Ryszard Legutko and the Failings of Democracy

I consider Ryszard Legutko, former professor at the Jagellonian Institute in Krakow and an adviser to the very conservative president of Poland, to be the greatest living critic of liberal democracy. Please note that I myself produced a trilogy on the same subject, in which one can find many of the same criticisms as those offered by Legutko. But this Polish Catholic scholar does my work more succinctly. What’s more, the translator of his book The Demon in Democracy, Theresa Adelson, has performed a literary and linguistic feat by producing the translation that Encounter Books has made available.

Let me begin by noting for heuristic purposes that John O’Sullivan, who provides a preface for the English edition, understates Legutko’s censures of liberal democracy. Legutko is not complaining about a temporary glitch in liberal democracies in which “the range of acceptable political expression and the ability of voters to choose between policies have both been greatly narrowed.” O’Sullivan is aware of Legutko’s savage attacks on the EU as the prison house of nationalities; and being a (perhaps reluctant) supporter of Brexit, he tries to fit Legutko’s critique of an entire system into a criticism of certain manifestations of contemporary liberal democracy. But Legutko is quite emphatic when he tells us that the omnipresence of administration and imposing “rigorous conformity of thought and conduct” through state education are inherent features of liberal democracy.

Moreover, like socialists, liberal democrats “condemn racism, sexism, homophobia, discrimination, intolerance and all other sins listed in the liberal-democratic catechism while also participating in an unimaginable stretching of the meaning of these concepts and depriving them of any explanatory power. All thoughts and modes of linguistic expression are moving within the circle of the same clichés, slogans, spells, and arguments.” There can be no serious conservative opposition within this system, because the respectable opposition on the Right feels driven to argue that they too “are open, pluralistic, tolerant and inclusive, dedicated to the entitlement of individuals and groups, non-discriminatory and even supportive of the claims of feminists and homosexual activists.” I would caution the reader not to confuse Legutko’s brief with the usual rhetoric produced by “conservative” activists complaining about those who are located a few millimeters to their left on the political spectrum. Legutko (properly in my opinion) sees stifling conformity together with trampling on what remains of traditional Western civilization as the necessary outcome of the “democratization of liberalism.” Embedded in this political model, which is the glory of our neoconservatives and neoliberals and which is viewed as a blessing for export, are the dark sides of both liberalism and democracy.

Legutko does concede that these two ideologies do have their brighter sides. Liberalism, as I try to show in my work After Liberalism, promoted the material and educational advances made by nineteenth-century bourgeois society and favored such good things as religious and academic freedom and the abolition of slavery. Democracy in the twentieth century ensured a peaceful transition of party governments and has at least selectively preserved some of the gains of an older liberal constitutionalism. But the combination, according to Legutko, has been ultimately toxic. From liberalism, liberal democracy has taken its militant doctrine of pluralism, which has been turned against the very diversity it claims to be protecting.  Like later liberal democrats, liberals in the nineteenth century viewed their society as the endpoint of human history. In the twentieth century liberal democracy presented itself as the model of “tolerance” toward which the entire human race had to be brought or dragged. There can be no legitimate alternative political or social model.

Legutko quotes the modern defender of Western liberalism, Isaiah Berlin, who contrast his own pluralistic view of human experience with “monism.” Legutko finds two problems with Berlin’s claim to be philosophically and politically tolerant. First, there is the fact that Berlin throws fire and brimstone (and by the way accusations of “fascism”) at those thinkers who haven’t shared his supposed openness to all views. Two, Berlin is too smart not to know that just about every important Western philosopher, starting with Plato, was a “monist.” Almost all great speculative minds assumed that their view of reality was the correct one and therefore treated rival thinkers and systems as defective. Moreover, liberals already in the nineteenth century regarded their pre-democratic, parliamentary governments as vehicles for serving discrete group interests. These interests were all based on furnishing material favors, which is what governing was reduced to even before the advent of liberal democracy.   

The addition of the “democratic” element to liberal democracy has introduced a tiresome conformity among the populace and the phlegmatic acceptance of social engineering as a way of leveling social differences. Legutko looks at the paradox that “politicians are reluctant to use the word ’republic’ because people tend to associate it with some form of oppressive statism. They definitely prefer the word “democracy” which they have been taught to associate with freedom, openness, and diversity. These associations are wrong, of course, because a republic has a higher internal diversity than a liberal democracy, also incorporating undemocratic institutions (for example, aristocratic and monarchical) and satisfying nondemocratic sensibilities. Liberal democracy is more restrictive, being strongly correlated with egalitarian principles that are quite wrongly believed to generate diversity.” Moreover, democracy since ancient times has been identified with total politicization, and this has hardly changed in the contemporary West. The latest crusade by Western governments and Western elites to impose Political Correctness is fully consonant with the past crusades, led by the U.S., to fight for expanding laundry lists of human rights and whatever goes by the name “pluralism.”

As a former opponent of Communism in his native Poland, Legutko stresses the overlaps between liberal democracy and the Communist vision of society and history. Both are utopian and have looked forward to converting the entire human race to their creeds. Both speak equally about freedom but have imposed their ideologies wherever they can. They have also claimed to be under assault and therefore required to fight foreign enemies incessantly in order to survive. Communism and liberal democracy offer the freest and most tolerant regimes in history, because everyone in their societies have been taught to recite this platitude. The only ones in liberal democracies who are allowed to dissent from the official teaching are designated victims on the Left. Such welcome dissenters are encouraged to complain because what they bewail is music to the ears of elites. As Legutko points out, such dissent is hardly a threat to those in power, since it invites the powerful to seize more of what they’re already addicted to. Legutko also grasps the historical irony that the liberal democratic victor in the Cold War was carrying the same DNA as the side it defeated.

My one small quibble about Legutko’s magnificent critique concerns the downside of what is the strength of his analysis. As a student of ancient political theory, he views certain defects as coming out of the nature of particular regimes. Liberal democracy, in the vocabulary of Aristotle, is a “derailed polity” that combines the worst of two other regimes, in this case oligarchy and democracy. The fusion of the bad sides of both has bequeathed to us an unpleasant, hypocritical government that is constantly weakening once rooted social relations and enslaving us in the name of freedom and diversity. But let’s ask: Would we be facing this problem in the U.S. if certain turning points in our history had not occurred? Was there an irresistible imperative in the constitutional republic that the Founding Fathers set up in 1787 that pushed us in our present direction? If not, at what point did we become the crusader kingdom we eventually became, and one that pulled the old world into its cultural and political orbit?  The dynamics of a form of government can certainly influence the way it develops. But changing circumstances must also be taken into account in understanding its subsequent evolution.         

I consider Ryszard Legutko, former professor at the Jagellonian Institute in Krakow and an adviser to the very conservative president of Poland, to be the greatest living critic of liberal democracy. Please note that I myself produced a trilogy on the same subject, in which one can find many of the same criticisms as those offered by Legutko. But this Polish Catholic scholar does my work more succinctly. What’s more, the translator of his book The Demon in Democracy, Theresa Adelson, has performed a literary and linguistic feat by producing the translation that Encounter Books has made available.

Let me begin by noting for heuristic purposes that John O’Sullivan, who provides a preface for the English edition, understates Legutko’s censures of liberal democracy. Legutko is not complaining about a temporary glitch in liberal democracies in which “the range of acceptable political expression and the ability of voters to choose between policies have both been greatly narrowed.” O’Sullivan is aware of Legutko’s savage attacks on the EU as the prison house of nationalities; and being a (perhaps reluctant) supporter of Brexit, he tries to fit Legutko’s critique of an entire system into a criticism of certain manifestations of contemporary liberal democracy. But Legutko is quite emphatic when he tells us that the omnipresence of administration and imposing “rigorous conformity of thought and conduct” through state education are inherent features of liberal democracy.

Moreover, like socialists, liberal democrats “condemn racism, sexism, homophobia, discrimination, intolerance and all other sins listed in the liberal-democratic catechism while also participating in an unimaginable stretching of the meaning of these concepts and depriving them of any explanatory power. All thoughts and modes of linguistic expression are moving within the circle of the same clichés, slogans, spells, and arguments.” There can be no serious conservative opposition within this system, because the respectable opposition on the Right feels driven to argue that they too “are open, pluralistic, tolerant and inclusive, dedicated to the entitlement of individuals and groups, non-discriminatory and even supportive of the claims of feminists and homosexual activists.” I would caution the reader not to confuse Legutko’s brief with the usual rhetoric produced by “conservative” activists complaining about those who are located a few millimeters to their left on the political spectrum. Legutko (properly in my opinion) sees stifling conformity together with trampling on what remains of traditional Western civilization as the necessary outcome of the “democratization of liberalism.” Embedded in this political model, which is the glory of our neoconservatives and neoliberals and which is viewed as a blessing for export, are the dark sides of both liberalism and democracy.

Legutko does concede that these two ideologies do have their brighter sides. Liberalism, as I try to show in my work After Liberalism, promoted the material and educational advances made by nineteenth-century bourgeois society and favored such good things as religious and academic freedom and the abolition of slavery. Democracy in the twentieth century ensured a peaceful transition of party governments and has at least selectively preserved some of the gains of an older liberal constitutionalism. But the combination, according to Legutko, has been ultimately toxic. From liberalism, liberal democracy has taken its militant doctrine of pluralism, which has been turned against the very diversity it claims to be protecting.  Like later liberal democrats, liberals in the nineteenth century viewed their society as the endpoint of human history. In the twentieth century liberal democracy presented itself as the model of “tolerance” toward which the entire human race had to be brought or dragged. There can be no legitimate alternative political or social model.

Legutko quotes the modern defender of Western liberalism, Isaiah Berlin, who contrast his own pluralistic view of human experience with “monism.” Legutko finds two problems with Berlin’s claim to be philosophically and politically tolerant. First, there is the fact that Berlin throws fire and brimstone (and by the way accusations of “fascism”) at those thinkers who haven’t shared his supposed openness to all views. Two, Berlin is too smart not to know that just about every important Western philosopher, starting with Plato, was a “monist.” Almost all great speculative minds assumed that their view of reality was the correct one and therefore treated rival thinkers and systems as defective. Moreover, liberals already in the nineteenth century regarded their pre-democratic, parliamentary governments as vehicles for serving discrete group interests. These interests were all based on furnishing material favors, which is what governing was reduced to even before the advent of liberal democracy.   

The addition of the “democratic” element to liberal democracy has introduced a tiresome conformity among the populace and the phlegmatic acceptance of social engineering as a way of leveling social differences. Legutko looks at the paradox that “politicians are reluctant to use the word ’republic’ because people tend to associate it with some form of oppressive statism. They definitely prefer the word “democracy” which they have been taught to associate with freedom, openness, and diversity. These associations are wrong, of course, because a republic has a higher internal diversity than a liberal democracy, also incorporating undemocratic institutions (for example, aristocratic and monarchical) and satisfying nondemocratic sensibilities. Liberal democracy is more restrictive, being strongly correlated with egalitarian principles that are quite wrongly believed to generate diversity.” Moreover, democracy since ancient times has been identified with total politicization, and this has hardly changed in the contemporary West. The latest crusade by Western governments and Western elites to impose Political Correctness is fully consonant with the past crusades, led by the U.S., to fight for expanding laundry lists of human rights and whatever goes by the name “pluralism.”

As a former opponent of Communism in his native Poland, Legutko stresses the overlaps between liberal democracy and the Communist vision of society and history. Both are utopian and have looked forward to converting the entire human race to their creeds. Both speak equally about freedom but have imposed their ideologies wherever they can. They have also claimed to be under assault and therefore required to fight foreign enemies incessantly in order to survive. Communism and liberal democracy offer the freest and most tolerant regimes in history, because everyone in their societies have been taught to recite this platitude. The only ones in liberal democracies who are allowed to dissent from the official teaching are designated victims on the Left. Such welcome dissenters are encouraged to complain because what they bewail is music to the ears of elites. As Legutko points out, such dissent is hardly a threat to those in power, since it invites the powerful to seize more of what they’re already addicted to. Legutko also grasps the historical irony that the liberal democratic victor in the Cold War was carrying the same DNA as the side it defeated.

My one small quibble about Legutko’s magnificent critique concerns the downside of what is the strength of his analysis. As a student of ancient political theory, he views certain defects as coming out of the nature of particular regimes. Liberal democracy, in the vocabulary of Aristotle, is a “derailed polity” that combines the worst of two other regimes, in this case oligarchy and democracy. The fusion of the bad sides of both has bequeathed to us an unpleasant, hypocritical government that is constantly weakening once rooted social relations and enslaving us in the name of freedom and diversity. But let’s ask: Would we be facing this problem in the U.S. if certain turning points in our history had not occurred? Was there an irresistible imperative in the constitutional republic that the Founding Fathers set up in 1787 that pushed us in our present direction? If not, at what point did we become the crusader kingdom we eventually became, and one that pulled the old world into its cultural and political orbit?  The dynamics of a form of government can certainly influence the way it develops. But changing circumstances must also be taken into account in understanding its subsequent evolution.         

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