who continue to subject themselves to lifelong commitment and patriarchal oppression, and it’s worth wondering why this is so. Minogue blames a “semantic slide” that allowed us to confuse “freedom” and “liberation.”

Our problem thus becomes one of understanding the move from a world of fixed moral commitments to one characterized by convenience, adjustment, and manageability. One key change is the vulgarization of our civilizational self-characterization as free. Individual freedom has always with us depended on individual self-reliance and self-restraint, but in the twentieth century freedom was widely understood as that quite different phenomenon that is more properly called “liberation.”

To be liberated, according to Minogue, is to be free of all binding commitments, all impediments to the satisfactions of your merest whims and fancies. By contrast, freedom is the power to choose your commitment, to identify yourself with what you do and who you choose to commit your life to. The evolution of the institution of marriage in Europe illustrates Minogue’s point:

The moral lives of most people at all times, and of our own people at some times, have been characterized by conformity to moral rules. Those rules were known and shared in society. But in European marriage we find something new and different. Moral conduct is understood as fidelity to self-chosen commitments. It was society ordering itself in terms of the coherence of commitments rather than “obedience” to the rules of some notional form of life.

Marriage used to be a societal or even civilizational affair, tied up with considerations of politics, property and wealth. Freedom, in European history, meant giving men and women a greater personal say in the choice of their betrothed; liberation, in the 21st century, means abolishing the very idea of lifelong commitment.

What’s at stake, in Minogue’s telling, isn’t merely marriage as an institution – and possibly society itself, which depends upon marriage as foundational to its very existence – but meaning and identity. We know ourselves, establish who we are, by dint of our commitments and our sacrifices. A parent is someone invested in the life and wellbeing of their child, often to the detriment of their own pleasure and convenience; a professional athlete or artist is someone whose commitment to his or her craft outweighs all other, ordinary obligations. Freedom, Minogue says, is like a currency: it’s only valuable in how it is spent.

We think of freedom as being able to do what we merely want to do, but this is a condition cherished no less by the slave than by the master. When the cat’s away, the mice will play! Here is the illusion that freedom is merely having a lot of options available. What freedom actually means is the capacity not only to choose but also to face the consequences of one’s choices. To accept employment, to marry, to join a cause, to sustain a family, and so on, all involve responsibilities, and it is in the capacity to sustain self-chosen responsibilities, the steadiness to face up to the risks and inevitable ennui inseparable from a settled life, that we exhibit out freedom.

Grasp this central point, and you are on the way to understanding Minogue’s fear of our growing state bureaucracies, promising to alleviate ever more societal ills, offer us ever more conveniences – at the expense of our freedom to choose. “The suffering of any class of individuals is for liberals a political problem,” Minogue tells us, “and politics is an activity not so much for maximizing happiness as for minimizing suffering.” He foresaw, over 50 years ago, two logical consequences of such a position. The first is a transformation of politics from an eternal struggle of contraries, “the art of the possible,” into a technical problem admitting of technical solutions. “We first decide what it is that we want, how we think our society ought to be organized, and then we seek the means to our end.” Once the problem is conceived in this way, however, what becomes of those heretics who refuse to acquiesce? In Minogue’s phrasing, “politics proceeds by stereotypes, and intellectually it is a matter of hunting down the victims and the oppressors.” Complex political and social problems are reduced to problems of will, and the moral and the political spheres collapse into each other:

Our inherited moral idiom is thus being challenged by another, in which individuals find their identifying essence in supporting public policies that are both morally obligatory and politically imperative. Such policies are, I suggest, “politico-moral.” Such an attitude dramatically moralizes politics, and politicizes the moral life. It feeds on our instinctive support for good causes. Yet it also suggests that the most important sign of moral integrity, of decency and goodness, is not found in facing up to one’s responsibilities, but in holding the right opinions, generally about the grand abstractions such as poverty and war. This illusion might well be fingered as the ultimate servility.

I read the above passage with a smile, having just witnessed a month of endless moral preening by soulless corporations and mindless men and women on social media, all falling over themselves to profess their loyalty to the latest “politico-moral” cause. Another recognizable consequence of the collision between the moral and political spheres has been the rise of “enlightened” politicians, who have taken it upon themselves not only to lead but to lecture their citizens, condescending to them in questions of morality. Minogue has no patience for them, and a warning for us: “Our rulers have no business telling us how to live. They are tiresome enough in their exercise of authority – they are intolerable when they mount the pulpit. Nor should we be in any doubt that nationalizing the moral life is the first step towards totalitarianism.”

If today it is politically inadvisable or economically unwise merely to decline to affirm the modern politico-moral pieties, tomorrow it will be illegal or immoral, and we will have a public already conditioned to passive obedience. Reading Minogue’s essays, even those written a half-century ago, we glimpse where these trends began, where they have taken us, and where they will take us, if we continue to outsource our moral responsibility – that’s simultaneously the joy and the sorrow in reading him.