The Agonist Journal

We are often told that liberalism is about a limitation of power. Men and women are quick to cite Locke, though they probably haven’t deduced the logical outgrowth of Locke’s philosophy, and Lord Acton to back up this point; however, a closer and more truly philosophical understanding of liberalism reveals this myth to be a grand lie. Liberalism, far from entertaining and promoting the limitation of power, is the philosophy that promotes the inexhaustible pursuit of power to which politicized and economized science and technology are the principal tools for this boundless growth of power.

“This contribution needs a pullquote”

What we call liberalism, in its more expansive philosophical reality, might better be understood as the “modern project.” In more familiar parlance, the modern project receives the wondrous propagandistic name Enlightenment—so many are more familiar with the modern project as the “enlightenment project” as crudely proclaimed by its disciples like Steven Pinker and Michael Shermer. But what is the modern project? As any actual student of philosophy knows, the modern project is concerned with power—chiefly man’s power over nature and eradication of bodily harm through the power of technology that provides material well-being or comfort.

Francis Bacon, then, is the modern philosopher par excellence. His Novum Organum and New Atlantis, taken together, constitute the old and new testament of the modern project. The Novum Organum sets the precedence and backstory. The New Atlantis propels us into the brave new world. If there is one thing people tend to know about Francis Bacon, it is his articulation that the modern project must consummate in man’s mastery over nature. That the New Atlantis references the famed city that Plato discusses in the Timaeus and Critias, is also revealing. The astute reader of Plato would know that the Timaeus and Critias are political allegories, and that the Critias is the unfinished continuation of the Timaeus. So too is the New Atlantis a political allegory once the full scope of Bacon’s intellectual roots and intent is known.

Bacon despised metaphysical thinking and theological speculation. The contemplative life was impractical. Concern over the good life a waste of time. Bacon’s project was to advance utility, namely through the practical application of man against nature to create a more efficient and working world which would reduce suffering and harm. He so eloquently described this practical outlook as such: “Science discovery should be driven not just by the quest for intellectual enlightenment, but also for the relief of man’s estate.” As much as modern science and technology is often presented as a “quest for intellectual enlightenment,” many others have long said that there are also political, practical, and economic purposes for science and technology too. In fact, we might go as far as to say that the primary manifestation of science and technology serves these ulterior purposes rather than the trite “truth-seeking” science of Dawkins, Tyson, and Nye.

If we recall from Plato, Atlantis is the practical and pragmatic city made manifest. Atlantis is a city blessed with natural resources which it exploits and then uses to construct its elaborate and ornate city. As Critias says, “Enriched…[the Atlanteans] set about building shrines, royal mansions, harbours, shipyards, and organized the whole of their territory along the following lines. The first thing they did was build bridges…[then they] d[u]g a canal from the sea to the outermost ring.” When Critias begins to explain the growth and proliferation of Atlantis we observe a city in transformation through wealth and technology—the very things that Bacon believed would allow man to master nature and ascend to the stars.

The generation that succeeded Bacon is generally understood to be the generation of “classical liberal” fathers: Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Baruch Spinoza. The concern over power and man’s mastery of nature is also a major concern for these philosophers just as it was for Bacon. And like their forebear, Bacon, they too helped pivot us away from the contemplative life with its concern over human nature and the good life and toward the utilitarian industriousness that has since defined modernity.

Hobbes defines power as one’s “present means, to obtain some future apparent good.” This power to obtain that which man does not have, is the “general inclination of all mankind.” Power, then, is the universal condition of humanity. Later, Hobbes seems to inform us as to what man is fleeing from—what his “present means, to obtain some future apparent good” is aimed at—the alleviation of harm. Harm, for Hobbes, is what we seek to overcome by progressing away from the state of nature. As he famously said, life in the state of nature is full of “continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” The purpose of life, political and pragmatic life, is to escape this state of nature and pursue the life most opposite to it—namely, the life of wealth and pleasure which is the “future apparent good” that “the power of man” aims for.

Even the lovable “libertarian” liberal John Locke, as many professional philosophers—foremost among them Leo Strauss—have long written, advocated the same essential worldview as Bacon and Hobbes. Locke achieves a sleight of hand, however, when he divides the “state of nature” against the “state of war.” Hobbes’ state of nature is a state of war. There is no distinction. Locke manages to deceive people into thinking the state of nature is not a state of war by portraying a relatively benign state of nature that, nonetheless, inevitably descends into the state of war and leads to our movement out of the state of war but also out of the state of nature.

In this state of war, a condition that Locke admits to be untenable and unlivable, man agrees to the social contract and places himself under a political commonwealth to safeguard his property, labor, and consumption; in Locke’s words,

the enjoyment of the property he has in this state is very unsafe, very unsecure. This makes him willing to quit a condition, which, however free, is full of fears and continual dangers: and it is not without reason, that he seeks out, and is willing to join in society with others, who are already united, or have a mind to unite, for the mutual preservation of their lives, liberties and estates, which I call by the general name, property.

Man quits the state of nature for the political commonwealth to escape the pains of the state of war. Properly understood, our movement out of the state of war is the movement out of the state of nature since the state of nature is not what we return to after leaving the state of war. Once out of this miserable state of nature, man has the power—the freedom—to enjoy his property and expand upon his property.

In the Tractatus, Spinoza establishes the three fundamental feelings in man: desire, pleasure, and pain. Like Hobbes and Locke, Spinoza’s Tractatus advocates a political regime and way of life that allows desire to manifest itself in the pursuit of pleasure at the minimalization of pain. Our natural condition, for Spinoza, is more painful than pleasurable. “Power,” Spinoza lets us know somewhat craftily as he waves the God wand to avoid charges of atheism, is “whatever human nature can furnish itself with by its own efforts to preserve its existence” and “accrues to man’s profit from outward causes.”

The heart of the freedom which Spinoza so seductively speaks of in the Tractatus is the freedom (or power) to “preserve existent” and “accrue profit.” When Spinoza says we are determined to be free, he means we are determined to be empowered and powerful—to become lords and masters of the earth. Spinoza’s advocacy of democracy is because he believes in a democracy that all people can be empowered lords and masters; democracy is the government of universal unlimited power.

The modern philosophers, then, are all in agreement that the great turning in human life is the use of power, “freedom,” not only to preserve one’s existence but to accrue profit and prosperity to free oneself from harm and live a life of continual pleasure. After all, all the liberals from Bacon and the classical liberals to modern liberals like Mill, Rawls, and Dworkin, share this universal foundation: freedom from harm. And how do we free ourselves from harm? By attaining the “freedom” (power) to pursue the pleasurable life through acquisition of goods and other forms of wealth. Hobbes states it best when he says, “For the nature of power, is in this point, like to fame, increasing as it proceeds.” Power infinitely expands toward the illusive but enticing goal of freedom from harm—the drive to “obtain some future apparent good” to “accrue profit” and “enjoyment of property” which is “general inclination of all mankind.”

Politically, apart from Hobbes, the liberal mantra of anti-statism—from this deeper understanding—is a farce. Liberals waged war against political forms and regimes which restricted freedom, so we are told, which simply meant the anti-statism of liberals was aimed at regimes which restricted (or prevented) the “power/freedom” of the masses in favor of the few. The goal of liberalism was never to limit power per se, but to allow the universalization of power to manifest itself among as many people as possible in their pursuit of a “future apparent good,” to “accrue profit,” and to “enjoy property.” Liberalism wanted to enfranchise the whole of the earth into power. Liberalism aimed at the increase of power for all (except those who held power); it never sought a limitation of power which is the limitation of freedom and the enslaving of humanity to the unsufferable condition of poverty and harm.

The power to free oneself from harm necessarily meant increased prosperity as the means to alleviate harm. Power and prosperity, in the liberal framework, go together. And, as we know from Bacon’s prophetic foresight, science and technology are indispensable in this practical pursuit. And nothing is more practical—as prefigured by Machiavelli—than attainment and use of power to preserve and advance power. Without science and technology, we lack power and wallow in the misery of poverty which disempowers us. It is not coincidental that liberalism coincides with the scientific revolution which then unleashes the industrial revolution.

Nature, in the liberal outlook, is something to move away from. Liberalism will never seek a return to nature because liberalism seeks the domination of nature. It is through this domination of nature that we move closer and closer to that “future apparent good” that is prosperity and the eradication of bodily harm and pain. Ironically, this is what is entailed in environmentalism. Environmentalism is the quintessential liberal philosophy relating to nature because it doesn’t want to save nature or restore nature through a hands-off equilibrium but to control nature through the exertion of science, technology, and select “green” industries which will allow man to exercise a totalizing control over nature under the guise of saving it. Environmentalism is just another manifestation of the object-oriented disposition of liberalism and its spirit of conquest to help bring “relief to man’s estate.”

This conquest of nature is the practical exertion of natural human power. As per Hobbes, “Natural power is the eminence of the faculties of body.” This practical exertion of the “faculties of body” moves toward an economistic orientation of labor—for the movement away from the exertion of contemplation to the exertion of physical labor, is the surest means for the acquisition of the prosperity needed to free oneself from the harm of poverty. Thus, as Strauss says in reading the ultimate movement of modernity, “I can here only assert that the increased emphasis on economics is a consequence of this. Eventually we arrive at the view that universal affluence and peace is the necessary and sufficient condition of perfect justice.”

To this end, socialism and communism are not the enemies of liberalism because they, like liberalism, are also the products of the modern outlook. For socialism and communism also envision a world of universal empowerment through the end of poverty which would mean the end of all bodily, physical, harm. The bitter battles between socialism and communism against liberalism are not struggles for different ends but the intense fighting over the means to the same end. Liberalism, as a modern philosophy, and socialism and communism as modern philosophies, all fundamentally seek and subscribe to the idea that “universal affluence and peace is the necessary and sufficient condition of perfect justice.” They merely, but bitterly, differ in the means to the same end.

The modern project, then, as any student of philosophy knows, contrasts sharply with the classical project of philosophy. Power, prosperity, and freedom are not the same thing as they had become in the modern project. In the Politics, Aristotle considered prosperity as relative to right living. One could have material excess and therefore not be living in accord with the happy mean. This excess which disturbs the harmony of the good life is what he called pleonexia. In De re publica, Cicero—unlike the moderns, especially Spinoza—identifies prosperity as the arch enemy of democracy and liberty. Firstly, if wealth is not equally distributed, we cannot be said to be living in a universal democracy; and secondly, “excess,” that is, “over-luxuriance,” destroys virtue and the harmonic ontic flourishing that Cicero identifies as freedom (not too dissimilar from Aristotle).

The ancients, at least those whom we codified and were handed down to us (mostly thanks to Christians and Muslims), are concerned with right living which manifests itself in eu̯dai̯monía. This eu̯dai̯monía does not come about through the conquest of nature, however, but through living in accord with one’s nature—that inner spark or sanctuary that links the human animal with the divine spark. For Heraclitus this meant living in accord with the Logos, a view which subsequently influenced the Stoics, Neoplatonists, and Christians.

Right living corresponded with the classical understanding of freedom as being free from wants or excess—but unlike with the moderns, this was a reality that could be actualized in the present instead of always something “future.” Thus emerged the stereotypical portrayal of the ancients as overly contemplative, tame, and lacking the spirit of audacious conquest; they were happy to toil with what they had and nothing more. (Though we know this to be a stereotype, there were plenty of ancients who didn’t fit this description.) Yet there is a truth in understanding the classical-modern divide as the classical school seeking to be at home with nature while the modern school as being concerned with the conquest of nature. Any reader of classical poetry, especially of Horace and Virgil, would recognize the strong poetic-metaphysical theme of being at home with nature. Classical philosophy, even if not explicitly stated, had an interior and spiritual life which it wanted to actualize in the world that is otherwise absent and chucked aside by the modern project of economistic conquest and comfort.

Here we ought to return, for a moment, to Atlantis as described by Plato. Once Atlantis had accrued such power, such prosperity, such freedom, it became an imperial entity seeking even greater power and prosperity which brought it—according to the myth—into conflict with Egypt and Athens. Then, just as it seemed Atlantis might prevail over the whole world, it was swallowed up by Poseidon. While it should be clear to any astute student of Greek philosophy and Greek history that the allegory of Atlantis is a subtle critique of imperialistic Athens—the city of exuberant wealth, power, freedom, and prosperity that was defeated in a bold but unnecessary naval expedition into Sicily—what is more important to realize is that, in this story, physis (nature) asserts itself against Atlantis and destroys it.

Bacon’s New Atlantis draws on Plato’s Atlantis for inspiration but also to demarcate his break with the ancients with a brilliant subtlety. Plato did not advocate on behalf of Atlantis (which is his mythologized veil for the imperialistic and maritime Athens of the Peloponnesian War). As is well known, Plato had philolaconic (pro-Spartan) intellectual sympathies. Bacon, on the other hand, advocates on behalf of this New Atlantis which is a grander incarnation of the imperial and maritime Athens resurrected; and unlike the old Atlantis that failed, this New Atlantis will succeed and endure.

The irony of liberalism is that it seeks power to manifest a freedom from harm which constantly demands ever greater increases in power to pursue. This pursuit of freedom, pursuit of power, “pursuit of happiness,” is always future and perpetual. It is never something to actually manifest and enjoy; when it is, it is consumed and then lost, which restarts the entire process. Far from limiting power, liberalism—as the modern project entails—pursues unlimited power. We can never have enough. In this pursuit of unlimited power, we have become indentured servants in pursuit of that “future apparent good” and the contractual promises our welfare governments make.

An indentured servant is someone who labors for another under a contract for a certain period before fulfilling that contractual obligation and is freed. Modern liberal society has produced a new indentured servitude; one that is simultaneously more pernicious but also more discreet than the older iteration of indentured servitude. While the old indentured servitude was visible, the new indentured servitude is almost invisible. The old indentured servitude, strenuous and hard as it was, did not upend the social order of society; the new indentured servitude socially engineers a new social order and then stratifies it. Perhaps most scandalous is how all humanity invariably becomes indentured servants to science and technology without that spiritual center and strength to maintain a balance with science and technology.

What is liberalism? The real heart of liberalism is freedom from harm. This freedom from harm is the uniting thread from Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Baruch Spinoza to J.S. Mill and John Rawls. In this sense also, Franklin Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” was not an abandonment of liberal philosophy but its fruition in a more modern, urbanized, industrialized, and techno-capitalist society. Freedom from harm is the basis of the works of all the liberals, past and present.

Locke is instrumental here in providing the basis for the slow growth to the New Atlantis rather than the top-down imposition offered by Hobbes. In the state of nature Locke tells us that we grow tired of being judge, jury, and executionary of the law of nature. The law of nature is self-preservation which instantiates itself in the notion of property ownership in Lockean anthropology. But in growing tired of this responsibility, precisely because it is harmful as it takes away our time and ability to freely work and consume, we pass on this responsibility to the commonwealth.

Over time, then, as our “rights” increase so does our abdication of responsibility. For responsibility, and the sacrifices we must make in having responsibilities, is harmful. The flight to a non-harm society necessarily necessitates the growth of government. This is the great paradox Deneen puts his thumb on in Why Liberalism Failed. Our rights are rights to non-harm because non-harm is what is meant by freedom; it is the freedom from harm. So the government in its decreed statutes frees us from personal responsibility, sacrifice, and, most importantly, consequences for our actions.

This too is the great paradox of the modern liberal project which is antinomian at its core. We do not want penalties for aggressing the laws of boundaries, bodies, and nature. Thus, the only laws that remain are laws telling us that we can freely do what we want without having to suffer the consequences of our actions.

Ultimately, this pushes us into the new indentured servitude as we seek to be free from harm, which most commonly manifests itself in the form of duties, responsibility, and sacrifice, and drives man to the state just as in the political genesis of the classical liberal fathers. In looking to the state to resolve our problems we become shackled to the state which grows ever larger in its responsibilities to provide, while we grow impotent in providing for ourselves and making sacrifices when we need.

Thus the birth of the bureaucratic and administrative welfare state necessarily follows. This freedom from harm necessitates the rise and growth of the nanny-state to take care of us, creating a new indentured relationship to the state which is our protector and provider. In the end, ironically, and paradoxically, we end up under a new feudal indentured servitude under the guise of liberty and security which is then entrenched through politicized and economized science and technology.

The internal logical outgrowth of liberalism is the all-powerful state. The state, as Hobbes reminds us—and as Locke also states when he says “The legislative or supreme… is bound to dispense justice, and to decide the rights of the subject”—is the greatest single force of power and freedom which can provide the peace and prosperity that humans seek. After all, the practical exertion of our natural power in labor is a tiring and toilsome effort, one that causes pain, though with the promise of a “future apparent good.”

We must never forget that Plato’s Atlantis is essentially defined by its technological labor and power. With our ever-increased technological progress and power it has become more feasible for an all expansive bureaucratic state to provide what the modern heart seeks. This, of course, is the culmination of the modern project: the universal state that provides universal peace and affluence through absolute power. In this realization we become slaves to the scientistic and technological state which provides for us that absolute peace and affluence but at the cost of our very humanity.

What, then, must be done?

The standard conservative platitude of shrinking the size of government would be a nice start; if conservatives would ever muster up the courage to do so instead of always talking about it. But the more radical, indeed, necessary, solution to the current crisis is to dismantle the tech monopolies and the monopolistic corporations that are the cornerstones of this new techno-scientistic tyranny properly called liberalism. If two of the three heads of the hydra are cut off, then the very spirit of liberalism can finally be confronted. Confrontation with the monster is the only option left to us. Compromise will only lead to being slowly consumed.